The first step in the urban jungle journey. Out of all the horror stories out there, this part isn’t nearly as bad as people say. It’s really dependent on how much you prepare and what resources you use, as well your financial stability. Admittedly, I fell into a rent stabilized apartment by my connections, but I also thoroughly researched apartments before a friend offered me my first apartment. Bottom line, there are deals to be found, even in the more aristocratic areas of the city (upper west and east sides, etc.). So, let’s dive into some of the more important aspects of apartment hunting in New York City.
The most important aspect involves writing down how much money you’re comfortable with spending on rent as well as writing down the most practical, not necessarily ideal, living situation. Now if you have financial independence, more power to you. However many new-comers will need to think practically, especially if their careers have just begun. Practical living doesn’t mean project living. It may mean to sublet for awhile. It may also mean having to live with roommates.
Financially, you must be prepared to put down quite a bit of money before moving into your new apartment. Generally, first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, although there are exceptions to the rule. All of this depends on the management (landlord)—more on this under the lease section. I recommend that before you embark on this process, open up a local bank account. You may need to write a certified check when paying for your apartment. As a general rule of thumb, landlords and management look for income 40x or greater when renting (apartment rent x 40). If you don’t make this, usually a personal guarantor will suffice in securing the lease.
You need to decide if you want to use a broker to find your apartment. This will cost more, but can save time and energy. Often, they may have exclusive offers on certain apartments. When using a broker, they shouldn’t charge you for an initial appointment since they make their commissions by finding the apartment. If you do decide to use one, make sure you clearly specify where you want to live, as well as other alternative options (different neighborhoods, types of buildings, etc.).
As you prepare to find an apartment and sign a lease, you also may need to show:
- Your credit report
- Valid identification
- Proof of employment (for us independent contractors and self-employed musicians: tax returns, invoices, letter from accountant verifying length of employment, etc.)
- Pay stubs
- Letter of employment if applicable
- Bank statements (usually 3 most recent)
- Personal and business references; previous landlord reference
As you search, familiarize yourself with two important terms in regards to renting in NYC:
1.) Rent Stabilization: The amount of rent per month doesn’t increase until the lease is renewed. Rent increases for stabilized apartments are established annually by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board. The rent can’t exceed a certain percentage. Currently, I believe the cap is 2% for one-year and 4% for two-year leases. This is subject to change, of course. Further, rent stabilized apartments apply to any rental building with multiple apartments between February 1947 to January 1974. For a useful list of these stabilized buildings, visit NYC Rent Guidelines Board.
2.) Rent Control: The amount of rent per month doesn’t increase. These are apartments held over for renters living in the same apartment before July 1, 1971. Generally, these are prewar buildings (built before 1947). Generally, a good sign for a prewar building is a walkup (no elevator). Rent controlled apartments are very hard to find if you don’t have a relative or friend living in one. If no one takes the apartment after the renter leaves, the landlord will raise the rent to the current rate for the neighborhood. And once that happens, it’s definitely a sad day.
As far as methods for looking and researching apartments, there are multiple tools at your disposal. Some of the most useful includes pavement pounding and simply asking and looking around. Some useful search engine sites include:
I’ll include Craigslist just because not everything listed is a scam. I actually know of some people who stumbled upon a rent controlled apartment this way. As long as you don’t send any personal or financial information about yourself and inquire vocally (calling a listed number), you should have no issues. Just use good judgement. Other methods lie with networking. Start with other musicians and actors. You can find great sublets this way due to people going out on tour. You may also want to inquire with college or graduate students. Some “lower-priced”, popular neighborhoods that young adults (artists) are living in currently include:
- West and Central Harlem
- Morningside Heights
- Hamilton Heights
- Washington Heights
- Bedford-Stuyvesant (still some grey areas)
- Prospect Park, Lefferts Gardens
- Park Slope
- Cortelyou Road
- Clinton Hill (by Pratt College)
Though I don’t know musician or artist currently living here, there actually are some beautiful areas in this borough. Of course, most of these areas are privately owned and not rented. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to search Riverdale (Fieldston, Spuyten Duyvil). Surprisingly, there are still good deals to be found and rented here. Plus, it’s not that far of a commute into Manhattan.
While searching for apartments, it’s not uncommon for renters to find deals on renting a room in privately owned brownstones or homes. You must use caution when dealing with these situations. It’s also imperative you sign a lease. I’ve known too many people who have been kicked out in a moment’s notice due to unforeseen events. Generally, dealing with the landlord in these situations is much more of a pain, though there are diamonds in the rough. Generally, the more shady the situation is, the more you should distance yourself from it and keep on looking.
As you begin to familiarize yourself with New York, you’ll begin to recognize what areas suit your lifestyle best. Until you’ve had a good solid year here, I do recommend subletting, or at least signing a one-year lease. This way, it gives you time to explore the vibe of each neighborhood (culturally, affordability, convenience, safety).
Back track to Part 1: Introduction.