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Brokered Promises

The "no fee" apartment people say it's possible to find a great place without forking over 15 percent. We wanted to see for ourselves.

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When you troll the Voice classifieds, it seems like the only apartments not already rented by the time you call turn out to be ads placed by "no fee" apartment brokers. These apartments are always still available, but before you can look at them you must first come down to the office to register, for a fee ranging from $35 to $200. It seems like a good deal -- a broker would charge more than a month's rent. On the other hand, what if the listings turned out to be stale, or completely bogus?

Curious to see whether it was possible to rent a decent apartment sans broker, New York tested five of these agencies, including two Websites and an automated telephone service. In each case we signed on like any other customer, pretending to be looking for a one-bedroom in Manhattan, preferably on the West Side in a doorman building, ideally for less than $2,400 a month, with a $2,600 max.

There were no bargains, but we did see plenty of fine apartments that met our standards. Most of these companies build their inventories the same way brokers do, by reaching out directly to landlords. (Only ApartmentSource.com and Rent-direct.com are actually licensed apartment-information vendors; as for the others, the New York Department of State has no records.) And several times during our search we ran into full-service brokers who were showing the very same apartments, clients in tow.

ApartmentSource.com

How it works: For $35 you get to sift through its Internet database. The search engine lets you hunt according to price range, size, location, and desired amenities. For 30 days, you receive daily e-mails with new vacancies (usually three to four, but often as many as six) that meet your specifications.

Results: A whopping 63 apartments met our criteria on the first try. We called fifteen; eight were already taken, but we were able to set up appointments to see five the same afternoon.

The apartments: Two were perfect: 560 West 43rd Street, an attractive one-bedroom on the twenty-seventh floor with a terrace view of the Hudson for $2,545, and a loft-style one-bedroom in a former commercial space at 120 Greenwich Street for $2,409.

The skinny: Our favorite. The Website was efficient and easy to use. The daily updates by e-mail were always on-point, and overall their list contained the freshest, most wide-ranging leads.

Rent-direct.com

How it works: The same as Apartment-Source, but for considerably more ($169). In return, you get to use the service for as long as it takes to find a place (although after two months the company will want proof that you haven't already moved). Also known as Rentny.com, Apartments-today.com, and Apartments Illustrated.

Results: Out of 58 listings that met the criteria, we liked 10; of those we were able to arrange same-day appointments at 5.

The apartments: The best was a one-bedroom in Trump's new West Side development, 180 Riverside Boulevard, for $2,050. While we were there, we also saw a cute alcove studio for $1,950. They weren't the greatest deals, but they were nice apartments in a luxury building that were being shown by full-service brokers on the same day.

The skinny: Not as frequently updated as ApartmentSource's, but their list did contain a wider price range. The e-mail updates arrived several times a day. It's a worthy choice for anyone who has the luxury of stretching a search over several months.

Everest Real Estate
11 East 36th Street, seventh floor; 212-448-0771.

How it works: For $149, Everest provided a list of 135 apartments, the same list its full-service brokers use, according to a sales associate. (Please. Do we look like we're from Pittsburgh?) We were also instructed to call every few days for the next two months for updates.

Results: We called the 5 most promising of the 25 that met the criteria. Two were still available.

The apartments: When we arrived at 19 West 69th Street, the one-bedroom for $2,300 was gone. However, another one-bedroom on the fifteenth floor, for $2,450, was available. Despite lots of space (850 square feet) and a view of neighboring rooftops (a.k.a. southern exposure), it was overpriced. The next apartment, at 304 West 92nd Street, at Riverside, was in a great old building with a stone façade. The apartment, a small one-bedroom for $2,100, had a stove and sink in the living room, and the bedroom was tiny; the only two windows faced brick walls.

The skinny: Slimmer pickings than at the online services. However, when we called back the next day, the sales associate was eager to help and gave us three new leads.

Metro Management
165 Madison Avenue, at 31st Street, Suite 301; 212-686-8491.

How it works: Same deal as Evergreen, only the list costs $200 and you can call back for updates for 60 days.

Results: Of the 196 apartment leads we were sold, about 20 met the criteria. Of the five that looked good on paper, we arranged to see two.

The apartments: The first advised, "See Super M-F 6 to 7." But when we rang the super's buzzer at 6:15 on a Thursday, he was nowhere to be found. (Moments like this explain why brokers are able to charge so much.) At the second apartment, 250 West 100th Street, we arrived to find that the apartments on Metro's list had already been taken. But the doorman gave us keys to another recently vacated apartment: a spacious one-bedroom with a romantic cityscape view for $2,050.

The skinny: Our least-favorite. Many of the apartments on this list were also on the online lists, but the reverse was not true. Also, a number of apartments that this company referred us to were either rented or inaccessible. The updates were thinner than the other services', and contained repeats.

540-RENT

How it works: A phone service that advertises in the back of the Village Voice. For $15, you listen to a recorded list of no-fee apartments.

Results: When we called, we found that we could only limit the search by desired rent, so we were forced to listen to listings outside our targeted search. Then the line disconnected after we had only made it through ten listings.

The apartments: One of them, at 11 Waverly Place, a doorman building off Washington Square, was a pretty convertible-one-bedroom with leaded-glass windows and hardwood floors for $2,450 a month. Another was a moderate-size one-bedroom with a cityscape view at 1385 York Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets, a charming doorman building with a pool, for $2,495.

The skinny: Feasible but not cost-effective, since the only way to get updates is to pay an additional fee. However, the fact that even through this unwieldy and thoroughly irritating service we were able to see some decent apartments proves that the broker's fee can be beaten.


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