5 Steps to Finding the Perfect Rental Home

Sharpen your rental search strategy with these pointers.

Whether you're new to renting or rethinking your current living situation, the process of searching for a rental home can be time-consuming. Roughly one-third of all Americans rent, and while many of them are in early adulthood, many are also families, empty nesters and seniors. Fortunately, there are rentals for all household types and budgets. But to make your search smarter and more efficient, work through the process following these steps:

STEP 1: Determine what you can pay
STEP 2: Brainstorm the features you're seeking
STEP 3: Map your day
STEP 4: Choose your rental type
STEP 5: Tackle the application and approval process

Follow these five steps to find a rental home that's the right fit for your budget and lifestyle.

STEP 1: Determine what you can pay.

Before hunting for a rental, draw up a budget and take a hard look at where your money is going. If you've got some time before hitting the market for a new rental, run the numbers using services such as GoSimplifi, Mint, Yodlee, moneyStrands, LendingTree's MoneyRight or HelloWallet.

Generally speaking, it's recommended that most people spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Does that seem doable to you, factoring in debt, commuting and grocery costs, savings and other expenditures? Regardless how you feel about the 30 percent recommendation, many landlords specify income limits -- like that your annual income be a specific multiple of monthly rent, or that your rent shouldn't exceed a specific percentage of your monthly income (say, 28 percent).

Keep in mind that in addition to rent, you'll need to budget for utilities (unless your landlord covers some or all of them), cable and Internet, and other potential extras available to renters such as parking, storage and coin-op laundry. And that's in addition to your fees for moving and furnishing your home -- which, in some cases, could require special furniture (say, long curtains and room dividers in a loft with tall ceilings, patio furniture for a balcony or house with a deck, storage accessories, etc.) to make the place livable.

STEP 2: Brainstorm the features you're seeking.

Beyond a basic bedroom and bathroom count, ask if there are other "nice-to-have" versus essential features:

  • Do you want a patio or deck, or access to a backyard or shared outdoor space?
  • Do you want a fireplace?
  • Do you need a full bathroom, or would a shower do?
  • If you're a foodie, do you want a gas stove in the kitchen?
  • Will you be setting up a home office, and do you need electrical outlets or a nook within one of your home's rooms where you can place your workstation?
  • Would you be willing to live on a ground floor, use stairs or take your chances on street parking?

And consider your compromises:

  • Would you give up some space and a yard in the suburbs in exchange for a smaller, close-in place that had a park across the street?
  • Would you live with a roommate in order to tap a pricey but trendy neighborhood, or would you rather fly solo somewhere quieter?

STEP 3: Map your day.

No, really -- do it. Cross-reference your geographic locations and schedule, and take a look at where you spend your time. Then check out what's available in those locations using tools like PadMapper (which uses mapping technology to plot listings from sites like Craigslist onto maps); HotPads, which offers "heat maps" that let you compare rental and for-sale home inventory across neighborhoods; or MyApartmentMap. What's your schedule like? What neighborhoods do you travel to and from daily or weekly? Do you drive to work, bike to work or use public transit -- or would that vary depending on your choice of neighborhood? What do you do on the weekends, and do you want to live near those places and activities or is it OK to live elsewhere? If you work late, or if you rise early, are there grocery stores and drugstores open during the hours you need to shop?

  • Hang out: Spend a weekend day, an after-work evening or a pre-work coffee and early-morning commute in any neighborhood you're considering as part of your search. Do you like the vibe, the drive, the mix of friends in the area, the school choices for your kids? Is the commute doable at the hours you'd be making it? If you work from home, are there services convenient for you, like copy shops, co-working spaces (try Loosecubes to find out) and delis?
  • Investigate services: Will you be close to the services that matter to you? WalkScore lets you run searches for a given address or neighborhood so you can see its proximity to coffee shops, restaurants, grocers, public transit and schools. Aside from grocers, drugstores and coffee shops, consider how near you are to public transportation (not just for you, but for friends who rely on it), schools for your children, gift and apparel stores and services particular to you including churches, veterinary or medical offices, package/mailing centers, a fitness center, etc.
  • Research crime: Regardless of whether you choose a downtown or suburban place to live, get a read on where and what types of crime are happening in your area. In an area with a lot of car break-ins, maybe you'll want to garage your car. If home invasion is common or late-night muggings occasionally take place, maybe look for a building with a doorperson or 24-hour security. Perhaps residents who can walk to restaurants and nightlife feel the downside in terms of noise complaints or the occasional closing-time episode. Check sites like Neighborhood Scout, Spot Crime, Crime Mapping, Crime Reports and Nixle, as well as neighborhood blogs.
  • Education: If choosing a rental in a specific school district is important, or if you want to evaluate school districts to narrow down your list of potential neighborhoods, check out School Digger or GreatSchools.

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