Finding an Apt in NYC Q&A

We’ve almost lived in NYC for a whole year (mid-February to be exact) and we recently made a last minute decision to not renew our current lease and, instead, find a new apartment in our favorite location with a washer/dryer in-unit and a dishwasher (these are luxuries that I am very excited to have again). There is much higher inventory available now vs. this time last year (pre-COVID) and most places are offering slightly lower prices than they have in a while. Don’t get me wrong… it’s still a very expensive place to live but this second time around felt much easier than last year. We’ve had a year to really learn the different areas of our neighborhood, what our apartment “must haves” are, what we loved/didn’t love, and today I wanted to answer some questions all about finding an apartment in New York City now that we’ve gone through the process pre and during-pandemic times. 

Q: Where do you even start with the process?!

A: I’d recommend first starting out by 1) get your financial life in order, saving money to make sure your bank statements look good, getting copies of your tax-returns, getting a letter from your employer (or accountant if you’re self-employed) proving your income, getting your financial situation/credit score squared away and looking its best. 2) Figure out which area/neighborhood you’d want to live in and your budget.  And finally 3)start refreshing Streeteasy.com every day and familiarize yourself with what is out there. When we first started looking a year ago, we looked in Midtown, Tribeca, UES, UWS, a few areas in Brooklyn, and ultimately ended up in the Upper West Side, thankfully. We love it here. We learned that we wanted to live near – a lot of green space, close to the subway, have a neighborhood-y feel as opposed to skyscrapers/big city feel, and the UWS has turned out to be everything we wanted and more!

Q: What is a realistic cost to rent in NYC?

A: When I first started looking at the cost of rent in NYC, it was really hard to wrap my mind around coming from a $1600/mo mortgage in NC. After being here a year though, I understand why people do it! There is no place like it and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say bye for good. For reference, here are some prices I’ve seen in our neighborhood but just know that there is a huge range depending on so many factors. For the most part, I’d say a studio: $2-3k, 1 BR: $3-4k, 2 BR: $4.5-6k. And then it just kind of goes up. Our building currently has studios going for $1,775-1,900/mo, 1 bedrooms for $2,200-$2,500, 2 bedrooms for $3,600-4,200, which is definitely much lower than when we signed our lease last year pre-pandemic. Our current building also doesn’t have many amenities other than part-time doormen, elevator (which is 100 years old and breaks down often), and laundry-in-basement. Typically, you are required to show that you make at least 40x the monthly rent in annual income. So if your rent is $4k/month, you’ll want to prove that you make a combined income of 160k/year. If not, then you’ll need to look into using a guarantor. I am not familiar with that process but I know that guarantors have even higher income requirements (80x monthly rent in annual income). 

Q: How to find an apartment that will be available in 3 months?

A: Normally, I’d suggest looking 1-2 months in advance. But these days, there is slightly more room for negotiation and you could potentially push it back a few months if you speak with the landlord about your situation! I know of some friends who were able to persuade their landlord to wait 3 months so you never really know these days! I think if there is a time to negotiate, it is now. If you are able to shop around in person, you can also go into buildings in neighborhoods you love and ask the door man or the Super if they know of any apartments that will be coming on the market soon. That way you know about it before anyone else does or it goes on Streeteasy.

Q: How to prioritize must-haves?

A: Once you seriously start looking at apartments, you’ll quickly find out that there is no such thing as a “perfect” NYC apartment. Unless you have an unlimited budget. But you’ll want to make a list of 5-6 things that you MUST have. In our first apartment search, our must-haves were big windows/decent natural light (which actually ended up being terrible light but we applied before even seeing it in person), elevator, doorman, laundry in building, close proximity to the park for Colbie, and close to a subway for TJ’s office which he hasn’t been back to since March. In our second (most-recent) apartment search, our must-haves were actual good natural light, close proximity to the park, on a quieter street, elevator that actually works most of the time, dishwasher, washer/dryer in the unit, and a 2nd bathroom. Our new apartment will be slightly smaller than our current one but I feel like my needs have shifted a bit and, while our future kitchen will be smaller, it will have a dishwasher (!!!) and a huge window. And I will never take that for granted again. 

Q: Did you use a broker or only Streeteasy?

A: The first time around (last year) we used a broker because we were coming from out of state, we were under a time-crunch, and she really vouched for us and our dog when many landlords were being very strict about our dog’s size. She was worth it to us! But, this time around, since we already live here and weren’t in any time crunch, we just used Streeteasy.com and contacted the listing agent and didn’t have to pay any sort of broker fee.The broker fees can range from one month’s rent to 15% of the annual rent, which can be a huge number. Luckily, the broker fee is something that can be negotiated as well these days.

Q: What apps/websites to use?

A: Streeteasy.com, Renthop.com are my two recs.

Q: Biggest challenges about searching?

A: I would say that our first time around was much tougher than this last time. The biggest challenge the first time was just not being in the city consistently. We probably took about 4-5 trips up to NYC from NC to look at apartments. Trying to work during the day and squeezing in apartment searching was exhausting. This second time, being in the city full time was much easier. There really weren’t too many challenges we faced… except actually making the decision to move. 

Q: How to find short term rentals?

A: There are websites that specialize in short term rentals. We did entertain the idea of a short term rental just so TJ could get up here since he was getting some pressure from his job to move soon. Some of the ones we looked at were: theblueground.com and hellolanding.com. One thing to think about if looking at a short term rental – it is going to be a lot more money up front. Typically the rent is lower than normal, but the rental companies get you on fees. So what looked like a $4,000 1 BR apartment ends up being $7,000 total. 

Q: Do you need a broker?

A: No, you do not! We used one the first time we found an apartment but didn’t for the second time. Again, if you’re coming from out of state, it might be worth looking into but it definitely can be done without one. 

Q: How far out from your lease’s end do you typically start looking? 

A: Typically your building requires 60 days notice if you are not renewing your lease. So we told our landlord in late December (our lease ends 2/28) that we were looking at other buildings with more amenities. We actually made the decision to move about 45 days before our lease ends and we notified our landlord at that time. 

Q: How did you decide on the “perfect” place for you?

A: Like I mentioned earlier, you are never going to find the “perfect” place. I’ve had so much fun though finding solutions to make our apartment feel more perfect, like peel/stick countertops, tile, flooring, wall moulding, etc. We knew what was “must have” vs “nice to have” and made our decision that way. Going from our current place we are sacrificing a little bit of space, but getting a bright airy environment that will be extremely energizing.

Q: How did you find your dream neighborhood coming from out of state last year?

A: We spent a lot of time looking at different neighborhoods, which is probably the first step you should take when thinking about moving to NYC. On a typical Saturday touring apartments, we would go from UWS to the Financial District to TriBeCa to Midtown depending on when open houses were taking place. Luckily we also were able to stay in hotels in these neighborhoods while visiting so that we could get a feel for what we liked and what we didn’t. We got to spend a lot of time in the UWS going to coffee shops and brunch in between looking at apartments, which allowed us to really see the people, feel the energy and vibez, and gave us a sense of home. That’s one of the main reasons we choose to live here. But the best advice is to pick 3 or 4 spots and immerse yourself into the neighborhood to see if it speaks to you. 

Q: When you move out, will you have to repaint?

A: Yes, we will repaint the rooms that are not white or the original color the apartment was before moving in. Our landlord does a walk-through about a week before we move out, so if they say we need to paint anything else, we will. 

Q: How do you find an apartment with so much character?

A: Look for old buildings! In our search, we loved the “pre-war” buildings because they had thick moulding/trim, arched doorways, tall ceilings. They are also usually bigger than some of the newer, modern buildings. Our current building was built in 1908 and the one we are moving to was built in 1934. Pro-tip: usually a building with character will not have the same amenities as more modern buildings. So get ready for window A/C units, laundromats, and some potential maintenance challenges. 

Q: Did we use a broker the second time around?

A: No, we did not. We didn’t necessarily want to move, but we were keeping an eye out on the market just to see what was out there. TJ found the new apartment we are moving to on Streeteasy and it had almost everything we wanted, and was in our favorite location in the city. The only broker we interacted with was the one who represented the landlord. 

Q: What were your non-negotiables?

A: Stay close or closer to Central Park, natural light, and a second bathroom. We were able to live with no dishwasher and washer/dryer so those were not “must haves” but, if we were going to put in all of the effort to move, we knew we wanted those.

Q: Would you sacrifice location for square footage?

A: No, not in NYC. We spend so much time in our neighborhood that we wanted to feel great about it. In our first search, there were 3 bedroom full floor apartments in our price range… but they were in Long Island City or New Jersey and we didn’t want to live there at this time in our life. We knew what we wanted in a location and we were willing to sacrifice square footage and some amenities for a particular neighborhood. 

Q: Does W/D in unit add a lot by price?

A: Not necessarily. In older, pre-war apartments, they’re just less common to find. But usually if there is a W/D in unit, the building and apartment will have more amenities… which increases price. But in our first search we did see a couple of places that had W/D hook-ups that were comparable to our no W/D unit. 

Q: How much of your income should you budget for rent?

A: This is a pretty personal question and depends a lot on your other monthly expenses like student loans, credit card debt, car loans, etc. Obviously if you don’t have a lot of monthly expenses you can afford to put more money towards rent, and in a place like NYC, you are going to naturally spend more to live. I think a good rule of thumb to stay under 30% of your monthly income for rent. 

Q: “Is it more realistic than one thinks? Not all rent is 20k, right? lol”

A: Yes, it is more realistic than people think! But it is also more expensive than some people think too. You can get a really nice place (1BR, 1 BA) for $3k in NYC, which sounds like a lot if you are coming from a place like NC like us, but it is very doable.

Q: How much do you need to spend to find something nice for two people?

A: When we were moving we knew we wanted at least 2 BRs, which put us around the $4k-$5k range for a nice place. That being said, the range in NYC is so big. You can get a nice 1 BR in UWS for $3,500, but that same 1 BR could cost you $5k in a high rise in FiDi.

Q: How to start from out of state?

A: The best place to start if you are coming from out of state is to figure out where you want to live. NYC is SO big. Try to narrow it down to a few neighborhoods (or even 1 borough) before coming to visit. Then once you do visit, go into those neighborhoods and see how it feels. If you don’t like any of them, start the neighborhood search again until you find one you really love. At that point, then you can start looking at apartments and trying to find something within your price range.

Q: Was it hard to provide all of the docs you need to prove income being self employed?

A: It is definitely more challenging to prove income when being self employed. When we first started searching and applying to buildings, they asked for a CPA letter to show income. At that point I had handled all of my finances myself, so I had to contact a CPA that I talked with in the past to have her audit my financials in order to provide that document to the landlord. I now work with this CPA regularly so this time around I felt much more prepared. Other than that piece, a lot of the things landlords ask to see are pretty standard – tax returns, pay slips (which I was able to get through my financial management software, Gusto), and bank statements. It also depends on the landlord – some ask for things others don’t. For instance, our new apartment landlord did not ask for our bank statements but our current landlord did. I would just be prepared to hand over every financial document you can to prove your income, especially if you are self employed. 

Q: Walk up v. elevator? Laundry in-unit or building?

A; With our dog, Colbie, who is aging and sometimes gets scared to go down stairs, we knew we wanted an elevator building. Most walk ups usually don’t have that many floors, so if you feel comfortable walking up 4 or 5 flights then an elevator may not be needed. TJ really didn’t mind having laundry in the building, but I always found myself with piles and piles of laundry which made me not want to do it even more. I think I will definitely enjoy having it in-unit when we move. But there are also so many laundry services that pick up and drop off in the city, so that could be an option.

Q: Was it easier the 2nd time around?

A: So much easier. Mainly just being in the city full time helped!

Q: Amenities that are over/underated?

A: Over-rated: Central A/C (our window AC units were champs and we never felt like we could not cool down the apartment), dishwasher (TJ did not mind hand washing the dishes (I did though), but it did get very old and time consuming at times)

Under-rated: Elevator (you never know how precious it is to you until its broken for 2 months and you have to carry a 65lb dog down 8 flights of stairs), Pet friendly buildings (we had a very difficult time finding places that would accept Colbie due to weight restrictions).

Q: What was it like working with a broker in the pandemic?

A: We actually did not work directly with a broker during the pandemic. This second time around, the broker represented the landlord and not us. So we basically worked all the paperwork through email with them and visited the apartment on our own. Sometimes doormen or supers will let you up to see vacant apartments without a broker. Streeteasy does have a virtual apartment tour option that seems to be pretty convenient if you are worried about the interaction. 

Q: Any best neighborhoods for late 20’s/early 30’s?

A: UWS! Also, Upper East Side. These are where we’ve spent most of our time since living here. They have a great mix of fun things to do, cultural spots, shopping, and recreational areas. We also love West Village.

Q: Any tips on owning a bigger dog in the big city?

A: There are so many dog friendly buildings in NYC, but you may find an apartment you love that has a weight restriction or the landlord just doesn’t want dogs in the building. This happened to us a couple times. I would first set your Streeteasy search to include pet friendly buildings. I would also look at neighborhoods that are close to parks for your pup to run around and get some energy out. We love the UWS because it is right between Central Park and Riverside Park – both great options to socialize and get exercise for your dog. We see so many Bernese Mountain dogs, Labs, Doodles, Great Danes, Goldens around the city. My advice would be to be patient while looking because you’ll find the right place eventually!

I think that answers most of the questions I was sent on Instagram but if you have any others, let me know! I hope this helps. 

Comments

    1. We luckily just signed a two year lease for that exact reason! I do think it’ll go back up by then so we wanted to lock in a place while it’s lower now!

  1. I love the look of pre-war but I get nervous about potential pests and critters. Have you had any issues with mice or cockroaches coming out of anywhere?

    1. We haven’t had any issues (yet)! I know others have though. Not sure if it makes a difference living on a higher floor though??

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