Fun Fact: I spent a lot of my younger days watching HGTV and House Hunters after school, and I always dreamt about the day I would get to buy and decorate my own dream home, complete with marble kitchen countertops and an entire room dedicated as my closet. However, I usually snapped back to reality pretty quickly and realized that it would take baby steps to get there, and that I would experience many different living situations before moving and settling down in a dream home.
My first experience of "moving out" and living away from my home in New Jersey was when I went to college in a different state. I lived in both a traditional dorm-style building with a roommate and a 4-bedroom apartment complex where I had a chance to experience living with different groups of friends since I moved my unit quite a few times during my two years. When I lived abroad in Vienna, I stayed in a sweet 3-bedroom apartment that even had a cleaning service every week! My living situation during my college years was relatively stress-free since I went with housing recommendations from my school and basically followed the path most of my friends took when it came to finding an apartment off campus. Even for Vienna, I simply followed registration rules and ranked my preferences according to what I had heard from others before, and there was little additional work I had to do after filling out the paperwork. None of these experiences really prepared me for the reality that is finding an apartment in New York City, so I am here to detail my personal experience for all of you guys, whether you're interested in starting to apartment hunt here, or are just curious as to what I did to find my current apartment downtown.
When to Start the Hunt
It always seems like we are always running against the clock, and moving sometimes becomes much more stressful when you have strict timeline to follow. For those of you currently renting an apartment, you probably signed some sort of lease, be it a multi-year or monthly sublease, and will most likely have to reconsider your living options again once the lease ends. You may also be starting a new job in a new city or just looking to move out of your parents’ house to attend school or to be independent post-graduation. This seems like a no brainer, but if you are planning on finding a new apartment, make sure you take into consideration your short-term and slightly-longer term needs. Figure out when you absolutely need to move out by, and then start working backwards calculate the earliest you can start hunting for a new place. From my personal experience, many leases begin on the 1st or 15th of the month, although many landlords or lease owners can be accommodating and flexible with their dates. If you are flexible with your dates, keep in mind that certain times of the year will be more expensive, given that there is higher demand during the summer months with internships and full-time jobs starting around the same time. If you rent during off-peak months during the winter or late fall, you may be able to save a couple hundred or even thousand dollars throughout the course of your lease.
When to Begin Your Lease
This is all personal preference, but moving in can definitely be a big ordeal since there are a lot of moving parts involved (literally!). Choose a lease start date that works with your schedule, and pick a time when you know it may be a little less crowded in the area, so you can move-in without utter chaos, like during rush hour. Sometimes, your landlord may be flexible and allow you to move in a few days early without a charge or for a small fee. If you need this option, make sure to ask because it could never hurt to know all of your options. You definitely need at least a few days to get settled in, so be sure to time it so you have a couple days before starting a new job or before heading straight back to work. I decided to move in on a Saturday, which gave me the entire weekend to sort out my life, assemble furniture and get my bed in order in time for a less frazzled Monday and start to the work week.
When to Start the Apartment Hunt
NYC apartments are rented out like hotcakes, and those of you who have been through the housing search in a large city like this can attest to madness. I was surprised myself to see how many people are lined up at the door during open-houses, and how many offers a place may get. My friends have had many failed attempts of putting in paperwork for an apartment, only to be disappointed later that someone else had snagged it out of their hands the same day. It can definitely be quite a frustrating experience, and sometimes I had the mentality of “Well, if they don’t want the money I’m throwing at them, fine. I’ll keep it. Haha”. With this type of renting market in mind, I would recommend looking for a new apartment about a month or two in advanced of when you need to move in by. It might seem like you are cutting it close, which drives anxiety, but looking too far in advanced will also come with a lot of disappointment since a good deal will usually not last for months without someone else getting to it first. If you are looking for roommates to move-in with and need to find people, I suggest asking around and looking at roommate matching sites (will go in a later section below) about 3-4 months in advanced, since people will normally have a decent idea of when they will need or want to move by.
Determine Your Budget
Ah, money. It’s hard to ignore this factor when considering where to move, and it hurts my heart even more because living in New York City really does not let you stretch your money too far. After all, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. If you can make it here, you can pretty much make it anywhere. In one of our recent posts, I talked about why I decided to “live at home” for 6 months prior to renting my own apartment, and that was to basically save up money to be comfortable enough to make that move. The “rule” that I have always heard growing up was the 50/30/20 rule where 30% of your income should go toward housing, 20% into savings, and the remaining 50% for everything else, including food, entertainment, and other daily living expenses. Everyone has different needs, and this by no means is a hard and fast rule about what you should be doing with your money. I just find that it definitely helps to have this guideline since I find that it naturally fell in line with my current financial situation. Given that I had some time to cut out the high housing costs for a few months, my percentages we strikingly different for a while, which I definitely appreciate looking back. When considering how much you can afford for an apartment, multiply your income after taxes by .3, and then divide that number by 12, and that number is what many would consider to be the absolute limit you should be paying monthly on your housing. At the end of the day, you still want to comfortably afford every day expenses without going into debt, so don’t pour too much into housing if that means you will be sitting at home with no furniture or going into starvation to pay for rent.
There are also many miscellaneous costs that go into rent, and adjusting for these “extras” will fare you well if you factor them into your calculations. Everything from brokers fees if you are newly apartment hunting (can be up to 15% of your yearly rent!), utilities including water, gas, electricity cable and WiFi, and other costs of moving out like the furniture and décor you otherwise would not have bought, and even laundry if you move into a place that doesn’t have in-unit machines, all add up and need to be fairly considered. Look at apartments from the low-end to the high-end of your budget to get a gage of what a certain amount of money can get you in different neighborhoods!
Ranking Your Priorities
Some of the biggest pieces of advice that brokers and friends have given me over the past couple of months is to prioritize my wants and needs and to be willing to compromise. Over the course of my search and from countless in-person visits, I never really found the “perfect” apartment in my price range. 5th floor walk-ups, weird layouts, no living room, bedrooms the size of shoe boxes, too far East for the subway - You name it, I saw it, and I was incredibly turned off that my con list easily outgrew the pros. But I knew that if I wasn’t willing to compromise on price, I had to lower my expectations, and remind myself that wherever I lived, it was only going to be temporary. For me, my biggest priorities were close proximity to the subway, since a large reason why I moved was to have a shorter commute to work, and to have a cute, livable space with an awesome roommate. Everything else, I was willing to compromise with. I don’t have the biggest bedroom, laundry is not in the building, and I definitely don’t have that dream walk-in closet, but I now live in one of my favorite neighborhoods, am less than a block away from the train, and have a roommate I can see myself become the best of friends with. So I am super happy with my choice, and that is because I focus more on what I do have versus what I don’t have (life philosophy here, am I right?)
Need a Roommate?
Many people in NYC live with roommates simply because it’s one of the more affordable ways to live here without going broke. Not having a roommate to apartment hunt with adds in another layer of work, since finding somebody to live with is not the easiest process, especially if you are on a time crunch. The first way to go about this is to ask around your friend circles. The topic that you are looking to move will probably naturally arise in casual conversation, so letting people you know know that you are on the lookout is the most conventional way people find their roommates. Friends, co-workers, family, etc. You’d be surprised how many people you can reach by this method alone. If you really want to, reach out on Facebook via your status, or post in large housing groups like Gypsy Housing to let people know you are looking for someone to apartment hunt with or someone that has an existing room and needs to find someone to sublease or take over their roommates’ lease.
I tried a couple of different methods, and I think it’s valuable for me to talk about them since it took some trial and error before I found the perfect roommate!
Symbi: Symbi is one of the most popular roommate matching websites for finding housing in NYC. It’s extremely user friendly, and you can create a profile in less than 10 minutes detailing what you are looking for (a room or a roommate to apartment hunt with), price range, neighborhoods, etc. You then can filter through the criteria and find users who fit the criteria. Rate them from 1-5 stars, and the highest rated profiles will go into a personal list so you can message everyone all in one inbox. Alternatively, you can also message people right from their profile page if you are more eager to write and get a response more quickly. Think of it as a dating profile, where you basically try to sell yourself by adding a non-creepy photo and a cool description of who you are so people will reach out to you or respond if they like what they read. I would say that I usually have about a 40% response rate to the people I do message, which is understandable given how quickly the renting market moves here. I initially found someone to apartment hunt with in January, but that fell through after we saw a few places, and she decided not to move anymore. I also saw 2 other apartments with girls who were trying to sublease their own room or another room in their apartment, but neither gave me that “feeling” I knew I would have when I saw the right apartment.
Diggz: Diggz is very similar to Symbi in terms of being able to filter through available rooms and potential roommates. I would say the only main difference is that Diggz uses a liking system, where both parties have to mutually like each other before any messages can be sent. I wasn't as frequent of a user on this site as I was for Symbi, but I would say it definitely is a helpful tool.
Gypsy Housing: Facebook is one of the biggest marketplaces for apartment listings, and there are many different groups that you can join to find apartments that fit any budget and need. I joined a group that had over 160,000 members, so you can just imagine the sheer number of posts and listings that go up everyday. Great deals go quickly, so don't be surprised if you see an apartment listing with over 50+ interested messages to the poster. However, if you are persistent enough and refresh often, you may just find yourself a one-of-a-kind gem. I personally ended up finding my perfect apartment on Gypsy Housing when my roommate posted that she was looking for someone else to fill the second room of her newly leased 2-bedroom space. Similarly, you can find postings on Craigslist, which my cousin found to be super helpful, but I would definitely be a bit cautious using this method!
Finding a New Apartment
I was the first out of my friends to move to New York this past summer, which meant I didn't have many people to seek advice from for apartment hunting. I felt extremely overwhelmed and had about 100 questions running through my brain everyday. I initially started the process with a broker who showed me a couple of apartments that fell within my budget, but I quickly realized that having a broker was unnecessary since there were so many sites like Naked Apartments, Zillow and my personal favorite, Street Easy, that make the apartment hunting process pretty simple. I used the filtering tool to focus on my priorities and to weed out any apartments that didn't check my must-have boxes. Honestly, since I didn't have unlimited funds to spend each month on rent, I understood that I had to be realistic about my expectations, so I remained pretty flexible with my location and size of the apartment. I mainly filtered by price (only show me apartments that were under my budget), location (within Manhattan), and broker fee (no - fee apartments). Street Easy also gives you the option to view any open houses coming up, which is a feature that I heavily used. Since the apartment hunting process moves quite quickly here in New York City, I started to seriously look 1 month before my anticipated move-in date which was in July. I made 3-4 trips into the city during the weekends and visited about 4-6 apartments each trip. It is definitely a good idea to remain flexible and see plenty of apartments in all different neighborhoods in order to get an idea of what the pricing is like in each neighborhood and what neighborhood you can see yourself living in. Since I am not much of a bar crawler, I didn't mind trading in the better "nightlife scene" for more space and cheaper rent. I found myself being drawn to the quieter and more residential areas in NYC, so after a month long process, I ultimately settled myself down in a cozy studio apartment near Central Park and a few museums!
Living in New York has been one of the most wonderful experiences, and we have definitely been able to explore it together and capture this city in photos for Penny & Dash. We hope these tips are helpful for you, and if you are on the apartment hunt, best of luck, and always go with your gut!
Jess & Mel