“I’m moving to New York City; how do I get a decent apartment?” — An Adventure in Misery

Lots of people have asked me for help in moving to New York City. Here’s how it works.


Step One: Look at a ton of misleading apartments on the internet (ongoing)

There are about infinity different resources to look for housing in New York. You’ll see lots of apartments claim to simultaneously be decent, and affordable, and available. This will give you hope. Expect this hope to be crushed brutally in no time.

You’ll be revisiting this step often during the process and we’ll investigate it more closely a bit later on.


Step Two: Learn about broker fees

A broker’s fee is this special fun bonus (one of several) unique to New York City housing.

Here’s what happens: When you get an apartment through an agent, they charge you an additional 15% of your (already ungodly) first year’s rent. And you have to pay it up front in cash or government check or gold bullion or something. And you also have to pay a $100 fee for your background check (because I guess if you can afford NYC housing, there’s a good chance you’re a criminal). AND you have to pay a $100-$150 non-refundable application fee just for the right to be considered for the apartment.

I’m sure there’s other creative terms for “fuck you, I don’t care, pay me” that brokers might invoke on you which I am forgetting.

Optional bonus reading: Why do broker’s fees exist?

Basically, it’s because the vacancy rate — that is, the percentage of housing available on the open market at any time — is preposterously low in New York. Guess how low it is.

Did you guess 5%? That’s not a bad guess.

Did you know that the national average vacancy rate is 7% according to the census? 5% is a little worse but pretty close to that.

Turns out you were actually incredibly wrong about 5%, though. It’s actually 1.64% in Manhattan. You might also think of it this way: The average apartment in New York is sold off the market in less than six days. That 1.64% figure includes the apartments which are somehow so small — and up so many flights of stairs while still paradoxically smelling so strongly of the Vietnamese restaurant at the ground floor — that they’re permanently stuck on the open market and drive the nominal rate up. So the effective vacancy rate is probably even lower than 1.64%.

If you really care about background info, there’s some sound logic suggesting that the reason for this low availability is because extremely wealthy people are just buying up NYC apartments as weird loophole personal investments and tax shelters. It’s not so much that they’re hogging housing, but more that they’re incentivizing architects to build luxury apartment-mansions instead of decent respectable apartments to be used by normal people.

Alternatively, if you’re the sort of person who feels more intimidated by technology than by 1%-ers, you might like to buy into the theory that vacancy situation is entirely Airbnb’s fault.

Step Three: Declare publicly that you’re not going to pay a broker’s fee

It’s important that you announce to your friends that you’re going to get a no-fee apartment. This makes you sound like you know what you’re doing.

(Generally, a “no-fee” apartment will just spread the cost of the fee throughout the year by having higher rent. But still, you sound like you know what you’re doing.)

Steps Four through Six: Give the misleading online apartment search another shot

Step Seven: Realize you can’t afford any of this dear god how do people even live in this city

Step Eight: Naturally, start thinking about a bigger apartment

Maybe you can save some money by splitting rent on a 3br instead of getting yourself a tiny 1-br or studio?

You might try asking some of your friends currently in NY to vacate their current leases and move in with you. This is futile.

Everyone who currently has an apartment in NY is irreparably psychologically scarred from their move-in experience and they sure as hell don’t want to re-open that wound just for your convenience.

But I hope you briefly enjoyed living in this daydream fantasy.


Step Nine: Cross off every item on this list of misleading apartment listing gambits

The “hee hee, we’re a no-fee apartment!” schtick was just the first of your worries. Here’s a more comprehensive list of what you can expect:

  • The apartment that claims it’s “no-fee” but winds up being just as expensive as everything else
  • The photo of this apartment was clearly a photo of an entirely different, much nicer apartment
  • The apartment you were looking at in the listing is “no longer on the market,” I’m so sorry, but hey, while you’re on the line, why don’t you come take a look at this other apartment which is simultaneously way worse and way more expensive
  • The apartment purportedly has 170 other people looking at today and you’ll never find anything else like it and it’ll surely be gone forever by the end of this sentence so you better take out your checkbook right this second and make a big, rash, expensive decision or else
  • The apartment’s only toilet is in the middle of the living room
  • The apartment’s only toilet is on the ceiling
  • There is either a loud mating ritual or a discombobulated percussion instrumentalist perpetually performing inside of the radiator
  • The apartment comes with a 73-year old person and their 173-year old cat
  • The apartment comes with free pungent Vietnamese restaurant smells at all hours
  • The apartment is actually inside the engine of a firetruck whose horn is blaring constantly
  • The apartment is actually an RV made in Mexico where it’s always raining inside
  • I could go on for hours here
achewood rays RV rain

(please read Achewood)


My favorite gambit gets a step all to itself.


Step Ten: Learn about walls

Inevitably this happens: Someone is going to show you a misleading internet apartment, claim it’s a 3-bedroom, and you show up and they explain something like “This is just a 1-bedroom now, but once you put in some walls, it can go up to three, even 17 bedrooms!”

Did you just think you were just hunting for a NYC apartment? Turns out you’re on your way to becoming  a hobbyist architect. Congratulations!

Generally, there are three kinds of fake walls you are going to learn about.

  • “Walls” which are pretty much just shower curtains
  • Walls which have to leave like a 10% gap of open space at the top without touching the ceiling
  • Walls which are the fortitude of solidified papier mache

Every apartment building in New York has different rules about which kind of fake walls you’re allowed to install. Sometimes it has something to do with requiring a window in every room. Sometimes it has to do with building code. Every time, though, the rule is that you have to put the wall in yourself — but don’t worry, it’s only going to cost you between $200 and $1,000 on top of your rent and broker’s fees and everything.

I’ve never installed a fake wall personally, but it’s not hard to imagine that this would be a nightmare to accomplish.


Step Eleven: Okay the practical guide for how you actually do it

If you haven’t blown your brains out yet, here’s your actual best shot at finding a decent place to live.

“I’m moving to New York City; how do I get a decent apartment?” — A Practical Guide

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