How to Score a Great New York City Apartment

By Matilda Davies

Whether you’re brand new to the city or you’re a seasoned New Yorker looking to make a move, navigating the New York real estate market is different than any other. Because of broker fees, paperwork, guarantors, room shares, and finding an affordable place near the subway, some brokers say it’s worth your time to start your apartment hunt early. 

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We spoke to Shii Ann Huang, a New York City real estate broker with the Corcoran Group about how to land a great New York City apartment. Here are Shii Ann’s tips.

How far in advance should I start looking if I want to rent in New York City? Is it different for buyers?

I recommend looking online three to four months prior to moving to NYC to get a general sense of the market.  However, since rentals move fairly quickly in NYC, viewing properties one to one and a half months prior to move-in date is ideal for securing a place.

Buying in NYC is also extremely fast paced. It’s good to have a clear understanding of neighborhoods and types of properties you can afford before heading into the real estate market. A good agent can help you with this process.  While it’s good to get a look at the prices and floor plans online, nothing beats actually seeing the places with an experienced broker who can advise you on the pros and cons of a property. This process can take anywhere from one to six months depending on you.

However, once you’ve identified a place, a bidding situation can go quickly, so it’s best to have your real estate team in a row—broker, attorney, home inspector, mortgage broker—before you get to that point. Spend a good three to six months prior to your ideal move-out date to get the team together and understand the market.

What paperwork should I have ready when looking for an apartment?

Depending on whether you’re looking to rent or buy, the paperwork can be extensive. Be prepared with two years of tax returns, pay stubs, a letter of employment, proof of assets, and letters of recommendation. You’ll need all those things and then some depending on the property you decide to live in.

How much should I expect to pay upfront when renting an apartment?

You will need 40x the rent for any landlord to consider you. Then there is typically first [month’s rent], last [month’s rent], and a one-month deposit. Sometimes there will be more of a deposit depending on your credit, pet situation, and other considerations.

If there’s a broker, commission will be 15% of the yearly rent.

What should I expect to pay in addition to monthly rent or mortgage?

Renters: There may be an application fee, move-in move-out fees, utility fees and, of course, broker’s fees. Every rental is unique.

Buyers:  There may be an application fee, move-in, and move-out fees. You’ll make insurance payments, monthly common charges and taxes or maintenance (similar to HOA payments in another part of the country) as well as any utilities not included in the monthly charges.

What is a broker fee and why am I paying it?

For a  rental, you’ll pay 15% of the yearly rent in fees. There’s no fee for buyers, as the broker’s fee is paid by the sellers to all agents involved in the deal. The broker’s commission is payment for the service of marketing, showing, negotiating, and facilitating all the details of making a deal happen.

Do I need a cosigner or a guarantor?

If your annual salary is not at least 40x the monthly rent, expect to need a guarantor.

What questions should I be asking about the apartments I see?

[It depends on] what you’re looking at (e.g. rentals, coops, condos, artist-in-residence). With 14 years of knowledge, I could really write a book!  I would say the best thing to do is get an experienced real estate agent who will walk you through ALL the potential questions you could seek for a property.  Depending on the type of property, a good agent should know what to look for and how to best assist you.  Remember, with online searches now available, an agent’s value is not in their ability to send you an online listing, but in their intimate knowledge of location, history, market conditions, value, board packages, negotiation and overall buying/renting process.

How can I avoid being scammed?

Don’t pay cash upfront for anything. Get receipts and copies of everything. Work with legitimate brokers, mortgage brokers, and attorneys—ask for recommendations and verify their professional status.

What’s the deal with rent-stabilized apartments, and how can I get one?

It’s very hard to get a rent-stabilized apartment.  It is possible, but you have to be in the right place at the right time and also have the right income to qualify.

Tips for finding an affordable apartment for those just starting out?

Look outside of Manhattan. Look at shares (roommate situations) in Brooklyn or Queens.

What considerations do New Yorkers take when apartment hunting that renters elsewhere don’t likely consider?

New Yorkers are naturally resourceful. If they can’t make it happen in Manhattan, they will go out to different locations. Closeness to the train, groceries, and other amenities are always good consideration when picking something that is outside of your original idea of where you want to live.

Any tips for winning a great apartment in such a competitive rental market? What about the buying market?

Get all your paperwork and financials together. Work with a good agent. This goes double for buying.

Any other advice for someone looking for a great spot in the city?

Have brunch in a lot of different neighborhoods and decide where you’d like to live first, then target that area for your next home! Good luck!

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