The Basics of Apartment Hunting

Here is an complete renter's guide with help from our friends at nakedapartments.com

A checklist of documents you'll need

Be prepared ahead of time

Unlike apartment hunting in other cities, applying for any apartment in NYC is an intense process that requires a lot of documents. Apartments fly off the market, so it's vital that you have all your documents and finances in order before you even see your first apartment. Give yourself at least ten days to get everything squared away.

When to start looking

Most NYC apartments aren't listed until four or five weeks before move-in day. If you start searching sooner, anything you look at will likely be gone by the time you want to move. However, you can and should look at comparable apartments in high-occupancy, high-rise buildings that have a lot of turnover. The apartments in these buildings will be very similar, so it's a good idea to check them out ahead of time so you can decide if they meet your needs.

Apartments go fast

Once inventory hits the market, the best deals disappear immediately, so be prepared to start searching five weeks before your move date. And if you've missed the boat, and are caught searching the dregs of the inventory, consider couch surfing or a short-term rental so you can catch next month's batch that will hit 4-5 weeks before the 1st of the month.

If you're working with an agent, keep in mind that many won't work with you if your move-in date is months away because apartment availability is hard for agents to predict.

NEED A ROOMMATE?

Some helpful resources

Ready set...roommates

Confirm your roommates ahead of time, and lock down every roommate's information. Each individual will need to provide a ton of documentation, and you'll all need to be ready to act fast. It's essential that you have responsible and trustworthy roommates, and in many ways, securing an apartment will be the true test of how trustworthy your roommates will be.

FIG. 1.1: YOU COULD LIVE HERE TOO

Choose the right roommates

If you have a roommate who is having trouble putting together all the necessary documentation to sign a lease, chances are that person won't be a reliable roommate. Suppose you sign the lease, and things are smooth for a while. If your roommate hits a rough patch and can't pay his or her share of the rent, then all parties are in violation of the lease (even those who are paying their share) and are at risk for eviction.

Calculate Your Maximum Rent

The 40-times Rule

Most landlords want to see that your income is more than 40 times the monthly rent. So take your pre-tax, annual income (salary, bonuses, dividends), and divide that by 40. That's the maximum rent you'll be approved for. Some landlords will allow you to combine your income with your roommates' income to hit this 40-times threshold.

50 times the monthly rent? That's crazy!

Because some landlords have more than enough qualified applicants, many will require tenants to make 50 times the monthly rent. Welcome to New York.

Not quite meeting the 40-times or 50-times threshold?

When your income doesn't meet the 40-times requirement, you may have one other option: a guarantor.

Budget for the broker fee

If you'll be using an agent, you'll likely need to pay a broker's fee. Remember to budget for that cost, which will be between 8 and 15 percent of a full year's lease. (Assuming a 15 percent fee, if your rent is $2,000 per month – $24,000 per year – you'll owe the agent $3,600. Agents expect payment in full at the time of signing.)

 

The Guarantor

What's a Guarantor?

Guarantors are financially and legally obligated to pay your rent if you fail to pay.

How does a guarantor help?

Anytime you might not meet the landlord's requirements, a guarantor may be required. For example, if your income isn't 40 times the monthly rent, if you have bad credit, or if you have no rental history, a guarantor might help you qualify. Now, not all landlords allow guarantors, so make sure you ask about this before you visit the apartment.

Guarantors' income

Guarantors are required to make at least 80 to 100 times the monthly rent. (If your rent is $2,000 per month, a guarantor needs to make $160,000 to $200,000 per year.)

Asking someone to be a guarantor

FREE DOWNLOAD

sample guarantor letter

Asking a rich friend or relative to be your guarantor can be excruciating. To help you out, we've written a sample guarantor letter with clear instructions that you can use. The more details you provide the potential guarantor, the easier the process might be.

Necessary guarantor documents

A guarantor needs to provide the same documents as a renter: two pay stubs, two bank statements, one or two tax returns, and a letter from his or her employer. If the guarantor owns his or her own business, a certified public accountant (CPA) must provide a letter stating the guarantor's income.

 

Who gets this sensitive info?

No matter how close your relationship is, your guarantor won't want to share his or her financial information with you. The guarantor can instead send the documents directly to the landlord, but the landlord will want the documents right away.

FIG 1.3: NONE OF THESE WILL WORK AT ALL

Out-of-state guarantors

Landlords prefer and sometimes require guarantors to live in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. (It's cheaper to track down someone in the Tri-State area when collecting a missed rent payment!) But some will work with out-of-state guarantors. You'll need to ask about this.

Multiple guarantors

Typically you can't have multiple guarantors that add up to 80 to 100 times the monthly rent. Landlords want one person as a guarantor. (Collecting missed rent payments from more than one person is way too complicated.)

Guarantor Services - Insurent

If you need a guarantor but don't have a rich uncle with a sack of gold, tryInsurent, a guarantor service. Insurent requires an income of 27.5 times the monthly rent and a good credit history . To act as your guarantor, they'll charge you 75 to 80 percent of one month's rent upfront.

 

Fee vs. No-Fee

What is a "fee" (aka "a brokers fee")?

A fee is the dollar amount owed to an agent when he or she helps you find an apartment. The fee can range from 8 percent to 15 percent of the full year's lease. If the agent says the fee is one month's rent, that's the same as saying it's 8.3 percent of the full year's lease. One month = 8.3 percent of 12 months.

Negotiate the fee

Some agents will negotiate their fees. It's absolutely worth trying. Just make sure you negotiate at the beginning of your working relationship, not after you've put in an application on an apartment!

Finding an apartment without paying a fee

There are two ways to avoid a fee. 1) You go straight to landlords and find an apartment without the help of an agent. Or you can use an agent whose fee is paid by the landlord on your behalf.

Account for the fee in your max rent:

Dead set on not paying a fee, but want the help of an agent? Adjust your budget to account for the fee and you'll have a lot more apartments to choose from.

Apartment Brokers and Agents

What does an agent do?

Agents play an important role in the NYC rental market for one reason: most landlords prefer to rely on agents to find their tenants.

Why? It's expensive and time consuming to find tenants. So agents are middlemen between renters and landlords. They help renters find and choose from available apartments, and they help landlords fill their vacancies.

Difference between agents and brokers?

Brokers are licensed by the states they work in to help renters or buyers in the real estate market. Agents (aka salespeople) are also licensed, but because their license has limitations, the state requires they work for a broker.

Within a brokerage firm, there are usually one or two brokers and 15 to 500 agents working for them. When meeting a broker or agent in person, ask to see their real estate license (their "pocket-card"), and match that with their license or a photo ID.

How agents are paid

Agents are paid on commission - in other words, they only get paid when a renter rents an apartment through them. Most often, renters pay the fee. Sometimes, however, the landlord pays the fee.

How much money do agents make?

Fees are split between the agent, the brokerage firm, and anyone else involved in the transaction. Usually an agent gets 50 to 70 percent of the fee. There's a common misconception that rental agents are making money hand-over-fist. In reality, they make about $50,000 per year on average and usually don't get health insurance, paid time off, or some of the other benefits most of us have come to expect. Some are very successful, but it's certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme for most.

No-Fee Brokers

As real as a Unicorn

The term "no-fee broker" is a contradiction - a marketing gimmick. When an agent helps find your apartment, there's always a fee owed to them. The question is who pays it - you or the landlord? If the landlord plans to pay the fee, the apartment is advertised as "no-fee". When landlords are willing to pay the fee, they'll communicate that to every major brokerage so agents will help fill their vacancies. Most agents in NYC should know about and have access to all the same "no fee" rentals.

Why landlords pay the fee

Paying the fee on behalf of a renter is expensive. Often it's only done when a landlord is desperate to get his or her apartments rented, which can be a bad sign.

Account for the fee in your maximum rent

If you're using an agent but refusing to pay a fee, try dropping your maximum rent to account for the cost of the fee. You'll have more, and perhaps better, apartments to choose from. So what's the catch? Cash! If you don't have money saved up to pay the broker's fee, well then this option isn't for you. But remember not to stretch your budget. Here's help to calculate how much rent you can afford.

FIG. 2.4: THE PROS AND CONS OF WORKING WITHOUT AN AGENT

Choosing only "No-Fee" listings

The NYC rental market is generally so hot that landlords don't have trouble renting out apartments. This means very few of them are paying the broker's fee on your behalf. So if you're using an agent and limiting your choices to only "no-fee" apartments, you'll have fewer options.

No Broker? Going it Alone

The Game Plan

You want to find an apartment on your own without the help of an agent? Here's your game plan.

  • 30% of renters find an apartment through a connection. Be in that 30 percent. Use the Internet megaphone; e-mail, tweet, and Facebook all your friends and networks and your friends' networks (we're not kidding.) Tell them you're looking, and ask if they know of any available apartments coming up.
  • Search no-fee sites. Most rental sites - including Naked Apartments - allow you to specify "no-fee apartments" in your search parameters.
  • If need be, hit the pavement. Walk the streets of your favorite neighborhoods; in the lobbies of all the apartment buildings you like, you'll find a phone number for a landlord or a management company. Write those numbers down and call every one of them repeatedly to find out if there are any available apartments.

 

The downsides of going it alone

Basically, it takes a lot of time and persistence.

  • Your choices will be limited. Most landlords and management companies make listings available only to agents, not to renters. It requires a lot of manpower and is expensive to advertise listings, to coordinate viewings, to deal with "no shows," and to screen renters before a visit. Given that agents do a great job filling vacancies, most NYC landlords opt to avoid the expense, outsourcing this role to agents.
  • It could become your second full-time job. An agent's full-time job is finding apartments as soon as they're available, knowing what to avoid, what to see, what each building is like, and more. For you to do the same, it might take as much time, if not more.
  • Prepare for some fierce competition. When you go it alone, you're competing with thousands of agents - professional apartment hunters - who are currently helping other renters. Those are some tough odds.

 

But if you succeed....

If you put the work and time in, you may find an incredible deal on your own and save thousands in broker's fees. That will buy you a lot of champagne.

 

A Typical Apartment Visit

Most Important - Be Prepared

Before you view any apartments, have your documents in order and bring them with you! When you see an apartment you like, you'll be ready to secure it. If you don't have your paperwork with you, the apartment could go to the applicant who sees the place right after you.

FREE DOWNLOAD

A checklist for your first visit

Where you'll meet an agent

Some agents - not all - require that you meet them in advance at their offices. Agents will share the listing's address when you meet face-to-face. (This is so you don't bypass the agent.) You'll likely meet him or her at a location close to the listing, such as a nearby coffee shop.

Time of day

Most apartments are not available to see after 6pm because most buildings don't want non-tenants roaming around. To see a luxury doorman at night is next to impossible. Also, a lot of management companies aren't open after 8pm. Some even have restrictions about weekends - they work Monday through Friday. In other words, you'll have to be a little flexible.

Possible delays

  • Key issues: Some landlords are bad at coordinating keys. When you arrive at a building, expect possible delays while you or your agent track down the super or the doorman to get the key. Annoying - we know - but these are experiences all New Yorkers share.
  • Crowded buildings: When there are a lot of viewings in the same building, especially during weekends, you may need to wait in the lobby until it's your turn to view the apartment. Bring a book.

 

Transportation

Either you'll walk to the various apartments, or you'll take the subway or buses between different apartments. Don't expect an agent to pay for your transportation costs. If agents did that for every client they met, they'd lose a lot of money.

How long does a visit take?

Budget two to three hours to see a few apartments. Each apartment takes approximately 45 minutes to travel to, get in, and see. So if you can only view during your lunch hour, then plan to see one apartment per day. And keep in mind that on the third or fourth day, the first unit you saw will probably be gone, so don't be a lunch-hour hunter. Try to make time to view four or five apartments in one session.

Documents You Will See

If you're working with an agent, you'll see two documents:

The fee agreement

This protects the agents; it says that if you rent in one of the buildings they show you, you'll pay them the fee (unless the landlord is paying it). Not all agents use this form, and it varies by brokerage.

IMPORTANT!

It's important to get a copy or take a picture of the signed fee agreement so that if you rent an apartment in a building not shown to you by the agent, you're not obligated to pay that agent's fee. A deceitful agent may write down an address you never saw together after you've left. Then he or she can go after you to collect a fee. It's totally crooked and reprehensible, but sometimes it happens, so it's just better to protect yourself. An ounce of prevention...

VIEW THE DOCUMENTS

agency disclosure formthe fee agreement

The agency disclosure form

This document discloses whom the agent represents - either you or the owner of the property. It's required by New York State, but it's not a legal document requiring you to work with that agent, and it doesn't obligate you to pay a fee (as many renters sometimes think).

You are NOT agreeing to rent an apartment

Neither the fee agreement nor the agency disclosure form commit you to renting an apartment through the agent, or to paying the agent anything if you rent an apartment you found on your own.

FIG 3.2: STANDARD DOCUMENTS YOU'LL SEE

Exclusivity agreement

An agent may ask you to sign an exclusivity agreement with him or her. If you sign it, you will be agreeing to work only with that agent. This is rare, but if you see it, you should feel comfortable saying no.

Application Forms and Documents

The application

Once you decide on an apartment, submit an application ASAP. In full-service buildings you'll be able to apply right there; for others, you can apply at your agent's office. An application consists of:

  • An application form
  • Supporting documents
  • Application fees/deposits

The application form

Every landlord has their own unique form, but they all tend to ask about income, employment history, education, social security info, pets, etc. Your supporting documents should back-up everything you claim in the form.

Why is the application process so intense?

If a renter doesn't pay his or her rent on time or if a renter becomes a nuisance to the neighbors, the landlord's business can be adversely and significantly affected. The application process, which includes background checks and financial checks, helps a landlord minimize risk. And if there are multiple applications, the landlord can choose the most-qualified, least-risky applicant.

  • Documents you'll need when applying

  • Photo ID (drivers license or passport)
  • Employer letter on letterhead stating job title, length of employment, salary and expected bonus. *
  • Copies of last two pay-stubs
  • Copies of last three bank statements
  • Copies of last two tax returns
  • Copies of last two W2s
  • Asset Documents Official docs with the value of assets, stocks, real estate, etc
  • Contact information Names, phone numbers, addresses and emails) of all past landlords, your employer, and your guarantor.
  • OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED
  • Letters from past landlords On letterhead, saying you're a great tenant, pays on time, etc...
  • Four letters of reference Two professional (bosses, professors) and two personal (family, friends) stating you're a trustworthy person.
  • *If you haven't started the job, include start-date. If you're self-employed, you'll need a document from a certified public accountant (CPA) stating your income from last year.

Application Fees and Deposits

Initial money owed

When you put in your application, you'll need to pay an application fee, a credit check authorization fee, and you'll likely pay a deposit. If your application is denied, you'll get the deposit back, but not the application and credit authorization fee.

IMPORTANT: If you hand over cash to your agent or the landlord, get a receipt!

The application and credit check authorization fees

These two charges are sometimes grouped together or broken out into two separate charges. The combined fees will run you $60 - $150 per person for a rental building, and $300-$1,500 for condos and co-ops. Every person on the lease needs to pay the fees, so if you're applying with a roommate, you both need to pay. The cost covers the expense of running a credit check, verifying employment, rental history and more.

Deposits (aka Good-Faith Deposit)

To take an apartment off the market while your application is run, the landlord might ask for a deposit from several hundred dollars to the cost of one month's rent. If your app is approved, the deposit is applied to your security deposit. If you're denied, or conditionally approved, you get the money back. But be careful, if you back out after being approved, AND conveyed to the landlord you would take the apartment if approved (there was a "meeting of the minds"), then the landlord can keep the deposit. And remember, good-faith deposits should only go to landlords, not brokers. If there’s any question about whether you are rightfully owed your deposit, submit a complaint here: http://www.dos.ny.gov/forms/licensing/1507-f.pdf.

Be prepared to pay

Regular checks, cash and credit cards are rarely accepted, so be prepared and get a certified bank or travelers check in advance. Have your bank create two different checks in amounts big enough to cover the anticipated costs of the fees and the deposit. If you pay with cash, make sure to get a receipt from your agent or the landlord.

FIG 4.2: IT'S NOT QUITE THIS EXPENSIVE

Is an application pending? Submit a backup app!

If someone beats you to the apartment, you can still submit a backup application in case the first application gets rejected. Just make sure the landlord isn't going to run a credit check unless the other application falls through. And make sure to get the fee refunded if the other application goes through.

The Credit Check

What is a credit check?

Bringing on a new tenant is always a risk for landlords, and one way they assess this risk is through a Credit Check. By "running your credit", a landlord is getting a credit score, which is a number between 300 and 850 that represents how likely you are to pay your bills on time. There are three credit bureaus that determine your score, and they all have different formulas, but your landlord will likely pick the middle score. So if you get scores of 690, 710, and 730 - they'll go with 710.

What's a bad score?

Anything under 700 will concern most landlords; they might reject you or require that you pay a few months rent upfront, or pay more months as a security deposit, to minimize the risk that you don't pay your rent on time.

Get your credit report - for FREE

By law, you're entitled to check your credit report every twelve months from the three reporting bureaus. Use Annualcreditreport.com to pull your free report.

Signing a Lease - What to Expect

Experiences differ

Your lease-signing experience will vary depending on several factors. Are you renting from a management company or an independent landlord? Did you use an agent or find your apartment on your own? Did you need a guarantor to help you secure the apartment?

The signing

The lease will be prepared for you after your application goes through. If you don't hear about the application in two to three days, call the landlord or your agent to find out where things stand. Once the credit check goes through and you're approved, you can expect to sign the lease at the building you'll be renting in. If you are renting from a management company that has several holdings, you'll go to the address of one of those holdings. Signing a lease almost always happens during business hours on a weekday, so be prepared to take time off from work.

Almost always, the lease signing happens in conjunction with a walk-through of the apartment you'll be leasing. Bring a camera and take pictures. You will be expected to leave the apartment in the same condition you found it, so make sure you've documented the condition it's in at the lease signing.

Money issues

You'll need to bring a check - almost always a bank check - to cover the previously agreed on amount, a security deposit and either the first month's rent or the first and last month's rent. If you are renting a rent-stabilized apartment, the landlord can only ask for the first month's rent and a security deposit no higher than one month's rent. You should be able to receive the security deposit back when you move out, so you might ask your landlord where he'll be keeping it (i.e. which bank). Some extremely good landlords will keep it in a separate account for you and give you back the interest it accrued while you were a tenant. These are the landlords you feel sorry to leave. Usually, your lease will serve as a receipt for these funds, but confirm that, just in case. First rule of renting - always get a receipt.

Paperwork to bring

You will need to bring all your paperwork with you, even if you already submitted it for the application. It seems like you shouldn't have to, but once in a while you run into a landlord who doesn't keep the best files, and the information included in your paperwork may come in handy at the lease signing. Just remember that your lease is a binding contract; it needs to contain correct information because it could affect you in the future if the building is sold, if the management company changes hands, etc.

Make sure the lease includes these items

When you are presented with the lease, you will want to confirm that it includes:

  • The correct amount of rent
  • The day of the month that your rent is due
  • The name, address, and telephone number of the landlord
  • Which utilities, if any, are included
  • What the building's rules are

 

Roommates/Sublets

If you have roommates, their names should be on the lease as well. You should read the rules, if there are any, regarding subletting because stuff happens and you want to be able to sublet if necessary.

Changes to the lease

If you made any oral agreements with the landlord when you saw the apartment or during the walk-through, they should be written in the contract. This includes any exceptions to the building's rules. Some buildings don't allow move-ins to happen after five pm, for instance. If you plan to move during those hours, you'll need to write that into the contract. You'll want to ask about pets or if you can run a home business from your apartment or even if you want to paint the walls a different color or use nails to hang pictures. Make sure it's all in your lease because changing a lease later on can open the door to increased rent.

If you are renting a rent-stabilized place, makes sure the rent-stabilization rider is included in the lease.

If you used an agent, he or she may or may not be at the lease signing. If your agent is not present, the landlord will collect the broker's fee and pass it on to the broker. Sometimes, the broker handles the lease signing on behalf of the landlord and you won't even meet the landlord

If you used a guarantor, the landlord should have already received all necessary information from him or her, and the guarantor paperwork will be attached to the lease.

If the apartment is empty and ready for you to move in, you'll get the keys when you sign the lease. Chances are, however, that the previous tenant will still be there or the apartment needs more work or your lease doesn't officially begin until a certain date. In these cases, you won't get the keys until move-in date. Make sure you call the landlord or the super or the building manager a few days before your move-in date to make sure everything is happening as it should. We've heard of people showing up with a truck of stuff only to find that the previous tenant hasn't moved out yet, and that's just not very pretty.

Finally

Keep a copy of all the paperwork that you and the landlord sign. These are official documents, and it can be hard to get a copy of them later on - especially if there's a problem.