How to Find an Actually Good Apartment Not on StreetEasy

Photo: Alain Bachellier/Getty Images

A friend and her husband had been looking to move out of their cramped, too-dark two-bedroom in Prospect Lefferts for years, but the rental market only seemed to get worse and worse. “I was checking most days of the week on StreetEasy and Craigslist for one or two bedrooms and it was really fucking slim pickings,” Molly tells me. Everything was tiny or overpriced or both, often with a huge broker’s fee. Then, her friend put her in touch with the super at a nearby building she had long coveted: big, open apartments, most of them with balconies, near the park and the train. In the darkness of her search, the building became her focus. “I was kind of psycho about it, texting and emailing all the time,” she says. This went on for over a year. At one point, the super stopped responding but, undeterred, Molly enlisted friends in the building to ask on her behalf. Last February, an enormous one-bedroom with a balcony opened up for $2,800, and they were first in line.

Conventional real-estate-listing sites have become a darker place in recent years. It’s not that things were ever all that great on StreetEasy or Craigslist, but the market continues to hit record high after record high with median rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn reaching $4,250 and $3,599 in April, according to the latest Elliman report. Then there are the bidding wars. The broker-fee bidding wars. The brokers who ghost. The open house mêlées. By the time anything good goes up on any of these sites, it’s either been rented or you’re left competing with dozens of other hopeless idiots in an arbitrary war for an alcove studio with views of a brick wall. StreetEasy is dead. To get a decent apartment in New York City right now, the off-grid listing is your best shot.

A brief survey of recently successful apartment hunters turns up a version of the same story, again and again: A sister’s old college roommate who was moving out or that one reply to a desperate Instagram plea or their nonna’s friend from church whose grandson is moving to California and needs to break his lease. This informal, social-excavation method is nothing new, but it seems to have taken on new significance in the post-pandemic market frenzy. “I never successfully found an apartment through StreetEasy,” a renter in Ridgewood tells me. “I’ve never made that much money and don’t have the ability to pay a broker’s fee.” After browsing through endless Craigslist ads and local broker websites, she found her current apartment through a Polish community site. (She would only talk to me if I didn’t reveal the name of the site: “I don’t want it to blow up.”) She had to use Google Translate to navigate it. It worked: She ended up finding a rent-stabilized one-bedroom for $1,500. There were no photos in the listing but also no broker’s fee. A friend went to see it for her and it was perfect — a little crumbling but the tenant before her had fixed it up. Soon she’ll be leaving New York and moving out. As for her apartment? “I’m trying to give it to a friend.”

A colleague had been looking for ages for a one- or two-bedroom that wasn’t incredibly overpriced. “I was just like, Everything seems to be $5,000,” she says. She had tried the open houses. She had tried Listings Project, which was populated with $5,000 Prospect Heights one-bedrooms and people charging rent in addition to making you watch their cat. While sitting on a stoop after one such viewing, which would have required her to keep the owner’s furniture, a friend of a friend walked by. They made small talk. The friend had just broken up with her partner. Did she want her apartment? A year later, this colleague is about to re-sign her lease. She almost didn’t want to talk to me for fear of jinxing the whole thing: “Make fun, but this apartment has made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Then there are the people who found apartments by turning every aspect of their lives into an extension of StreetEasy. A renovated two-bedroom garden apartment in Bed-Stuy is going for $3,000 in the BoCoCa parents group. A desperate searcher who took to begging on Nextdoor got themselves a “gem of a place that would’ve never hit market.” A parent group chat about how to get a toddler to stop biting turned into an off-hand remark about a two-bedroom opening up across the hall in the fall. One renter happily living solo in a stand-alone house in Park Slope got the place after a hookup turned friend tired of the long-term sublet. Would he want it?

Not every creative attempt works out. One couple I spoke to told me they printed out tags that read, “Are you looking for some of the cleanest, neatest, most space-respecting, and financially stable residents you’ll ever meet?” and tied them with ribbons to brownstones in Crown Heights. “With StreetEasy, we’d go to a showing and there was a line out the door,” one of them told me. “I was like, I think I need to be creative here.” The tags didn’t work. (They were taken down almost immediately.) And the effort was a little try-hard. But they were desperate. “We were just brainstorming what we could do to increase our chances of finding a place,” they said. “The housing market is crazy.”

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