The hunt (entry #1 of 72 posts about finding an apartment in NYC)

I have tweeted ad nauseum about my hunt for a New York City apartment, and the difficulty of finding one while still based in Washington, DC. Enough of my twitter friends have commented on the process that I thought I’d share information about why the hunt is so challenging.

Backing up a little…

I have wanted to move back to NYC – my spiritual home if I, in fact, have anything spiritual – since the moment I left. Each time I returned to Manhattan for work or to visit friends, I tried (and failed) to remember how I managed to move away (for my career) without having some form of a breakdown. I suspect I was numbed by the fact that my move to DC happened just 20 days after September 11.

9/11

When my company gave word this spring that they’d allow me to relocate to NYC – after a solid year of hints, requests and even a few tears* – I was pretty stunned, very excited and even somewhat nervous. It had been ten long years since I had left NYC. In the intervening years, I had put down something akin to roots in spite of myself, buying both a condo and a car, establishing relationships and developing favorite places around DC.

*Don’t be like me, particularly you professional women.

I quickly realized that the move would be more complicated than any I’d executed before. Should I sell my condo or rent it out? Could I handle a rental situation from afar or did I need to pay someone to find a tenant and manage the property? Could I cover the costs associated with my mortgage and condo fees or would I be facing a monthly shortfall? When should I sell my car?

Still, as much as I considered these questions, I don’t think it ever occurred to me just how difficult it would be to find a new apartment in NYC from afar. I focused more on how to extricate myself from DC than on how to handle the other side.

Oops.

As anyone who has ever looked for an apartment in NYC knows, it’s beyond challenging. First and foremost, the vacancy rate is extremely low. A place hits the market and is shown, usually by a real estate broker, and typically rented that day. If you see an apartment and don’t immediately think “no” you may want to put in an application at that moment. Most likely, it will be gone that day so he or she who hesitates has lost that apartment.

NYC is somewhat unique in the prevalence of the fee versus no fee apartment discussion. I’ll cover broker fees in another post. At the moment I’m too angsty about what one broker is trying to do to me to type about it.

Everyone knows apartments in NYC are small. Unless you’re loaded, it’s important to manage your expectations. This is probably why the best time to move to the city is fresh out of college when you’re used to living in small, shared spaces. Moving to NYC from, say, Atlanta, would be a painful experience in the sense of space. Whatever your budget and your hoped for space, mentally cut that space in half before you being viewing apartments.

Even with low expectations, it’s possible to have your heart broken quickly.

Most landlords want tenants who make 40x the monthly rent (e.g., for a $2000/month apartment, the tenant should earn $80,000 per year). You can complain “who in the world making $80k wants to live in this $2k/month dump?!” all you like – it’s the standard.

Some landlords will accept what’s called a guarantor if you don’t meet the 40x standard, but then the benchmark jumps to 80x the monthly rent and it’s the guarantor’s income alone, not tenant plus guarantor.

If you’ve made it this far, either alone or with a guarantor, congratulations…but don’t celebrate yet. You still need to have great credit (as important as your FICO score is, the lack of any late payments at all is key) and be able to quickly provide paperwork similar to that needed to get a mortgage. This is the typical paperwork you need to have ready:

Bank statements

2-3 months including the current to show liquid assets. Although some brokers will now accept credit cards for at least the deposit or the brokers’ fee, it’s more common for them to insist upon a certified (not personal) check.

Proof of income

This comes in the form of a letter from your company (on letterhead) confirming your title, start date, present employment and salary AND your most recent tax return AND copies of recent pay stubs (some want two, others four).

A copy of your driver’s license or passport

I assume this is to confirm that you are who you say you are and also that you’re a legal resident.

References

Former landlords, your best friend, your boss. People who will say good things about your character.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is only the beginning…

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