The term "No-Fee apartments" is extremely confusing to most renters, even veterans who have lived in NYC most of their lives. A big source of the misunderstanding stems from two different types of apartments that one might advertise as having no broker fee. In the first case, a listing posted directly by the landlord generally has no fee, but ONLY if the renter finds the apartment and contacts the landlord without any assistance from a licensed real estate broker. In the second case, a landlord or property manager can offer to pay broker fees on behalf of the renter, which allows any real estate broker or salesperson to advertise the listing as no fee.
Consumers who don't understand the nyc rental market find this paradox to be one of the most frustrating aspects of the apartment search. It is actually very possible for the same exact apartment to be no fee or fee on the same day, and the difference is who is showing you the apartment. If you are able to see the apartment directly from the landlord, usually through the leasing office, then you probably will not need to pay any additional broker fee. However, if you have a professional, licensed real estate salesperson assisting you in your search, and this agent shows you the same apartment, you are likely obligated to pay a broker fee. You will normally have signed documents agreeing to pay a fee if you rent any of the apartment that agent shows you.
Absolutely not! If the landlord is paying the broker fee, many renters reason they can show up without the broker and instantly negotiate a lower rent. The thinking is, by doing a direct deal, the landlord is saving a few thousand dollars by not paying the fee, and therefore some of that savings should be passed on to the renter. In practice, landlords have more loyalty to their broker partners than to any individual renter. Real estate agents bring the landlords new clients all year long, week after week. Intelligent landlords understand they need to keep the brokers happy, and certainly not allow special deals that would alientate the industry. If a building was known to quote lower prices to direct renters than to brokers, then that same building would very quickly not receive much traffic from agents.
One month OP means that the landlord is paynig the broker one month of rent after the renter has signed a lease and moved into the apartment. Usually, once an agent shows the apartment to a customer, submits an application, and then confirms lease signing, the agent will send an invoice to the management company with the details of the deal, asking for payment. Most landlords will remit the payment within 30-60 day to the brokerage firm, and the firm will pay the appropriate, agreed-upon commission split to the agent.
The founders of RentHop originally pondered this question in 2009, which led to the creation of this website! The original plan, as reported in the NY Times article Getting the Agent Without the Fee, by Michael Grynbaum, was to eliminate the need for apartment brokers entirely. The entire story is best told by Lee Lin, quoted below, in a talk he gave to Startup Institute about his experience at Y Combinator.
When we first started RentHop, we assumed all real estate agents were these evil slimeballs that charged huge fees and barely did anything. We thought we could disrupt the entire industry by creating a website and directly connecting renters with landlords. However, one of the best pieces of advice we received during the summer at Y Combinator came from Paul Graham. He told us that if we really thought brokers were useless, then we should try being brokers for a while. So we did! Lawrence and I both flew back to New York, received our real estate licenses, and spent months meeting clients and showing apartments all day long. I lost a lot of weight, climbing all those walkups and roaming around the streets of Manhattan. That was when we realized being a broker is really hard, and that a great agent adds a ton of value. They save everyone a lot of time, visiting dozens of apartments a week only showing the top ten percent or so to customers. By the end of that year, we completely pivoted the focus of our company to matching qualified renters with the best apartment listings, whether they are posted by a landlord, management company, or broker.