Finding an Apartment in New York City

by Samantha Plotner

New York City has one of the most difficult-to-navigate rental markets in the country, and probably the most expensive to boot. Whether you are looking for your post-grad bachelorette pad or a summer sublet, here are the steps to figuring it out and the terms you need to know.

Step 1: Will you live alone or with roommates?
Living with roommates will almost definitely save you money or allow you to rent a nicer space. You can either search with a group, or get a room in an apartment that people already live in. If you are trying to become the new roommate in an apartment that’s already occupied, you will probably interview with the current resident(s) to ensure that you’re normal and will fit in. Living alone will likely cost more but if you value privacy or desperately want a space of your own after college residence halls, it could be worth the extra in rent.

Check crime rates: there’s no Public Safety in the real world.

Step 2: Set a budget.
Figure out how much you have at your disposal. Why is this before deciding where? Because budget is the biggest constraint on where you can live in New York City. Ideally you shouldn’t be spending more than a third of your income on housing, though it is easy for that to become a bigger slice of your expenses in New York. Make sure you have also budgeted for the security deposit and a broker’s fee (if you are using a broker, we’ll get into that in number 4). Also make sure you’re prepared for how to furnish your apartment if your new place is unfurnished.

Step 3: Pick neighborhoods.
First, narrow to one or two boroughs. The Bronx, Queens, parts of Brooklyn and upper Manhattan (further north than campus) are less expensive than other parts of Brooklyn (like Park Slope) and the majority of Manhattan. Beyond just cost there are a number of other considerations including safety, transit times and neighborhood attractions such as bars, stores, or parks. The balance of these is going to be very personal; a great tool for ideas are the neighborhood guides on The section also features a Livability Calculator where you can balance the importance of a number of factors and it spits out a list of neighborhoods to look at. The guides feature everything from a “green rating” to a link to crime reports, and also include the current average rental prices (which can be slightly inflated so don’t get freaked out). However, the guides don’t include every neighborhood in the city so don’t consider them the end all and be all. Another great way to get a sense of neighborhoods is to walk around to get a sense of who and what is there.

Step 4: Start looking.
Browse websites such as StreetEasy and Columbia University’s Off Campus Housing site. Craigslist can also be useful, especially if you are open to be the new person in an already occupied apartment, but use common sense. Decide if you want to use a broker. The benefit is that a broker will guide you through the process (and help you figure out just what paperwork you need) and should be showing you apartments you wouldn’t be able to see without them. The downside is that you have to pay a broker’s fee once you sign your lease, which is typically a month’s rent. If you don’t like your broker, switch. You don’t pay anything until you’ve signed your lease. Finding your place will take some legwork so make sure you’ve blocked out some time.

The world beyond 110th Street.

Step 5: See it in person and have your paperwork ready.
Do not trust the pictures of an apartment you see online. If you’re searching with roommates have at least one person see the apartment in person before you sign. That “cozy” studio may be smaller than an Elliott single. Look for possible damage. Is there mold in the bathroom? Does it smell weird? Is it a weird shape? How is the area around the apartment? A tip I’ve heard is to not rent an apartment on the ground level if there aren’t bars on the windows. Renting an apartment also requires a bunch of paperwork, and the landlord will likely run a credit check on you as well before you sign the lease.

Step 6: Sign your lease!
You found an apartment; you have your lease (or your sublet agreement). Congratulations! However, make sure you read through it entirely before you sign on the dotted line. Does something confuse you? Ask about it. If you are subletting ask to see the lease. Make sure that the person you are subletting from is actually allowed to do so (some leases prohibit it). Satisfied? Get ready to move in!

Terms to Know

Sublet: A sublet is when you lease an apartment from the person currently leasing it, rather than the landlord. Most often it is because someone is moving before the end of their lease, or they will be gone for an extended period of time. Remember, when you sublet your ability to stay in the apartment is dependent on the original renter. So make sure you aren’t trying to stay in the apartment past their lease ending and hope that it is someone who will keep paying the landlord (since you most likely won’t be paying the landlord directly).

Guarantor: Most new graduates will need a guarantor (most often a parent or other relative) on their lease. This person is who your landlord will hold accountable for your rent if for some reason you can’t pay it. They will need the same financial paperwork you do. Even if you have a high-paying position, if you’ve been in it less than six months or even a year the landlord may require a guarantor. Other new graduates will likely need one if your first job is low-paying (typically making less than 40 times your monthly rent).

Railroad apartment: less privacy than a Brooks quad.

Railroad apartment: These are apartments where the bedrooms and the kitchen (and living room if there is one) are all connected, with no doors, so you are all up in each others’ business. It is also likely that the front door opens up into someone’s bedroom.

“Convertible” two bedroom: This refers to an apartment where there is space to create a second (or third, or fourth) bedroom by putting in a temporary wall in either an existing bedroom or in the living space. There are actually companies that exist solely to build convertible walls. The wall may already be in place, or you may have to pay to have it put in. As crazy as this may sound, it’s a fairly common occurrence in the city.

Studio: Think of a studio apartment sort of like your dorm room. You have your living space, a kitchen, and a bedroom with only the bathroom separated from the rest of the apartment. In contrast a true one bedroom will have some sort of separate living room.

Samantha Plotner is a senior at Barnard and Senior Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Safe Tourist, Vos Iz Neias, and


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