Tips For NYC Apartment Hunting

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Apartments in New York have real advantages over hotels. A nice homey studio gives you a sense of living rather than passing through, and in many cases (especially with the advent of Airbnb) it’s cheaper than a hotel room. But apartments in New York are special creatures, largely because the city’s infrastructure is so old, so here’s what you need to know before you start hunting.

Walk-ups are normal. Old residential buildings tend to lack elevators, which are expensive and difficult to install, so don’t balk just because you’re looking at a fourth floor walk-up. In my opinion, a fifth floor unit (or higher) should have a noticeably lower rent.

Consider avoiding ground-floor apartments. If you’re new to the city and you’re traveling alone, you may feel safer on a higher floor, simply because ground-floor street-facing windows are more vulnerable. However, if those windows have protective bars, that should alleviate your fears.

Apartments directly above bars or restaurants will be loud. If you have to take an apartment that sits right on top of a business, you’ll sleep easier if it keeps normal daytime hours.

Proximity to a subway station increases the rent. Paying the premium is often worth it—not just for convenience, but because at night, you won’t have to worry about a long, unfamiliar walk in the dark from the train to your apartment. Eventually you’ll figure out which walks are perfectly fine and which walks you’d rather avoid. An apartment next to an above-ground station is a different story; the premium does not necessarily apply because of the constant noise (trains run 24/7).

Be skeptical when you see “only ten minutes to Union Square!!!” Don’t pay attention to numbers of minutes—some people are straight up lying, some people are excluding the time it takes to walk to the subway and wait for the train, and some people are just lowballing it based on the quickest commute they’ve ever had in their life. You’ll get a much more useful picture by counting the blocks from the apartment to the subway (I’d aim for six or less), and counting the number of subway stops to Union Square (or wherever you’re headed).

Appliances are old. Unless you’re renting a brand-new condo, you’ll likely be using an older fridge, older faucets, older light fixtures, etc. Just because they look dingy doesn’t mean they don’t work, but if they are indeed broken, you have every right to address that with the landlord.

Don’t hold your breath for a washer and dryer in the apartment. This is the holy grail of amenities in New York. More realistically, there won’t even be laundry in the building. Just consider a trip to the Laundromat part of your New York experience.

Many apartments don’t have bathtubs, only shower stalls. I haven’t taken a bath in years. Unfortunately, this is normal.

Central A/C is rare, but window units are common. If you’re visiting during the summer, try to insist on some kind of air conditioning. It gets hotter and more humid than you’d think. Some buildings are constructed very well and keep cool with fans and open windows, but don’t assume that will be the case.

Central heat is equally rare; you’ll likely have radiators, which can hiss and bang. The hissing is from hot air escaping the radiator; the banging happens when water is awkwardly trapped inside the radiator with nowhere to go. Those noises should not be too loud or too frequent, so if it’s keeping you up at night, that’s a legitimate problem.

Animals live here too. If you see a stray cockroach or small spider, don’t freak out, it’s normal. If you see a family of water-bugs run for the hills when you flip on the lights, that’s just wrong. Bed bugs are never, ever acceptable. The good news about bed bugs is that they are not known to transmit disease; they’re just a royal pain in the ass. A mouse can be startling, but hopefully as soon as you make eye contact, it’ll scurry back into the wall and never surface again. Multiple mice, especially if they have the confidence to make themselves at home, are not OK. Rats are absolutely for the love of God verboten. If you see a rat or some other crazy large thing, grab your bags and run.

But most importantly, don’t let these tips overwhelm you! After all, eight million people live with these quirks. They’re just a small part of what makes New Yorkers so tough.

Have you stayed in a New York apartment? How was it?

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About Author

Sarah is the North America Editor for Go! Girl Guides and she wrote the New York City guidebook. Raised in rural Texas on mesquite barbecue and barrel racing, Sarah lived in Indiana for two years before moving to New York by herself. Some of her favorite experiences in North America include snowmachining outside of Anchorage, exploring Caladesi Island off the coast of Florida, touring a Cold War bunker in West Virginia, watching the sun set over Chicago from Lake Michigan, and taking an overnight train from Montreal to Halifax.

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