How to Find the Perfect Rental

These five steps will help you land your ideal unit.

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While the housing market has slowed down, the rental market has heated up. That’s great news for landlords and property managers, but it has increased competition among people looking for their dream rental. If you’re just beginning the search for a house apartment to rent, here are few things to consider in your hunt.

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Decide What You Want

Before you start calling or emailing about available places, make a list of things you want in your rental. Is location the most important criteria? Or, is it having a washer/dryer in the unit? Make sure you know these things in advance. But at the same time, be realistic so that your list of must-haves won't be limiting you.

Do Your Research

While it's well known that New York city rentals are on the high end—how about a New York City apartment with 400 square feet of living space for $2,250 a month—you may not know off the top of your head what good rentals go for in your area. Compare and contrast rental listings, and check out the Rent Zestimate to get an idea if the walk-up you have in your eye on is worth the price.

Begin Your Search

Don't wait until the last minute to look for a rental—start your search at least three months in advance. And be patient! While finding a house for rent may not take as long as finding a home to buy, it's still going to take time and effort on your part. Wondering where to start your online search? Zillow has both single-family homes and apartments for rent. Plus, many other rentals are uploaded for free through Postlets and are cross-posted on Craigslist and other rental sites as well. (10 Ways to Save on Big-Ticket Items)

Apply Quickly

When you find an interesting place, apply as soon as you can. Gather the necessary documents — reference letters, IDs and proof of employment—before you meet with a landlord to save time on processing. When you do meet a property manager face to face, act as if you're going to a job interview and present yourself as a great tenant. You may be one of several people who are vying for the spot.

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Talk to Neighbors

Want to make sure the place you're applying for is going to work out? Do some research into the neighborhood and if there's anyone around, see if you can chat up a neighbor or two to get a better sense of the place you may be moving into.

Erika Riggs is a contributor to the Zillow Blog, a resource for real estate and mortgage news. Twitter: @zillow.