NYC Apartment Guide (Part 1)

I’ve been through the process of finding an apartment in NYC many times now and it never seems to get much easier.  Through my moves, I have been able to pick up little tidbits of information along the way, so I thought it made sense to put my thoughts together for you in three posts.  Part 1 (this post) deals with the process of finding an apartment.  Part 2 deals with finalizing the lease and Part 3 discusses the logistics around actually moving.  I hope you find these posts helpful and as always, if you have any tips or best practices for finding an apartment in NYC, I’d love to hear from you.

Part 1 – Finding an Apartment in NYC

Every time I’ve had to move in NYC, I’ve had a good idea of the area I wanted to live in (i.e., within five blocks from work), so the process was a little easier for me, but the hard part was finding available apartments with the right amenities at the right time.  Finding an apartment in NYC can be very difficult depending on the season.  Apartments can go on and off the market in minutes or hours so you may have to know immediately after seeing an apartment whether you want it or not.  Below I’ve outlined the process I went through for looking for an apartment in NYC.

1.  Decide What Amenities You Desire

The first thing you need to decide is what amenities you want and which ones you don’t.  These include doorman, elevator, laundry in the building, fitness center, and proximity to public transportation.  There’s no guide that will tell you these things.

2.  Find the Right Location

After you decide what amenities you’d like, the next step should be finding the right location.  Every neighborhood has its own nuances and you have to decide first off what you desire in your apartment.  Some people desire to be close to work and everything else (like myself), while others want to be away from all of the commotion after work.  Whatever it is, it is always good to know what you want and then do your due diligence about locations before even looking at apartment buildings.  There are several broker websites that outline the idiosyncrasies of the different neighborhoods in NYC including the following:

Brown Harris Stevens

Prudential Douglas Elliman

In addition to these guides, New York Magazine created a “Livability Calculator” that tries to determine the best neighborhood matches for you based on a set of 12 criteria.  I’m not sure how accurate the calculator is, but you can give it a try here.

The broker guides and the “Livability Calculator” could be good references for those that don’t live in the city.  For those that do live in the city, I think the best way to find the right location is to actually walk around the neighborhoods.

3.  Price Range

While you’re deciding locations/areas, you should also be cognizant of average prices of rent in each neighborhood to make sure you’re not getting ripped off once you start your search.  Rentometer is one site that can help you approximate average rent in a given neighborhood.

4.  Search for Apartments

Depending on what amenities you choose, there will be different sites that will be more useful than others.  I chose to live in a standard high rise building, so the following sites were extremely helpful:

High-Rise Buildings – Directories

New York Living Magazine:  This 2008 guide highlights high-rise buildings by area.  Though slightly dated, it is still a great directory that gives you most of the contact information for high-rise buildings.

NY Bits:  Provides a list of high-rise buildings in NYC.  Their definition of high-rise is any building over 20 stories.

Wired New York:  An additional resource for lists of high-rise apartments.

High-Rise Buildings – Listings

StreetEasy:  Allows you to search for rentals using different criteria including location, price, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, amenities, and many more.

NY Bits:  Allows you to browse rentals based on ones most recently posted or search for rentals by location, price, number of bedrooms, and certain amenities.

The links above cover most of the high-rise buildings in NYC so there may be no need to go elsewhere.  The good thing about high-rise buildings is that, though they are generic, you know what you’re going to get, and you can just contact the leasing office directly to inquire about availabilities and view apartments.

If you’re looking for a walk-up apartment,  you should reference the sites below.

Walk-Up Buildings – Listings

craigslist:  There are a lot of apartments posted on this site daily.  You can find a lot of good stuff on here and many of my friends have found their apartments on this site.  The downfall is that sometimes brokers get lazy and use the same picture for multiple apartment listings so you don’t get a good indication of an apartment just from reading the ad.  Brokers may also put up an ad, but when you inquire about the apartment, they may try to do the old bait and switch.  If you want to avoid these situations, you can search  “by owner only” apts.

StreetEasy This site has listings for walk-ups too!

NY Bits Has listings for walk-ups in addition to high-rise rental listings.

HotPads:  Combines mapping with apartment listings.  Some listings are from craigslist while others are exclusives.

NY Times:  This site has a good amount of listings, but be careful, most listings are by brokers.

These sites provide a variety of listings by owners and brokers.  More often than not, you’ll have to go through a broker for a walk-up building.  A typical broker fee is 15% of one year’s rent, but this is usually negotiable.  Most brokers will go down to 10%-12% of one year’s rent or just one month’s rent.

5.  Timing

In terms of timing, the below timeline is generally what I follow when looking for an apartment.  However, note that some people have said that I have a tendency to “overplan,” so I would use the below timeline as a guide and tweak it as you see fit.

As a licensed real estate agent in New York, I can help you with your real estate needs. Reach out to me to discuss how we can get you the best value from the process.  

Roger Ma


Other Resources
The Top 23 Posts That You Missed
NYC Apartment Guide (Part 2)
NYC Apartment Guide (Part 3)
Finding an Apartment in NYC:  Resources
Is It Cheaper to Have an Apt. Lease That Starts in the Winter?
How Much Will You Tip Your Doormen This Year?
10 Questions to Ask Before Renting a NYC Apartment
What’s Your Burn Rate?

The following two tabs change content below.


I am a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, founder of financial planning firm lifelaidout, and a NYC-based licensed real estate agent. I write extensively about personal finance and real estate on lifelaidout, Forbes, and TheStreet.

4 Responses to “NYC Apartment Guide (Part 1)”

  • anonymous says:

    It would be interesting to see some analytics of how rent fluctuates throughout the year (if at all). I’ve often believed that the largest inflows to NYC tend to be around August when new college grads move in. While the apartments we look at may no longer overlap as much as they did 5 years ago, I’m still curious as to whether you can save money by subletting or signing a short-term lease for 3 months till December 1 and then locking in a yearly rate then. I assume you don’t have that data, so something to consider doing in the future. And also, similar to how you did a cashflow model for the AmEx card a few posts ago, something around owning vs. renting may be interesting for a future post. God, I’m old.

  • roger says:

    Great suggestions. I agree with you that rents for leases starting in the Aug. timeframe are generally higher than rents for leases starting in the Nov. / Dec. timeframe. I’m in the process of digging up some monthly rent data that may or may not prove this theory and will post that with some additional thoughts in the next couple of days. In terms of a buy vs. rent model / post, I will definitely keep that in mind for future posts. Thanks for your comments!

  • Richard Lurie says:

    Please show me the law that says apartments in NYC must provide heat and water.
    A link to the HUD or site, perhaps?


  • roger says:

    Richard, check out the two links below:

    Let me know if you have alternative interpretations or if you’ve experienced something different. Thanks for the question!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *