Find a good broker
Look, it already sucks that we NYers often have to pay thousands of dollars to people just so we can pay someone else more thousands of dollars. You might as well at least do yourself a favor and find a good broker. Try interviewing a few, or check out nakedapartments.com, which features reviews of brokers from former clients -- including negative ones, which brokers can’t scrub from the site.
Remember that the "no-fee" apartment is kind of a myth
Okay, sure, you won't pay the fairly typical 15% broker’s fee to the agent who hooked you up with an apartment listed as no-fee. However, the apartments offered as “no-fee” are frequently some of the most expensive units on the market, so you’re paying that money -- as part of your monthly rent. So, do the math: it may make sense in the long run to pay a broker’s fee for an apartment with cheaper rent.
Use the Listings Project
Of course, there’s always an exception to the no-fee rule. The brainchild of artist Stephanie Diamond, the Listings Project is a curated, weekly e-mail of no-fee, broker-free, landlord- and tenant-direct apartment and share listings. The e-mail accepts listings from, and is distributed to, people worldwide, but is very NYC-centric, with as much as 75% of its 200 or so listings featuring New York vacancies. (You can list yourself as a person looking for a place, too.)