How to Find an Apartment in New York

And not want to scream the entire time...

Congrats! You got your first big boy job in New York. You grew up and went to school in the Midwest and you’re excited about the big move after graduation. New York is such a large city with so many potential apartments, how hard could it be to find one you like?

Hard. Way harder than you’d think.

I’m writing this to serve as some documentation to how we (Molly, my S/O, and I) found our apartment and to provide guidance to anyone looking to do the same. We’re not professionals, so take it all with a grain of salt.

Outline for today:

  1. Finding a Neighborhood
  2. Finding Apartments
  3. Seeing Apartments
  4. Preparing Documents
  5. Pulling the Trigger
  6. Signing the Lease
  7. FAQs

Finding a Neighborhood

If you think you’re going to be able to plan out your apartment search in advance, fugget about it. Apartments in New York are listed pretty much as soon as they’re available for move in. Check any apartment search engine for New York and you’ll see that most things listed are available immediately, or at the start of the next month.

Since it’s impossible to find anything way ahead of time, in the months before figure out what neighborhoods you’d like to live in. Do you want to be in the action of Manhattan? Or would a bigger place in Queens be more your style? If possible, go out and visit these areas and neighborhoods ahead of time. That way when it’s time to find a place, you can narrow in quicker.

For us, we knew we wanted to focus on Manhattan. We were willing to pay to be close to the action. Specifically, we planned on looking in the Upper West Side, Lower East Side, and East Village.

Finding Apartments

Once you’ve got your neighborhoods in mind, it’s time to start actually looking online at apartments. We used Streeteasy as recommended by our New York friends. They said it’s more up to date than Zillow or Trulia. Create a search for your prospective neighborhoods and favorite the apartments you’d like to see in person. Cast a wide net here and don’t fall in love with anything yet, you’ll only get your heart broken.

Keep your search to under 40x your yearly income:

Rent * 40 <= yearly pre-tax income.

Since this list of favorite apartments is binary (either you liked or did not), it’s hard to do any ranking within the app. Create a Google Sheet and add in some details.

Our apartment sheet

Our apartment sheet

We included the contact person of the apartment, the price, the neighborhood, our ranking, the “value” (price / rank), and a link back to the listing. If you’re looking at multiple neighborhoods, split up the days you look at them. You are not going to want to go back and forth from the East Village to the Upper West Side…

Scheduling Showings

So at this point you should…

Now it’s time to reach out to realtors to see the places in person. Pick up the phone and call. Prepare a little speech ahead of time if you hate cold calling as much as I do:

Hi [realtor], Iā€™m Rhyne how are you doing today?

I saw that you had listed an apartment on [address] in the [neighborhood]. Is it available for a June 1st move in?

I really liked the place and was hoping to be able to see it in person. Are you available this [date/time] for a showing?

Please let me know at [phone number].

Thanks! And hope to talk soon.

Some might ask you to follow up in an email with more details on your search parameters (budget, area, pets). After the initial contact, every future communication will likely be done through text.

Preparing Documents

Once you have some showings lined up, take some time to get your documents ready. For most places you’ll need:

  • Most recent tax return (first two pages)
  • Job offer letter
  • Last two bank statements (must show your name, bank’s name, and account number)
  • Last two pay stubs
  • Photo ID

This can be different from place to place.

Make sure you have a bank that has a branch in New York! Most places require deposits to be made with cashier’s checks, which can only be issued at a bank you bank with in a physical branch. We almost got screwed on this one…

Seeing Apartments

Now that you’re in New York, go see the apartments where you’ve set up appointments! Feel free to continue to reach out to people throughout the time you’re in town. Things move quick and apartments you’ve wanted to see may no longer be available, and new ones might have popped up overnight.

Come up with a list of questions to ask everywhere. This is something that we did not do, but should have. Save it to your phone so you don’t forget to ask anything.

  • Is it pet friendly?
  • How is rent paid?
  • When is it available to move in?
  • Is there laundry in the building?
  • What utilities are included in rent?
  • etc.

Since you’ll be seeing many apartments every day, take a video walk through of every one you visit. After a while, every place starts to look the same in your brain, so this will help you jog your memory when it comes to decision time.

Pulling the Trigger

Where we ended up

Where we ended up

Once you find a place you love, act fast!! The realtor will require an application and a cashier’s check for first month’s rent plus the application fee (about $100 to run a background/credit check) as a “good faith” deposit. This goes toward the broker’s fee. Once you have the application and deposit in, no one can swoop in and take the apartment from you. However, if you don’t have a full application submitted (still waiting on a paystub), someone can still get in their application ahead of you. It’s a cruel world, and that’s why it’s so important to have those documents prepared ahead of time.

For us, we wanted to put in an application at an apartment, but someone had beat us to the punch by like ten minutes. We got incredibly lucky that there was another great unit in the building. But holy crap it was heartbreaking for a few minutes.

You’ll usually hear back if your application is approved or denied that same day or the next. If you’re approved, fantastic! If not, you can usually still reapply with a guarantor. If you don’t reapply, your deposit minus application fees is refundable.

Signing the Lease

Now it’s time to sign your life away and hand over more money. You’ll typically give the first month’s rent, a security deposit (equal to a month’s rent), and the remaining amount of the broker’s fee. This was three separate checks for us. The signing is usually done at the realtor’s office or in the office of the building you’ll be moving in to.

But now it’s done. You have a place in New York and can shift your attention to other matters. Like packing and moving… YAY!


What is the broker’s fee?
This is a fee you pay to the broker and agency for showing you the apartment and handling paperwork. It can range anywhere from 1 month’s rent to 15% of the first year’s rent. For us it was 10% of the first month’s rent. Ouch.
Are there no fee apartments?
Yes, but they are not super common. Especially places we were looking at that were pet friendly.
How much is the security deposit?
It varies, but for us it was just one month’s rent. Sometimes it will be two if your credit is not great.
What credit score is typically needed?
We heard a range of numbers, but it sounded like 660 or higher was about the norm to not need a guarantor.
How much did you have to put down initially?
The broker’s fee of 10% yearly rent, the security deposit of one month’s rent, and first month’s rent. Walking around with this much money was not fun.
How did you pay for everything?
Cashier’s checks were required for everything. For these, you need to go to a branch of your bank and ask for one. They usually cost $5 - $10 per check. This is why you need to have a bank that has a branch in New York, otherwise you’ll have to wait for one to come in the mail.
What documents do I need with the application
Again, it was different for everywhere but these were the most common items: most recent tax return (first two pages), job offer letter, last two bank statements (must show your name, bank’s name, and account number), last two pay stubs, and a photo ID.
What about the process of moving in?
That write up will come soon enough :)

Thanks for reading and please reach out via email if I can help with any questions!