How to Hunt for an Apartment in New York City

Most people will tell you that apartment-hunting in New York City is one of the most stressful, frightening, and unpredictable processes that you will ever go through - and they are right. The sheer volume of demand makes the NYC real estate market one of the most temperamental markets around. If you don't see the unit today, it may be gone tomorrow.

To make sure that you get the best deal in the neighborhood (or borough) that is right for you, you must be smart, pragmatic, and willing to take chances. Here is a guide on how to find an apartment in New York City without going through a broker.


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    Get to know NYC. This is especially important for people who are moving to New York City for the first time. It is hard to imagine each borough (city district) and neighborhood without ever "setting foot" in the city. Yet, it is extremely important that you understand what each borough and neighborhood is like, what the residents are like, and what is the average that a person pays for an apartment. Ideally, you should find a friend who might be nice enough to let you crash on his/her couch for a couple of weeks while you gather information and apartment-hunt, but in case you can't, you should read about each borough of NYC as much as you can (even just online) and surf around online rental listings to get a feel for what people are offering for apartments in each borough and neighborhood.
    • Learn about the culture. Learn and understand, as best you can as an outsider, what NYC culture is like in each borough and neighborhood. Learn about the social and economic issues and the ethnic composition of each borough and neighborhood. (The New York Times[1] is a great place to start.) The problems facing the Bronx may be completely different from those of Manhattan or Queens. Even though they are directly next to one another, the ethnic and economic composition of the Upper East Side is quite different from that of Spanish Harlem. It may be overwhelming and perhaps impossible to understand the various cultures at first, but try your best to see as many neighborhoods and boroughs as you can before you start your hunt, so you know which areas you would be comfortable living in.
    • Know the geography. First, ask yourself, "Which borough do I want to live in?" Often times this is less about desire than economics. Most people would like to live in Manhattan but find it too expensive. In general, apartments in the other boroughs are larger and cheaper than those in Manhattan. If you can't afford Manhattan, think about what you are looking for in a borough. Do you want convenient transportation to and from Manhattan? How far away from downtown Manhattan do you want to live? Sometimes it just comes down to choosing between the cultures of each borough and its transportation convenience to/from Manhattan. Secondly, familiarize yourself with the boundaries of each neighborhood, as that could make a huge difference down the road as to the true location of your apartment.
    • Take a stroll. If you have time, walk through the neighborhoods and boroughs you are interested in, both at night and during the day. This allows you to get a full sense of what it might be like to live there on a daily basis. Would you like your neighbors? Are there convenient laundromats and supermarkets? Would you feel safe walking here at night alone or with your children? What's your tolerance on traffic noises? How close do you want to live to your workplace? Try to picture yourself living in this neighborhood for the next year.
    • Learn, learn, learn. It is extremely important to get as much information and as many anecdotes as possible, either through friends and acquaintances or the Internet. How much is your friend paying for his place in the East Village (Manhattan)? What does he like and dislike about the East Village? What other apartments did he look at? Where? What were their conditions and how much did they cost? Did he find his apartment through a broker or directly from the owner? If he rents directly from his landlord, can he give you the number so you can ask if anything else might be available soon? Has he heard of any other apartment-hunting success/horror stories? What were they? Does he know of someone who hates his/her neighborhood? The questions can go on and on, but you get the point. The goal is to understand, as best as you can, the conditions and choices that other people faced when they were apartment-hunting, and what resources they can offer you now.
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    Choose a move-in date. This is often the easiest step, but it's also an important one, because it allows you to lay out your plan carefully before executing it under the best possible circumstances. Most leases start on the first of the month, but you can always negotiate to move in later and get your rent pro-rated for the first month. It's important to know whether you are moving in at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the month, because you should begin your hunt at least three weeks before the anticipated move-in date. However, you should know that the day you find the right apartment could be a week before, two weeks before, or even two days before the move-in date. As always, the timing is important. In general, you do not have a lot of time to decide whether you want an apartment between seeing it and putting down the deposit. Most landlords and realtors will want you to make a decision on the spot, or else they will move on to the next applicant. So, always keep that in mind if you are doubting whether this IS the apartment you want. If you decide too early, something better might come along later. If you decide too late, you might be settling. Be wise.
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    Know your budget. What's your income after taxes? Keep in mind that taxes in NYC are especially high, as deductions include FICA, Federal, State, District, and City taxes, not to mention any other company deductibles, such as health care or 401(K). This could eat up a good 35% of your monthly income. For example, if you are making $30,000/year, you're not making $2500/month; you are more likely making $1500-1600/month. As a rule of thumb, you should be making 40x your monthly rent (before taxes). So, if your income is $30,000/year, the maximum you should pay for rent is 750. In Manhattan, landlords and realtors are extremely strict on this rule, but not so much in the other boroughs. (Note: If you have a guarantor, such as a relative or friend in the tri-state area, who makes 80x the rent, then you will more likely be accepted for the apartment.) Also, remember that aside from paying rent every month, you also need to pay for utilities and cable/internet, should you choose to subscribe. As a method of smart and pragmatic budgeting, you should stick to this "40x" rule, especially if you plan on eating out and finding entertainment (e.g. concerts, bars, clubs) to experience the city.
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    Search listings towards the end of the month. It is a generally known fact that listings for apartments are the most frequent at the beginning and the end of each month. Most are available for the first of the following month, or immediately. Landlords get a little desperate by the end of the month because they want someone to move in to an empty apartment. You will not find many quality listings in the middle of month, so you should generally wait until the 23rd of each month to search listings, if you plan to move in on the 1st or even 15th of the following month. Always inquire about access. In Manhattan, viewing apartments on Sundays can be very difficult unless you have a budget for a luxury building with a doorman. Smaller landlords will schedule viewings through a superintendent and often allow access or are closed on Sundays
  5. Image titled Hunt for an Apartment in New York City Step 5
    Know when a deal is too good to be true. Once you have been doing your research for a few weeks, you should know the range of prices that are being offered in your ideal neighborhood(s) and borough(s) for the apartment you are looking for. For example, it is possible, but very rare, to find a two bedroom in Park Slope (Brooklyn) for less than $2200/month. So if the listing boasts of "a 2br in Park Slope for $1500," find out the intersection of the apartment. Most likely, the apartment is further south in a neighborhood that is not at all Park Slope (e.g. Sunset Park or Kensington). Similarly, if an apartment is located above 110th street in Manhattan, it is no longer the Upper West Side, but most likely Harlem, Inwood, or Washington Heights. Make sure that you are well-versed in the boundaries of each neighborhood in which you are interested. Mistaking the boundaries could fool you into thinking that you are getting a great deal in a great neighborhood when you are not. Wikipedia also has great articles about each neighborhood and their official boundaries according to NYC zoning laws. If you are unfamiliar with a neighborhood or street, use Google Maps to find the apartment and use "Street View" to get a better idea of what the street itself looks like. Sometimes, two different blocks in the same neighborhood can have a completely different feel.
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    Be an Investigator. If the listing gives you the exact address of the apartment building, try digging around the Internet to find anything related to that property in particular. For instance, go to the NYC Department of Buildings website[2] and view all permits, violations, and complaints of that building. If the building has a history of violations and complaints, it may be neglected or poorly managed by the landlord, in which case you shouldn't want to live there anyway. With Google Maps "Street View," you can even see the surroundings of your prospective apartment building. If you see a construction site near the building, try to figure out the address of the site, and Google it. Go to the Department of Buildings website[3] and investigate the permits and violations the site has. What are they building and for how long? It is very important to know this. There are also many borough-related blogs that keep residents up to date on recent happenings, including real estate development. For example, in Brooklyn, The Brownstoner[4] has an extensive archive of borough news. You would not want to move in to an eight-story building, only to find that they are building a 16-story condominium next door, which could block all sunlight into your apartment.
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    Here today, gone tomorrow. If you see an apartment that you're interested in, e-mail or call them immediately. Don't wait an hour. Don't wait until you get off work. Contact them and set up an appointment, preferably for the same day. Especially if you have a job, try to schedule your appointments immediately after work. Carpe diem. If you don't grab the bull by the horns, the apartment will be snatched up by someone else. Unfortunately, many times fellow apartment-hunters have yet to start their own jobs, so they have much free time during the day to see and take an apartment, before you have even laid eyes on it. Be aware.
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    Feel the apartment. Sounds Karate Kid-like, but it's true. Once you have stepped into the apartment, gauge the size of it overall and of each individual room. Does it feel like you could live here? Listen to your gut, not to the landlord or the no-fee broker. Often times they will try to sugar coat aspects of the apartment and act very pushy, emphasizing that they have had a lot of interest in the unit. Whether or not that might be true and you might have decent competition, don't get pressured into taking the apartment without thinking about it relative to other apartments in the same price range, neighborhood, borough, etc. Is this apartment worth its price? Always make sure that you are paying at least market price. Is this the ideal neighborhood I'd want to live in? Am I only taking it because I'm tired of searching? Make sure you answer all these questions honestly before you say "yes" and put down the deposit.
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    Be an actor/actress. Undoubtedly, once you are in the middle of looking at an apartment, the landlord or no-fee broker will ask you what your budget is. Tell him your budget is a little lower than what it really is (e.g. $50-100 less). For example, if the apartment is going for $3200, tell him your budget is "$3100 but flexible." Because you are already in front of him and are a potential tenant, he will not want to lose you over $100, especially if you show interest but are hesitant mainly due to cost. Tell him you like the apartment but can't really afford it. He will negotiate. Depending on the market, the landlord, and the timing of the apartment-viewing, you could have a real advantage and be able to talk it down to $3000. Be smart and use your gut instincts. Don't be afraid to push for as low as reasonably possible.
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    Leave it to fate. Finding apartments is very much about fate. If you don't get accepted for an apartment, or if someone else beats you to putting down the deposit, do not despair. Simply put, it just wasn't meant to be. There are dozens of other apartments waiting for you, and perhaps they are even better than the one you thought was "the" apartment. But if you play your game right, plan out your strategy, and the stars are aligned in your favor, you can find the right apartment -- without ever paying a broker fee! Good luck on your hunt!


  • Some realty companies have worked out an arrangement with landlords to show their unit without having the tenant pay the fee. Instead, the landlord pays the realty company the fee. Often times, no broker-fee apartments are less desirable in appearance and location, and the brokers use them to lure in customers for broker-fee apartments. However, brokers are a great way to access listings that may not be available online or elsewhere. Be smart; use brokers for no-fee apartments and emphasize that you do NOT want to see apartments with fees. If they don't work with you, find another company. There is plenty of real estate business for everyone, and you deserve a broker who listens to you. It is not always the case that no broker-fee apartments are less desirable, so have confidence and give every unit a chance. Remember, carpe diem.
  • Bring all of the necessary paperwork with you every time you see an apartment. If you like it, you will need to show paperwork and put down a deposit (usually one month's rent) on the spot. (See "Things You'll Need" below.)
  • Often times management and development companies own many buildings and units, so if you can get their numbers, you may have a better chance of renting an apartment directly from them, without hiring and paying a broker.
  • In the current economy, always negotiate the broker's fee. Ask for a month of free rent. The broker is no longer in control.
  • A "railroad apartment" is an apartment in which all the rooms are connected in a single line, so you must walk through one bedroom to reach the other. These are considered 2br, but are generally cheaper. They are most fitting for couples or very close friends, due to less privacy of each room.
  • It's often helpful to have 1-2 roommates to share the cost of rent and utilities, as a one bedroom or studio apartment in a more popular neighborhood can often be expensive, especially for those making under $40,000/year. For the size and cost of an apartment, it is much more worth it to share than rent alone.
  • You can also find no-fee apartments on your own through websites and apps. It is not impossible to find an apartment on your own.


  • Often landlords will try to create competition by scheduling multiple people for one showing of the apartment. If the landlord suggests (without asking) a time, be aware that this might be his plan.

Things You'll Need

  • Valid, government-issued photo ID
  • Bank statements from past 3 months
  • Employment letter (on official letterhead and stating income)
  • Tax Returns and W-2s from the last 2 years
  • References (past landlords, employers, etc.)
  • Cash for deposit (usually $500)
  • Enough money in your checking account to put down the first and last month's rent, as well as one month's security (a total of 3 month's worth of rent)

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