I just signed a lease for my second apartment since moving to New York City after college. Some friends asked me for advice on how to find an apartment here, and I didn’t realize at first how many opinions I have on the whole process. I’ve tried to distill my thoughts and approach here.

Renting an apartment in New York is all about tradeoffs, mostly between time and money. If you’re willing to spend more time seeing apartments in person, then you’re much more likely to find a great apartment that others are overlooking because the information online is incomplete or hard to find. If you’re willing to spend more money or give up something that most other renters are looking for, you can find a nicer apartment without searching for a diamond in the rough.

If you can put in the time to develop an intuition for the types of apartments on the market in your budget, you’ll be much more confident in your decision when you ultimately sign a lease.

NYC’s rental market is famously crazy, and the disruptions brought by COVID-19 haven’t made it any less so. Renters were often able to negotiate their rent downward or sign new leases with attractive deals during 2020 and the first few months of 2021, but since last summer, rents have bounced back and then some. A lot of people have since been priced out of their current apartments, which only adds to how much demand there is in the market right now.

New York is a huge city, and I’m an early-career software engineer who works in Midtown Manhattan looking for apartments in Lower Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn. I also happen to be a bit of a recovering HGTV junkie who enjoys looking at floorplans more than is probably healthy. I can’t expect this post to cover everyone’s rental experience, but hopefully there are some small bits of advice you can pull from it.

The first listings for a given move-in date will start getting posted 1.5 months before, and new ones keep appearing up to as little as a week before move-in. It can be really useful to start looking at the apartments that are available in the month before your target move. This helps you understand what’s on the market in your price range and develop the intuition to spot a good deal when it presents itself.

Start on StreetEasy

How do you even find apartments that are available to rent? StreetEasy is your best friend. It’s a listing website exclusive to NYC where brokers generally post all their listings. You can create an account and save searches to come back to and get email updates for.

I recommend taking a visit to the “Email Preferences” section of your account settings. I set all my saved searches to send emails once per day, and also I checked the setting to combine all the searches into one email. This meant that every morning I’d get a digest of all the new apartments that were listed within my price range and desired locations.

I got into the habit of checking this email every morning before starting work, and clicking the “Request a Tour” button on every listing that was interesting to me. Brokers usually reach out with a day or two.

Beyond StreetEasy

StreetEasy makes it super simple to find listings and contact listing agents, but it isn’t the whole process. Forming too much of an opinion based off a StreetEasy listing can lead you to miss out on a great apartment.

The listing for my first apartment only had a photo for one out of its four bedrooms. The listing for my second apartment had no photos of the apartment itself, just photos of the shared rooftop and the mail room. In both cases, the listing agents weren’t being malicious. They were just working with old and incomplete photos and couldn’t take new ones with tenants still living in the apartment.

My second apartment was far-and-away better than most others I’d seen, but it had an order of magnitude fewer “likes” on StreetEasy. Only one other person showed up to the open house compared to the dozens of people I had seen at a very well-photographed apartment around the corner a few weeks before.

Don’t be afraid of going to listings without many photos! Sometimes agents just haven’t been able to take them yet, and you’ll be able to see a place before other renters start taking it seriously. You still need to do your due dilligence. Check out the building on Street View or walk by in person if it’s convenient for you. I also would NOT recommend signing for an apartment without any pictures at all if you’re not able to visit in person.

On the other side of the coin, it’s important to recognize that apartments with tons of photos aren’t always represented more accurately. Misleading camera angles and different lighting choices can make apartments look a lot better on your screen than they do in real life. Visiting apartments in person can help you learn how photos map to reality and set expectations more appropriately.

In a similar vein, I have a friend living in Boston who rented his apartment off of Craigslist, which lots of people consider a less legitimate website than StreetEasy or Zillow. He was able to find a great apartment that others were discounting for more superficial reasons.

Talk to listing agents

When you visit an apartment, make sure to talk to the agent and let them know what you’re looking for. It’s pretty likely they’ll be trying to rent out other apartments, and sometimes, they’ll show you places that haven’t been listed yet. Ultimately, real estate agents earn their income on commission, and so they’ll do what they can to help you find an apartment where they can get the broker’s fee. Getting sneak previews like this is a great way to get a head start on other renters.

Asking questions

It’s important to ask questions to the listing agent about the apartment while you’re touring. Here are some that I’ve found useful or illuminating.

  • What utilities are included, and which are my responsibility to pay for?
  • Does the super live in the building?
  • [If there isn’t central air conditioning] are A/C units included, or will I need to buy and bring my own?
  • [If you want to apply] What will the application process look like?

If the current tenants are present during the showing, don’t be shy:

  • How has your experience living here been?
  • Why are you moving out?
  • How responsive or helpful is the super and building management?
  • What has been your most/least favorite part of living here?

Lots of tenants give candid answers that can be super helpful in your decision process.

Applying

Once you find an apartment you like, the next step is to apply! Tenant rights are strong in New York, so building management companies do a lot of due dilligence to make sure you can really pay rent before drawing up a lease for you to sign.

My main advice through the application process is to be as responsive as possible and be honest with the leasing agent and building management. Before you sign the lease there’s nothing legally requiring them to continue working with you, so try to get requested documents to them as quickly as you can. It’s also a good way to make a positive first impression on your potential your future landlord.

The first type of application I’ve encountered has you pay a deposit that’s anywhere from $500 to a month’s worth of rent. This will be refunded if your application is rejected by management. While it might seem really burdensome to give up money before even having a lease to sign, the apartment will likely be taken off the market while your application is being evaluated. This is great when you find a place you really like – it means that you don’t need to worry about competing offers, or other renters applying who are more attractive tenants for whatever reason.

This most recent search, I ran into a lot of applications that didn’t require a fee. Instead, the listing agent collected as many applications as came in after an open house, and management picked the one they like the best. This seems nice because there’s no upfront cost, but there’s generally more waiting since building management has more applications to read, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the apartment even if you have a great application. I submitted and was rejected in three “no fee” applications at different apartments before eventually having an application accepted along with a deposit.

Signing the lease

Congrats! Your application’s been approved. Now it’s time to sign a lease. I don’t really have many opinions on this part of the process. I’m also certainly not a lawyer, but one thing I will say is make sure to actually read your lease! Even if you don’t want to negotiate anything inside it, it is always good to know what you’re signing.

Now it’s time to relax before packing up and moving. Good work, and good luck in the new place!