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An expert’s guide to renting a New York City apartment

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From finding the perfect place to decorating it once you’ve moved in

A dining room with a large wooden table which is flanked by assorted chairs. Multiple works of art hang on one of the white walls. There is a grey area rug under the table. Gabriela Herman

I’ve lived in nine apartments since moving to New York City nearly 13 years ago. A lot of people feel the sucker-punch of anxiety when they hear me say that, but the act of moving for me is more of an opportunity than a chore.

For most of my career, I’ve written and edited stories centered around design and architecture. So while it’s still fairly hard to visualize a time when I might own, renovate, or build a house of my choosing, the primary outlet for my space-making tendencies involves the wild and wooly world of New York City’s rental market.

Full disclosure: While I’ve rarely lived in a rental that exceeded $2,000 a month, I’ve also never had to move because of economic hardship or financial duress. I am also a single person who hasn’t needed to pay for extra bedrooms for freeloading toddlers—I’ve always rented with roommates, with significant others, or solo.

I have, however, refined a few best practices along the way.

Ready, set… wait

Starting the hunt too early can give you an okay idea of market pricing, but it will also wear you down to look at a bunch of apartments that won’t work with your timing. Also, rents tend to fluctuate throughout the year, so what you’re seeing in March will be relatively more expensive come June.

A theory on timing

Plan in advance, but don’t expect to find your new place before a month-ish out. The best luck I’ve ever had finding an apartment cold involved scheduling my hunt for the last day of the month prior—aka, looking for a place, ready with paperwork (past rental history, credit score, pay stubs and bank statements, reference letters, copy of driver’s license) and checkbook in hand, on June 30 if I didn’t need to move until August 1. My logic goes: Most people looking to move on August 1 start searching on July 1, and everyone who needs to move on July 1 has already found their spot by June 30. Voila! A window in which to capitalize.

Keep a record

My No. 1 tip when scouting apartments, especially if you’re looking at one you think you’re going to love: have a measuring tape with you at all times! Don’t be shy—get in there and measure that wall/alcove/funny open storage space in the bathroom! (It helps to store a list in your phone’s Notes app of dimensions for the furniture you’ll be bringing with you, but that’s, like, graduate level.) Also: Take pictures. It’s easy to think you’ll remember how high that ceiling goes, or how many kitchen cabinets there are, but you won’t. Just make sure you delete them the moment you decide to pass on a place.

How to sell well

Be realistic about how long certain pre-moving tasks are going to take. Selling furniture? Start taking photos and posting to classifieds about six weeks out. Try to take photos from multiple angles, in daylight, against a plain background with no competing clutter. Include detail shots of the upholstery fabric, armrest detail, and manufacturer’s label, and make sure to include specific measurements for the dimension of the piece you are selling. Do your research on whatever platform you plan to sell on ahead of time, and find out how much relative items will garner; you’re never going to unload your sister’s ex’s mom’s 1992 recliner if you list it for $1,000.

Where to sell it

I’ve had better luck with Apartment Therapy Classifieds (and my own Instagram and Facebook!) than I have with Craigslist—mainly because there are a lot of scammers on CL who claim they will send “a cashier’s check” before dispatching a messenger to pick up your goods. I don’t totally understand this scam or who would fall for it, but don’t be that dope! There are also private/invite-only Facebook groups you can try your hand at, like Janelle’s List, and online resale/consignment services like Chairish, Depop, and AptDeco. One thing Craigslist is super handy for, though, is the “free” section—a quick way to make sure the stuff you put out on your curb disappears before the next rainstorm.

The purge

I can’t repeat this enough: Give yourself enough time to move intelligently. Otherwise, you’ll panic and throw all the crap you should actually be sorting through (and donating, or putting out on the street, or tossing into the garbage) into a hastily taped box for you or your movers to schlep to your next abode. That box will haunt you the longer it goes unopened, trust. Some people Kondo, some people ascribe to the Swedish “death cleaning” method, some people just find a deep sense of soothing by continuously streamlining their stuff (ahem, hi). If you work better on a deadline, why not start the purge as soon as you know you’ll be moving?

Pack it up, pack it in

Do not skimp on packing supplies: Cheap packing tape and trash bags will make you rue the day you decided to move. I use linens (from T-shirts to hand towels) to pack breakables, like dishes and ceramics, but there’s not much getting around bubble wrap if you’re prepping framed art and don’t want it to get dinged. Most movers will provide, often for a fee, things like plastic wrap for a mattress, wardrobe boxes for hanging clothes, and blankets for fragile items like plants, mirrors, or marble-topped tables. As for the boxes themselves, a number of companies rent plastic moving bins which they deliver and pick up for you—including, now, U-Haul. Finally, don’t forget to number those boxes! Check them off as you’re unpacking.

Hired help

I’ve never regretted paying movers, not even once. All that furniture you sold will more than cover the cost, and your friendships will remain unsullied. (No, pizza and beer is not payment enough for friends helping you move.) My best advice here is to get moving company recs from your colleagues—that’s how I booked mine when I moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan last June.

Sofa king logical

Don’t make any big furniture decisions until you’ve lived in your space for a minute. I know it’s tempting to order a sofa in advance because of long lead times… but pretty often you won’t even know whether it will fit into your apartment! (There’s a solve for that, of course: rigorous measuring, or more drastic steps.)

New storage, who dis?

You will need to plan on (and budget for) new storage needs. Moving from a 1.5-bedroom with two walk-in closets to a studio with no closets or drawers is going to be tricky; strategize accordingly. Consider things like built-in shelving, strategically deployed hooks (near sink, back of door), baskets for stashing linens, rolling carts that fit under a counter, and those universally agreed-upon space savers: slim velvet hangers. Likewise, you probably won’t think to test out the water pressure in the shower before you move in, but switching out the extant showerhead for a high-pressure model is about the easiest hack you’ll ever have to tackle—and could cost as little as $20.

Gilding the lily

Based on my measuring tape tip above, you can probably guess that I have my artwork plotted out in elevation drawings well before move-in. But I will say that putting things you love on your walls is the fastest way to feel at home. Start with rigor (and hang those framed pieces at a midpoint of no higher than 60 inches, for the love of god), but then loosen up on the rules. Hammer in some driftwood, hang something super low or high—hell, string up some honky-tonk lights over a door frame if you like the color light it gives off. And don’t fret so much about your security deposit: Your happiness and well-being are worth a $200 penalty spread out over the cost of a year. Anyway, isn’t it about time you learned to spackle?