How To Avoid Renting A Deathtrap: A NYC Apartment Hunter’s Guide

When applying to rent an apartment, prospective renters often have to do everything short of turning over their Tinder password—landlords regularly require background checks, credit checks, employer and landlord referral letters, and in some cases more. When I last applied for an apartment in New York, I had to turn over two pay stubs and two years of tax returns on top of all that other stuff.

The flow of information seldom goes the other way. While renters who have been taken to housing court end up on a tenant blacklist, whether or not they were in the right, tenants often don’t know who their landlord is, much less get an idea at the outset of how well they manage their buildings. If you haven’t looked for an apartment in a while, recall that the information imbalance is so extreme that prospective renters usually have to pay for the privilege of going under the microscope.

Fortunately, there are some public resources that the savvy would-be renter can turn to in an effort to avoid ending up in, say, a “luxury” building in Williamsburg with a roof deck but no certificate of occupancy, or an “affordable” East Village studio with chronic bedbug infestations. Founded this year, the site Rentlogic synthesizes some of these sources—complaint and violation data from the departments of Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development—to give buildings, owners, and management companies grades a la the Health Department’s restaurant inspections.

For a time, the startup hoped to get revenue from ads listing A- and B-rated apartments, but after just eight days of partnering with the site Citi Habitats to do just that, Citi Habitats pulled the plug. Neither side will say specifically why they parted ways, but it’s clear that some building owners bristle at having the magnifying glass pointed back at them. Citi Habitats president Gary Malin told the Times, “I’m an advocate for some of these owners who believe some of this information might be inaccurate.”

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60 Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn, a former homeless shelter plagued with maintenance issues and alleged tenant harassment, may not be the best place to rent an apartment. (Rentlogic)

“We’re a company where most landlords don’t like what we’re doing,” Rentlogic CEO Yale Fox told Gothamist*. He explained that he has received positive feedback from A- and B-grade landlords who feel like their work goes under-appreciated, but 70 percent of New York’s properties got worse grades, and in complaints to Fox and his colleagues, the owners tend to blame everyone but themselves.

For the prospective renter considering a place, punching the address into Rentlogic seems to be a good starting point—a few known ratholes we pulled up got an appropriate F grade, however their algorithm is secret due to “security concerns,” and some new developments we tried don’t show up in their system. In Fox’s telling, the site produces no false bad grades—because the grades are built around inspector-verified building violations—and only some false positives, where for various reasons tenants have not complained to the city.

If you’re looking to get a more in-depth idea of what you’re getting into before signing up to give a a stranger college tuition a few times over for shelter, read on!

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The victims of alleged serial scammer Quadir Lewis may have avoided their fate had they looked him up and learned that he’s not a licensed broker. (Department of State)

Is your broker legit?

Before we even get to the building you’re looking at, is your broker legit? Bushwick’s watering holes are awash with tales of lost deposits, bogus application fees, and awkward acrobatics brokers used to get into apartments without a key. There are a lot of fly-by-night operators out there, so a crucial place to start is the Department of State’s Occupational Licensing Management System, where you can search the name of your broker to see if he or she is actually licensed. If your broker is licensed, he or she has a lot more reason to stay within the lines and not scam you, because a license or lack thereof is the difference between being able to pursue a legit career as a broker and not. The Better Business Bureau could also be your friend here.

Brick Underground also has some tips for finding a no-fee/broker-free apartment, which is obviously a more palatable way to go. We can’t vouch for all their methods, but you can check them out here.

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The troubled new Borough Park luxury building The Hamilton is not yet registered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. (HPD)

Who owns your building?

This seems pretty fundamental, right? The answer can be frustratingly difficult to pin down thanks to New York’s lenient corporate disclosure laws, which allow rich people to set up difficult-to-trace shell companies on demand. Still, it’s worth a shot to try to figure out who will be cashing your checks/controlling your fate.

One place to look is Building Info, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s repository for owner information and housing condition data (more on the latter part later). To visit HPD Building Info, click here. All owners of buildings three units or larger that are not owner-occupied are required by law to register their buildings with HPD annually, so unless you’re looking at a truly small/landlord-occupied building, there should be information about yours here.

Once you’ve typed the address in, click “Property Owner Registration Information” in the lefthand column to pull up the owner information. Provided the registration is current, this should pull up the building owner, the property management company, if different, and the managing agent, as well as their addresses. If the registration has lapsed, that is a sign at least that the building owner is not on the ball.

If the building is unregistered, or the building is too small for HPD to track, you can try ACRIS, the Department of Finance’s clunky, confusing database of property records. To look up your building’s Block and Lot numbers, which you’ll need in order to search, click here. Then type in the address in the top fields, and click “Find BBL.” Once the bottom fields have populated, click “Document search by BBL.” This will take you to another page with the search fields already filled in, so you’ll just need to click “Search” again.

You can learn a lot from the records here, but first and foremost is the name and address of the owner. Look for the last entry where the Document Type is “DEED,” indicating a deed transfer, and click the “DET” button on the left side for details. This will take you to a summary of the deed transaction. Party 2 should be the current building owner.

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The red, as seen at the evacuated 120 South Fourth Street in Williamsburg, is probably a sign that it’s a good idea to stay away. (DOB)

What is the condition of the building?

There are two main repositories for this information: HPD Building Infoand the Department of Buildings’ Building Information Search (got that?). HPD tracks housing conditions such as leaks, rodent and bug infestations, and the presence of lead paint, whereas the DOB logs construction permits and structural problems.

One can glean a good deal from clicking around a building’s HPD profile, but perhaps the two most telling sections are the open violations, showing what inspectors have confirmed to be problems and the landlord has not gotten around to fixing, and the complaint history, which provides a general texture of tenants’ complaints over time.

Also telling if not wholly informative is the Litigation/Case Status section, which shows all tenant- and HPD-initiated lawsuits stemming from conditions and/or harassment. This is frustrating in that it doesn’t show you the claims of the various lawsuits and their outcomes, but given the time, energy, and money it takes to bring a lawsuit, it’s certainly worth knowing whether the owner of a building you’re considering living in has, for example, been sued a dozen times in the last decade by or on behalf of current residents.

For more on specific lawsuits, you can try punching the name of the LLC into the Local and Supreme Court searches over at the state’s eCourts database, but our courts are not adjusting to this whole 21st century thing too readily, so you’ll be lucky if the parties involved have filed anything digitally. If anything, you might find a PDF of a judge’s decision, or if the jolly rent-controlled tenant in the sky is smiling on you, all of the filings under a button marked “eFiled documents.”

Within the Building’s Department’s BIS records, the most relevant sections are the complaint history, the violation history, and the ECB violation history. The ECB is the Environmental Control Board, which adjudicates more serious building violations. Both types of violations are helpful in understanding what ails a building, and given how long the owner takes to fix problems and pay fines, how seriously he or she takes maintenance and resident safety.

Also a good, if limited resource is the Public Advocate’s Office’s Landlord Watch List. In the past it has suffered from failure to parse who is behind LLCs, meaning the “worst” landlords tend to be the ones least adept at distancing themselves from their companies. This year’s list is somewhat improved, but a section that in years past showed all buildings with more than a set number of serious violations now just shows buildings owned by the 100 worst landlords.

To find out specifically about the building’s bedbug history, you can check The Bedbug Registry. The site is based on anonymously submitted reports, meaning it’s less vetted than the violations that show up in the HPD system. Also, who emails a random website and doesn’t contact 311 to make sure the city gets on their landlord to get rid of the bugs? In any case, when it comes to bedbugs, there are few places in the city they haven’t been, but knowledge is power…Or maybe it’s fear. Unclear.

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What’s the old saying? It’s better to have not rented than to come home to this crap? (Lauren Evans/Gothamist)

Does the building have a certificate of occupancy?

A certificate of occupancy is a document that the city requires for a building to be legally habitable. It describes generally what the building looks like and will be used for, and is supposed to be issued only after a thorough inspection of the premises. Even if you’re fine with living in a legal gray zone/potential death trap, it’s worth thinking twice if a) your building lacks a C of O or b) your building’s C of O describes something wildly different from the current building, i.e. a two-story factory where there is actually a five-story apartment building. That’s because if a building lacks a valid C of O, sure you could potentially be within your rights to withhold rent, but your options are also limited, because one call to 311 about a cracked stair could lead the Department of Buildings to issue a vacate order for the whole building. In other words: instant eviction.

To check out a building’s certificate of occupancy, plug the address into DOB BIS, and click “View Certificates of Occupancy” towards the top. If there is more than one, click through until you find the one with the most recent date.

What is the landlord/property manager’s track record?

If you’re lucky enough to access the documents without having to go to court to pull the files, lawsuits can give you a limited idea of what sorts of conflicts the owner has had with tenants, utility companies, business partners, and creditors. Also, and this is probably obvious, but once you have the owner name and address, try Googling each separately. There’s a chance you can find other LLCs that use the same address, meaning they’re probably run by at least some of the same people, or if the building has been written about by the real estate trade publications or a local newspaper, the name of the actual person behind the LLC, as opposed to the managing agent, who in larger companies is often lower-ranking. You should be able to search by address in the state Division of Corporations’ Corporation and Business Entity Database, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

Not all slumlords make the news, but if yours has, it’s better to find out before you’re the one with a chronically collapsing ceiling getting familiar with the 311 hold music.

RentLogic, Yelp, and the Better Business Bureau could potentially be helpful here, too.

Of course, all of this research will only help you as far as letting you know about the rot and roaches. Whether it’s still worth the $3,700 and the 50-minute bus-to-train commute from “Cobble Hook” are other questions entirely. Oh, but once you make up your mind, be sure to check to see if your apartment is rent-stabilized. You never know, and you certainly shouldn’t take your landlord’s word for it.

Happy hunting.

*Between Citi Habitats, Streeteasy, and Zillow, only Streeteasy provides information about who a building’s owner is, and if you sign up for an account, information about DOB violations. Citi Habitats did not respond to a request for someone to talk about why they don’t list basic owner background and building maintenance history information.

Streeteasy is part of the Zillow Group. Streeteasy spokeswoman Lauren Riefflin said no one was available to discuss the decision-making, but she provided this statement:

Our goal is to surface as much pertinent information to potential buyers and renters as possible. This is coming from a multitude of StreetEasy and public-record databases—we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of buildings and units, and millions of data points across just the five boroughs, presented in a universally organized, easy to navigate way. In addition to the address, number of units, amenities, sales and rentals unit history, photos, and building descriptions, StreetEasy’s building pages include a “Building Facts” section that provides links to applicable “Documents and Permits” from the DOB. The Documents and Permits link opens directly to an easily scan-able list of complaints or building violations filed with the city, and includes a link to access the original complaint document. In the same “Building Facts” section, Discussions directs shoppers to our public message boards where users engage in conversations about various topics and post information or personal experiences and link back to the particular building or unit.