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8 mistakes to avoid if you’re a first-time NYC renter

There’s been a major shift in the New York City rental market because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that shift means new renters will find more favorable conditions than in previous years.

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The New York City rental market has plenty of pitfalls that can trip up the rookie renter. For starters, the rent here is exorbitant, of course, and there are stringent income requirements to satisfy (or otherwise find a way to work around). And if you've never signed a lease before—and lack a solid work or credit history or a track record of being a responsible renter—it’s even harder to get an apartment.

Still, there’s been a major shift in the New York City rental market because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that shift means new renters will find more favorable conditions than in previous years. An increase in the vacancy rate is causing rents to drop and with so many vacant apartments, landlords are more willing to offer concessions like free months in order to entice you to sign a lease. Rents are dropping as well.

While NYC was the epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, the percentage of New Yorkers testing positive is currently extremely low—just under one percent. However, the city suffered enormously—with a shockingly high death toll. The economic impact has been severe as well. Most Manhattan office buildings remain empty or nearly so, and numerous businesses have closed for good.

However, there are still other potential stumbling blocks await you and other first-time renters, like a mountain of paperwork to assemble, not to mention nervous parents to assuage about your new life in NYC. 

To help demystify the process, here’s what you need to know so you can effectively navigate the NYC rental market with eyes wide open and expectations in check.


[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in August 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for August 2020].


1. Missing paperwork 

Like all things in this fast-paced city, desirable rentals tend to get grabbed up as soon as they are listed. The competition is stiff and the supply is short, and there may be other equally qualified folks looking at the same apartment as you.

Recent changes in New York’s rent laws mean that landlords can no longer take more money upfront if your credit is less than stellar, as they did in the past. The law now limits them to a security deposit that’s equal to one month’s rent—that means landlords can no longer ask for “last month’s rent” in addition to a security deposit.

Since the new laws also mean you can’t pay additional rent if you have weak credit, Elizabeth Lawton, an agent at Douglas Elliman, reminds renters, “It’s that much more important to have all your paperwork ready from the outset.” 

Not that you can’t afford to have any holes in your documents; most management companies will understand if you can’t submit a letter from a landlord because you lived in campus housing or at home for the past few years, for example. 

So what exactly does this paperwork entail? Although it can vary slightly by landlord, there are some standard documents that apply across the board. Joe Tartaglia-Malter, an agent with Real NY Properties, emails each new client the following list after the very first phone call, noting that landlords will want to see the items from everyone who will be on the lease, including guarantors and roommates. 

  • Government-issued photo ID (a clear picture from your phone is best)
  • Letter of employment; or offer letter; or from a CPA if self-employed that states your annual income
  • Three most recent bank statements (summary pages only)
  • Three most recent pay stubs
  • Two most recent tax returns (first two pages only)
  • Application fee, which is limited to $20 per person (non-refundable)
  • Current landlord reference letter (if available, or explain if no prior rentals)
  • Renters insurance (sometimes required)
  • Refundable security deposit (limited to the equivalent of one month’s rent). 

Tartaglia is also point outs another critical hurdle: When it comes to your initial funds, including the application fee, first month’s rent, broker’s fee, and security deposit, you will need hard funds in the way of a certified check, money order, or possibly an online credit card payment. (He says Stuy Town is one such building that accepts the latter.) No personal checks. 

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Lawton also encourages anyone who has brokerage accounts or other quantifiable assets to offer proof of those in the initial package. “This, for sure, has helped a few clients be more successful by rising above the pack,” she says.

And lest you fear that your personal information is going to be compromised by electronic transmission, something Padilla and Lawton report as a common concern (especially among parent-guarantors), know that established brokerages handle scores of these transactions every day using the latest in online security. “Help us help you by turning over all necessary information so we can get you that apartment,” Natalia Padilla, an agent at Citi Habitats, says. “No screen shots of your bank statements or crossed-out information on your tax returns, either,” she says. 

Indeed, this is one area where having a broker on your side may give you a leg up. As Tartaglia puts it, “I am like a personal trainer at the gym who will get you where you want to be in the most effective and efficient manner.”

2. Insufficient funds

Qualifying for a starter rental in NYC can be more difficult than getting an apartment elsewhere. First you must earn an annual salary equal to (or greater than) 40 to 50 times the monthly rent. That works out to $120,000 for a $3,000 apartment (the median rent for an apartment in Brooklyn these days). 

“The good news is that while it was fairly typical for landlords to ask for last month’s rent in addition to the first month and a security deposit upon signing the lease, the new law prevents them from doing so,” says attorney Sam Himmelstein, a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations (and is a Brick sponsor, FYI). “They also can no longer ask for anything more than the equivalent of one month’s rent as a security deposit, making the initial costs less of a hindrance.” 

Himmelstein also points out that now landlords are required to return the security deposit within 14 days after the lease ends, which is significant considering how notoriously hard it was been to recover these funds in the past.

What if your salary doesn’t pass muster? In this era of the gig economy—predictable, biweekly paychecks are not always the norm. Or you may lack any work history prior to your current entry-level position. You do have some options.

First, you can split the costs with one or more roommates. You’ll still have to meet the minimum threshold based on your combined income, and it will behoove you to have all roommates get their paperwork in order. (See below for more on roommates.)

If you prefer to live alone, your best (and perhaps only) bet is to find a guarantor. Personal guarantors, by far the most common scenario, must show an annual income of at least 80 times the monthly rental each year. Why so high? The thinking is that a guarantor needs to be able to cover your housing costs, plus their own.

“Even if you are a renter who makes the salary cut but is a new hire without any work history, some landlords will still require you to get a guarantor,” Padilla adds. She says a good 85 percent of her clients who need guarantors turn to their parents (or grandparents), with a few relying on random relationships like a boyfriend or boss. 

Those who cannot find a qualified guarantor (including international students whose parents don’t reside in the U.S.) can hire an institutional guarantor such as Insurent Lease Guaranty (a Brick Underground sponsor). These third-party guarantors charge an average fee of about 85 percent of a month's rent for U.S. citizens and 110 percent for foreign nationals. 

“Before the recent legislation was passed, someone who did not meet the salary threshold or was lacking work history could offer to pay six months of security or even a full year’s rent up front,” Padilla says. “Now that is no longer an option, so these same people have to turn to a guarantor.” 

Finally, if neither roommates nor guarantors are viable options, you’ll need to lower your budget and adjust your priorities (see more on those later).

Pro Tip:

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3. No credit history

Paying your bills on time is an important step toward building good credit, yet that often does not happen until after graduation or entering the job market. For overseas renters, be aware that credit history in another country doesn’t transfer to the U.S., and guarantors are required to be in the tri-state area.

Still, “no credit is better than bad credit, so long as you have a reason why,” Lawton says. 

Padilla says there are still landlords who are reasonable and willing to bend a bit and take someone with no or less than stellar credit if you are making the required salary. “Part of my job is to educate the landlords as much as the tenants in getting them to understand what is happening in the marketplace and structuring a deal that puts both sides at ease,” she says.    

Alternatively, this is another situation that can be solved by using a personal guarantor or an institutional guarantor like Insurent.

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Brick Underground's

Gross Rent Calculator

What's this?

Some New York City landlords offer a free month (or more) at the beginning or end of a lease. The advertised rent is the net effective rent.  The net effective rent is less than the amount you will actually have to pay --- known as your gross rent --- during your non-free months.

Brick Underground's Gross Rent Calculator enables you to easily calculate your gross rent, make quick apples-to-apples comparisons between apartments and avoid expensive surprises. All you'll need to figure out your gross rent is 1) the net effective rent, 2) the length of your lease, and 3) how many free months your landlord is offering.  [Hint: Bookmark this page for easy reference!]

To learn more about net effective versus gross rents, read What does 'net effective rent' mean?.

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If the landlord is offering partial months free, enter it with a decimal point. For example, 6 weeks free rent should be entered as 1.5 months.

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4. Unrealistic expectations

Above all else, brokers say they spend the most time and energy on this one issue. It gets exponentially more difficult when there is more than one person in the picture, such as roommates or parent-guarantors. 

Tartaglia always starts by telling people who are moving here from anywhere else, “You’ll be paying much more and getting much less, but you’ll be living in NYC.” The difference between what renters earn and the apartments they qualify for often clashes with their lost dreams, Tartaglia says.

Lawton says the preponderance of fake ads and word-of-mouth hype make people yearn for what she calls a “unicorn apartment,” like a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom unit with a terrace, doorman, and washer-dryer in the West Village for $3,000. (Suffice it to say, apartments like that don’t exist at that price in that neighborhood.)

In these instances, Lawton tells clients to get a sense of what they can afford by searching on sites like StreetEasy, and pay close attention to the photos and objective criteria. “If you don’t see what you want within your budget, it’s not the market, it’s you,” she says.

If you find yourself holding out for the perfect apartment, you can miss out, because the apartments you saw that were good but didn’t quite meet your standards can be snapped up by other renters.

Padilla says try to find an apartment that checks off your top three boxes, like location, square footage, the quality of a building, or a doorman, all while staying within your budget. 

Unfortunately, brokers say it often takes seeing apartments firsthand in order to understand what you can afford, especially if you have your heart set on a specific neighborhood.

5. Anxious parents 

Unfortunately, crime in NYC has seen a spike in recent months, but it is not as bad as the 1970s and 1980s. Still, some parents may need some convincing—particularly when it comes to the safety of their offspring. 

Brokers aren’t allowed to comment on the safety of any particular neighborhood, but they can point out that they happen to live there themselves, which is what Lawton has often done (she lives in Alphabet City). 

“I had one mom who said her son would never be allowed to live near the Hell’s Angels until I pointed out that they were all in their 50s and 60s now,” she says. “I also tend to bring the conversation back to perks such as being close to transportation and affordable restaurants.” 

Lawton finds that parents can be unrealistic in what their kids really need, too, saying they “must” have a doorman and elevator even when that is not within their budget. 

“Since most of my clients need a guarantor, I tend to speak to parents more than I speak to the actual renters,” Padilla says. One summer, she had a set of parents who insisted on being involved in every step of what turned out to be a long, drawn-out search for the ideal apartment. For the most part, however, she says she is able to appease parents who are not familiar with the city by educating them about the process and the market and keeping them informed and in the loop. 

For your part, you can share links to the buildings you are interested in with your parents, as well as neighborhood guides, available on many brokerage sites. If safety is a concern, you can direct your parents to the local police precinct for crime statistics and surveillance information. Or point them to community news sites that will give parents a better handle on what’s happening (and not happening) in your prospective new neighborhood.

6. Short-term stays

If you’re looking to test the waters in New York—say, a semester in the city or a temporary job stint—it will be harder to find a place, considering that the vast majority of leases here run for a year. You will also want to stay on the right side of NYC law when renting from sites like Airbnb and Craigslist: It’s illegal to rent an apartment here when the owner is not present for less than 30 days.

That said, there are companies that offer furnished apartments on a short-term basis as well as co-living arrangements, which offer a turn-key approach to renting. According to Padilla, who has placed many people in short-term rentals, these are typically for a three-month minimum and often don’t have the same salary requirements as regular rental buildings. You will typically pay more per month than for longer-term rentals, but that extra money might be worth it if you want to live in a high-end building with lots of amenities (or forego the need to furnish your temporary home yourself). 

You can also look for legal sublets or lease takeovers (for a rundown on subletting rules and regs, check out Brick Underground’s best advice on subletting a New York City apartment.) Rooms for share are yet another option.

7. Getting roommates to agree

Whether you go it alone or use a reputable matching service, finding a qualified roommate takes time, as does pulling together everyone’s paperwork. Padilla has had many clients find roommates (and fast) through the bulletin board at Columbia or NYU or other campuses. Tartaglia refers his clients to Real NY’s roommate portal. 

Then there’s the matter of getting everyone to sign off on a particular space.

“I have seen this happen so many times where a deal falls through because three people love the apartment but the fourth one—inevitably the one who will be spending the least—has reservations,” Lawton says. Even worse is when one of a group of roommates turns out not to have the means to pay for it. “That can be such a tense and uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.” 

When there are parent-guarantors in the picture, things can get even thornier. Padilla recalls having to take three male roommates and their parents (who had flown in for the occasion) to see 15 apartments over a couple days, with everyone asking questions and having differing opinions. “It was like a reality show.” Somehow, she managed to find something that pleased everyone at the table, but not without lots of hand-holding. 

8. Finding a roomie-friendly building

If roommates are the only way you can afford the rent, you’ll still need to make sure the landlord is open to the arrangement. Splitting the costs of a two-bedroom with another roommate is one thing; converting a one bedroom into two (or a two bedroom into three) is another. Most buildings no longer allow anything other than partial “bookcase” walls, meaning you will have a foot of space at the ceiling (and limited privacy).

Many brokers can help you locate these roomie-friendly buildings, or you can search for “flex one-bedroom” apartments, or those that have “shares OK,” “great for roommates,” and “guarantors accepted” in the descriptions. Buildings near campuses are other strong contenders. 

Lawton has also placed clients in roommate rentals, though she usually encourages people to have their own bedrooms. “A lot of people say they are okay with that kind of flex situation because it will save them money, but they don’t really think about how that will affect their quality of life over time,” Lawton says. “Losing all that privacy tends to cause strife.”

—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen.