8 Tips to Save Money Renting in NYC
July 4, 2023 | 13 minute read | the RENT BETTA team
New York City is expensive.
But it doesn't have to be.
Save thousands of dollars by renting a no fee apartment and skip signing through a broker. Get on a cheaper winter lease by joining a sublet for a few months to sign a new lease in January or February if you moved here during the summer. Never sign an 18 month lease! Look for a rent-stabilized apartment if you're here during bad times. Book movers at least 3-4 few weeks in advance on the date you plan to move, even if you haven't found your new place yet. Follow our tips to get your security deposit back. Buy furniture at Ikea, not Safavieh. And buy all your household goods on Walmart.com, not the local Duane Reade.
1. Find a No Fee Apartment and Save Thousands of Dollars in Broker Fees
Some are helpful, some are pushy, but nearly all charge a 1-2 month fee.
Welcome to the world of NYC apartment brokers.
If it's posted by a broker, they're almost certainly getting paid a one month fee by someone, if not you, then maybe the landlord.
To avoid the extra expense of a broker, find an apartment available directly from the building owner or leasing office.
So how do you find these gems of the NYC rental market?
You could try pounding the pavement in the neighborhoods you want to move to, knocking on doors to see if there are any availabilities in the building, or ask your friends who there management company is, and see if that company has a website that lists apartments.
Or check out RENTBETTA.com.
We've walked (nearly) all the streets of NYC, and checked every property record (twice), and found all the large and medium sized management companies in NYC that let you rent directly from their leasing office, without paying a broker fee.
Their are dozens of these companies, and their listings of no fee apartments are on RENTBETTA.com. You can click Book a Tour or Apply Now and will be connected directly with the leasing office, not a broker.
Also, all the listings come from real legitimate building owners, meaning you won't waste time with deceptive brokers like you will on Streeteasy.
Craigslist can also have good deals from mom-and-pop landlords without a broker fee, just skip past anything that looks like it's posted by a broker (a watermark in the photos or broker contact details in the description are dead giveaways). If they flake out when you ask to see the place, or ask for any money upfront (especially a wire transfer), you can be sure the apartment doesn't exist and you've hit a scam. Give up any false hope immediately - the NYC rental market is filled with scams on Streeteasy and Craigslist.
2. Sign a Lease During Winter
You'll live in the apartment all year long, paying rent each month.
But if you signed the lease in the dead of winter your rent could be 10-15% cheaper for the same apartment compared to someone who signed in summer.
So why pay extra rent?
The cheapest month to go apartment hunting is typically January, when it's cold, snowing, and no one else is looking.
This means less competition for you as a renter.
Apartment prices will be at their lowest, inventory will be at its highest, and landlords will be their most flexible.
Buildings that may only have 1 or 2 availabilities during the summer could have 4 or 5 open apartments for you to choose from.
You'll have more time to find the perfect place, as attractively-priced apartments can rent in 1-2 days after listing during the summer. During winter, you could have a week or two to make up your mind (though we recommend moving quickly once you know you've found a good deal).
And if there's room to negotiate, the building owner will be more eager to make a deal.
In every way, you're better off signing a lease during winter.
Aim for a 12 month lease starting February 1st, though any time December - February will offer comparatively cheap rent.
Try to avoid a lease that ends in the middle of the month, as you'll find more availabilities at month end when you eventually move out.
So if you must move in during the middle of the month, ask for a pro-rated lease of 12 months and a couple weeks to get on a month-end lease cycle.
While prices bottom in January and February, they tend to creep up as the weather warms in March and April.
In May through September you're in the peak Summer season, when new interns and analysts arrive, peak tourist demand hits for AirBnB's, and students begin arriving back for their fall semester.
All these eager renters eat up inventory, leaving you with less to choose from and higher prices.
October and November are shoulder months after peak Summer demand, and rents typically fall noticeably in December before reaching their bottom in January and early February.
Best time to rent: January or February
Lowest demand and best time to rent
Worst time to rent: May through September
Peak summer demand
Are you stuck on a bad lease schedule?
If you moved to New York City during the Summer, like most people, you may be renewing your lease or looking for a new apartment at the worst possible time of year.
And you may be doing it year after year, throwing lots of money away as extra rent in the process.
So how do you get out of this situation?
We've got a secret to share, and while it costs some cash and difficulty upfront, it can pay off handsomely over time.
Want to know the secret?
When your lease ends in the summer, join a flatshare on Spareroom or a Facebook housing group (NYC Rooms and Gypsy Housing are good) for a few months. Then move out in January or February and sign a 12 month lease on your next apartment.
Voila! You have now gone from a Summer to a Winter lease schedule!
Cost: one additional move (your time, effort, and the cash needed to hire movers or rent a van).
Benefit: more options apartment hunting and lower rent for every year you live in New York City.
Say your moving costs are ~$1,000 (roughly the cost of movers for a 1 bedroom) and your rent is $2,500. A 10% rent savings from signing a lease in the winter vs the summer will save you $250/month, or $3,000 annually.
Plan to stay in NYC for a few years?
The benefits multiply.
That $3,000 annual savings becomes $12,000 if you stay here for 4 years, or 6x your initial investment from the extra move into a flat-share.
600% in 4 years. That's pretty darn good. You just beat Wall Street by a mile.
No one likes moving, but if you have more flexibility than stuff, this can be one of the shrewdest moves you make as a NYC renter.
3. Never Sign an 18 Month Lease
If you’re already on a winter lease schedule, stay on it!
Your rent is set at the lowest point in the annual cycle, and if you want to move out, you'll have plenty of options to choose from on the rental market.
You’ll be in a great situation and love it. But you know who won't?
That's right, you're landlord would really prefer your lease to end during the summer.
That way they could increase the rent to the summer rate, and will easily find a new tenant if you can't pay it because everyone is looking.
Enter the 18 month lease.
It's a gimmick offered only during winter to shift tenancies from a winter to summer lease schedule.
Typically, the 18 month lease will be offered at a slight discount to the 12 month lease rate. So rent is $2,500, the landlord will offer $2,400 for an 18 month lease (but your rent could go up to $2,750 or more when it ends).
It may look like a good deal, but don't fall for it.
And if you do, don't expect complaining to your landlord will get you any sympathy or a lesser increase when it comes time to renew your lease.
After all, you've been getting a great deal the last 18 months.
And it is now officially over.
So when a broker offers you an 18 month lease, just remember - it's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar would never sign an 18 month lease in New York City
4. Look for a Rent Stabilized Apartment if You're Here When Everyone Else Moved Out
Like the rest of the country, New York City has been through a number of crises.
In 2001 there was 9/11, in 2009 the Great Recession, and in 2020 the first wave of COVID hit.
About one crisis every 10 years.
And each time, for health, safety, or economic reasons, people fled New York City.
We're not advising you to leave or stay, but if a major calamity hits and you end up staying when many of your friends are move out, you may want to take advantage of the worst of times by finding a rent stabilized apartment.
These are great deals with significant benefits for renters, like guaranteed renewals and rent increases set by the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB).
Historically, the rent increases have been at or below inflation.
Because they're such good deals, it's nearly impossible to find a rent-stabilized apartment during "normal" conditions on the rental market.
No renter wants to give them up, and if someone does eventually move out, the apartments will rent almost immediately.
During past crises, rent-stabilized apartments started showing up on Craigslist 4-6 months after a major shock, as it takes a few months for leases to end and excess rental inventory to build up.
Then, they tend to be offered at rents a little above market-rate apartments of similar size and quality.
You may think you're slightly overpaying, but that's shortsighted.
When life returns to New York City and new renters come flooding back, rents on market-rate apartments will jump back up.
After COVID, rents increased 30-50% for many renters who got pandemic deals in market-rate apartments.
But rents for rent-stabilized apartments barely budged, as increases were limited by the RGB. You're getting crisis rent for as long as you stay in the apartment.
So if you're here during the worst of times, look to move out of your market-rate apartment into a rent-stabilized one.
Tip: if you're hunting for a rent-stabilized apartment on Craigslist, do your due diligence. Sometimes, brokers use misleading language to draw interest, like saying a "building is rent stabilized."
This is actually meaningless.
It doesn't matter if a building has rent-stabilized units in it, what matters is if the apartment you're moving into is rent-stabilized. A single building can have both market-rate and rent-stabilized apartments.
So how do you know what you're getting?
To be in a rent-stabilized apartment, you must sign a rent-stabilized lease.
Ask whoever posted the ad if you’ll be signing a "legal rent-stabilized lease" before seeing the place, so you don't waste your time touring market-rate apartments.
The first page of a rent-stabilized lease should look like this.
A true rent-stabilized lease will have a header from the State of New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal and describe the maximum legal rent.
A market-rate apartment will not describe the maximum legal rent on the first page, as the landlord can set the rent at whatever price they choose.
5. Book Movers 3-4 Weeks in Advance
Your apartment search may come down to the last few days, but don’t wait until then to book movers or a moving van!
You could run out of options.
If you wait too long, there may be no more van rentals and you may have to pack your entire life into the trunk of a cab and take numerous trips (this almost happened to us).
Instead, book movers or your moving van at least 3-4 weeks in advance during summer, or least 1-2 weeks in advance during winter.
First, find your ideal move-in date, and get a reservation for that date.
Then, find the right apartment, and choose the move-in date you've already reserved. Most buildings allow a move-in any time up to 14 days after lease signing.
The best days to move are a random day during the middle of the week, when fewer other people are also moving and you still have the weekend to unpack.
A Saturday or Sunday, especially near the end of the month, will book up quickly in advance and has the highest rates.
Most places will let you cancel a reservation for free. But if you wait too long to reserve movers or a van, you'll give up the option value of having the reservation, and may be unable to book anything!
So book a few weeks ahead of time and choose a weekday towards the end of the month when your lease is up.
6. Get Your Security Deposit Back
It's an entire month's rent.
To get it back, don't cause excess damage and take photos when you move in and out.
When you arrive at the new apartment use your cell phone to take pictures of everything, especially any points of damage, before moving in your furniture and boxes.
That way, if your landlord claims damage when you move out, you'll be able to provide time-stamped photos showing it didn't come during your tenancy.
Likewise, when moving out, take photos of the empty apartment right before you close the door for the last time, especially any points of damage.
If the landlord claims a deduction, you'll have your own record so they can't overstate it.
Before you move out, spackle any holes in the wall until they are flat and leave the apartment broom-swept clean (a provision likely stipulated in your lease).
In NYC, landlords have 14 days to either return your security deposit in full or give you an itemized list of deductions.
If on the 15th day after your lease ended your landlord still has not given you an itemized list of deductions, technically, they must return the full security deposit to you.
This 14 day requirement is part of the New York State 2019 rent law known as HSTPA, which gives a lot of benefits to renters. Landlords in New Jersey aren’t subject to it, so you may have to wait longer to get your deposit back if you’re across the Hudson.
7. Buy Your Furniture at Ikea, Not Safavieh
Ikea stores are great for inspiration and to take pictures of items you may want to buy, while we recommend ordering online afterwards so you don’t have to lug everything home with you.
For every category of home goods, Ikea has the lowest prices, so buy as much as you can there before looking elsewhere for nicer, pricier things.
The savings in time and frustration are well worth it. The Ikea Fixa drill will save you a lot of hassle.
Most renters in NYC make multiple trips to Ikea. You'll easily make up for the ~$50 purchase price in a few hours of time saved, and you'll always have the drill in the future.
Whatever you do, avoid high end galleries in Chelsea and Midtown East which charge thousands of dollars for basic couches and never seem to have many shoppers in their showrooms. If you buy something there, your money will just be going towards their overhead, not the quality of the furniture.
8. Buy What You Can Online
NYC retailers have to pay NYC rent, which means everything they offer is more expensive.
Walmart.com is a whole lot cheaper than Duane Reade or the bodega around the corner from you, where an emergency run for just a couple of things easily racks up to $20-30. Over time, those paper towels, toothbrushes, and various odds-and-ends really add up.
And when you move into a new place, you tend to need a lot of odds-and-ends.
That's why we're huge fans of Walmart.com, which seems to be using a different currency than what we commonly encounter in NYC, with much smaller amounts requested for the same items.
Whatever you need, if you can buy it from one of the online behemoths (Walmart or Amazon) and have it delivered, you'll probably get it at a cheaper price than what you'd pay at a nearby retail store in NYC.
"Shop local" may sound nice, but it originated as an ad campaign promoted from a credit card company. You work hard for your money, and have the right to spend it wisely.
We prefer "shop inexpensively."
Its easy to save money renting in NYC! Find a no fee apartment on RENTBETTA.com or Craigslist (if it's not posted by a broker) that's available directly from the building owner. Join a flat-share for a few months to sign a 12 month lease in January or February when its the cheapest time of year to rent. Never sign an 18 month lease! Look for a rent-stabilized apartment if you are here during a crisis. Book movers at least 3-4 weeks in advance, and get your security deposit back by not causing excess damage. When it comes to furniture, Ikea and a decent drill will save you a lot of time and money. Finally, for all the odds-and-ends you need, Walmart.com is a whole lot cheaper than Duane Reade. Happy saving!