Top 10 Rental Tips: Experts’ Secrets for NYC Apartment Hunting

The spring and summer apartment rental seasons are hot in the Big Apple, literally and figuratively. That means being well prepared makes all the difference between landing and losing the apartment of your dreams. “New York City is probably the most complex rental market in the country,” says broker Elina Golovko of Douglas Elliman. “We ask for a lot, and it’s very difficult to know everything. By the time you get your bearings, you’ve often already missed your ideal apartment. It can be like speaking another language.”

We asked experts fluent in the special language of NYC rentals to share their secrets for beating the heat in the peak season. Here’s what they said.

Top 10 Rental Tips

1. Know Your Ideal Part of the City

Have a general idea of which neighborhoods you want to live in. For example, would you rather reside in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens? What enclaves within each borough top your list? Targeting your search before it begins will make it more fruitful.

Spend time in the neighborhoods you’re considering, suggests Elliman agent Janna Raskopf. “I always tell my clients to walk the neighborhood both during the day and at night, if they have the opportunity, to see if it’s really where they want to be,” she says. And don’t just map your commute; travel it from start to finish and back, preferably during the hours you’d be making it daily, Raskopf advises. “This is the best way to figure out if it’s really the right area for you.”

Top 10 Rental Tips

2. Prioritize Must-Haves

Do you need an eat-in kitchen? A doorman building? Easy access to an express subway stop? Refer to your “must-have” list as you visit each property to narrow down your search. If you find one that fits most of your must-haves, it’s probably “the one.”

Conversely, know what you’re willing to live without, advises Golovko. “It’s rare to find everything on your perfect apartment list, so ask yourself, “If an apartment is a walk-up, am I okay to walk to the fourth floor as long as I get a dishwasher?”

“Stick with your priorities, but go in with an open mind,” adds Elliman agent Melinda Sicari. “A lot of people focus on square footage when they’re looking for an apartment. They say, ‘I can’t have less than X square feet.’ That’s not how apartments work. It’s a number of different factors, from light to ceiling height, to the direction the apartment faces, to the feeling you get when you walk through it. You’ll know when you walk through if it’s right for you.”

3. Give Others Time to Prepare

To apply for a rental apartment, you’ll need a letter of reference from your current landlord and a letter from your employer on company letterhead stating your job title, salary, and length of employment—and you can’t expect people to produce paperwork for you overnight. It’s a good idea to ask for these letters when you start your search. “Ask in advance of when you need documents,” Golovko says. “The same holds true if you need a guarantor.”

Top 10 Rental Tips

4. Be Ready to Cover Initial Bank Fees

“A lot of people come into town with their paperwork but not enough money for the deposit,” says Sicari, noting that this is particularly true of international students and young renters whose parents plan to help them cover apartment expenses. “You should have enough money in your bank account to write checks to cover the initial fees before you start looking. You’ll need enough in your account to cover the first month’s rent, the security deposit, and the application and broker’s fees.”

5. Get Referrals

Find an agent you feel has the right experience and who you’re comfortable with,” advises broker Kristina Paces of Douglas Elliman. Don’t know where to start? “Ask friends or colleagues for agent referrals, then interview a few people before committing.”

Once you’ve chosen, stick with one agent, she adds. “If you bounce around, you’ll likely wind up viewing the same properties over and over again. Hire one person who will work in your best interest, negotiate the best deal for you, and truly understand your wants and needs.”

For the uninitiated, brokers and agents aren’t the same thing; agents work under licensed brokers and are the ones you’ll interact with during your apartment search.

Brokers have leads, explains Golovko. Experienced brokers with knowledge of and contacts in a specific neighborhood “often have off-market inventory that’s not even listed, or know of apartments coming up in the same building of listed apartments for less than what’s already listed,” she notes.

Having the right broker “can be the difference between seeing 100 apartments where you won’t like 95 of them and seeing only 10 that fit the bill for you,” says Sicari, adding that brokers also protect apartment hunters from scams and expired listings.

Top 10 Rental Tips

6. Collect Your Documents

Once you find an apartment, you may not have time to scramble for documents, so get copies of everything you’ll need before you start your search, advises Paces. She provides her clients with a checklist of all the documents they’ll need as tenants, as well as those that guarantors will be asked to produce.

“Give yourself time to review everything and make sure it all looks good,” adds Golovko. “You’ll need your bank statements, pay stubs, and tax returns to be in line.” A good broker can review your documents to make sure everything’s in order, she adds.

7. Create an Online Portfolio

Your agent should be able to help you prepare a personalized online portfolio if given adequate time, says Golovko. She and her team do this for all her clients so that when they see an apartment they want, she can send the package to the landlord in five minutes, she says. Another benefit: “If there are any complicated situations or challenges (with credit history, etc.), we can address them ahead of time if we start early enough.”

8. Talk With Potential Roommates

If you’re searching for a rental with a friend or partner, “Have that tough financial conversation with your future roommate before you even engage a broker,” advises Raskopf. “Make sure you’re on the same page about what you want to spend.” And if one party needs a guarantor, make sure your broker knows so he or she can guide you to the right apartments.

9. Time it Right

“Your ideal search time is 30 days out from when you want to move in,” says Golovko. “If you’re searching for a June 1 move-in, you have to be ready to go at the end of April. You should be able to find an apartment by Friday in the second week of May. The longer you wait to start your search in this window, the fewer choices you’ll have. By the third week of May, there will be much less inventory.”

10. Play by the Rules

Landlords’ rules tend to be clear and nonnegotiable, so don’t waste time touring apartments that are inappropriate because of issues like pets, guarantor requirements, and income expectations. (Typically landlords require an annual income of 40 times the monthly rent.) “Don’t even look at places you’re not qualified for,” says Golovko. Instead, focus on finding the perfect place to meet your particular needs. It might be elusive, but in a city the size of New York, it’s out there.

Happy hunting!

—By Michelle Sinclair Colman

Find your next dream apartment today.

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