New York City's rental market is bouncing back, but tenants are still signing leases on apartments sight-unseen

By Don Reisinger

Apartment hunting in New York City has always been a struggle. But when the coronavirus locked the city down, realtors and renters alike had to adapt to a new reality. 

In early April, Governor Andrew Cuomo reclassified real estate as essential businesses after an appeal by the New York State Association of Realtors. 

The state soon clarified, though, that all showings had to be done virtually.

Ari Harkov, a realtor with Halstead Real Estate, told Business Insider most of the buildings he worked with weren't allowing non-residents past the lobby, anyway.

He and other realtors are using Facetime, Zoom, YouTube, even Instagram, to conduct virtual walkthroughs. Some are offering highly detailed 3-D tours and moving applications, payments, and lease signings online, according to Curbed.

The number of walkthrough videos added to listings on StreetEasy increased 330% in March, the site reported, and views of virtual tours have shot up 800%.

A New York City apartment building on May 13, 2020.
A New York City apartment building on May 13, 2020.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Compared to buyers, "more tenants are open to considering a sight-unseen rental commitment or a rental commitment from a video," Harkov said. But it's no replacement for the real thing. 

"Real estate remains an in-person business," he added.

Harkov says his sales are down 85%. In the rental market, though, it's been the inventory that disappeared. 

In late March, many renters decided to renew rather than move during a pandemic. Some landlords kept their properties off the market altogether. 

StreetEasy reported there were 52% fewer rentals available in the second half of March than the first half. For the week ending March 29, there were only 1,500 apartments on the market. 

As the new normal sets in — and more people opt to leave New York — that's changing. On May 19, StreetEasy economist Nancy Wu reported on the "early signs of a rebound" in the number of New York City rentals. 

By the end of April, Wu said, new inventory had surpassed late-February levels, "and has continued to increase every week in May."