Apartment Search FAQ

Finding an apartment in New York City can be intimidating, but we're here to help.

Because the real estate market in New York and the surrounding areas is still quite tight, it is advisable to start your search at least one month before you wish to move.  You will need to research neighborhoods, transportation issues, apartment prices, amenities, and availability, so that when you go looking for an apartment, you will have narrowed your search and will be prepared to take an apartment. If you wait too long, the chances are that you will have very few apartments to choose from and it will be at the high end of the rent spectrum.

More people move in the spring and summer, so the availability of apartments is higher at that time. But there are many more people looking to rent.  New graduates and relocating families are just some of the folks you will meet in your search. You will also be vying for the same space as incoming housestaff, other postdocs, incoming students, and other CU and CUMC staff. When you find an apartment that meets your needs, you need to be prepared to take it at that time. If you want to see what else is out there, or want to think it over, the apartment will probably be gone.  Bring your checkbook with you so that you can give a deposit to hold the apartment. It is also a good idea to bring other information that the landlord or broker would request, like a W-2 form or a letter from your employer showing that you have an income, a guarantor's notarized letter, and a couple of forms of ID.  The landlord will do a credit check, for which you will be expected to pay a reasonable fee.

There are many factors, which will determine where you start looking. You need to determine how big an apartment you need. Are you going to live by yourself, have one or a couple of roommates, and do you all need your own separate bedrooms? There are not that many studio apartments in Washington Heights and Inwood because this neighborhood was built for families. You can often find reasonable one or two bedroom apartments and some three-bedroom apartments. Should you wish to live farther downtown, then a studio apartment would be more readily available, but prices for apartments are approximately 1/3 more than in Washington Heights. A price list for apartments both in Washington Heights and Morningside, along with broker's fees is available at the Off-Campus Housing Center.

You must decide first and foremost what are the most important things for you to have in a living space and what you can give up. Price is not the only thing that should be taken into account, but it is the primary limiting factor. If you wish to spend only $1,500 a month for a studio or one-bedroom apartment, you will automatically narrow your search to those areas that have apartments in that price range. Do you need trees and grass? Do you need space, light, height, easy transportation, a doorman, an elevator building?

Once you answer these questions, you can go onto other issues, which will affect where you look. Do you want to be able to walk to work? If not, how long of a commute are you willing to undertake? Do you need to have a car, and if so, where can you park it? In Washington Heights and Inwood, subway transportation is quite good. There is the Broadway/Fort Washington Ave "A" line, which goes from 168th street to 207th street. Since there are beautiful, big apartments in a safe, quiet neighborhood above the George Washington Bridge, you will not necessarily need a car.  If you wish to live closer to school, there are apartment buildings along Haven Avenue, Fort Washington Avenue, and west of Broadway from 165th street and higher, which have a significant population of CU people and can be rented without the use of a broker.

Once you have narrowed your search, take a walk through the neighborhood(s) you have chosen. If you see a building that appeals to you, talk to the superintendent (super) to see if there are any vacant units that you can see, and find out how much the rent is.  Talk to some of the residents to see if they like living in that building, and ask why. Look for any potential issues that might deter you from a particular building or neighborhood like lack of security, poor maintenance both for the buildings and the neighborhood as a whole, or lack of adequate transportation

The next step is to try to identify potential buildings and apartments that are available for rent. There are many ways to do this, ranging from newspapers, the Off-Campus Housing Center's bulletin board and e-mail list, word of mouth from friends and colleagues, the internet, and some real estate brokers.

Just as networking is important in finding a job, the same can be said for finding somewhere to live.  You may find the perfect apartment just by letting everyone know what you are looking for.  Many people have found success through local neighborhood newspapers, as well as the through larger, city-wide ones.  In addition, the Off-Campus Housing Center may know of people giving up their apartments, or local landlords who have apartments, which you may rent directly without broker's fees.

If you should decide to let a real estate broker find you an apartment, there are a few caveats.  A broker works for you, so you should expect him or her to take you to see housing based upon your specifications.  If there are none, or if your expectations are unrealistic, then the broker should tell you that up front. You should not pay any fee, unless or until you and a landlord sign a lease. Typical fees range from the equivalent of one month's rent up to 17% of the yearly rent.  Columbia University has a list of brokers who will often reduce their fees for CU affiliates.  Brokers are useful if you want to get a feel for a neighborhood. You are not obligated to take any housing that you are shown, but if you should come back later and rent the apartment on your own, you may still be expected to pay a broker's fee.

Make sure that you see the actual apartment that is offered for rent. If a broker or landlord says that the unit cannot be seen, but another one that is "exactly the same" is available to be shown, find out when the original apartment can be shown and wait to see it. If there is any hint of a problem, move on to another building, or even another broker.  You are not obligated to stay with one broker, or even with a broker within one firm. You need to feel comfortable with a broker and his/her real estate firm.

  1. Is there an elevator in the building? When was the last time it was inspected?
  2. If there is no elevator, are the stairs clean and well lit?
  3. Where are the laundry facilities? If they are not in the building, how close is the laundromat?
  4. Are the common areas like hallways and the lobby clean and in good repair?
  5. Is the apartment in good repair? If not, when are the repairs going to be made?
  6. Is there enough light and are the windows in good shape?
  7. Is the space big enough for my furniture, or will I have to get new furniture?
  8. What is the security setup in the building/apartment? Is there a doorman or an entry buzzer system? Are locks sturdy? Is there a fire escape and if so, are there grates on the windows?
  9. Are all major appliances (stove, refrigerator, etc.) in good working order?
  10. Are there enough outlets, and are there cable or computer hookups? If not can you put them in?
  11. Is it quiet or does the apartment face a busy, noisy street?
  12. Are all bathroom fixtures in good repair and working? Do faucets leak?
  13. Are there window treatments or are you expected to provide these?
  14. Are air conditioners in place, or are you expected to provide them if you want them? Who installs the air conditioners, and is there a charge for installation?
  15. Are utilities, other than heat and water, included?  If not, about how much do they run in the winter and the summer?
  16. Are there child guards on the window?
  17. Are pets allowed? If so, is there an extra deposit charge?
  18. Are all smoke detectors in good working order? If they are battery operated, who changes the batteries?
  19. Is this an apartment I can comfortably live in for a while, or will I need a bigger space before my lease is up? If so, can I change to another apartment in the building without penalties?

You need to budget enough to pay for the security deposit, phone/utility charges or deposits, the first (and sometimes the last) month's rent. Also factor in moving expenses, installation expenses, fees (including broker's fees and application processing fees), plus any miscellaneous expenses. You may have to buy some new furniture as well. Make a list beforehand of all out-of-pocket expenses. Then, check with the broker or management office to see if there are any additional expenses. A landlord can require a guarantor if you do not have sufficient income, and can require this guarantor to be living in New York State. A landlord can also require more than one month's rent as a security deposit, but cannot require you to pay several months' or even a year's rent up front. This is illegal, and can result in the landlord being fined by the appropriate city or state agency

Have all repairs and painting schedules put in writing. Ask how soon you can expect these to be done and if you need to wait until everything is done to move in. Remember, if it is not done beforehand, it is better to have it in writing so that there will be no misunderstanding later.  If you have your own appliances and want to have the others removed, check to see if this is permitted. Who will remove them? Where will they be stored? Is there a charge for this?  Remember, when you leave the apartment, you need to have the appliances put back or you can leave your working appliances there with your landlord's permission.

When is the rent due, and to whom?  Will a bill be sent to me every month? If a bill is usually sent, and you do not receive it in a timely fashion, you are still responsible for paying your rent on time. Are there penalties for late payment of rent?

Is the apartment rent controlled, rent stabilized, or market rent? A rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment can only receive rent increases according to what is set by the Rent Stabilization Board, and are usually percentages. If an apartment is market rent (what other comparable apartments cost), ask what have been typical rent increases, and how often these are levied? You cannot receive a rent increase during the term of your lease, but when your lease is renewed, you will usually receive an increase.  If your apartment rent is higher than is being charged new tenants, then negotiate your next lease with the landlord.  The landlord will often want to keep a good tenant and will be willing to lower the rent for the term of that lease.

If you need to move out before the end of your lease term, will this be acceptable to your landlord, and will he return your security deposit?  If not, you may have to remain in the apartment, or pay rent until a new tenant can be found. What are the landlord's procedures for subletting the apartment? According to the current New York City law, a landlord cannot reasonably withhold permission to sublet the apartment. If you do not return, the landlord can raise the rent for the new tenant, who may very well be the person subletting the apartment. Remember, you cannot charge more than you are paying for the apartment, plus 10% if it is furnished, and you must get your landlord's permission in writing before you sublet.

You need to find out who does the repairs in the building and how do you request repairs. What is a reasonable time for the repairs to be made and what steps you can take if the repairs are not made. You need to be home to admit the repair person, or give permission for the super to enter the apartment to make the repairs. If repairs are not done in a timely fashion, in some instances, you can make the repairs and deduct the cost from your rent, with proper receipts. This measure should only be undertaken as a last resort, with proper notification to the landlord, in writing, return receipt requested. If you live in a rent controlled or rent stabilized building, then complaints can be made to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), a state agency which has the right to lower your rent until the condition(s) have been corrected and certified

You need to get renters insurance. If there is a problem, like a flood or a fire, the landlord is responsible for repairing the apartment, but not for replacing your belongings. Renter's insurance is quite reasonable, but check to see what is not covered, like jewelry or a computer. There are riders to cover these items.

Do not leave your apartment without locking all windows and doors. If you have a fire escape, then talk to the landlord or go to a hardware store and see about getting a fire department approved gate for that window. The gate has to be able to be opened from the inside in case of a fire.

If you have children under ten years old, it is a law the landlord must provide child guards for all windows except fire escape windows. You can also request them if you just want to have them. A landlord is allowed to charge $10 per window, but most do not charge. You may also find that they are already installed when you take the apartment. Check with the super to see if they can be removed.

Never leave your apartment in a condition that will attract bugs or rodents. Ask the management office when the exterminator comes and take advantage of this service.

What are the procedures for moving in/out of the building? Many buildings allow moves on certain days and/or between certain hours. If it is an elevator building and there is more than one elevator, can you reserve an elevator for your move? How are apartment, mailbox, front door keys, etc. obtained, and do you have to change the lock?  If you do decide to change the lock on the apartment, give a key to the management office in a sealed envelope for emergency only. If they do not have your key and must break into your apartment in case of emergency, you can be charged for any damage done to the door, or locksmith charges. You should not have to pay for keys. Key money, which is money given to a building employee to obtain an apartment, to obtain keys or for preferential treatment upon moving in, is illegal. If a building employee does something special for you, above and beyond his/her normal duties, then you can give a tip should you choose.

Ask for a list of convenient phone numbers and emergency contacts, gas, electric, phone, cable, super, and Management Company.  If you have a problem, you need to find out who takes care of it. Let's say you have a neighbor who plays the stereo very loudly at 2AM.  If a nice conversation with the neighbor does not resolve your difficulty, then you need to contact the super or the management office for a resolution. If there is no heat or hot water, or if it is not sufficient, you need to find out who takes care of these problems. In New York City, the law is that heat must be provided from October 1st through May 31st, depending on the temperature outside.