Welcome to hell. Every big city in the United States claims to have a difficult housing market, as does almost every big city in the world, but New York City is in its own league. It’s all a matter of supply and demand of course, but the demand keeps rising almost exponentially and the supply is artificially choked off by arcane housing laws and their unintended consequences.
If your company is paying for your apartment
You are incredibly lucky. There are services that rent furnished short-term apartments, and other agencies that rent out long-term unfurnished apartments for executive types. Already outrageous prices are even more outrageous going through these routes, but if it’s not your money then what do you care?
Short-term furnished rentals
The good news is these are pretty easy to find. Check out Craigslist under the Sublets/Temporary section and you’ll find many from which to choose. The bad news is that they are almost always outrageously priced. There seems to be trend in recent years where New York City apartment renters go on vacation themselves and try to pay for every last part of it by renting their apartment out for the random days they’ll be gone. It doesn’t appear that many people are actually successful at subletting their places like this, because the ads rarely drop off, but that doesn’t stop people trying.
People usually try to charge over $100 per night for their apartments, which is obviously cheaper than most hotels, but who wants to stay in someone’s cramped apartment located on a weird block in an inconvenient area, and then have no hotel services? If you are looking for such an arrangement, places are always available, but you have the added problem of having to arrange payment and commit to something without seeing it first.
Finding a good deal because you’ll be paying yourself
This is impossible, at least until you realize what constitutes a good deal for a New York City apartment these days. Do you want to live in Manhattan? Forget about it. It’s too late, at least to live on your own. And by Manhattan we are talking about everything below Harlem. If you are going to live in Harlem or the neighborhoods north of there, you should also consider the outer boroughs because many neighborhoods there are much more conveniently located than these far-north areas on Manhattan.
Here are some MINIMUM prices in Manhattan:
Small studio (300 square feet or so) $1,500/month and up
Small 1-bedroom (500 square feet or so) $2,000/month and up
Small 2-bedroom (700 square feet or so) $2,500/month and up
And if you found one of these, chances are it would be in a weird neighborhood and/or at the top of a dilapidated 6th floor walk-up and/or overlooking a busy street. The sad fact is that today Manhattan apartments are out of the price range for all but the trust-fund set.
Okay, if not Manhattan, then where?
This is the good news. Since Manhattan has been so out of control for so long, there are some really cool neighborhoods in the other boroughs. The decision of which neighborhood to look into has everything to do with your lifestyle and where you’ll work. Most companies where most of the men wear suits are 34th Street and above, while most companies with “creative” types are south of 34th Street. Wall Street is a major exception to this rule though, otherwise most free spirits are Downtown and most others are Midtown or Uptown.
If you are a Downtown type person you’ll first want to look in Brooklyn. Williamsburg is the closest neighborhood to Manhattan, and it’s actually become so popular that rents there are almost up to Manhattan levels anyway. East Williamsburg is what they like to call the sketchy yet upcoming neighborhoods east of the cool part, and that’s probably a good place to get a decent deal at this point.
Park Slope is closer to the center of Brooklyn, and has gotten quite nice. Apartments there aren’t cheap, but at least they are not tiny and falling apart like in many other neighborhoods.
If you are a Midtown/Uptown type person you should look in Astoria and Long Island City, which are the neighborhoods just across the East River from Midtown and the Upper East Side. The cool factor is much lower here, but apartments are usually decent sizes and rents tend to be lower than in the trendy parts of Brooklyn.
Where to begin looking?
Here is a bit more good news, the New York City apartment scene has so embraced Craigslist that there is little need to look elsewhere. Craigslist, if you haven’t heard of it, is a website with classified ads and nothing else, and is spreading around the world more each year. The self-policing features of Craigslist make it an excellent place for honest, reliable listings, which can be viewed for free.
But this still doesn’t mean you can find an apartment in your price range on the thing, or that the one place you just saw that seems like a decent deal will still actually be available when you get there in an hour. This is the really tricky part of finding New York City apartments, any place that is even a borderline good deal will be swamped with apartment hunters within an hour or two. Sometimes agencies list their one good deal and leave the listing up for a while so 100 other people will call about it and they can try to steer them into places that still are actually available.
This sounds terrible, is that all the bad news?
No, unfortunately there is one other big piece of bad news coming. Due to the awesome demand for anything approaching affordable, most landlords list their vacant apartments with rental agencies. This way the agency charges a fee to find a tenant, and the landlord only has to deal with one or two people. The agency fee is up to 15% of annual rent for places in Manhattan, but usually 10% of annual rent or hopefully 1-month’s rent if you are doing well.
So in order to move in you’ll need your first month’s rent, sometimes your last month’s rent, always a deposit equally a month’s rent, and usually a agency fee of at least one month’s rent. If you just concentrate on “no fee apartments” your choices are far more limited and your competition is far greater.
Other strategies to consider
Sharing apartments is very common in New York City, and you can see why. The strange thing is often you’ll have groups of young people sharing apartments in barbaric ways. Having 4 single people sharing a small 2-bedroom is not uncommon, especially for those who still insist on moving to Manhattan. There is no shame in having roommates in New York City, and it’s a good strategy to get a foothold while you hopefully climb up the pay ladder or luck into something better.