Homeownership rates have been falling for the past eight years, according to a report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. That means more people are renting, making it harder to find a rental home.
The secret, real estate brokers say, is to plan ahead. Often renters will wait until the last minute to look for another apartment. However, when renters are in a hurry they tend to take apartments they don’t really want, says Lance Macon, co-founder of Metro Home Managers, a Washington, D.C.-based, full-service rental property management firm.
Here are eight tips for finding the best rental homes and apartments in your area.
1. Start your search early in the month
The best rentals, in terms of price, location and amenities, go earlier in the month, so don’t wait until midmonth to look for a new place to live, Macon says. It’s best to start searching 60 days before you need to move, especially if you are looking for a rental property where there isn’t as much available.
The second and third weekends of the month tend to be the busiest. If you start your search the first weekend of the month, there will be less competition and the best properties will still be available.
2. Begin online but don’t rely on it
About 90% of renters will start their apartment search on Craigslist or Zillow, Macon says. Looking online is a good way to start your search. You can get a sense of pricing and apartment amenities. However, if you’re moving to a new city, looking online won’t tell you enough about neighborhoods and the local amenities of each, such as public transportation or grocery stores.
3. Use a professional
In most cases, real estate brokers are available to help renters find properties free of charge. The key is to find a broker who specializes in rental properties, not home sales.
If you’re looking in areas where there is generally tight competition for apartments, you’ll want to talk with a number of real estate agents before committing to one because different agents have different relationships with different buildings. Make sure you are talking with an agent who has access to the apartment buildings in neighborhoods where you want to rent.
4. Don’t be fooled by scams
Be aware of online scams, particularly ads on Craigslist that require you to provide your credit card to pay a deposit fee to be shown the apartment. No one should require a deposit to show you an apartment.
Also, be careful if you are renting an apartment directly from a private person because you will be giving a total stranger your Social Security number and your bank account information, and they will likely run a credit check on you. It’s safer to work with a licensed and bonded real estate broker.
5. Know your roommates
If you’re considering sharing an apartment, make sure you know who your roommates will be and consider asking the landlord for separate leases. If you have a joint lease and the rent is $2,000 a month, you are liable for the entire amount if your roommates don’t pay their share, Macon says. But if you have a separate lease, you’re liable only for your portion of the rent.
Don’t be afraid to ask for references if you don’t know your roommates. You can also use social media – LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook – to find out more about them.
6. Offer to take a 13-month lease
If you’re in a competitive marketplace, one way to get a landlord’s attention is to offer to sign a 13- or 14-month lease, says Todd Lee, co-founder with Macon of Metro Home Managers. This is particularly helpful if a traditional 12-month lease would expire in November or December because it is often difficult to rent properties in those months.
7. Consider a smaller building
Generally, an apartment in a 300-unit managed building with a swimming pool, 24-hour front desk, computer lounge and weight room will cost significantly more than the same size apartment in a six- to eight-unit building. If you’re paying for amenities, Lee says, make sure you will use them.
8. Use social media
Don’t be shy about posting on Facebook that you’re looking for an apartment. Let people know you are searching for a new place to live.
Once you find the perfect apartment or home, you’ll want to consider renters insurance. A landlord’s insurance doesn’t cover your belongings, so when the unexpected happens you want to be covered.