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Finding your first New York apartment

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Above: Madeleine Goldsmith at her three-bedroom apartment in Harlem.

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Above: Matt Gelman found his Brooklyn sublet, a US$1,300-a-month room, on the Facebook group Gypsy Housing.

New York

OF THE many new arrivals who pour into New York City each spring with new degrees, new jobs, or simply new life plans, Patrick Laflamme thought that he would be in a fairly good position to find an apartment.

A graduate student in cognitive psychology moving from Vancouver, British Columbia, to take a job with an investment bank, Mr Laflamme had experience with competitive housing markets - "the Vancouver rental market is pretty aggressive: you go to see a listing and there are 40 people lined up outside" - and he was accustomed to spending a large percentage of his income on rent.

"And I wasn't too picky. I just didn't want to be more than a half-hour from the financial district," said Mr Laflamme, 24, who set what seemed a reasonable budget of about US$2,000 a month for a one-bedroom or large studio in Manhattan. "Rental agents don't really exist in Vancouver; you just kind of make it work. I figured that's what I would do in New York, too."

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But several weeks of looking on Craigslist turned up only bait-and-switch scenarios, studios sneakily shot from angles that made them look like one-bedrooms and suspiciously beautiful apartments in Midtown managed by out-of-state companies without a New York address. "I'd read on some blogs that you should get an agent if you're not from New York, but I had been a sceptic," Mr Laflamme added. "Finally, I got one. Unless you have connections in the city, the barrier to entry is high."

Even for renters accustomed to complex housing markets, finding an apartment in New York can be daunting. Many first-time renters arrive in the city braced for small, expensive apartments, but few are prepared for just how small and expensive.

In April, the average rent for a Manhattan studio was US$2,355, according to the real estate company Citi Habitats. In Brooklyn, long seen as a less-expensive alternative, it was US$2,320. And while there are less-costly apartments to be found - and room shares to be had - for those who don't know New York City well, finding a deal, or even recognising a deal when it comes along, can be difficult. How much flexibility is required to get more space or seemingly basic perks like a lift or dishwasher? Is it a matter of changing neighbourhoods, raising your budget or just looking harder?

"People think they can apply what they learned about renting elsewhere to Manhattan, with a little bit of a premium," said Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats. "But there are a lot of qualifying requirements."

Most landlords, for example, expect renters to earn 40 times the monthly rent - that means US$94,200 a year to qualify for that average Manhattan studio that costs US$2,355 a month, significantly more than the borough's median per capita income of US$66,522, according to the US Census Bureau.

Those with incomes that do not qualify will need a guarantor who makes 80 times the rent, or US$188,400 a year. Some landlords require even more for guarantors who live outside the tri-state area. And while there are many ways to work around those requirements - paying six months or a year of rent up front, for example, or working with a company like Rhino or Jetty, which can act as a guarantor or front a security deposit - not every landlord is flexible. And those with the most desirable apartments don't need to be.

Rental real estate brokers - a rarity in many other cities - are not only common in New York, but often unavoidable. First-time renters determined to go it alone may be surprised to discover that even if they find an apartment on a listings site like StreetEasy, PadMapper or Naked Apartments - and wind up speaking to a broker at an open house for all of two minutes before submitting an application - they may still have to pay a full broker's fee of 15 per cent of the annual rent, which, for a US$2,500-a-month-apartment, comes to US$4,500.

No-fee apartments exist, of course, and in a sluggish rental market like the one the city has been in for the past year or so, landlords are more likely to pick up the broker's fee. But looking at only no-fee listings knocks out a lot of options, and no-fee apartments are more commonly found in luxury high-rises or large complexes with their own leasing offices, like Stuyvesant Town.

For those unfamiliar with the city, a good agent can be invaluable for maximising the number of apartments a potential renter sees - and then guiding that renter through the application process, and helping determine whether the renter's budget and expectations are reasonable.

Bailey Gladysz said that when she moved to the city five years ago, she and her husband had a budget of US$2,400, and they wanted a spacious one-bedroom with natural light in a building with a lift in Chelsea. "Brokers would literally take us to the worst apartment and say that we needed to increase our budget," she recalled. Now a real estate agent with Triplemint, Ms Gladysz said she would never show renters grim listings to convince them to give in to higher prices. Instead, she tempers expectations at the outset.

Though the last few years have seen rents in the city level out, the breather came only after a relentless, years-long climb, and rents remain prohibitively high for many New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s. Student loan debt is another big factor, Mr Malin said: "Incomes haven't gone up that dramatically, but rents have gone up and student loan debt has gone up."

To help those who simply cannot afford to live on their own, or don't want to, a number of options for finding a room or a roommate have sprung up in the past decade. They run the gamut from upscale co-living purveyors like WeLive, Common and Ollie, which offer furnished suites with housekeeping and access to other amenities, to cheaper options like Craigslist and increasingly popular Facebook groups like Gypsy Housing and NYC Housing, Rooms, Sublets & Apartments.

For the many people who move to New York without a full-time job - or a well-paid one - finding a sublet or pre-existing share are among the few available options. In most cases, going one of these routes means the renter can avoid having to submit pay stubs and bank records, or signing a year-long lease. But the process can be grueling in other ways.

Matt Gelman, a 23-year-old copywriter and coder freelancing at a tech company in Dumbo, Brooklyn, recently moved into his second Williamsburg sublet, a US$1,300-a-month room he found on Gypsy Housing. On the night he went to see the room, he was told that seven other people were interested, and because of a scheduling glitch, one of them would be touring it at the same time. "The other guy was clearly interested, so I had to prove I wanted it more," Mr Gelman said. "I emailed right away and said I wanted to meet the other roommates."

And for all those put off by the price of New York apartments, there are some recent arrivals who find them comparatively reasonable. When Madeleine Goldsmith moved to the city from San Francisco last summer to start a new career as a theatre producer, she was delighted to see her rent plummet from US$1,500 a month to US$1,075.

"I was like, 'That's a steal!'" said Ms Goldsmith, who shares a Harlem three-bedroom with two roommates. "It's so much cheaper here. In San Francisco, there are no pockets of cheapness. And that apartment was rent-regulated - my roommate had lived there since 2012." NYTIMES