Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to find an apartment in New York City

 We are finally in (yet another) new apartment and just signed a 3 month lease. That will give us time to ship our stuff from Minneapolis and settle in a bit- then we'll initiate the hunt all over again! Moving cross country is expensive, even for a little place like ours. (Starting with three and ending with -ousand! Insanity!) I will save you our particular apartment drama, and instead will offer a glance at how to survive the alien world of renting an apartment here.

In a normal setting, apartment hunting is pretty straightforward. But New York is not a normal setting, and I thought people would find some of the "rules" interesting. 

Know what you want, and what you'll pay for. The trick is to get a place with the amenities that are important to you, but nothing more than that because every amenity is built into the price. What drives price in the NYC market? Crazy things. For example, laundry in unit exists in maybe 10% of available units. At first I thought this was a must, but now I realize that wash and fold service is cheap and awesome and plentiful, and laundry facility is a waste of valuable space. 

What drives price in NYC? To give you an idea of the base prices right now (which are actually favorable to renters) expect to pay at least $2200 for a 500 square foot one bedroom in a non doorman building. But here are some things to think about which I never thought about before with such scrutiny.

1- doorman- for security and to sign for packages, drycleaning, etc. (I'm starting to realize this is essential because I shop online alot.)
2- pet friendly- only about 20% of available rentals allow dogs. Cats are slightly easier. I consider this a gift, because I would go nuts if everything was available for us to look at!
3- proximity to subway (more than 3 blocks away is too far for my taste, because you do this walk at least twice a day!) If you're near an express subway station (vs just a local station) that is a huge bonus
4- proximity to green space (this mostly exists uptown near Central Park and other small parks)
5- proximity to retail, restaurants, etc. - trendy areas are downtown (Soho, Greenwich, etc.)
6- proximity to good grocery stores (lots of people just get Fresh Direct delivered. Again, you need a doorman to sign!)
7- proximity to midtown, where most people work- I happen to hate midtown because it's a wretched zoo of tourists, but some people want a very short commute
8- elevator vs. a walk up (can your lazy ass walk up 5 flights of stairs each day?)
9- kitchen space- most places have tiny kitchens since people eat out in New York- usually big kitchens are a detriment because it wastes living space. However, we have lots of kitchen gear, so for us, this is a must.
10- storage space- our first place where we stayed for 3 weeks only had two tiny closets, I don't know how a person could live there!
11- bathroom space- again, a big bathroom takes up valuable living space
12- noise issues- is the place facing an avenue (busy, loud, etc.) or a side street? Is it right above a bar? etc.
13- pest problems- is the mgmt good about exterminating? Check the bedbug registry to make sure there aren't bugs!
14- laundry in building (quarter machine) or in unit- some people pay big bucks for this!
15- layout and type of apartment- a smart layout can make a 400 sq. ft place preferable to a 600 sq. ft place. Also prewar buildings tend to be more spacious and have charming details like crown molding, built in bookshelves, thicker walls, etc.
16- living space- the size I view as "normal" is about 900-1000 sq. feet- this would easily cost 3K per month
17- air conditioning- most units have a window air conditioner if you're lucky. Expect to pay ConEd for that privilege, cuz energy isn't cheap either!
18- lighting and view- are you in the basement with no natural light? are you facing a wall? a whorehouse? Central Park?
19- neighborhood- each place has it's own reputation, vibe, and corresponding price so you need to narrow it down (eg Upper East Side- museums and old money, Upper West Side- strollerville, Chelsea- gay friendly and art galleries, etc. etc.)
20- trickery- a studio with a tiny loft that would kinda sorta fit a bed is not listed as a studio, it's a "Junior 1" or "Flex 1." A one bedroom with a cheap wall put up is a "Two bedroom, perfect for a share!" Due to financial reasons, a lot of people will find a complete stranger to be his/her roommate and look for a two bedroom, so a two bedroom can really run the gamut from crappy home projects to normal places. So in New York, if you want a one bedroom, look for a "true one bedroom." (Ha, as opposed to a false one bedroom! How stupid, right?!)

When you see an apartment you want, it's best to decide on it right away and apply right then so you don't lose it. So when you go see an apartment, you need to have these things ready so you can edge out any unprepared competitors:
1- copy of most recent tax return
2- letter from employer stating your salary- your annual gross salary needs to be 40x the monthly rent
3- credit score (or otherwise pay them to run a credit check)
4- letters of reference from landlord, and personal references
5- money! one month rent plus one month deposit

Some landlords are more strict, requiring salary at 50x rent, or 6 months liquidity, or that your employment history is at least one year long with your current employer. Renting directly from an owner is usually less strict and more flexible about the exact numbers. (Clearly we don't have one year employment in NYC.)

People don't give much notice, so usually a good place will be up a week to two weeks before it's available for move in. It also depends on the building- some put them up earlier and then spend a week repainting, redoing the floors (almost always hardwood), etc. If you see a place that interests you, you make an appointment to see it within a day if you're smart. Good places will usually go as fast as 1-2 days, so you always need to check and be ready to see something. It's stressful, but also an adventure because you don't know what will be posted tomorrow. You can go from hopeless to happy in a day!

One other concept that was foreign to me is the idea of paying a real estate broker in order to rent an apartment. In a normal market, most places work with brokers and the renter needs to pay a broker fee, which amounts to 1-2 months rent! Some places only work with brokers, or give brokers exclusive listings. A broker basically just does a search of databases and will make appointments to show you a bunch of apartments. Basically, they charge 2-4K to do something that I can do myself. Luckily in the current market, a lot of landlords are paying the broker fee. You need to specifically look for apartments listed as "no fee" if you want to avoid paying a broker. 

Class is dismissed, and I imagine nobody will ever move to NYC after reading this.