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After our run-in with a real estate agent, followed by an arduous apartment search, and capped off by a horrendous move into the city (sick cat, flat tire, parking ticket, closed street – I can barely type these words without getting the sweats), we finally settled into a new normal in our lives in New York City. We explored our beautiful neighborhood, ate our way through most of it, and kept a list of “must-do” activities to try – things like biking over the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in a show at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, seeing the McQueen exhibit at the Met, and stopping in at the Doughnut Plant. We made friends, mastered the subway (well, as much as anyone can), and fell into our own New York rhythm.

Then, the owner of our walk-up brownstone building died. (Just of old age, nothing nefarious, but the thought crossed my mind, too.) His widow then sold the building to a wealthy man who informed us we would have to move – he wanted to gut the building and make it his own private family home, complete with an elevator and an au pair suite.

I’m not going to tell you about the four months spent trying to find a new apartment less than a year after moving to New York City, lest I poison you with my particular brand of cynicism. Instead, I’d like to share with you some tips and tricks I learned to help improve any apartment search – some of which is New York-specific but may also be useful to you wherever you live.

Here’s how to find an apartment without sticking a fork in your eye.

Friends and acquaintances. True for all of life but especially true in New York, it’s who you know. More specifically, New Yorkers depend on their friends and connections to help get them where they need to go. And it’s key for a successful apartment search. Whomever you know in New York, work it. Even if it’s your ex-professor’s cousin’s pet sitter, contact her. The most you have to lose is the few minutes it takes to type out the email or call her on the phone. The best apartments are often never listed and are secured because someone knows a friend-of-a-friend.

Craigslist. Listen, I know this is where perverts hang out. The name even sounds like something hanging on a serial killer’s fridge. Craig’s list of what – great sites for dumping bodies? But this is your go-to place for By-Owner and No-Fee apartments. The key is knowing how to read the posts and filter out the real estate agents who are posting in the No-Fee section with every intention of selling you a Fee Apartment. Yes, this is legal, and I join you in shaking my head. First, click on the “Apartments By Owner” section. Filter by your own apartment desirables, like neighborhood, price, etc. Study the results. Here are some tips:

  • Try to avoid the ones with exclamation points, all caps, and stars in the title – those are agents. Bless them, they think we’re in kindergarten!
  • Don’t be afraid of posts without photos. Ideally, photos should be included. However, some owners will simply write a description like, “Awesome 1-bedroom apartment near subway with great light and space. Call Harry Potter at 646-000-0000.” If the description sounds like it’s written by a non-professional, this might be an owner. It doesn’t hurt to call the number and ask to see photos before you schedule an appointment to see the place.
  • Let’s say you find one with a modest description, great price, nice photos, and you think, “I’m in love.” Scroll to the bottom of the post. You’ll see this fine print:
    1. it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
    2. Fee Disclosure:
    3. Listed By:

    The “Fee Disclosure” is where they’re required by law to list whether there’s a fee. Sometimes they try to get around it by simply placing an “X” there. What you want to see there is “None” or “Credit Check Fee.” Those are legit, as all apartment applications require a credit check. But anything else is a fee. RUN FORREST!

  • One last motherly word: Never go by yourself to an apartment viewing you found on Craigslist.

Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project. This started as a personal email chain when Stephanie herself was looking for an apartment in NYC, and has since expanded to a weekly Wednesday email to anyone who signs up. Stephanie’s list of available spaces covers everything from open studios for working artists to apartments for rent or subletting. The list is long, the prices are good, and it covers Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. You can sign up here.

Other No-Fee Websites. Websites such as Naked Apartments, StreetEasy, Urban Edge, NYBits, and How To Rent in NYC include No Fee apartments and management companies you can deal with directly, thereby skipping agents. The only caution I give here is that sometimes agents will still use these websites to advertise ideal apartments that are no longer available; once you contact them, they might say, “That one has been rented, but I’m sure I can help you find what you need.” I never answered those emails because I tend to answer jerks by being jerky myself. Douché.

Real Estates Agents. I know. I know. There are decent, honest real estate agents in New York City (that was hard to type). They exist, like this wonderful woman, who helped us find our current place. These agents sometimes charge no fees, low fees, or are open to negotiation. There are no tried and true methods of finding these precious gems; it’s an accident if you do, and you should consider yourself lucky.

I hope these tips are helpful. But the best advice I can offer is: if you don’t have to move, don’t. It’s why people in New York keep their apartments for 20, 30, or more years, sometimes dying at the kitchen table and their neighbors finding them a week later. Because the best apartment search is the one not undertaken.

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