Apartment Hunting

Before Signing a Lease

Nine tips to consider when you find the right apartment, but before you sign the lease:

Impress the Landlord

If you find a great apartment, fend off likely competitors by being prepared: 

  • Check your own credit history and bring along a current credit agency report; 
  • If possible, ask your previous landlord to write a favorable letter of reference; and, 
  • Also ask your employer, co-workers, and friends if you can use them as character references (bring a list with names and telephone numbers).

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Fees and Deposit

Find out exactly how much you are expected to pay up-front to rent the apartment. Note: security deposits may not be more than one month’s rent in stabilized units; fees to superintendents or doormen, commonly called “key money,” are illegal. [More on fees

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Importance of a Lease

Leases provide many important protections for unregulated tenants such as a fixed rent for the duration of the lease. Unless you have a lease, your landlord can also evict you without giving any reason (after 30-days written notice). However, if you want the flexibility of moving on short notice, you may not want a lease. [More on leases

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If Offered a Lease, Read it Carefully

It is important that you examine your lease carefully. Once you and your landlord sign it, the lease is considered executed and you have in effect agreed to every provision inside it. Check for the following: 

  • Does the lease state the correct rent, address, and landlord? 
  • Does the lease mention all the amenities agreed upon? Be sure to write down any oral agreements.
  • Check your lease to find out the due date for your rent each month, as well as what late charges apply if you miss the deadline. 
  • Check to see if utilities are billed separately or are included in your monthly rent.
  • Are there any special building rules? Find out if your new building is: pet-friendly, has limits on guests, has restrictions on running a home business, etc. 
  • What happens at the end of the lease term? Can you renew automatically? What happens if you break the lease? Can you sublet or assign (transfer) the lease?

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Who is on the Lease? 

If you are a renter, having your name on the lease gives you more protections and rights than any unsigned tenants. If you want your partner, child, spouse, roommate or relative to have lease protections, it is a good idea to put their name on the lease at the outset (later additions may trigger a vacancy increase in stabilized apartments). But be aware that more names on the lease may mean more complications in the future if relationships change.

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Roommates?

Recognize that if both roommates’ names are on the lease, neither is the primary tenant (i.e. you are both legally responsible for the apartment). If you are joining a household as a roommate, try to find out what the primary tenant’s plans are. If the primary tenant leaves and you are not on the lease, you have no right to stay in the apartment. If you would like to stay at your discretion, see if you can add your name to the lease, although this may trigger a substantial rent increase in stabilized apartments. [More on roommates

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Rent-Stabilized? 

If your apartment is rent stabilized, be sure to keep the following in mind:

  • It is very important to know whether your initial rent is the full “legal” rent, or what is commonly known as a “preferential” rent. Upon signing a lease, the landlord may initially charge a “preferential” rent, even if that term is not used. This is a rent that is lower than what the landlord is legally allowed to charge (the maximum “legal regulated rent”). Understand that upon any future lease renewal, the landlord may ask for the full legal rent, plus increases authorized that year by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board. Every rent stabilized lease should contain the legal rent of the apartment. If you cannot afford the higher legal rent, you may want to consider a different apartment. [More on preferential rents
  • Ask for the Rent Stabilization Rider. The Rider describes the rights and obligations of tenants and owners under the Rent Stabilization Law. It also states the previous rent for the apartment. [More on the Rent Stabilization Lease Rider in DHCR Fact Sheet #2
  • Ask if the building is operating under the 421-a or J-51 tax incentive programs. If the building was built with the aid of a tax exemption, your rent is regulated for the period of the exemption (usually 10-30 years). At the end of this period, your landlord can charge “market” rates. You can also look up this information online.
  • Are you the first tenant in a decontrolled unit? If you are the first tenant in a previously rent-controlled apartment, the owner should have negotiated with you before charging a rent. You have 90 days from the first day of receipt of notice (called the RR-1 form) to file a “Fair Market Rent Appeal” (FMRA) if you want to challenge the new rent. [More on FMRAs in DHCR Fact Sheet #6].
  • Understand that when a rent stabilized apartment is vacated, there are multiple factors that cause the rent to be higher than the previous tenant’s. However, once in the apartment, you have four years to challenge the calculation of the new rent upon vacancy. If you have reason to believe you’re being charged too much, consider filing a complaint with the NYS Division of Housing, which will investigate your claims of overcharge.

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Landlord’s Right to Access. 

If you are concerned about privacy, be sure to ask for wording in the lease limiting the landlord’s ability to enter your apartment (except during emergencies). Tenants in multiple dwellings also have the right to install and maintain their own locks on their apartment entrance doors, but you must provide the landlord with a duplicate key upon request. 

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Need More Help? 

For more information on your rights and responsibilities as a tenant, check out the NYS Attorney General’s “Tenant’s Rights Guide” and HPD’s guide to useful information, “ABC’s of Housing.” Also, if you are moving into a rent-stabilized apartment, you have additional rights as a tenant: check out DHCR Fact Sheets

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