First, make sure you gather all of the documentation that the landlord will most likely require. Great New York City apartments at great prices are NOT a dime a dozen, and they disappear in a flash. The last thing you want to do is scramble for things like W-2’s and references when time is of the essence. While you stroll out the door and promise to be back at 2pm with your paperwork, someone else has already secured the apartment at 1pm. Even if a potential landlord or real estate agent promises to “hold” the apartment for you. Unless you’ve signed a contract, they’re under no obligation to do so. Let your agent know about any potential red flags like a marred credit history ahead of time so that there are no nasty surprises at the last minute.
The documentation that you’ll be required to supply will most likely include two pay stubs, several months worth of bank statements, previous landlord contact information, and your tax returns. If you’re moving into a rental in a co-op, you may even be asked to include some sort of verification of your assets like real estate, any securities, investments, etc.
If you’re moving to NYC from out of town, please do your research. Unless you’re moving from high priced cities like London, Paris or San Francisco, prices for NYC rentals are astronomical compared to what you're probably used to. To give you an idea of where prices stand in 2011, The Real Estate Group NY is a brokerage firm that tracts average apartment rental prices in NYC on a monthly basis. One of their most recent surveys concluded that the average rent on a studio apartment in a doorman building in NYC is $2529, which is 12% higher than the average price a year ago. Non-doorman studios averaged out at $2143. A two-bedroom doorman rental averaged out at $5361 while non-doorman two-bedrooms on average went for $3853. In other words, bring a big checkbook.
But these prices are not the worst of it. In NYC, you have to pay upfront fees in order to move into your apartment. This usually includes first and last month’s rent, security deposit (usually one month’s rent), a broker’s fee if you used an agent (usually 15% of the yearly rent), and a credit check fee if you don’t bring your own credit report. In other words, it can easily cost you over $10k to move into a $2500 per month apartment. Knowing this ahead of time can save you lots of despair. And if that weren’t enough, most landlords won’t even look at an applicant that doesn’t make a yearly income of 40x the monthly rent. That means for a $2k per month apartment, you’d need to make $80k per year. You may have to get a guarantor (who needs to make 80x yearly rent), or look for a roommate. There are landlords that will accept the combined rent of two or more roommates for the 40x requirement, but others may still require a guarantor.
Research the neighborhood that you’d like to move into. Each neighborhood has its own distinct feel and price range. If Manhattan prices are too high, consider checking into one of the other boroughs. Brooklyn has become an extraordinarily popular borough for people either fleeing Manhattan prices or looking for neighborhoods with a different look and feel. The downside is that many neighborhoods in Brooklyn now rival their Manhattan counterparts in terms of price. Do your research by visiting websites devoted to NYC real estate. One website that is extremely popular with people looking for apartments is www.streeteasy.com. Not only can you find a huge database of apartments for rent, but you can also follow real estate trends and get up-to-date, one-on-one information from people on the hugely popular (and sometimes contentious!) forums. Curbed NY at www.ny.curbed.com is another great site to visit to find out information on individual neighborhoods and rental trends. If you’re planning on looking at Brooklyn, check out www.brownstoner.com for up to date information on Brooklyn's real estate scene. You can also look at www.craigslist.com in the rental section. There’s a section that lists no-fee apartments, so that may allow you to save on some of your upfront costs.
Keep your expectations realistic. Know that what you see in pictures is often not what you’ll see in reality. Many “one-bedrooms” are actually studios with walls that have been put in place to create a separate bedroom. The pictures in the ads that you find online may actually be ones taken from more expensive apartments in the building, or not even from the building at all.