Three years ago when I was moving to Manhattan from NJ and working as a Corporate Event Planner, I was on the hunt for a space in the city. I had never worked with brokers before and had exactly one day to find a space for me, my husband, and our then 35lb "puppy". First I tried going the by-owner route and after speaking to an owner over the phone and by email, I went to visit the building. The super opened the door while smoking a joint. Not kidding. Not the right building for us.
I then picked up the phone and called a broker at M********* A*********. The apartment I called about was rented (of course) but would I like to come in to see others? This involved me leaving the area I was interested in renting and going to their midtown office to meet with said broker and sign a commission agreement. I mentioned I needed pet friendly, needed Hamilton Heights and needed no fee. His intern took me to see a tiny one bedroom that came stocked with a mini-fridge, a 15% fee and it wasn't pet friendly. I was then told "no fee apartments in your neighborhood do not exist". Mind you, we went back uptown and at that point my metro card ran out and the intern actually suggested I hop a turnstile.
The second broker I called walked me into an apartment, negotiated a price with the landlord, treated me fairly and respected my wishes for a no-fee space. We signed the lease a couple of days later and proceeded to live in the apartment for the next 2 years.
It's been three years since that move and when the economy tanked and I lost my job, I went into Real Estate myself. I wound up working for the company that found me my apartment. Because of the horrific experience I had as a renter, I choose to run my business differently. I HATE Craigslist with the passion of a thousand fiery suns and find it an unfortunate necessary evil. I, too, know there are hundreds of brokers who post fake ads with fake pricing, fake "no fee" ads, fake "by owner ads", etc etc etc. It infuriates me that I pay X amount of dollars per ad to put up something honest (cross streets, fee disclosures, my exact contact information and company worked for, an actual available apartment!) all the while having skeevy mcskeeversons put up BS ads that Craigslist clearly does not monitor. I have more than once, called the agent's agencies to place formal complaints about their agents, printed ads ready to be faxed, only to find out the agency doesn't care either.
The only advice I can give renters is to stop using Craiglist unless you absolutely have to and go to other mediums. For instance Streeteasy is a website that IS monitored and controlled. The only listings that are allowed to be listed by brokers are exclusives and if they're not, the agent's access to the site is removed. It pulls information directly from our databases. So the second the agent notes in his own listings system that the apartment is rented, it is pulled off of the Streeteasy site so you do not call about something that is gone.
You should also check that the agent is a member with the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). This organization exists for accountability purposes. If an agent is not with REBNY (please do your due diligence and call REBNY to check), you may not want to work with them as they are not held to the same code of ethical conduct as the agents who are.
Third and final, ask around. Everyone has horror stories about bad brokers but there are plenty of people who have had great experiences with brokers and will recommend them wholeheartedly. A good broker will let you contact their previous clients. I have had clients who have asked me to contact previous clients for a review or even fellow tenants of the building they're interested in, if I know them. I have no problem providing this information. Why would I? This is still a service industry, even if so many of my peers have forgotten what we are in this business to do. I don't get upset if a client doesn't take an apartment. Why would I? I don't have to live there - you do!
A good agent will be one that previewed the apartments they're about to show you, that will walk you through a co-op process (@Diana, I'm horrified to read that you wouldn't demand an application and backup paperwork for a tenant and would approve them without seeing their qualifications! Two years of financials minimum!) or through a condo process and will call you a week after your move to make sure you are settled. They will allow you to negotiate a fee down if you need to. I ask my clients to let me know their fee parameters ahead of time and won't show a space that costs more than what they can afford, whether it is in terms of rent or in terms of the fee.
At the end of the day, my clients are my neighbors and many of them are now my friends that know not just me, but my husband, my dogs, and some of them my mom. I see these people on trains, in coffee shops and in the park. I know that I present a different business model but firmly believe that this is what will lead to success, and not just in my business but in life.
All this to say, yes, A LOT of brokers suck. But there are many that don't and I will fight tooth and nail to protect my name in this business and keep providing a GOOD service to those who need it.
I'm truly sorry so many of you have had a bad experience - I have, too. I sincerely hope for tighter reform for my industry, even if it means I have to fill out 10 forms per transaction for the NYDOS that put my license on the line to ensure it was legit and my clients walked away happy.
Best of luck to you all.