virtual apartment hunt

Follow along on one New Yorker’s journey to find a new apartment during COVID-19. (Tupungato/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Writer Jordi Lippe-McGraw will be chronicling her family’s virtual apartment hunt in a changed New York for StreetEasy. This is part 2 in her series on apartment searching during COVID-19. Look for more installments of her story here throughout the spring.

For New York real estate, COVID-19 precautions have largely meant an end to in-person apartment showings and open houses. But many people in the city still have to move — people like me. Despite the virus upheaval, my lease is up in May. So my husband and I are on the hunt this spring for what I hope will be an upgrade from our Chelsea 1-bedroom, which is getting a bit cramped with us, our toddler, and our dog, Taco. We’re looking for a 2-bedroom — and since coronavirus now has us staying 200 miles from the city, sequestered with family in Pennsylvania, we’re doing it remotely. It’s a virtual apartment hunt.

The Changing Landscape of NYC Apartment Showings

When COVID-19 first altered our search, some agents were still trying to set up in-person viewings. I had to explain that I was not in the city and would need to see more than just photos. Nearly all were happy to oblige, arranging FaceTime or Skype showings instead.

virtual apartment hunt

The author and her family. Their current lease is up in May.

An agent for a West 85th Street pad virtually walked my husband and me through the entire apartment, opening closets and cabinets and showing us the view out the window. Later, she even sent a video of the hallway and building entrance, so we could get a thorough sense of the place.

This certainly made me more confident than simply looking at still pictures. I could almost see myself saying yes — almost. My doubts kept nagging away: What if the floors are super-creaky? What if there’s a strangely shaped wall that won’t allow for a dining table?

On a Virtual Apartment Hunt, Walkthrough Videos Are Crucial

Within a matter of days, restrictions tightened, and listings actually started to advertise the virtual willingness and capabilities of agents. For example, the listing for a renovated 2-bedroom on the Upper West Side read, “This apartment can be toured, applied for, and leased from the comfort of your own home.” And many other options, like a converted 1-bedroom in Greenwich Village we looked at, already had a walkthrough video embedded in the listing (see below).

Overall, most agents seemed perfectly happy to supply a video. I can only imagine that they’re just as stressed about offloading a unit as we are about finding one. Most seem willing to do whatever it takes, in these unprecedented times. One agent even texted me videos and details of upcoming apartments. It was great to go back and forth with him, explaining what we liked and didn’t like about the units to help him narrow down which options to send us.

If there can be any positive result out of this situation, one would be walkthrough videos becoming standard practice. These tour clips allow apartment hunters like myself to narrow down our search, because they reveal details that listing photos might not. They could also help agents cull their list of potential renters, preventing wasted time on both ends. Nothing will replace seeing a home in person, of course, but a walkthrough video definitely allows you to get a much better sense of the space.

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Finding the Limits of Video Tours

That said, having only the ability to view an apartment remotely has been stressful. We keep finding ourselves in a spot where we think we really love a place after seeing photos, floor plans, and videos, but we still get cold feet about pulling the trigger.

The West 85th Street apartment that the author almost pulled the trigger on.

Our virtual apartment hunt is going to result in a huge move. This apartment will be where we live for years, and its location will determine where our son goes to school. This is where his childhood will take place. How can someone make that kind of decision without ever setting foot inside?

Adding to the anxiety is the fact that my work as a freelance writer is slowing down a bit with the slashing of editorial budgets. Like so many people right now, I don’t know when my income stream will resume in full, if ever. I find myself running through various scenarios, like living with my in-laws through the summer to save money, or extending our current lease for one more year. With no clear timeline on when this situation will end, honestly, it’s sometimes overwhelming.

For now, we will keep looking and touring apartments virtually. But as our May 31 lease expiration date grows nearer, the pressure to make a decision is quickly becoming more intense.

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My Tips for Virtual Viewing

If you, too, are on a virtual apartment hunt during COVID-19, here are some things I’ve learned about remote showings. Hope they help!

  • Have someone else watch the video, too: Whether it’s a video chat or you’re watching a video walkthrough on a listing, have another set of eyes take a look as well. I can’t tell you how many times my husband noticed something that I didn’t.
  • Ask to see out the windows: In most listings, photos don’t show what’s outside the windows unless the views are something to brag about. Make sure you ask the agent to take a thorough video of what’s out each window, and ask questions like, “What direction does the unit face?”
  • Utilize Street View on Google Maps: You want to see what your block looks like, right? And if you have to deal with a stroller daily, like I do, you’ll want to know how easy (or hard!) it is to get in and out of the building’s front door.
  • Double-check listing info: There have been multiple times in my search where the photos and floor plans on listings were not entirely accurate. One apartment said it had an in-unit washer and dryer, while another showed a balcony on the floor plan. Neither were correct. Be sure to confirm all the details.
  • Inquire about nearby construction: When you view an apartment in person, you get a sense of what’s happening in the neighborhood noise-wise. You can’t do that virtually. So be sure to ask the agent if there are any construction projects nearby. This question saved me from putting an application in for an Upper West Side 2-bedroom where my son’s nursery would have faced a construction pit! That really wouldn’t be conducive to nap time.

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