OCHA Frequently Asked Questions

Columbia's Off-Campus Housing Assistance (OCHA) office assists Columbia students and affiliates in their search for rental housing in the metropolitan area. Office staff manage a database known as the Housing Registry which includes available rooms and apartments in non-Columbia-owned buildings as well as sublets of units in Columbia-managed housing. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I’m not in New York; can I secure an apartment without being there?

A: Renting an apartment without seeing it or meeting your roommate or the landlord is risky. We strongly suggest that you are here in person to see the room or apartment before renting it. Understandably, this may not be possible. We recommend securing a place to stay in NYC for three to five days while you are searching for a longer-term place to stay. Learn how to protect yourself and how to avoid rental scams.

Q: Where do I look for available apartments in NYC?

A: Columbia students and affiliates have exclusive access to search the OCHA Housing Registry, which is a valuable resource. The Registry is a database of available rooms and apartments in non-Columbia-owned buildings in NYC. You can find additional searching resources on the OCHA website.              

Q: How soon should I start searching?

A:  Plan on arriving in NYC between two to three weeks before you want to move in. Set up appointments to view some places the day before you get here. It should take between three to five days to secure an apartment.

Q: I want my own apartment, but I’ll only be at Columbia for one semester. Will I be able to find an apartment for one semester?

A: Short-term apartments are difficult to find, as most apartments have a one-year lease and can be very pricey. You may need to consider renting a room in an apartment share for a short-term place to stay.

Q: I’m an international student and my partner and I are looking for an apartment, but we don’t have a U.S. guarantor. What are our options?

A: The option of pre-paying the year’s rent upfront is no longer permitted in New York State, as of June 2019. Without a U.S. guarantor, you may need to use a guarantor company like Insurent or The Guarantors, which charge a fee of roughly one month rent or less.

Q: I’m looking for an apartment just for myself and I have a guarantor that’s retired. Will that be acceptable?

A: A retired person or couple can be a guarantor if their combined sources of income (social security, pension, rental income, or stock dividends, etc.) are at least eighty times the monthly rent.

Q: I’m having a problem with my broker and I want to make a complaint. What do I do?

A: Your first recourse, when having a problem with your broker, is to get in touch with that person’s supervising broker or the lead broker in their office. You can usually find contact info on their website under “Our Agents”. If you are unable to get results, then you can consider filing a complaint with the Division of Licensing Services N.Y. State Department of State. You can also stop by the OCHA office during drop-in office hours to discuss your options. Drop-in hours are from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 3 – 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday.

Q: Can I use a credit card to rent an apartment?

A: Most landlords will not accept credit cards to rent an apartment. For the first payment when signing the lease, they prefer some form of guaranteed funds, like a cashier’s check, certified check, or bank check. After that, subsequent rent payments can be paid by personal check or through bill-pay services.

Q: Can the OCHA office advise me about a problem I’m having with my roommate?

A: Yes, the OCHA office is a good place to start for suggestions and referrals to other resources when you’re having roommate problems in off-campus housing.

Q: What are the boundaries of Morningside Heights?

A: The boundaries of Morningside Heights are from 110th on the southern boundary to 125th Street on the northern boundary, and with Morningside Drive on the eastern boundary to Riverside Drive on the western boundary.

Q: Which subways stop at Columbia?

A: The only train that stops directly at Columbia is the 1 train, which stops at 116th Street and Broadway. Other subways within a ten minute walk include the A, B, C, and D trains, which stop at 125th Street.

Q: Are room rentals usually for one year?

A: There is no standard length of stay when you rent a room (or apartment share). It can be short-term or long-term, depending on whom you rent the room from and what you agree upon together. It’s not the same as renting an entire apartment, which is usually unfurnished with a standard one-year lease.

Q: Does OCHA offer one-on-one counseling?

A: Yes, you can stop by the OCHA office for one-on-one counseling during drop-in hours which are generally from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 3 – 5 p.m., from Monday to Friday. Make an appointment in advance by emailing ocha@columbia.edu.

Q: If I can’t find a place in Morningside Heights, where should I look?

A: If you can’t find a place in Morningside Heights, the next best thing would be to start looking at neighborhoods situated along the 1 train line, since this is the only train the goes directly to Columbia (stop at 116 Street.). Just south of Columbia is Manhattan Valley and the Upper West Side, and just north and east of Columbia is Harlem, all of which are within walking distance or about two to three subway stops on the 1 train. North of Harlem is Washington Heights, Inwood, and Riverdale, all of which are situated along the 1 train and are within a thirty to forty minute commute, door-to-door.  

Q: Do you have any advice about protecting myself when I rent a room from somebody?

A: Yes, do the following:

  • Confirm the room is being offered by the primary tenant or owner of the apartment. Ask to see paperwork to verify their identity (i.e.:  a lease or ownership papers, a photo ID).
  • Make a written roommate agreement between you which should include the exact address, move-in/move-out dates, rent and security deposit, utilities that are included with rent, policies with visitors and overnight guests, sharing of cleaning for common space, kitchen privileges, return of deposit, etc.

Q: Will it be a problem to bring my pet with me?

A: If you plan on keeping a pet in your apartment, your housing options will be limited. Many Manhattan landlords do not allow dogs, and if they do, you may be limited to only one. There also may be restrictions on the weight (no more than 20 pounds) and the breed and temperament of the dog.

Q: What does it cost to rent near Columbia?

A: The rates below are approximations. The rent market fluctuates with the seasons and the neighborhood.

  • Renting a Private Bedroom (Apartment Share): $900 - $1,700
  • Studio - 1 Bedroom: $1,700-$2,600
  • 2 Bedroom: $2800 and up

Q: What are the financial requirements to rent in NYC?

A: To qualify on your own, most landlords require that you and/or your roommate’s combined annual incomes are about 40 times the monthly rent. For example, if the monthly rent were $3,000 per month, you would need to show income of at least $120,000 per year. You will need to provide financials to prove your income, including: a tax return from last year, recent pay stub. If you don’t qualify, then you will be asked to provide a guarantor, who must live in the U.S. as their primary residence, have good credit, and must earn roughly double what you have to earn to qualify on your own or 80 times the monthly rent.

 Q: What other options do I have if I’m not earning 40 times the rent?

A: If you do not meet this requirement, you may be able to qualify to rent if you can provide:

  • Income from other sources, such as a roommate’s. Landlords may accept roommates' combined incomes to determine financial qualification for an apartment. 
  • A guarantor.

Q: What is a guarantor?

A:  A guarantor is usually a parent, relative or friend who accepts financial liability in the event you and/or your roommate fail to make any payments under the lease. Landlords require that guarantors earn about 80 times the monthly rent as their annual income. This means that for a $3,000 apartment, a guarantor must show income of at least $240,000. Most landlords require that the guarantor live in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey or Connecticut) and will ask for the same documentation listed below.*

Q: I do not meet the income requirements or have a guarantor; what do I do now?

A: There are two options:

  • You can use a guarantor company like Insurent or The Guarantors, which charges a fee of up to one month rent.
  • You may search for a “Room in Apartment,” also known as an apartment share, which does not require financials or a guarantor. You will be renting a private bedroom in someone else’s apartment and sharing the common space.

Q: I found an apartment I like; what do I do now?

A: Once you've found an apartment, you will be asked to fill out a rental application, submit documentation and pay application/credit check fees.

* You may need the following documentation:

  • Letter of employment and salary verification
  • Pay stubs
  • Tax returns
  • Bank statements
  • Name, address, phone number of previous landlords
  • Names, addresses and phone numbers of personal and business references
  • Photo identification (driver's license, passport)

Q: I’ve got the apartment! What should I expect at lease signing?

A: Typically, you will be asked for the following:

  • Two certified checks (first month’s rent and one month security deposit)
  • Pay any brokerage fees (up to 15% of one year's rent) which are due at lease signing.
  • Make arrangements for a move-in date with your landlord or building superintendent.
  • Contact utility companies to set up service.

Q: How do I list my property?

A: To set up your listing account in the OCHA Registry, go to the website at www.columbia.edu/ocha.

Click on “List”, then “Property Lister”. Fill out the form to set up your account. Once you have an account set up, you will be brought to the “Your Account” page. To add a new listing, click on “Add a New Listing”.  You will then be able to post a listing.

Q: How long does it take for my listing to appear online?

A: Allow one to two business days for the listing to appear online. Any time you edit the listing; allow another one to two business days before it appears again online.

Q: When I receive a Lead Notification by email, I notice that my FULL address appears in the subject headline. Can searchers see my address?

A: No. The email includes the exact address in the subject line because it's a unique identifier for each listing, so if a lister has similar ads, there is no confusion. Searchers are not notified of the exact address. Be aware that when you hit “reply” to a lead email, you must remember to delete your address before sending it.

Q; How do I edit my listing?

A: To go back and edit or renew your listing, log in by clicking on "Property Listers/Guests," then enter the username and password that you chose. Next click on “Manage/Edit Current Listing”.

Q: When does my listing expire?

A: The listing stays in the system for twenty-one days. You can renew it by going to the “Manage/Edit Current Listing” tab in the Registry, then clicking the downward arrow next to “Inactive” and make it “Active." It will say that it is pending until we approve it within two business days.

Q: Will including photos in my listing increase the number of views?

A: Adding photos to your listing will make a big difference and in should increase views of your listing. You can add up to 12 photos to help advertise your space. Before taking photos, remember to take photos in the daylight, and to open curtains, pull up window shades, and turn on the lights in the room. It’s a good idea to neaten up the room and remove as much clutter as possible. For apartment shares, you might want to include photos of the common spaces as well as the available bedroom. Here are some technical tips:

  • Remember to save each photo. You won’t be able to save a photo until you type in a few characters or words about the photo first (i.e. hallway, living room, etc.).  
  • Consider adding a virtual tour video or self-guided 3D virtual tour website link. If you save it to Vimeo or YouTube, you’ll be able to upload it.
  • Resize the photo if necessary.

Q: I have an apartment for sale. Can I list it in the OCHA Registry?

A: No, you can’t post an apartment for sale in the OCHA Registry. You can only post a rental.  

Q: How can I search?

A: If you have an active UNI (University Network ID):

Go to the OCHA Registry. Click on "Search", then "Columbia Community Member."

Log in with your UNI and password. On the first visit you will answer a few questions to set up the account before you search. Once your account is set up you can search the Housing Registry (as well as list).

A: If you are an incoming affiliate and don't have a UNI and password yet to log in:

Register a "Guest Account" and email your acceptance/offer letter to ocha@columbia.edu. Allow one to two business days for a response.

Q: Is the website “Scam Free”?

A: Although we read each listing, sometimes an occasional “scammer” may get through. To protect yourself, never wire money to secure an apartment. For additional tips about avoiding scams please visit the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission websites. Please also send to ocha@columbia.edu information about any lister that you believe is fraudulent so that we can review quickly.

Q: I’m not in New York; can I secure an apartment without being there?

A: First, the most important thing is to be here in person as soon as possible to see the rooms and apartments before renting one. We strongly suggest that you are here in person to do this and that you do not rent without seeing it. Understandably, this may not be possible, but renting a place in NYC without seeing it first and meeting your roommate (if applicable) is risky. You may view the Temporary Housing & Hotels page to line up a place to stay while searching.

Q: I’m searching on the OCHA website, but I see nothing available for my move-in date. Why?

A: Landlords don’t usually find out if they will have vacancies more than a month in advance, which is why if you search more than a month in advance, you won’t find many options.

Q: What resources does OCHA offer?

A: The OCHA Registry, One-on-one Counseling, Housing Resources, The Webinar.

Q: Are the apartments on the OCHA Registry in safe neighborhoods?

A: Since this is a very subjective question, we recommend that once you’ve seen an apartment you like, go back and look at the street and the surrounding area at different times of day and night. Go in a taxi or have a friend go with you. What is the building like after dark? Is the front door well-lit? Does the building lock securely when people go in and out? Who is going in and out? Try to have a conversation with a current tenant to find out if they like living there and feel safe. Go back and see what the block is like after midnight. Is it on a quiet side street or on a busy avenue? Are there any 24-hour stores on the block or does everything shut down at any early hour? What’s it like to walk from the bus or subway stop you’ll be using to get to and from Columbia? Your own comfort level will help you determine if you feel safe in the neighborhood and can live there.

Q: Do you vet the apartments in the OCHA Registry?

A: Unfortunately, no. We do not vet or screen listers or apartments, but we can give you some pointers about how to do your own screening. Remember that we accept listings from the general public, so you will need to determine if the person advertising the space is the landlord/owner, a tenant, or a broker. A broker will generally give you their business card and take you to their office to sign the paperwork. An owner or landlord shouldn’t have a problem if you ask to see some proof of ownership, like a tax or mortgage document, or a deed. A tenant should be able to show you a lease with their name on it. You can also ask to see a photo ID to make sure that a name and a face match. The idea here is that you work directly with the person with the authority to rent to you and not an unauthorized third party. Never ever rent from someone who is already a subtenant – deal directly with the primary tenant or the owner.

Q: Are the apartments in the Registry owned by Columbia?

A: The apartments in the OCHA Registry are in non-Columbia-owned buildings in NYC, within a one-hour commute. Many are on the west side and within 3 subway stops to Columbia.

Q: Are the listers required to be affiliated with Columbia?

A: Listers do not have to be affiliated with Columbia to post their room or apartment. We accept listings from the general public.

Q: I’m a Columbia student but my roommate is not. Can we still use the OCHA Registry to rent an apartment?

A: As long as one of you is a Columbia student or affiliate with access to the OCHA Registry, the additional occupants of the apartment do not have to be.

Q: I’ve been searching the OCHA Registry and contacting landlords, but nobody gets back to me. Am I doing something wrong?

A: Try not to get discouraged if you are not getting responses. It’s first come, first served in the NYC rental market. For best results, set up alerts using the “Save Search” feature, once you’ve entered your search filters. You can select to receive alerts by email and/or text. When you receive the alert, it means the listing was just uploaded by OCHA, and you should contact the lister immediately to try to be one of the first to contact them. This is often a successful method of getting through to listers.

Q: Do brokers in the OCHA Registry discount their broker fee?

A: Almost every broker in the Registry offers a discounted fee of 12% of the annual rent or less to Columbia students and affiliates.

Q: How old are the OCHA listings?

A: OCHA listings are active online for 21 days then automatically become inactive. Listers can always reactivate them for another 21 days.

Q: If I already have my UNI, do I still need a Guest Account?

A: You only need one account to access the Registry. Guest Accounts are temporary accounts for students and affiliates who don’t have their UNI yet. Once you have your UNI you can set up a Columbia Community Member account to have full access to the Registry. You will also see an option to convert a Guest Account into a Community Member Account when you have your UNI.