This node is a helpful service for those moving to or within New York City who may be unfamiliar with the procedures for obtaining housing in Gotham. It's always good to know what you are in for, and you are in for a lot. A starting point would be describing the process of obtaining an apartment in a 'normal' (i.e. non-New York) place.

So let's examine what happens in normal places:1 Those things that, by contrast, do not apply in New York are marked with an asterisk. (*)
If you want an apartment, you open up the classified section of the newspaper. The apartments listed there actually exist.* You pick one you like, then call the number, which is usually the landlord.* You arrange to view the apartment.* If you like the apartment, and you can afford it*, you inform the landlord of that and you sign the lease.* You may have to pay a month's security deposit.* Then you throw your stuff in the trunk of your car * or a friend's van *, and, making several trips, move your things.

How does this differ in New York? Oh, where to begin.

  1. The apartments listed in the paper do not actually exist. Usually they are even so fanciful as to inspire laughter in persons familiar with the New York real estate market. "Three bedrooms in pre-war bldg. on Prospect Park West, Close to train, $2000 a month." Ha ha.2 In reality, these listing are competing jokes. If one is particularly funny, you may be motivated to call the number. This number is for a brokerage.
  2. You are going to have to go through a brokerage. Deal with it.3 Brokerages are cartels that charge you somewhere between 10% and 12% of the rent for the service of showing you apartments. Oh yeah, and that's 10-12% of the first year's rent, not the first month's rent as some naively assume. Often novices entertain illusions of getting around the brokerage system, for some ads in the paper are listed as "No Broker!!!" These apartments are either above a Turkish bath and below a bowling alley, or the interior of the anus of a fat person. Still, the novice will often insist on trekking out to several of these before he or she gets the picture. Don't waste your time.
  3. Now you have to set aside some time to meet with the brokerage. This is where they find out what you are looking for and when they screen you. Be prepared for in-depth checks of your credit history and job status. Bad credit? You might need a co-signer.4 You may be asked to produce a paycheck or paycheck stub documenting how much you make. Don't have a job? Make something up. Have a friend write you a check. Brokerages are picky but they're not Interpol. By the way, if you have prospective roommates, all of you have to go to the brokerage every time. They won't deal with you individually.
  4. Assuming they deem your credit and employment status acceptable, you will be assigned an agent who will be your good friend. Now they will start showing you apartments - unbelievably shitty and overpriced apartments! Of course, cuz they want to see if you're gullible/desperate enough to take one of these bad places that they're desperate to unload! The unfortunate reality is that you have to invest some time with a brokerage (several visits perhaps) before they will start showing you decent places. The novice unfamiliar with the process may ask about the apartments listed in the paper, and when he or she gets to see those. The agent will laugh.
  5. The apartments that you can afford are small, in shady areas, and a long walk from the subway in a distant corner of an outer borough, and are still ridiculously expensive. Deal with it. Describing the ridiculousness of housing prices in New York is a futile exercise in self-parody, so I won't even try. Any cost of housing horror stories you've heard through the grapevine do not reflect reality - they are not extreme enough! A simple rule of thumb might be: If you've ever heard of the neighborhood, you can't afford it (unless you heard of it through rap music, in which case you might be able to swing a studio).5 And for god's sake, don't entertain illusions of having a 'guest room' or an 'office.'
  6. So you've finally been shown a reasonable place that you can afford. Yay! Battle's over, right? Nope, not by far! Several other people also want that apartment. Your name is on a list, and the landlord has his/her/its pick. At this stage some people throw bribes around, but most just wait. It might come down to who can put down the biggest security deposit, or biggest payment up front. Four months rent? Six months rent? Not unheard of. And remember, this down payment is on top of the 10-12% you are giving to the broker up front. You better have a lot of money in the bank!
  7. At this point of landlord screening it helps to be older / white / female / married / any demographic that these landlords associate with safety and quietness. Either way, you may be back to the drawing board going around with your agent looking at places.
  8. OK, let's say that you've finally gotten a place and signed the lease. Chances are your rent can go up arbitrarily next year, but we'll worry about that later. Now you have to move. Get ready to drive a clunky van through crowded streets and haul your stuff up flights of narrow stairs, while other residents of the building unashamedly stare at you.

You've done it! You've obtained an apartment in New York!

All of this is not meant to discourage anyone from living in New York City. Sure, you're going to go through the hell described above just to be tucked away in a dingy small place in an obscure part of Brooklyn or Queens or Northern Manhattan. But this is where the real New York is anyway. Pretty soon you will get used to being gently awakened by the muezzin's call to prayer, or the laughter of Jamaican children playing Cricket, or the stirrings of a Mariachi band, or Pentecostal hymns in Korean, or the strains of opera emanating from an antique phonograph, and you will wonder how you could ever have lived anywhere else.

1 My knowledge of 'normal' places is no longer limited to anecdotal evidence. This summer I actually went into a very exclusive apartment complex in Cincinnati for a look around. While the fact that I was wearing a Hawaiian Shirt would have gotten me violently thrown out of any New York brokerage, they practically begged to show me an apartment. There was no credit check, no probing questions, just a brief form. Whoa. Then I was casually informed that the security deposit was all of $100, and, yes, being a desirable complex, they were strict... they wanted one whole month's rent up front!
2 In reality this apartment would be $7000 a month and up. And that's Brooklyn.
3 There is one way around the whole brokerage system, and that is to happen to personally know a landlord with a place available. In this respect, 'networking' helps, but don't bank on this metaphorical lottery win.
4 The standards brokerages have for co-signers are ridiculous as well. If your co-signer is out of state, they must earn a salary something along the lines of 15 times the yearly rent. This must be documented.
5 And of course there's neighborhood inflation. Don't necessarily believe the broker when they say a place is in a certain neighborhood - their ideas of what constitutes neighborhoods are rather malleable. For instance, anything to the east of Caroll Gardens and to the west of England can be considered Park Slope.

Getting an apartment in New York City can be an exceptionally difficult practice that involves much foot work, guile, street savvy and generally understanding how things work in NYC. And while horror stories do abound, they're not always the case. The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with brokers and the entire system is patience.

In order to give you, the gentle reader, some feeling that things sometimes turn out all right in the end I'm going to tell the story of how The Compound found its home - which wasn't painless and wasn't easy, also wasn't a nightmare.

...And since Purvis' step-by-step format is so right on that I can't improve on it, I'm just going to use it myself for ease of reference.

  1. The apartment we live in was listed in the paper. Right there in the back of the Voice... "2,500 sq ft loft space in Williamsburg, near trains, no broker fee, $2000/mo." Often these listings are something of a lark, sometimes they're not. I know many people who have found fantastic apartments through the paper. They really are some out there, I promise. And in this case, it was true. Or rather, mostly true. The square footage was exaggerated by about 600 sq ft and the apartment isn't really in Williamsburg and it's not really what comes to mind when one thinks of a loft. None of these elements was an issue for us...
  2. Our apartment was listed by a broker who didn't charge a broker fee. How's that for bizarre? To be honest, I've never heard of that before... The only reason I can think of that it went down this way is that the broker is also the manager of the building. He receives a percentage of our rent for care-taking it, so it's in his advantage to have people living in it... especially since he doesn't do a damn thing involving "care taking". Should you waste your time looking for "No Broker" apartments? In my experience, yes. Again - patience.
  3. There were three of us who were going to be living in this apartment, one of which wasn't even a NYC resident at the time. On the initial visit with the broker and the actual signing, two of us were present. At all other times we had to be there, it was good enough for it to just be one of us. The broker honestly didn't seem to care who was there, as long as it was someone. Credit: my credit is terrible, one of my roommates doesn't have a bank account. We look like ruffians. The broker never batted an eye. We offered a co-signer (my retired mother), which he accepted but never actually went through the process of making legal. I think he just wanted the extra $50 check for a credit check he never did.
  4. We saw the apartment well before we went through the credit check loops. Hell, we'd seen more than one from the same broker and got our pick.
  5. Our apartment is beyond huge, in an unpleasant looking but safe neighborhood, 1 block from the train, 15 minutes from Manhattan, and very reasonable. We have an office big enough for three people to each have a 7 ft long desk - and the room will still sleep 10.
  6. We were the only people looking at the place. Why? Everyone seemed to think the listing in the Voice must have either been a mistake, or a joke. Let me say that again... We were the only people to look at that apartment. The other (nearly identical) apartment that borders ours did not fill up for another month and a half. Security was the biggest I've ever had to pay - 2 months rent. The only places in NYC that charge 4 or 6 months rent for security are co-ops which are looking to make some quick money by renting out a few apartments before they spruce them up to sell. Don't rent an apartment from a co-op.
  7. We're young, white, scruffy-looking males. The broker didn't care. He said,
    "I have many people just like you living in my buildings. Are you going to pay the rent?"
    "Fine. Drugs, loud music, girls, wild parties... I don't care. Pay the rent."

    Except for the list of naughty things we're allowed to do in our in space, that conversation was nearly verbatim to the one I had with my prior landlord. They just want you to pay the rent. That's it. If you're moving into some place ritzy - that might involve them being choosy about you. If you're moving into a poor neighborhood, simply the fact that you've got a paycheck coming in is often enough for them. Sad, but true.
  8. We shall see about the rent going up again. I have a strong feeling in my gut it will be staying the price it is right now.

...Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with the apartment that make it less than perfect. Our super is a joke, as is the idea of our broker "managing" the building. We do all our own repairs - there isn't really anyone for us to call if small things fuck up. I prefer it that way. We didn't have hot water for almost three months. Hell, we didn't have lots of things for almost three months. That was bad. But that part is over now, and a lot of the kinks are ironed out. Enough of them for the space to be very live-able, and very desire-able. The neighborhood is extremely inexpensive and friendly. Manhattan is right next door. The trains are easy and reliable. And our apartment is one of the quietest I've been in in NYC. Except when we're playing loud music at our wild, drug-infested parties and cavorting with the lewd women our broker warned us about.

As of last Thursday, I became a resident of New York City. Since I've gotten an apartment in San Francisco as well, I feel like I can contribute to this discussion.

Getting an apartment in New York was so much more amazingly difficult than almost everything else in my entire life. I thought coming out to my parents was stressful (and it was), but this latest adventure was quite an ordeal too.

Comparison: San Francisco and the Silicon Valley

First, some comparison. Three years ago, I moved to the Silicon Valley. The dot coms hadn't yet dot-bombed, so housing prices were still a bit high. I was convinced that I was going to have to pay $2000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, which I thought was outrageous. Fortunately, after a week's worth of looking, I got a phone call from a friend who knew someone who lived in a building with an opening. The next weekend, I drove all my stuff up from Southern California to my spacious $1150 one-bedroom apartment, and counted myself lucky.

Two years later, I moved to San Francisco. In 2002, it was almost easy to find an apartment in SF. I logged on to Craigslist, found some listings, and walked around the neighborhood I wanted to live in. I found an apartment the first day I looked.

These aren't exactly easy housing markets, and they all expected me to have a month's deposit before moving in, but in both cases, it was a relatively straightforward transaction.

New York

Compare this to my New York experience. I arrived in New York on July 5, to "visit". I decided to move here in the first week of August, and started looking for a place. I tried the whole Craigslist thing again. I didn't get many e-mails back until I realized that in order to actually hear back from a Craigslist poster in New York, you need to call within minutes of the posting going online. Seriously. Once I figured that out I managed to see some places, but they weren't the fabulous apartment I was looking for. The studios were all a bit small, and the roommate situations just wouldn't have worked out too well. (One potential roommate asked me if I wanted a foot massage, right before he told me about his foot fetish.)

I had a plane ticket back to California (I needed to sell my car), and when I had a week and a half left in New York, I decided to bite the bullet. If I was going to have a place to move into on my return, I was going to have to treat this problem like the Manhattanite I wanted to be, and throw some money at the problem by hiring a broker.

Everyone I talked to about brokers told me the same thing: it's a big scam. But they also told me that brokers often know about things that other people don't. When I met the broker, she immediately handed me a contract that said that if I moved in to any of the buildings she showed me, I was going to have to pay her 15% of one year's rent.

At this point, I was a bit dazed by what had just happened, but it turned out that she had access to more apartment listings than I had gotten my hands on. Some of them were even really nice apartments that were in my price range... By the end of the day, I had narrowed my choice down to two studios in Chelsea. They're both in great locations, reasonably sized, not too much street noise, well-maintained buildings. It was either the cheap one that I thought I'd be happy with, or the one that was absolutely beautiful in the doorman building with rooftop access (with the Empire State Building in sight) with a much nicer layout. The only drawback was that it was in a co-op building, so my broker informed me that there would be an application before getting in.

From the previous paragraph, I'm sure it's obvious what the choice was. My advice: don't get a co-op apartment, unless you're going to be buying it. It's just too much hassle. Here's everything I had to come up with:

  • broker's fee to my broker
  • broker's fee to the owner's broker
  • deposit (one month's rent)
  • first month's rent
  • credit check fee for my brokerage ($60)
  • credit check fee for the co-op board ($35)
  • move in deposit ($750)
  • application fee ($300)
  • two years of W-2's and 1040's (full income tax returns...)
  • a notarized financial disclosure form, detailing all of my worldly possessions and liabilities, with supporting documentation (three month's worth). These had to be real statements; online statements weren't sufficient
  • three business references, with letters from two of them
  • three personal references, with letters from two of them
  • a letter from my previous landlord

Unfortunately, my broker was incompetent enough that she didn't tell me everything I needed until a few weeks later. So when I got back to New York I ended up crashing on my lesbian ex-girlfriend's couch. For three weeks.

Next bit of advice: don't look for an apartment in New York during the Jewish holidays. Granted, if my broker hadn't been incompetent, it wouldn't have dragged out that long, but by the time the banks and insurance companies had mailed me my statements, not only did I need to get a new notarized financial disclosure (remember, I'd sold my car) but it was also getting close to Yom Kippur.

Once all of these materials were assembled, the next step was to get interviewed by the co-op board. Of course, I didn't have contact information for them (I only had the contact information for my broker). So my broker turned in my application to the management company, which contacted the board and set up the appointment. This took approximately four days. The board decided to conduct the interview on the roof of the building. In the rain. After I convinced them that yes, I was serious about moving to New York (there was any doubt after going through this?) they sent me along my merry way. Two days later, they informed the management company of their decision to let me live there.

The management company then needed to get in touch with the owner, but for some reason didn't have her number or her broker's number, and so called my broker. It was Yom Kippur that day, so my broker couldn't contact the owner's broker (he's Jewish). The next day, he answered his phone, and called the owner, who then called the management company, who called the superintendent, who then told the doormen that I was allowed to move in. If this was on Friendster, I think the links are so far that these people wouldn't even be in my personal network.

It's a beautiful apartment...

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