Renting (and Sub-letting) an Apartment

Finding an apartment in any big city in America is going to be more difficult than you realize. The problem isn’t that there are only a few available, it’s instead that there are so very many that you won’t know how to filter down and pick one that you actually like. You’ll become overwhelmed with tiny “one-bedroom” apartments that smell funny, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

The first thing to know is that due to the cost of rentals in big cities (and the requirement for credit, see below), many new visitors to the US will sublet an apartment.

What is a sublet?

This was a term that was relatively new to me (as someone coming from a smaller city) so I thought I’d start at the fundamentals.

Subletting means that you take a sub-element of a fully rented apartment (normally a single room) and you will have a shorter term sub-lease that constantly renews (e.g. every month, instead of committing for a whole year). This saves money in the short-term but means that you have some time to really find your feet and pick the area you’d like to live in.

In most cases this will include sharing facilities (bathroom, kitchen, and living areas) while having your own private space (your bedroom).

Subletting is a great option to start and one thing you should always remember is that in most big cities like New York, you still have similar rights to a regular lease tenant and it is a formal agreement between you, the head leaseholder, and the landlord.

Rental Scams you should watch out for

It sucks that I have to write this but it is really important. Scams, especially in real estate, are everywhere in New York City. They’ll come in different forms, and sound almost completely legitimate but will pivot around you sending money first and asking questions later.

A few things to think keep in mind:

  • Never send money without having some form of ability to check into the person and the location. In many cases, the location won’t exist or the person won’t, or both.
  • Never trust a check repayment. If the deal somehow involves receiving a check back, you’re in for trouble (even cashier checks). In many cases, you’ll bank it perfectly, then two weeks later it will be deducted from your account.

Obviously this makes things difficult, but if you can find someone on the ground that you trust, or if you can use a third party, you should be ok.

Here’s a great article by advo about how to sign a lease without getting swindled.

Know your budget (and what you can afford)

Prices in the US are generally listed per month and in many cases include utilities like heat, electricity, gas, and possibly internet access (for sublets).

In general, with sublets, you do not hold any negotiating power, so prices that you see are going to be firm and with the competition you will be expected to jump on it immediately if you like it.

Know what you can afford, know what terms you require, and say “Yes” on the spot if it fits.

For a sub-let there will not normally be a credit check, which is great for new arrivals. If you are looking to rent a whole apartment in big cities  then you are going to have to earn 40x the monthly rent as a rule of thumb (i.e. If the rent is $4,000 per month, you need to be earning $160,000 per year to be admitted). If you don’t earn that, then you need to have a guarantor that earns 80x the monthly rent (i.e. $320,000).

Outrageous. I know.

There are exceptions to this, and if you need to, you or your broker can help with this process by explaining a bigger picture of your financial situation and stability.

Know your rights as a tenant

In New York, and in many US states, you have a lot of rights as a tenant. Be sure to search for an official website so that you know what you can request and expect. These include things like:

  • Defining the exact amount of notice required before a visit from the landlord;
  • A definitive list of what is (and is not) included in your lease;
  • If and when you are required to have heating (or cooling) as legally required in your apartment.

This is a great document regarding Tenant’s Rights written by the NY Attorney General. I don’t know exactly when it was written but I’m pretty confident most of it is still good!

Finding an apartment in New York City

In New York, you should come in knowing that if you want to live in Manhattan, you’re going to be lucky to get a (very small) room for less than $1,400/month.

If you are happy to live a bit further abroad (e.g. Brooklyn or the other boroughs) then that number will come down the further away you go. It is good to do your research well in advance to know what you should be paying for what.

Friend of America Josh, Hannah Collins, wrote a great piece some things to expect and be prepared for when you’re renting in New York City.

You’ll start to discover quickly that renting is really competitive. You’re not only competing against other New York transplants, but you’re also competing against New Yorkers, visitors, and travelers.

New York is filled with different neighborhoods which all have a very different feel, for a map of them check out locality.nyc. To read our Guide to New York Neighboroods, click here.

There are some great Facebook groups to start your search, on our Communities page as these groups are regularly exchanging offers of rooms available for rent all over the place.

Other apps that may help you out include:

Where to live when you first arrive in New York (Co-Living Spaces)

There are some awesome places around New York where you can immediately go to live when you land, and even for an extended period of time if you’d like!

Instead of having to hope that the deal is legitimate, you can rely on the fact that these companies have done the work for you and you

  • June Homes – This one is my favorite. You can choose apartments of between 1 and 12 months, they are fully furnished and stocked with supplies (towels, linen, cleaning) and you’ve got all your amenities covered too (maintenance, weekly cleaning, WiFi, HBO, Netflix). Really it’s the perfect spot to land in a big new city!
  • Common – A great company bringing people together, with over 70% being brand new to the City!
  • WeLive – Awesome building downtown for co-living and having fun. It’s going to cost you more but does include more community activities and ongoing events.

Preparing a rental agreement

Before you get into a lease, Brian Truong of advo has written a fantastic article “Signing a new lease without getting SWINDLED. — A checklist guide to signing your first apartment.“. It’s well worth the read with information detailing what questions to ask and some do’s and don’ts about signing a new lease!

In many sub-lease arrangements, there won’t be an official agreement in writing between you and your “landlord”. That being said, most won’t mind if you prepare something for them to sign.

This document helps you when it comes to starting up bank accounts, getting ID, and getting your social security number.

Most importantly your sub-lease agreement should include:

  • Your full name;
  • The rental address (Number, Street Name, Apt Number)
  • The full name of the landlord;
  • The landlord’s address;
  • The landlord’s phone number (in many cases, they will be called to confirm you actually live there).

I generated one using a form generating website, Law Depot, but any will work.

What’s expected of you?

Be respectful to your neighbors. This sounds like a simple one but it’s something you should actively try to do every day. Most importantly: Be mindful of smells and sounds.

Getting home late at night in New York might be fun for you, but being woken up by someone stumbling upstairs singing showtunes is less fun for those around you.

Similarly, if you’re cooking lots or regularly use strong-smelling scents: Be sure that it’s ventilated properly and not affecting those around you.

Give a little, get a lot back!

In addition to being a great tenant and not putting holes in the walls, did you know that you’re supposed to tip the doorman of your building (and your super, and anyone else involved) every year?

Here’s my guide on how much to tip the people in your building!

Moving apartment in New York

I’ve written a whole series of articles

One thing to note that is really important too is that if you move address and you’re on a visa, not only do you have to notify the DMV but you also have to notify USCIS. It’s VERY IMPORTANT for your staying in this country legally!