A version of this article first appeared in March 2013; it has since been updated.
Finding an apartment in New York City is hard—so hard, in fact, you might jump at the first available place you visit, even though there's trash piled up by the front door, the elevator isn't working, and the whole places smells like bleach. But the landlord is just so reassuring and said, "It will be perfect when you move in!" so many times that you're starting to believe him.
But consider this: That bleach may be hiding a mold problem; the elevator might be a chronic issue; and those trash bags could be filled with stuff you don’t even want to know about. So how do you separate the good apartments from the bad? No need to hire a private detective; a few free online resources can address all these concerns—and save you from moving into a grody place in the process.
It may seem like common sense, but the first thing you should do is Google search your address, landlord name, and/or the building management company. Any major news stories (someone was murdered there) or serious infractions (the landlord ran a drug den) will likely show up in the results.
Tap into the Department of Buildings.
Easily the most thorough resource for learning about a building is the DOB's Building Information System, which allows you to see any complaints that have been filed against your building, plus all DOB violations and Environmental Control Board violations. What does that mean? Complaints are things that were likely called in via 311: "My building elevator has been out for five days!" "Crap is falling off this building!" "They are demolishing my office while people are working!"
Complaints often lead to an inspection by the relevant city agency (HPD for heat and hot water issues, DOHMH for mold and rodent issues, etc.), which may then issue violations. There are two types of violations: the procedural kind that don't need to be issued by a visiting inspector, and ECB violations, which are more severe and are issued during site visits. These include mold, rodent infestations, no hot water, and other things that can make a place uninhabitable.
Here’s how to use it:
1) Go to the Building Information System website.
2) In the "Search by Property" section, use option #1. Select your borough, type in your building number and street name, and hit go.
3) This brings you to your building profile. Scroll to the bottom of the page, and you'll see a box with links for Complaints, Violations-DOB, and Violations-ECB, with numbers showing how many filings each has. Clicking on these links takes you to a list of recorded infractions. For complaints and ECB violations, you can click on the item number to see a detailed description, but unfortunately, you can't do this for standard DOB violations.
Let other city and state agencies help.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is another resource for searching for building complaints, though its online database only shows complaints from the past year. However, you can see myriad types of complaints that have been levied against a building, from whether or not it has a vermin problem to illegal wiring or other work.
It’s also good to know if you live in a building with rent-stabilized apartments—in theory, a lease must include a rider notifying you if your unit is rent-regulated, but in practice, that’s not always the case. New York State’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal has an online portal where you can search to see if your building has stabilized apartments; then, you can also request your actual apartment’s regulation history.
Don’t let the bed bugs bite.
Landlords in New York must disclose whether or not a building has had a bed bug infestation in the past year, so simply asking this question should be enough. But if you think your landlord is hiding something, you can consult the Bed Bug Registry. The data is crowdsourced by other people, so some accounts are detailed, others are not. You simply type in the address of the building you're searching for and any reported accounts will appear, along with a list of nearby places that have had bed bugs. You can also search on the semi-terrifying map, which visualizes reports with thousands of red dots that kind of resemble bug bites.
Find out who your landlord really is.
Most landlords in New York City aren't out to get you, but there are shady characters who don't give two hoots about the state of their buildings—and there are a few ways to determine who these landlords are.
The City Public Advocate keeps a list of the worst landlords in NYC, which you can access online here. This has the Public Advocate’s list of the city’s 100 worst landlords; it also lets you search by building or landlord/management company name. If you're considering a place that appears on this list, run away and don't look back.
Follow the advice of your peers.
There are also several crowdsourced review sites that function as a kind of Yelp for landlords—some of the most popular include Rate My Landlord, Review My Landlord, and Whose Your Landlord. Like all review sites, the info comes from tenants sharing their own experiences, not from an official review process, so if you're using these resources, you should take the info with a grain of salt.