Never have I considered the sweet embrace of death more favorably than when moving between apartments in New York. Friendships are made and unmade beneath the weight of bed frames on the third floor of four-floor walkups. Many a disc has been herniated after a man’s pride got in the way of his better judgment to hire professional movers.
But in New York and other select cities where the search for a new rental is more Hunger Games than House Hunters, there is one aspect of the process that is singularly evil, and it comes before the grunt work: the broker fee.
Cash-strapped New York renters cannot close by merely paying the standard first-month’s rent, last-month’s rent, and security deposit. In many circumstances, you must also give the broker—and I use that term liberally—their cut: usually 15 percent of the annual rent. So let’s say you’re looking to lease a “cozy,” “well-lit” $2,000-a-month apartment—cha-ching, that’ll be $6,000 for first’s, last’s, and the deposit. But then add in the broker’s fee: Hello, another $3,600. For those keeping track, we’re just under 10 grand to get into a new place.
How do brokers, these well-compensated fixtures of New York real estate, earn their keep? It typically starts with a prospective tenant finding a place to their liking on StreetEasy or a similar site. A broker with access to that unit will then arrange a time to meet there with the prospective tenant, unlock the apartment door, lead a typically below-average tour of the space, provide paperwork to apply for the rental, and then share that completed paperwork with the landlord. Bada-bing, bada-boom, pay up, sucker!
There are some New York brokers who find rentals for their clients the way real estate agents elsewhere do. There are also some apartments in New York that are no-fee, meaning that their owners shoulder this ridiculous expense. But in many more cases, there is no way to even get inside a possible rental without first connecting with a broker who happens to have access.
Even 50 years ago, when finding rentals in the huge New York market was more daunting for simpletons like you and me, brokers were already seen as unnecessary middlemen. “Why should I pay a broker if it seems I can get much the same service by calling up one of the bigger management companies?” a Manhattan woman asked The New York Times in 1967. If only she’d known that “calling up one of the bigger management companies” would be replaced by interactive maps that show apartment hunters literally hundreds of openings within seconds—and that brokers have still held onto their turf as overpaid gatekeepers despite it all. That Manhattan woman may have popped a blood vessel.
You may be thinking: This is the greatest city in the world, right? People want to live here; vacancy rates are low. The laws of supply and demand not only allow landlords to outsource the work of finding new tenants, but practically dictate that renters searching for “affordable” living options get screwed with the costs. It’s just how things work.
Let me be clear here: Renters are paying thousands of dollars for a few minutes of face-to-face interaction and some low-skill clerical work—all to save landlords, who are already making bank, the moderate cost and hassle of showing apartments themselves. It is—to put it lightly—a scam. Readers in insane housing markets like Boston or San Francisco may recognize this absurdity. You lucky bastards elsewhere should continue basking in your $3,600.