House hunting in New York City
In the summer of '22 as a grad student
Finding a house in the most populated city in the US is no easy feat. Imagine doing that at a time when property prices are soaring, and it gets even worse. I had the pleasure of searching for a room in New York with an upper limit of $1500 at a time when the market was recovering back from super cheap COVID discounts. This post is a glimpse of what I learnt from my house hunting experience in the Summer of ‘22.
Spoiler Alert: I ultimately ended up staying across the Hudson in Jersey City.
Let’s start with a little background. I happen to be a graduate student at NYU. Naturally, proximity to the university’s campus around Washington Square Park was a priority for me. My ideal place would get me to campus in under 20 minutes. Being a student, I also had a limited budget of $1500 a month. I was ideally looking for a room in an existing apartment, but I was also comfortable with signing a new lease for a 2BR or a 3BR with my friends. I only needed a place for 6-7 months until my graduation in December, but I was open to signing a year-long lease and finding a sublet later on. Essentially, my only constraints were budget and travel time. I was very flexible in terms of the neighbourhood, roommates, diet and other preferences.
And yes, let me emphasize that $1500 is a limited budget for a single room around lower Manhattan. I started off with a mindset that this would easily get me what I wanted, but little did I know about the post-covid apocalypse. What would get you a spacious room close to the subway last year can only get you a cozy room someplace far off this year. Oh, and ‘cozy’ is a pseudonym for ’tiny’. That’s realty lingo you gotta keep up to.
I started off by looking for places through Facebook groups. Some quick googling around introduced me to Craigslist. Throughout my search, I discovered other platforms such as Roomi, SpareRoom, and even Reddit. Here is a quick review of the search platforms that I used throughout my house hunt.
If you’re looking for a room in an existing apartment, I’d recommend checking out Facebook Groups, Craigslist, SpareRoom and Listings Project. These were the only platforms that worked out for me. All other websites either had abysmal response rates, or were dominated with bots and scams. That being said, each platform had their fair share of hiccups. I’ll elaborate on my experience with five popular platforms.
Facebook Groups turned out to be the best amongst all the platforms that I tried. Scammers are easily identifiable as they have newer profiles and little to no friends. The only complaint I have is their search feature. It sucks. Don’t get me wrong, you can find posts, but often times you need more. Try searching for a specific term in the most recent posts within a group and I’m sure you’ll share my pain.
If you’re keen on Brooklyn, you can check out the Gypsy Housing group which in my opinion is quite active. You can also search for housing groups based on the neighbourhood or institute you are looking for.
Craigslist uses an old clunky UI. Don’t be disappointed by it though, the website is quite functional. That being said, Craigslist is definitely a mixed bag. The posts which are legitimate and elaborate often times do not respond. The ones which are short are often scams. The posts which are too good to be true are definitely scams. I sent countless emails in response to ad posts, and I did hear back from a few.
SpareRoom and some of the other websites also have a lot of posts from representatives of commercial providers. Services like JuneHomes, AYA Rooms, Roomrs, Bungalow and the likes often post bulk listings. It gets even more annoying when these listings do not have the correct map marker. I often clicked on map markers in Manhattan and the listing turned out to be in Brooklyn.
That being said, when I did come across listings posted by individuals, I found them to be quite descriptive. The website’s search feature was also pretty functional and has quite a lot of filters. The response rate was lower than Facebook or Craigslist but I’d still consider giving it a shot.
Roomi had my hopes up with advertisements all across the NYC subway. The website looks modern but it is filled with scammers. I did not hear back from a single legit posting.
Roommates was deceiving. I got new message requests every few hours after I logged in, but most (all?) of them turned out to be scams. These messages even tricked me into buying their VIP subscription.
Zillow and Streeteasy are the obvious choice here. Apartments.com falls in the same category. These websites are a good option if you’re looking for entire apartments. The agents are much more responsive here, but you should be mindful of the broker fee. It usually turns out ot be 15% of the annual rent, which is 1.8 months’ rent. That’s ridiculous! If you’re on a budget, you would really want to reconsider.
I would suggest contacting the property management company directly. Often times there are no broker fees involved. I saw a few apartments from MetroNest which were within my budget and had no broker fees. I will also advise you not to shy away from contacting one of the “luxury buildings”. I got in touch with Herald Towers and to my surprise they had a 3 bed flex arrangement that also fit my budget. For more information, I shall point you to transparentcity.co’s blog for more such property management companies.
A Mix of Both
Craigslist is quite popular amongst New Yorkers and they regularly keep on posting ads about rooms as well as entire apartments. I would also suggest subscribing to the Listings Project, which is a curated weekly mailing list. It also has both kinds of listings - entire apartments as well as vacant rooms. While the ads are curated, they are only active for a week. Since it’s essentially a list, you also don’t have many options to choose from.
The first lesson that I learnt is that all platforms are filled with scams. The key here is to trust your gut. If you think something is too good to be true, more often than not it is. Often times you will be asked to sign a lease or send a deposit online and the person on the other side will promise you to mail in the keys. That’s NOT going to happen. The scammer will appeal to your emotional side and make some excuses. Often times they will be very assertive in their tone. Do NOT fall for it. Here are the top excuses that I’ve come across:
- The landlord is caught up in an emergency situation (such as an accident).
- This is a tenant occupied unit and the landlord respects their privacy.
- The landlord is out of town and will mail in the keys once you make a deposit.
As a thumb rule, ALWAYS view the apartment in person before moving forward. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Based off of my limited experience, here are a few red flags to look for when you’re scouring through listings to find your next home. If you see any of them, be cautious and prepare to act accordingly.
The post seems generic and does not have details about the address and the rent. You are asked to reply back with a “screenshot” of the post. If you were a scammer and you’re posting the same listing with the same photos on multiple platforms across multiple locations, what would you do?
You get a quick response asking about your email / phone number so the conversation could be taken off the platform. Often times exchanging such information happens gradually, but if this is the first response that you get from a person, it should raise concerns and you should be suspicious.
You are being hurried into making a deposit to “secure your position” even before you can visit the place because this is a sought after property. This is textbook scamming 101 - establishing a sense of urgency. Often times things can get competitive, but you should NEVER move ahead without viewing the place.
Over the course of over 2 months of house hunting, I had the pleasure of visiting quite a few neighbourhoods that seemed to check a few boxes. I’ll describe what I liked and disliked about each of them.
East Village had the most affordable listings. It was also pretty close to NYU. However, all of the listings were mostly railway style apartments in older walk-ups. Tenants often complain about rats, and often times rooms can have little to no sunlight. I didn’t want to come back to a dingy room, so I eventually decided against it.
West Village turned out to be a bit more expensive, but I did not find enough listings to form an opinion. The neighbourhood is full of bars and restaurants, so I guess that’s a big plus.
Midtown was unapproachable on a student budget, but I was lucky enough to find a flex room in Herald Towers. I eventually decided against it as the space was too cozy, but I guess if you can find something within your budget it would be conveniently located in the heart of Manhattan.
Upper East Side shares a lot of features with East Village, but it’s further away from downtown.
Columbia University and the neighbourhood around it has a sizable student population. I guess if you have friends from Columbia, this is a decent option. Quite a few of NYU folks also consider staying here.
There are other areas which I didn’t get to explore much. I’ve heard that Hell’s Kitchen and Chinatown are comparatively more affordable. If you’re lucky, you can also find places in and aroudnd FiDi.
A limited budget in Manhattan can only find you a cozy room. If you’re open to living in Brooklyn, you can enjoy a much more breathable space. I’ve seen students commute from Downtown Brooklyn, Sunset Park, Williamsburg, Prospect Park and other areas which are easily accessible without changing trains.
I personally found more value in Jersey City. I eventually found a much more spacious room with a view of the Hudson and Midtown Manhattan from my window. You can check out one of the many residential complexes in Newport. A lot of NYU folks stay at either Parkside East or Parkside West. Target and Morton Williams are right next door. The PATH train to 9th St takes 12 minutes, which is quite reasonable if you ask me. Anyway, this was my choice and I’m sure your circumstances and personal preferences might be different.
I hope you found this post helpful during your house hunting process. All the best with your search!