7 Tips for Finding a Rental in Today’s Tight Market

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If you’re looking for a rental right now, you have a few strikes against you.

Strike 1: The availability of rentals has been shrinking. The U.S. Census Bureau says the rental vacancy rate declined from 8.4 percent in 2009 to 7.4 percent to 2011. And media reports from around the nation strongly suggest that trend is continuing. The number of Americans who rent jumped from 34.1 percent of households in 2009 to 35.4 percent two years later, the census survey says.

Strike 2: Rents last year rose nearly 4 percent nationwide, according to The Wall Street Journal. The average American household that rents paid $1,044 per month for a roof over their heads.

Strike 3: Rents often exceed the percentage of income that people should pay and still have enough left over for everything else. The census study said more than 2 in 5 renters spend at least 35 percent of their income on rent, which makes them rent “burdened.”

Less supply and higher demand means that landlords aren’t offering incentives to woo tenants. Gone are the days of offers of one free month’s rent and other enticements to get you to sign a lease.

So, what do you do? Here are some tips for finding a place to rent:

1. Figure your finances

Know exactly what you can pay. Try your best not to be one of the “burdened.” If you can’t afford a place (a deposit and last month’s rent are often required) on your own, think about bringing in a roommate or renting a room in a house rather than an entire apartment for yourself.

2. Expand your search

I picked up the local newspaper the other day and it had only five listings for rentals compared with more than 30 new listings on Craigslist the same day. Just watch out for online rental scams. Also search sites like Rent or ForRent.

Meander through the neighborhoods you like and see if there are any for-rent signs out, but stick to your budget. Gazing longingly at an adorable house that’s way over your price range will only make the places you can afford less attractive. Also, let everyone in your circle know that you’re looking for a place.

3. Find out what’s included

Some rentals say they include utilities, but be sure you inquire deeper. That can mean anything from trash collection to electricity to cable TV. The value of those utilities can vary from a few bucks to more than $100 a month. If you are looking in a location with extreme winters or summers, remember to ask about heat and air conditioning. When I lived in Montana, the charming older house I rented for $500 a month seemed like a sweet deal until I got my first $250 heating bill. Lesson learned.

4. Ask before applying

Where I live in California, landlords charge an application fee of $20 to $40 per person, so make sure you get all of your questions answered before you apply. Some landlords require that you earn a certain percentage over the rent cost, for instance. Make sure you know all of the prerequisites beforehand so you don’t waste your application money.

5. Don’t fall for flash

A gym in the apartment complex may be a great selling point. But, will it only lead to a sense of guilt when you walk by it on your way to the bar or bakery? Will you use the advertised amenities, the cost of which is no doubt computed into the size of the rent? Just because the complex has a spa or an exercise room doesn’t mean you’ll shed your couch potato habits. Plus, there are cheaper ways to exercise.

6. Remember your pets

If you have a pet, finding a place to rent can be extremely difficult. But before you sign a lease for a place that thankfully does, ask about extra deposits and charges. Some landlords collect a nonrefundable fee just in case your beloved trashes the place. Others charge pet rent on top of the deposit. I have paid anywhere from $10 to $25 extra per month for my dog.

7. Where will you park?

In metropolitan areas, parking can be a big concern and it can be costly. Some rentals in San Francisco charge an additional $400 for a parking space. Some of us have probably rented entire apartments for less.

What are your tips for finding an affordable rental? Let us know on our Facebook page.

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