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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.'
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.