9 Tips for Renting an Apartment in New York City

Finding your dream apartment doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images
Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

If you’re thinking about finding an apartment in New York City, you might be wondering where to begin. The five boroughs are ripe with opportunity—well over 2 million rental units, in fact—but in a city famous for its competitive energy, the housing market is no exception.

Fortunately, there are a handful of ways you can alleviate the stress that comes with apartment hunting in NYC. With a little preparation, you can turn a historically daunting task into an exciting choose-your-own-adventure—one that ends with you sipping a glass of wine in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

You might be eager to hop on an apartment-hunting website and seal the deal, but, before you do, pull out a pen and paper and take some notes. If you want to navigate the NYC rental market with ease, take these nine tips into account. You can thank us later. 

Calculate Your Budget

Before you kick off the emotion-filled journey of finding a new place to call home, it’s important to know what you can afford: You need to consider rent price, of course, but also additional fees, moving costs, and natural expenses that come with settling into a new space. The general rule of thumb in NYC is having a rent-to-income ratio of 30 %. In other words, if you want to live comfortably, you should not spend more than 30 % of your gross income on rent unless you have significant cash sitting in the bank. 

Know What You Want

What are your apartment deal breakers? In a centuries-old city like New York, no amenities are guaranteed—bedroom closets, dishwashers, central air, and in-unit laundry among them. Since money doesn’t grow on trees, you should decide which features you’re willing to give up for the right apartment, and which you just can’t live without. Approaching your search with a mental list of must-haves—including the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you’ll need for your situation and whether your mental health requires roof, balcony, or backyard access—will help you filter the results. 

Create a Neighborhood Shortlist

So you know what you want in an apartment, and you know how much you’re able to spend—now comes the fun part: finding a neighborhood that fits your budget, lifestyle, and aesthetic. The city’s greatest asset is that there’s a neighborhood for every personality type. Are you looking to live near the best bars in NYC? An easy commute? Lots of nearby green space? Regardless of your priorities, you’ll have options. Speaking of options, don’t set your sights on just one area! Create a shortlist of multiple neighborhoods you’d thrive in, because the more spots you’re willing to consider, the more likely you’ll find your dream space. 

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

Even if you think you’ve found the perfect apartment online, keep looking. Favorite all listings that catch your eye, then revisit your favorites and respond to any listings that still give you goosebumps the second time around. Right now, in NYC, the market is incredibly competitive—if you’re too set on one particular unit, you might get burned if someone else beats you to the punch and you’re left with no backups. Plus, if you stop refreshing listings too soon, you may miss other apartments that are even better fits than the one you first fell in love with. 

See Potential Apartments in Person

No matter how many times you click through listing photos online, you’ll never fully get a feel for an apartment if you don’t visit it in person. In order to feel confident about your decision to invest in a new place, you’ll need to fully understand the size and condition of the apartment you’re considering. Will your furniture fit? Are there enough power outlets? How much natural light does it get, and is there noise pollution from the street? Visiting also provides you with an opportunity to get a feel for the surrounding area—you can practice your would-be commute, visit shops nearby, and meet some potential neighbors. Still love it? Great! 

Prepare to Navigate Broker Fees

If your experience renting an apartment in NYC is limited, you may not be familiar with broker fees. Whether or not you actually work with a broker to find your dream apartment, many renters will be asked to pay a broker fee upon move-in—in addition to first month’s rent and a security deposit—that ranges anywhere from the cost of one month’s rent to 15% of the annual rent. In a perfect world, you’ll be able to find “no-fee” listings online, meaning the broker fee is covered by the landlord and doesn’t fall on the tenant. But if a listing doesn’t explicitly state that there’s no fee, expect to shell out an extra chunk of change to secure the place. If you don’t want to, someone else will, meaning it’s up to you to decide if the apartment is worth investing in. 

Know Your Rights

While broker fees are perfectly legal in New York City, some fees aren’t. Thanks to a state law passed in 2019, landlords can no longer charge application fees. They can, however, charge applicants up to $20 to run background and credit checks (though if a potential tenant offers to submit their own recent background and credit checks, that fee must be waived). Additionally, security deposits are not allowed to exceed one month’s rent, and landlords can no longer require first and last month’s rent up front—they can only ask for first month’s rent. The idea of these laws is to make renting more affordable for New Yorkers, so if a landlord isn’t up to date on the latest, don’t be afraid to speak up! 

Get Your Financials in Order

Applying for an apartment is your chance to show the landlord that you’ll be a reliable tenant if they select you. Unfortunately, a lot of that decision is based on how you look on paper (i.e., your credit history and the amount of money you have sitting in the bank). The moment you begin thinking about a move, start improving your credit score and padding your savings. Most applications require you to submit recent pay stubs, bank statements, your latest tax return, a fresh credit report, and reference letters from employers and landlords. Be prepared to pull these documents—and if there are any red flags within them that you’re unable to fix, find creative ways to alleviate the landlord’s concerns or start lining up a cosigner.  

Understand Your Lease Before Signing

Once you’ve signed a lease, there’s no going back. In the excitement of finalizing the deal, it’s easy to speed through this final step and lock yourself into some undesirable terms. Take a moment to thoroughly read the entire lease document, looking for anything that might pose an issue. Maybe the showing agent told you that you’re allowed to access the roof, but the lease says otherwise; or, maybe you planned to foster pets, but the lease prohibits it. You may feel tempted to concede on terms like this, but they can impact your quality of life later. Try raising your concerns with the landlord to see if they can edit the lease, or sleep on the decision before signing as you ponder what the terms might mean for you on a day-to-day basis. 

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