It’s possible! You can find a livable, affordable apartment in New York City. The city’s full of young people getting their feet on the ground, so you have lots of company. This means plenty of competition, so start looking a month in advance, or earlier if you can. But it also means plenty of peers to commiserate with when you hit bumps in the process or need insider advice.
Since New York’s largely a city of renters, there’s always apartment turnover. As eager as you are to find a place, someone out there is equally eager to rent to you. It’s just a matter of finding a match.
Know what you can afford to pay in rent
Yeah, it’s high. Most likely, rent will be your biggest expense. A summer 2015 survey by real estate site Zumper put the average one-bedroom monthly rent at $3,100. Of course, that factors in some of the priciest Manhattan neighborhoods where nobody you know will live. You’ll pay less in Queens’ popular Astoria neighborhood ($2,100) or Brooklyn’s historic Borough Park ($1,825). And two years ago, I paid $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.
Even cheaper neighborhoods are out there. Here’s a guide to a few of the more cost-friendly places to live in NYC, where someone making the median salary of $52,259 can spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent in a studio apartment. Spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing and you’re “rent-burdened,” according to NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration.
If you’re in the rent-burdened group, you’re certainly not alone in the pricey Big Apple. Most young professionals are right there with you. New York City is taking measures to create affordable housing for middle-to-low-income residents. For now, it’s helpful to think of that 30 percent guideline when deciding what you can afford.
Pro tip: The further you get from downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, the better your odds are of finding quality, reasonably priced housing. Neighborhoods further from the city center, but still accessible via subway, offer the best deals. You can also do what many New Yorkers of all ages do—live with roommates to cut costs.
How much of your income will you be spending on rent? Many landlords require you to earn more than 40 or 50 times the rent to be eligible. For instance, on a $32,000 salary, the most rent you could afford in this equation is $800 a month. Which is doable in New York! You probably won’t be living alone, and you may have a long subway or bus commute. But there are decent rooms for under $1,000 in the outer boroughs and even some pockets of Manhattan.
There’s also the option of subsidized housing if your income’s below the area median (think between $25,000-31,000 yearly for an individual, slightly more for a couple’s combined annual income). Subsidized housing developments have long waiting lists, so act quickly and be prepared with a short-term plan in the meantime.
Know your boroughs
If you’re an NYC newbie, the different boroughs may confuse you at first. Any borough other than Manhattan is an “outer borough.” The subway goes almost everywhere, and the stretches where it doesn’t reach usually have a reliable bus or two. You’ll catch on quickly—get a subway map and start exploring! StreetEasy has a guide to neighborhoods for more in-depth information.
The center of it all. This is the priciest borough, but it does have a few bargains, although you’ll sacrifice space. If you can store compactly (or just don’t have lots of stuff) and don’t mind close quarters with an apartment-mate, Manhattan’s convenient and full of activity.
Best-deal neighborhoods: Alphabet City, Central Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood
Manhattan’s neighbor to the east, this borough is where many young professionals end up living. Busy, retail-dense neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Park Slope have skyrocketed in price to almost Manhattan-level rates. As affordable housing spreads eastward, Williamsburg-adjacent Bushwick is the next hip housing center, and prices are rising accordingly. Don’t worry, Brooklyn has plenty of space to spare.
Best-deal neighborhoods: Flatbush, Bay Ridge, Sheepshead Bay, Dyker Heights, Gravesend, Midwood, Bensonhurst, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Diverse and lively Queens is becoming a more desirable housing spot, but you can still find affordable rent. Queens has been less “cool” in the popular imagination than Brooklyn for years; as a result, transplants to Queens get great housing without the cost and hype. It’s a well-kept secret, but not for long.
Best-deal neighborhoods: Jamaica, Elmhurst, Flushing, Corona, Kew Gardens, Bayside
Further from midtown hubs, the Bronx makes up for its distant location with some of the city’s lowest rents. The Bronx also has spacious parks, good restaurants, a few universities, and attractions like Yankee Stadium and the New York Botanical Gardens.
Best-deal neighborhoods: Mott Haven, Spuyten-Duyvil, Fordham, Highbridge, Parkchester, University Heights
Pro: decent prices, lots of room, and a more suburban feel near the bustle of the city. Con: a (short) ferry’s ride away from Manhattan, unless you’re driving, and its own separate subway line. (The ferry operates, like the subway, 24 hours a day.) Many New Yorkers do live in – and commute from – this lesser-known borough. If you’re looking to buy a home or condo while still living in NYC, Staten Island’s a good bet.
Best-deal neighborhoods: New Dorp, St. George, Huguenot, West Brighton, Bay Terrace
Okay, it’s not technically New York City. But plenty of NYC workers and students live in tri-state area Jersey neighborhoods for the moderate rents and the breathing room. New Jersey’s PATH train goes right to lower Manhattan, so you’ll be close by. Car optional.
Best-deal neighborhoods: Hoboken and Jersey City on the PATH line; Westwood, Montclair, Union City further from NYC
A note on the subway: Unlike some cities, NYC’s subway system doesn’t charge more for a longer commute. A subway fare gets you a ride for as long as you need one, including multiple transfers. Greater distance will cost you in subway-waiting time, however. And a PATH train to New Jersey adds an additional fare.
The apartment search—seven good sites
You don’t need to be super picky; it’s a seller’s market. But you should have some idea of what you’re looking for. Make a list of priorities, including the upper limit of what you’re able to spend in rent. Remember, utilities often won’t be included in rent prices. Options will be more limited if you have pets or need accessibility (New York’s a city of walk-ups) but still out there. Likewise if you’re bringing kids or need parking for a car.
Most of the sites below allow you to enter specific criteria. You don’t necessarily need to go through a broker, although many people do (more about brokers later).
- Zumper is a user-friendly site that expands into outer boroughs. When you’re ready to apply for an apartment, Zumper lets you use an Experian credit report for multiple applications.
- StreetEasy is one of the most reputable sites in the game. You can search for no-fee apartments, connect to landlords, and, in some cases, learn more about the building itself. StreetEasy listings tend to be on the pricey end.
- The Listings Project is an e-mail listserv with fresh info on listed apartments each week—around 300 listings weekly. It’s free to sign up, and only lists no-fee apartments.
- RentHop lists apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Each apartment gets a “HopScore” based on value and up-to-date info. The site’s also diligent about keeping out scammers.
- PadMapper shows available apartments based on entered criteria. The site has a wide geographical reach, which is a bonus.
- Naked Apartments has lots of listings, all verified and many budget-friendly. It’s a favorite of many NYC housing hunters.
- Craigslist needs no introduction. Since anyone can post, Craigslist comes with risk – here’s a list of scams to watch out for, on this or any site. But you can find great deals here, too, and there’s always plenty to choose from.
I found all three of my NYC apartments on Craigslist, believe it or not. An NYC insider told me to look for postings with lots of info and a friendly voice—someone who sounded like a person I’d want to live with. Though the places themselves varied in quality, the people were always trustworthy and the prices within budget.
The apartment search—on the ground
Should you go through a broker?
If you have money up front, a middleman does relieve some stress. NYC brokers can find you deals you wouldn’t be able to find yourself. But they charge fees—usually 15 percent of a year’s rent, though you can occasionally negotiate. Here’s more info on the pros and cons of using a broker.
Should you sublet?
Subletting’s a popular option—renting a room without adding your name to the lease. I lived in NYC as a subletter, and there were some advantages.
I didn’t have to hunt for nearly as long or jump through as many hoops as a lease-holder would have. After the first year I could rent month-to-month, which added flexibility in case my circumstances changed. The biggest downside? The lease-holder could ask me to leave for any reason at any time.
Should you use a guarantor?
A guarantor is someone who will pay the rent if you’re ever unable to come up with the full amount. Some landlords will require a guarantor if you make below a certain salary, and often the guarantor will need to make as much as 80 times the monthly rent.
A parent, other trusted relative or friend, or anyone who’s willing to vouch for your rent-paying prowess and possibly help you in a tight spot can be a guarantor. Consider this option if you’ve found an affordable place but have less than stellar credit or a low income. Remember the guarantor’s on the hook, too, similar to a co-signer on a loan.
Should you live with a friend?
A built-in searching buddy does make the search easier on morale, and adds to safety and security. But for those moving solo, it’s not always an option. And, of course, a roommate dynamic is different than a friendship—shared responsibilities can strain any relationship.
Often, NYC renters do end up rooming with strangers. I did. When I searched, I kept an eye out for people around my age who shared my interests and values. Sometimes they became friends—and sometimes we were so busy we barely saw each other. That’s more common than you think.
Follow this to-do list to avoid scams and unexpected surprises
Whether you use a broker or go it alone, make sure to do the following:
Look the apartment’s address up online
Before you visit! Google Street View should show you if the location’s legit. Address Report will give you more info about the neighborhood.
Come prepared to the viewing
Have a W-2, an employment letter, pay stubs, information for references, information for a guarantor if necessary—anything a landlord might request. E-mail the documents to yourself to have them on hand. You’ll need money for the first month and a one-month security deposit. Cash or a bank-certified check is ideal.
Ask about pests
The high density of NYC housing means roaches, mice, and bedbugs get into the nicest, most well-intentioned places. Look in the cabinets, especially under the sink. The landlord should tell you if the apartment’s been treated for bedbugs within the last year.
Return to the neighborhood at night
If you’re visiting during the day, you won’t get the full picture. Come back after dark to assess noise levels and the general vibe. The NYPD provides crime statistics for NYC neighborhoods—be aware, but don’t be paranoid. Ask acquaintances or friends familiar with the neighborhood for their take on whether or not it’s a good place to live.
For a trustworthy tenant with the ability to make rent, some landlords or subletters will knock a little off the price. Request a number lower than what you’re able to pay—for instance, $2,000 if you’re willing to pay $2,100. The landlord may meet you in the middle.
Look for these essentials:
- Walking distance to a subway stop. Even if you plan to bike, you’ll want subway access in case of inclement weather or late-night sojourns. Some more distant (possibly cheaper!) neighborhoods will have a bus that goes to the subway—this is less ideal, but it can work, particularly if you don’t ride the subway that often.
- Proximity to grocery stores and laundry facilities. If the building doesn’t have laundry, see if you’re walking distance from a laundromat.
- Proximity to taxi services. You probably won’t be going everywhere in yellow cabs like the New Yorkers in movies. But you’ll want to be able to get the occasional Uber, Lyft, Via, or other service to your location. Subways and buses run less frequently late at night.
Be willing to explore different neighborhoods. Almost every neighborhood in NYC has some sort of internet presence – a blog or a chronicle of residents’ experiences. Read, search, and learn about your new home. NYC also has real estate sites with insider advice. Brick Underground and Curbed are two of my favorites.
Have fun! Amid all the stress, NYC has an energy unlike any other city. The apartment search can be a great way to learn what the city has to offer. I traveled to more NYC locations in my own search than I did before or since. And after the dust has settled, the experience will bring you closer to having the bona fides of a “real” New Yorker.