We were so excited. Finally, we had found an apartment we could afford in exactly the location we wanted. Okay, it was actually a little more than we had hoped to pay for rent, but not so much that we couldn’t manage it; after all, we had belatedly realized that we had targeted an expensive area and knew after a few weeks of looking that we were lucky to find anything close to our price range. It also was something called rent-stabilized, whatever that was.
We wandered through the apartment, and it looked okay, I guess. The current tenants hadn’t moved out and it was hard to tell anything with their oversized furniture packed into every space. But it wasn’t a railroad apartment, and it had two real, separate bedrooms. We said we’d take it.
My roommate and I stayed in that apartment a lot longer than we had ever thought we would, mostly because we moved in right before New York rents blew up, and it became too expensive to move–especially once we figured out that rent-stabilized thing and understood the difference between what we were paying and market rate rents. So financially it was a good deal, but oh, was it miserable to live there. And if we had known a little bit more about what to look for in an apartment, maybe we would have thought twice before taking it, or at least gotten some problems solved earlier on.
Here are five things I wished I had checked during that first walk through:
- Look for cracks, spaces, openings We didn’t think to look at the base of the walls when we walked through our apartment, because why would we do that? Well, once the previous tenants’ furniture was gone, we saw that in some areas the floors were beginning to sag away from the walls. We noticed that there were little cracks and small openings around the radiators. There were tiny gaps around the edges of the windows. This created two problems: on cold, windy days, the wind came howling through those cracks and gaps, leaving our apartment ice cold. We tried complaining but all anyone was interested in was whether our landlord was providing heat, and yes, technically he was; it was just that the heat was losing a battle to the amount of the great outdoors getting in. As long as the heating system was working, no one was interested in hearing anything else from us. Oh, and speaking of the great outdoors, guess what else came in through those cracks? When our building was hit by a mouse invasion several times, we got it bad. We tried to stuff all the openings with rags, foil, brillo pads (because they’re supposed to keep out mice), but nothing worked. It was an ongoing disaster.Lesson: Don’t get distracted by furniture, layout, room sizes. Make sure you check that the apartment is sealed tight.
- Make sure the windows are double-paned If you are saying, “What is double-paned?” then you are saying the same thing I would have said back when I was renting my first apartment. I didn’t notice that all that was standing between me and a cold New York winter was a thin, old, single pane of glass. When the tempers dropped and the wind began to blow, I could stand in front of our windows and feel the cold air pouring through. On very windy days (of which there are so many in a New York fall, winter, and spring) I would feel my hair blowing around when I sat at my desk. We might as well have had plastic wrap up instead of glass. We tried putting up that plastic insulation stuff and it just fell down. We got the heaviest shades and curtains we could find, and that helped a little, but not enough (especially with the aforementioned leaky walls). Instead we wore coats and scarves indoors and blew up our electric bills with space heater use.Lesson: Make sure that the windows are at least fairly new, preferably doubled paned (that’s two panes of glass to really trap and keep out the cold air) and completely sealed in the window frame.
- Look for stains or bulging patches on the ceiling These are indications that there have been leaks from the apartment above you. If you see them, ask the broker, property manager, super, whoever is showing you the apartment, for an explanation. If you can’t get a good answer, try to look for another apartment option. If they promise they’re going to fix the problem in the apartment above you, and you believe them, take photos just in case water does leak through and anything you own is ruined. They shouldn’t give you a hard time about paying for replacement items anyway, but it never hurts to be able to show them some “We told you so” photos.Lesson: Look up!
- Don’t move in right after another tenant moves out I know this isn’t always possible–sometimes you’re just trying to find an apartment by a certain date, and you take the best decent place you can find, even if they’re moving out on the 30th and you need to move in on the 1st. But if the apartment is empty when you go to see it then not only will you get a good look at any wall gaps, cracks, or openings that might have hid behind furniture (as mentioned above), but there’s also a good chance that the landlord has done some work in the apartment after the other tenants moved out–maybe they painted, or regrouted the tiles, or replaced the windows. It’s amazing what a difference these little things can make, and guess what? Your landlord is NOT going to do them after you move in. What motivation is there? You signed a lease and now all your landlord cares about is whether you send those checks on time, not that you realized after three weeks that peeling paint is really depressing.If you’re working with a savvy broker, and you don’t need to move in the first of the month, maybe you can negotiate to get some work done in the apartment, but you can’t guarantee how that will go. You don’t want to find yourself (or your broker) on the phone on your move in day, standing in the apartment screaming, “You said you were going to paint!!” as the movers arrive with all your stuff.Lesson: Just in case you weren’t sure, your landlord does not care about anything except your check.
- Check the light When we looked through our apartment, it was early evening, so I didn’t pay that much attention to the windows other than that there seemed to be a decent number of them: one window in each bedroom, two in the living room, and one facing the teensy open kitchen. If you have windows, you have light, right? Wrong. The windows in one bedroom, the living room, and opposite the kitchen all faced directly west into the building next to us, and that building was twelve stories high. It towered over our five (later six) story walk up, completely blocking any light from those rooms. The only way I could see what the sky looked like to check the weather was to try to see its reflection in one of the higher floor windows of the building next to us. Things weren’t much better in the other bedroom, where the north facing window was overshadowed by a nineteen story building. Our apartment was dark most of the time; I almost always had to keep a light on in my room. My roommate worked in an office during the day and could handle it better, but I worked at home most of the time, and the lack of light was incredibly depressing. And no landlord, Home Depot kit, or city agency can fix that.Lesson: If you want to make sure there is light in your apartment (and not everyone does), visit it during the day. Don’t just count the number of windows or look at their size or the direction they face–check out the heights of the buildings next to you. That highly touted southern exposure doesn’t mean a lot if there’s a twenty-five story condo to your south.
So there you go! Hopefully you don’t need this because you’re a lot smarter than I was when I went to rent in New York for the first time. Or that you’re a lot richer and don’t have to deal with these kind of issues as you choose an apartment from several luxury towers. And if that’s the case, let me know and I’ll help you work through issues like whether you can live with just a shared roof deck or if you must have a private terrace.