How I played New York apartment hide-and-seek — and won

Photo Credit: Lorraine Boogich/Getty Images

I have moved every single year for the past 4 years. I wish I could say it gets easier and that I’ve gotten the apartment-hunting, roommate-searching and packing-up processes down to a science. But that hasn’t been the case, and each year the imminent end of my apartment lease is enough to send me into a downward spiral of panic and dread.

Moving in my college town of Columbia, Missouri, was something I almost didn’t have to think about. Student housing apartment complexes streamlined the process, making it easy for students to secure housing for the next year with a flick of a pen.

Then I came to New York City.

Renting in New York is basically a nightmare

Before my initial move to New York last summer, I had heard horror stories of soaring rental prices, bedbug-infested apartments and shady brokers. I shrugged it all off, convincing myself that the storytellers were just being dramatic and that New Yorkers were complainers by nature.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

The lessons I learned quickly from friends already living in the city and from Facebook groups for New York apartment-hunters include these:

· Luxury-looking rentals at insanely low prices are a dead giveaway that the apartment is a scam.

· Never write a check with a mere promise that the current renter will “send keys in the mail.”

· If you’re subletting, get a notarized contract drawn up between both parties, and never trust that people will just do the right thing. Because chances are, they won’t.

The high cost of renting in NYC

My current lease in Brooklyn was coming to an end in a few short months, so I had to find a new apartment. Given the overwhelming number of online resources available, such as StreetEasy and RentHop, it can be hard to filter through all the available rentals. Apartments are always popping up, but finding an affordable place in the right location is what I have found to be the most challenging.

A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University finds that in the 10 cities with the highest housing costs (including New York), record-high numbers of renters with middle-class incomes are “cost- burdened,” spending at least 30% of their income on rent.

Because so much of my money is spent on rent, I needed to sit down before starting my search and really contemplate what I was willing to pay, and the expenses I was willing to sacrifice in order to upgrade to a more centrally-located apartment. And by that, I mean an apartment in Midtown Manhattan, where I am likely to find a place half as big and almost twice as expensive.

Hitting the real estate jackpot

After figuring out how much I could afford while maintaining the same lifestyle — with a few sacrificed expenses — and where I wanted to live, narrowing down the perfect apartment was much easier. Luckily, my good friend Hannah’s lease is up around the same time, and we had an honest discussion about how much we were each willing to spend. With similar salaries, we agreed pretty quickly on a budget.

Now, this is the part of the process that I’m assuming makes renting in New York City unique. Hannah and I found an apartment available in another friend’s building, within walking distance from both our offices, with a washer and dryer in the unit and renting at an average price for the area.

In other words, we hit the NYC real-estate jackpot!

The real-estate broker was holding an open house, and Hannah and I got there an hour early, only to be met by several other groups vying for units in the same building. We were primed for this, and had mentally prepared to sign a lease and write a check that very day if we needed to.

A close call

We were all eyeing the competition up and down. In fact, I grimaced when I saw a 20-something with a parent in tow, thinking it would, for sure, make him seem a more desirable tenant than me.

Hordes of us followed the broker up the steps and crammed into the teeny apartment, and then the mad scramble began. People began peppering the broker with questions and thrusting their hands forward, grasping for an application.

“Applications are $60 cash. I only have 30 minutes,” she said, sounding somewhat bored. “We will be deciding tomorrow who gets the place, solely based on credit score.”

Oops. Despite having every document we could have possibly needed — checkbook, photocopy of ID, W2, pay stubs, bank account and employment verification — we forgot cash. After flying down the steps of the building, I broke into a dead sprint toward the ATM down the block while Hannah began blazing through the application. It probably would have been comical if we hadn’t wanted the apartment so badly.

For whatever reason, the real estate gods blessed us, and we got a call the next day, telling us that we were the lucky winners of the apartment. Paperwork needed to be filled out, the lease signed and a check written within 24 hours. We were almost there.

RATE SEARCH: Shop today for a mortgage.

The initial payment will hurt. A lot.

The following Monday, I woke up with my stomach in knots. I stared at my ceiling, trying to shake my sleepiness and remember why I was feeling the way I was. Oh yeah, it was because I would be withdrawing a cringe-worthy amount of money from my bank account later that day to secure the apartment.

After reading the apartment lease incredibly carefully — it took us almost 2 hours — I forked over a check for first month’s rent, the broker’s fee and a security deposit. Months of savings were drained in 24 hours.

When I withdrew my cashier’s check, the bank teller congratulated me. “I hope you enjoy the new apartment,” she said, smiling.

I had spent so much time worrying over whether I was making the right choice, I hadn’t even had a chance to reflect on how exciting this was. I was about live in an apartment in one of my favorite New York City neighborhoods with one of my best friends.

Yes, there are more things to do (find a sublet to finish out my Brooklyn lease, measure furniture, lock down a moving company — the list is nauseating), but I deserved to enjoy the moment.

Now, I just need the keys.

Like what you read? Give Sarah Berger a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.