Tales from the Manhattan housing market

On Saturday the New York Times published an article entitled “Finding Your First Apartment in New York City”, about two weeks too late for me to actually make use of it. However, the advice in the article can mostly be found easily online, so I didn’t feel like I missed out. They emphasize not going into the search with unrealistic expectations—I actually had the opposite experience, where after years of hearing horror stories about Manhattan housing, I didn’t expect to be able to rent anything larger than a closet and was pleasantly surprised at what was actually available in my price range.
Anyway, the Manhattan rental market is quite different from most in a few ways. Obviously a lot of it’s driven by the fact that a Manhattan address is highly sought-after, leading to a very low vacancy rate (sometimes quoted as 0.5%, although I think it’s higher at the moment) and vastly higher rents than in other U.S. cities. I’d heard from several sources that competition for any given apartment can be fierce, and it’s best to apply for a unit on the spot if it looks good, since it may not be available later. However, right now (maybe due to the recession) this didn’t seem to be the case. There were a surprising number of vacancies, a number of landlords were offering “specials” with a discount of several hundred dollars per month, and I felt comfortable taking a couple days to consider my options without the units I liked being snapped up.
Another unusual feature of the New York market is that many apartments are only available through a broker. The typical New York apartment search involves hiring a broker to spend a day or two showing available units; when the lease is signed the broker collects a substantial fee from the renter, typically 15% of the annual rent.
The broker is definitely the easiest way to go if you’re on a tight schedule, but my take is that if you’ve got time to do the research, there’s no need to go through a broker: there are a number of landlords who will rent apartments directly. The trick is finding them, but luckily we have the internet. Craigslist has a separate listing for no-fee apartments, and one can find recommendations of no-fee management companies around the web (here for example). There’s also a book that I found extremely useful called The Nouveau Native’s No Fee New York: it has not only general advice for apartment hunting in New York, but also a very comprehensive list of landlords offering no-fee rentals. Many of these landlords list availabilities on their websites, which made it very easy to put together a shortlist before I even got to New York.
From that point it was just like searching for an apartment anywhere else, only with much, much higher rents. Landlords in New York tend to require a lot of documentation to prove that you’ll be able to pay: at least a letter of employment and usually also bank statements and pay stubs, and sometimes tax returns and W-2s. If you’re coming from out of town, it’s a good idea to take this stuff with you so you can apply on the spot.
I ended up renting from a management company called Archstone, and it was such a good experience that I want to mention them here. I was able to walk into two of their buildings without an appointment and get full tours from very helpful leasing agents; on top of that the website has a lot of information, and even lets you apply online. They have properties all over the country so it’s worth checking out if you’re in the market somewhere other than Manhattan.
Anyway, the housing search turned out to be surprisingly easy given all the tales of woe I’d heard about the Manhattan rental market. Now I’m working on the next challenge: getting all my stuff across the country and into the new apartment.

One thought on “Tales from the Manhattan housing market

  1. Mason

    The UK is actually quite big on having a metric fuck ton of documentation to apply for things like renting apartments or even to get bank accounts. (I had to have someone in the math department fax over a letter indicating my status and even to schedule the initial meeting.) The latter is actually quite retarded.

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