Of the many new arrivals who pour into New York City each spring with new degrees, new jobs, or simply new life plans, Patrick Laflamme thought that he would be in a fairly good position to find an apartment.
A graduate student in cognitive psychology moving from Vancouver, British Columbia, to take a job with an investment bank, Mr. Laflamme had experience with competitive housing markets — “the Vancouver rental market is pretty aggressive: you go to see a listing and there are 40 people lined up outside” — and he was accustomed to spending a large percentage of his income on rent.
“And I wasn’t too picky. I just didn’t want to be more than a half-hour from the financial district,” said Mr. Laflamme, 24, who set what seemed a reasonable budget of about $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom or large studio in Manhattan. “Rental agents don’t really exist in Vancouver; you just kind of make it work. I figured that’s what I would do in New York, too.”
But several weeks of looking on Craigslist turned up only bait-and-switch scenarios, studios sneakily shot from angles that made them look like one-bedrooms and suspiciously beautiful apartments in Midtown managed by out-of-state companies without a New York address.
“I’d read on some blogs that you should get an agent if you’re not from New York, but I had been a skeptic,” Mr. Laflamme said. “Finally, I got one. Unless you have connections in the city, the barrier to entry is high.”
Even for renters accustomed to complex housing markets, finding an apartment in New York can be daunting. Many first-time renters arrive in the city braced for small, expensive apartments, but few are prepared for just how small and expensive.
In April, the average rent for a Manhattan studio was $2,355, according to the real estate company Citi Habitats. In Brooklyn, long seen as a less expensive alternative, it was $2,320. And while there are less costly apartments to be found — and room shares to be had — for those who don’t know New York City well, finding a deal, or even recognizing a deal when it comes along, can be difficult.
How much flexibility is required to get more space or seemingly basic perks like an elevator or dishwasher? Is it a matter of changing neighborhoods, raising your budget or just looking harder?
“People think they can apply what they learned about renting elsewhere to Manhattan, with a little bit of a premium,” said Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats. “But there are a lot of qualifying requirements.”
Most landlords, for example, expect renters to earn 40 times the monthly rent — that means $94,200 a year to qualify for that average Manhattan studio that costs $2,355 a month, significantly more than the borough’s median per capita income of $66,522, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Those with incomes that do not qualify will need a guarantor who makes 80 times the rent, or $188,400 a year. Some landlords require even more for guarantors who live outside the tristate area. And while there are many ways to work around those requirements — paying six months or a year of rent up front, for example, or working with a company like Rhino or Jetty, which can act as a guarantor or front a security deposit — not every landlord is flexible. And those with the most desirable apartments don’t need to be.
Rental real estate brokers — a rarity in many other cities — are not only common in New York, but often unavoidable. First-time renters determined to go it alone may be surprised to discover that even if they find an apartment on a listings site like StreetEasy, PadMapper or Naked Apartments — and wind up speaking to a broker at an open house for all of two minutes before submitting an application — they may still have to pay a full broker’s fee of 15 percent of the annual rent, which, for a $2,500-a-month-apartment, comes to $4,500.
No-fee apartments exist, of course, and in a sluggish rental market like the one the city has been in for the past year or so, landlords are more likely to pick up the broker’s fee. But looking at only no-fee listings knocks out a lot of options, and no-fee apartments are more commonly found in luxury high-rises or large complexes with their own leasing offices, like Stuyvesant Town.
For those unfamiliar with the city, a good agent can be invaluable for maximizing the number of apartments a potential renter sees — and then guiding that renter through the application process, and helping determine whether the renter’s budget and expectations are reasonable.
Bailey Gladysz said that when she moved to the city five years ago, she and her husband had a budget of $2,400, and they wanted a spacious one-bedroom with natural light in an elevator building in Chelsea. “Brokers would literally take us to the worst apartment and say that we needed to increase our budget,” she recalled.
Now a real estate agent with Triplemint, Ms. Gladysz said she would never show renters grim listings to convince them to give in to higher prices. Instead, she tempers expectations at the outset.
“If it’s their first time moving to the city and they’re a new college grad with not much money, I have to politely tell them to drop things off their must-have list,” she said.
One of the most common requests she gets from first-time renters is a commute under 20 minutes, a tall order given that the average New York City commute is 36 minutes.
Many newcomers aren’t being intentionally demanding, she added, they just don’t understand how New York works. When she explains that it is not that unusual for people to send their laundry out or have packages delivered to their workplaces, many are happy to forgo the in-unit washer-dryer or the doorman.
And factors that, to the uninitiated, may not seem worth mentioning can sometimes derail or at least drastically change a New York apartment hunt.
Kim Bloomfield, an agent at Citi Habitats, recalled showing a man moving from Washington one-bedrooms on the Upper East Side in the $2,300 range, which limited him primarily to walk-ups. “On the sixth or seventh apartment, he tells me he has a king-size bed that he’s not willing to give up,” said Ms. Bloomfield, who had to explain to the man that not only were the layouts of the older walk-ups in his price range not ideal for a king-size bed, she was not even sure he would be able to get it up the stairs.
The man held firm and ended up finding an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “At the end of the day, he was willing to move pretty far away from where he was looking to keep his bed,” she said.
Deciding what to sacrifice can be difficult, however, especially as financial necessity compels most recent college grads to live with roommates who may not all be on the same page. It is not uncommon, brokers say, for one roommate to get stuck on a specific neighborhood or amenity that the other roommates are more than willing to do without. Several brokers recalled watching would-be roommates break up in the middle of showings.
Though the last few years have seen rents in the city level out, the breather came only after a relentless, yearslong climb, and rents remain prohibitively high for many New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s. Student loan debt is another big factor, Mr. Malin said: “Incomes haven’t gone up that dramatically, but rents have gone up and student loan debt has gone up.”
After college and law school, Kristen Pride recently moved back to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she grew up. She wanted to find a one-bedroom, but couldn’t afford the $2,300 and $2,400 rents she was seeing, “not even on an attorney’s salary,” she said. “Not with student loans.”
Finally, she found something on StreetEasy in her price range — an older, unrenovated one-bedroom for $1,750 a month — and the broker was eager to put her application through. But she was reluctant. Rationally, she knew that the apartment was a good deal, but it felt like a lot to pay, especially for an older building.
In the end, she signed the lease, but she hasn’t been able to bring herself to tell anyone in her family how much she pays. “My dad doesn’t know,” she said. “He is super passionate about gentrification. He gets so mad and is like, ‘This is crazy, people shouldn’t be paying this much in Bed-Stuy!’”
To help those who simply cannot afford to live on their own, or don’t want to, a number of options for finding a room or a roommate have sprung up in the last decade. They run the gamut from upscale co-living purveyors like WeLive, Common and Ollie, which offer furnished suites with housekeeping and access to other amenities, to cheaper options like Craigslist and increasingly popular Facebook groups like Gypsy Housing and NYC Housing, Rooms, Sublets & Apartments.
For the many people who move to New York without a full-time job — or a well-paid one — finding a sublet or pre-existing share are among the few available options. In most cases, going one of these routes means the renter can avoid having to submit pay stubs and bank records, or signing a yearlong lease. But the process can be grueling in other ways.
Matt Gelman, a 23-year-old copywriter and coder freelancing at a tech company in Dumbo, Brooklyn, recently moved into his second Williamsburg sublet, a $1,300-a-month room he found on Gypsy Housing. On the night he went to see the room, he was told that seven other people were interested, and because of a scheduling glitch, one of them would be touring it at the same time.
“The other guy was clearly interested, so I had to prove I wanted it more,” Mr. Gelman said. “I emailed right away and said I wanted to meet the other roommates.”
Actually, Mr. Gelman clarified, he Facebook messaged using Google translator, because the roommates, who were French, do not speak much English, and he does not speak French. Fortunately, they have since discovered that they all speak Spanish.
But while terrible first-apartment tales tend to get passed around like scary stories at a campfire, it is important to remember that not every first-time renting experience is harrowing.
As a senior at Emory University in 2016, Rifat Mursalin attended a presentation by a New York brokerage, but blanched at the prices of their listings. “It was like $3,800 for a two-bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen,” he said. Neither he nor his roommate felt the need to live in Manhattan, “and we could care less about having a doorman or a gym.” A friend suggested he try StreetEasy, where he found a no-fee two-bedroom in East Williamsburg for $2,200 a month.
“It was quite daunting before I came here, but not when I arrived,” said Mr. Mursalin, who also used the site to find his current apartment, a $2,200 two-bedroom in Long Island City. The neighborhood is known for its lushly amenitized new construction, but his building is a bare-bones walk-up. The only upgrade he insisted on, he said, was better transit.
And for all those put off by the price of New York apartments, there are some recent arrivals who find them comparatively reasonable. When Madeleine Goldsmith moved to the city from San Francisco last summer to start a new career as a theater producer, she was delighted to see her rent plummet from $1,500 a month to $1,075.
“I was like, ‘That’s a steal!’” said Ms. Goldsmith, who currently shares a Harlem three-bedroom with two roommates. “It’s so much cheaper here. In San Francisco, there are no pockets of cheapness. And that apartment was rent-regulated — my roommate had lived there since 2012!”
But she plans to move again this summer, in part because she realized she could be paying a lot less in some areas of Brooklyn or Queens. “I’m aiming lower for the next one,” she said. “Now I don’t want to pay more than $800.”
As for Mr. Laflamme, his story has a happy ending, too.
He decided to up his budget. “I realized I had to increase to find anything that wasn’t a 200-square-foot studio,” he said.
And he started working with Barbara Satine, an agent at Triplemint who found him a spacious one-bedroom on the Upper West Side for $2,775 a month. It’s charming, he said, and the landlord accepted both his Chihuahua and his Canadian credit score.
“Honestly, it’s more than I was expecting,” he said.
Of course, like everything in New York, there is a catch: It is a fifth-floor walk-up.
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