The Incomplete Guide to Finding Rented Accommodation in NYC

I moved to New York City in January.

My first month in NYC, I sublet a rather filthy and rather tiny space in Harlem for a month from a shark sorta girl. I was given an option of taking over the lease which I tried my very best to escape and successfully managed to. I moved to someone’s living room on the Upper East.

After being used to a ginormous So.Cal apartment, a tiny Manhattan apartment with its microscopic kitchen is going to induce claustrophobia, never mind half a living room. But then, it was Manhattan and I stayed for a while.

Eventually, my circumstances were such that I needed to find a larger space. By this time, I was tired of drifting from one set of roommates to another (lived with a grand total of 12 roommates so far), getting to know someone and their quirks from scratch. I also decided I’d like it very much to fill the fridge and larder only with things I liked, use all the tiny space there was for just my stuff, be able to keep the lights on at 4am if I wanted, offer accommodation to any friend who needed it, exercise at odd hours without the sound of my breathing pissing someone off, and choose a name I liked for the Wifi.

Househunt. And good lord, it’s hard finding a satisfactory place in NYC. Let me give you a brief account and some tips.

Location, Location, Location

It’s good to settle on a neighbourhood before staking out. I needed a place close to shopping and hobbies with as short a commute to work as possible. Hopefully not by a sole subway line that is out for repairs every weekend (I’m looking at you, 7 train). This much isn’t difficult. Most places in Manhattan and the western parts of Queens and Brooklyn fulfill these criteria. It gets a little more complicated when you are on a budget. That by itself eliminates the nicer larger apartment blocks.

I initially started my search with just a budget and a rough idea of what sort of an apartment I was looking for. I’d answer all the ads I could find on Padmapper and Craigslist whenever I was in the mood months before I even planned on moving out, just to get an idea of the market. Turns out, a lot of the affordable places are in supremely shady neighbourhoods.

Take for instance a rather rowdy-looking tranny yelling insults at me in Bushwick where I’d found the nicest apartment I’d ever found. Or getting teased rather painfully near a project in Long Island City.

It’s also good to use tools like Trulia to find crime rates at any given location and neighbourhood. Mostly, these were right on the mark, but it’s not still a completely clear indication. Reddit is a great resource to ask people about how safe a particular area is. To me, it seemed better to go by what (a large number of) people said… i.e., don’t listen to one or two people’s opinion, listen to the opinion of a crowd. But ultimately, you need to go visit neighborhoods at different times of the day to gauge what it feels like, and listen to your gut.

Agent Provocateur 

There is simply no escaping real estate agents/brokers while hunting for an apartment in NYC. One smart thing to do would be to walk around the neighbourhoods you want to live in and call the listed numbers to see if they have apartments to let, to bypass any real estage agent. But when you look on Craigslist, even when you look for apartments listed by owner, you would find the listings to be dominated by agents. You can of course report them for being wrongly classified, but there’s no escaping them. Agents do have good listings with them.

But you know what, agents aren’t all that bad. If you know how to work them, that is. Lots of them want to just foist this or that apartment on you. They’ll tell you all sorts of tall tales, sing you praises of this apartment and its superintendent or that neighborhood and how close it is to the laundry. Read between the lines. Ask lots of questions. Stick to what you want. Don’t get distracted by what they say. Get a feel of the agents, don’t let them bully you into going for places you wouldn’t otherwise. Being a frail 100-pound girl, I got a lot of this. I deserve a medal for not taking the first overpriced apartment that came my way.

And oh, the agent fees. I found one month’s rent to be the norm. And mind you, 12% fee is NOT the same as one month’s rent. Do the math.

From what I’ve seen, the agents in Queens are less smarmy than the ones in Manhattan, but both will eat you up given a chance.

And, ‘East Williamsburg’ is real estage agent speak for Bushwick. And when they say Upper East or Upper West, make sure they don’t mean Harlem. Because what seems like a good deal in UES/UWS might be expensive for Harlem.

God of Small Things

Face it, most New York apartments are tiny. The ones in good locations close to midtown/downtown even more so. But that doesn’t have to mean you shell out a premium to live in a matchbox. Location isn’t everything. I found this studio near Juilliard which cost roughly half my earnings, but which the agent said was ‘cheap, because it’s small’. How small could it be, I wondered. My imagination failed me. This apartment probably had enough space for a twin mattress or a table, but not both at once. Just how does anyone live there, I wondered hard.

And seriously. Do not despair. You’ll definitely find a larger place for lesser than how much that outrageous apartment costed to rent.

If it’s too good to be true…

…then it probably is. That’s true of everything in NYC. More so about apartments. Double and triple check everything. Google the hell out of the broker, landlord and apartment. You’ll be surprised what you find. Speak to the neighbours, to the folks in the subway close to the location, the shopkeepers around the place. Ask them if the laundromat’s alright, how late they stay out until they deem it too unsafe to walk back home, if the landlord’s cooperative. Don’t just listen to the landlord and the broker.

I found a spacious studio on the upper east for a rather decent rent and no broker fee, and would have taken the place. Then I got chatty with the broker and found that the place had been on the market for three weeks, a near impossibility for the location and rent. They mentioned the metro construction outside as being the reason people don’t want to take the place. I googled for the place, and found that it was on the bedbug registry, and the tenants were complaining about how the owner was uncooperative and refused to pay for the treatments and wouldnt even let them out of the lease easily. I turned the place down. Bullet dodged.

But at the same time…

You’ll have to close in quickly on deals. Good places don’t stay on the market for longer than a couple of days. Acting pricey doesn’t quite work because if not you, there are a zillion others eager to take the place. If you find a good place, swoop in. The trick is to be able to know enough about the market and the area that you can make split-second decisions without losing too much. Do your research online before you go to see the apartment. It’s always better to have visited the area a few times before and talk to people who live there so that you have a better idea of what it’s all like there. It’s not all that easy for an immigrant to gauge these things intuitively and takes some time. It’s of course awesome if you find someone who thinks just like you to advise you, but I haven’t found all that many Indians who’ve been here for a while and know neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn well enough as well as have your concerns in mind.

You can’t be too careful

Even if you’ve got everything sealed, things might not go according to plan. You need to have an adversarial mindset to tie down all the loose ends. My most horrific story involves this really nice spacious apartment in a superb location for a rather reasonable rent. I called and let the broker know I’m taking the place and was in the process of filling out forms. Then I googled the address again and looked at some results I’d missed the first time around. The results included a sex offender registry entry. It was the fella on the other end of the corridor from the apartment I would have taken. I noped the heck out of there.

There’s no place like home

After more than a month and a half of seriously looking, I found a rather good place for an okayish rent. I love the location; it’s alive in every sense of the word. Not everything’s perfect, but it’s better than everything else I found. I’m busy drilling holes in walls and putting in anchors and screws to hold up shelves and pictures, and twisting together DIY furniture. I still check Craigslist in paranoia that there might be a cheaper nicer place I might have missed, but so far, I seem to have picked a good place. The modem/router they gave me has a bug and I can’t seem to change its name. It’s apparently a known issue. I’m rather cut up about not being able to call my Wifi ‘NoLifeWithoutWifi’. But right from when the sun hits my face and wakes me up to when I come in from the cold to a warm place I can make a nice meal in and go to sleep feeling safe and content, I can’t help feeling more than a little pleased.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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1 Response to The Incomplete Guide to Finding Rented Accommodation in NYC

  1. Suhas says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing your experience. If ever I look for apartments in NYC , you’ll be the first person I’ll contact.

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