How to Find a House to Rent

Updated on January 29, 2018

"You just found more places to rent in five minutes than I have all week," said my coworker.

Shrugging my shoulders, I reminded her how I've become an expert on how to find a house to rent.

And I'm not exaggerating. I've found seven places for us to stay in the last twelve years - and I'm working on finding the eighth. In addition to helping my coworker research apartments, I even helped my sister-in-law (a few years back) find a house to rent.

Once you learn a few of my tricks, finding a house to rent will be easier. But, fair warning, it could still be a very time-consuming process - depending on which area of the country you're searching.

Creating Your Must-Have List

To start, you need to set some specifics in order to find a house that you'll be happy with. Let's run through a few questions to help you create your must-have list before we dive into how to find a house to rent.

Where do you want to live?

As a general rule of thumb, areas that have more residents (think cities) will have more rental options than rural locations (think country). However, rental rates are typically lower in rural areas compared to nearby cities. This is because people favor living closer to where they work so they can enjoy a shorter commute. If you don't mind a longer commute and work in the city, you could benefit by getting more bang for your buck by searching just outside the city limits. If you must have access to modern services like Waitr or Uber, you'll want to stay in the city. Unfortunately, services like these aren't cost-effective way out in the country. Alternatively, you could buy a car or learn how to cook. Just saying.

What type of home do you want to live in?

The most popular living option in highly populated areas is an apartment building. You know, those big tall buildings where you cram into a square and share four walls with neighbors. If the area you're searching isn't a metropolis, you could even have the luxury of renting a single family house. Other options include duplexes and townhomes. In the south, you'll find mobile homes and RV parks to be quite popular.

All of these housing options are technically a form of shelter from wind, rain, hail, and your ex - but what it boils down to is really just the level of privacy you prefer. A single-family home and mobile home could be very private options if the house sits on a nice sized lot far away from neighboring homes. Mobile home and RV parks with several units give little space between houses. If you enjoy entertaining guests or spending a lot of time outside throwing barbecues (aka, noisy neighbor), you might prefer a more private home.

Side Note: If you have two, three, four, or more kids, renting a single family home (if it's in your budget) might be a better choice than a cramped second-floor apartment. (Take it from me. Once, my downstairs neighbor (plus his dog) had enough of my two little ones beating their footsies on his ceiling, which resulted in my property manager forcing me to move to a ground floor apartment. And yes, I included that move when I counted.) After all, once you sign a lease agreement, you are stuck with your neighbors and they are stuck with you (unless they complain enough and force management to move you). Basically, if your neighbors are going to be really close to your house, be courteous and just stay quiet. Shh.

What size home are you looking for?

When it comes to renting, you'll have to follow legal rental guidelines for how many people can live in a home. An apartment complex will definitely tell you that you, your spouse, your grandma, and your twin babies aren't allowed to rent and live in a two-bedroom apartment. So, depending on your family size, you'll need to adjust your required space. I believe the rule is no more than two persons per room. (But don't quote me.) Generally, a family of five would need to look for at least a three bedroom. Oh, and just so you're clear: a bedroom has to have a closet or else it isn't legally a bedroom.

Other than how many bedrooms you'll need, consider how big the home needs to be. Some of us have more stuff than others or have large pieces of furniture and rooms need to be bigger to accommodate. You should think of such things, such as if you'll need a designated space for an office or a formal dining area.

Thinking about the outdoor size, would you need storage for an antique car you're restoring or for an RV or boat? Garages are great for things like cars (yes, some people still use their garage for a vehicle instead of treating it like a storage unit), but if you own an RV or boat, you'll need to either find a property that will fit those or you'd need to store them off-site. Also, do you prefer a larger yard (more to maintain) or a porch or deck to relax and/or entertain? Perhaps you just need an outdoor space for your dogs. All of these sizing concerns are things you'll need to figure out based on your situation.

What is your monthly budget?

Technically, this isn't something you must have. It's more like a guideline you must follow. From my financial planning school days, I learned a valuable percentage that I haven't forgotten: 33%. This was the number taught to us as the recommended housing expense a person could comfortably afford. What it means is that you should be able to afford a rent payment (or mortgage payment) of approximately 33% of your take home (net) income. For example, if you bring home (after taxes) approximately $3,000 per month, your recommended housing expense should be no more than $990 ($3,000 times 0.33).

Most landlords will require their own income requirements. In my area, it is typically required that your income per month equals at least three times the rent (the same as my 33% explanation above). However, for some people, 33% of their income might be too large of a housing payment when factoring in other expenses like student loans, car payments, health insurance, etc.

Look at your budget carefully and determine how much you can comfortably afford to pay each month. If this is your first time renting, don't forget to factor in new expenses, like internet, cable or satellite, electric, water, gas, and trash. While the 33% rule is a great benchmark, it really depends on your situation. Of course, I strongly discourage paying more than 33% of your income.

How to Find a House to Rent

Now that you've put together your must-have list, it's time to search for a house with these parameters.

Find a house by simply networking

I always like to start by telling everyone I know in the area that I'm looking for a house to rent and I tell them my must-haves, including my budget. However, there have been many, many times that I didn't know a single soul in the areas I needed to move to and so that wasn't an option. Networking is great because it gives you an opportunity to find a house that you probably wouldn't hear about otherwise - think people who don't want to advertise that their house is for rent because they want to find a trustworthy tenant through a friend.

The lost source - pick up a newspaper

Once you notify your friends that you are searching, the next logical step is to find a local advertising source to find properties for rent. If I don't know the name of the local newspaper, I use Google to search the name of the town followed by the word "newspaper." If the town is large enough, there should be a website for their news publication. Sometimes the content of the classifieds is available to read online, including the section "Homes for Rent." Sometimes it is only available online if you subscribe. In my opinion, it is totally worth it to pay for the online subscription if you don't have physical access to the paper (you're out-of-town). I've found that many people who advertise their rentals in the local paper don't publish their rentals on websites. You could potentially be leaving behind a gem if you ignore the newspaper.

Use a local expert

After the newspaper, the next best source for rentals is local property management companies. Some are affiliated with real estate companies, so call all the real estate offices in the area and ask if they do property management. If they do, ask to speak with the property manager and ask him or her if they have any rentals matching your must-have list criteria. If they do not currently have anything that matches, be sure to ask if they will have anything coming available in upcoming weeks. Sometimes they will take your contact information and contact you when something that meets your needs comes available. But it is best not to rely on a manager to contact you. You should contact them every so often, either via phone or internet. Most property management companies list their available rentals on their website.

Search online

I love the internet. Maybe because I'm a geek and I love being able to have information at my fingertips. But you should love the internet, too, because there are several great websites (and some have apps!) that can help you with your rental home search. Here are a few of my favorite:

  • Trulia or Zillow - Zillow owns Trulia, so they are one in the same. Pick one and go! Can also be used to search for homes for sale.
  • Realtor - Some real estate offices use it to upload rentals. Worth it to check.
  • Rent.com - This is where I would always go to find apartments when that was the type of house I needed.
  • Great Schools - When I move to a new area that I'm not familiar with, I use this website to help find the best school zones for my kids. It rates the schools based on test scores. If the town has schools with a six rating or below, I look for another town with higher ratings.
  • Hot Pads - I occasionally found an outlier here. Worth it if your area already doesn't have many options to choose from.

Most websites designed to help you with your home search will allow you to sign up for email alerts. If they have an app, the apps can have notifications set up to notify you when a new home meets your search perimeters. When I'm in search mode, I just take a few minutes and check every day.

How to find a house to rent by going for a drive?

This might sound silly, but if you know which parts of town you want to live in, just take some time out of your day and drive around. I have found several houses for rent just by driving around and seeing a "for rent" sign staked in the lawn. Some landlords don't choose to advertise and just put up a simple sign. Driving the neighborhoods also helps you determine which areas you might not be crazy about, especially if you are new in town.

Side note: One of the best times to check out the neighborhood is to drive by after a rain shower. Since I live in Louisiana, where much of it is marsh, it was important for us to make sure our road wouldn't get flooded. After a rain shower, you'll see where water pools in low areas. Watch for road signs that state the obvious "Road May Flood."

Words of Caution During Your Home Search

By this point, you have been given what I feel to be awesome advice on how to find a house to rent (okay, I'm a bit biased). However, my advice doesn't stop here. I will write posts (eventually) about these in further detail, but for now, here are a few things to watch out for during your search.

  • Beware of Craigslist ads. I don't recommend using Craigslist in your search for good reason. I found many homes that were listed for far below market value as bait to either collect sensitive information or their preferred method of communication with the landlord was via email because they were out of town. Do not deal with anyone who appears to be renting a house for far less than it could and anyone who says they are out of town.
  • Guard your personal information. A legit landlord will not ask for sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers. What they should do is ask for you to provide a copy of your credit report. If they need to run a background check, they should work with you on having that done without you handing them your digits. If you are applying for a home through a property management company, it is safe to give them your information. They will use software at their office to run credit and background checks. Just make sure they are a legit company. If anything, trust your gut. If the person doesn't seem trustworthy, do not risk it.
  • Do not pay anything other than application fees until a lease agreement is drafted and signed. Unless the keys are going to be handed to you right there, you shouldn't be exchanging cash. Period. Apartments may require you to give the security deposit in advance of the lease agreement signing, but that should be done in a money order. Just use good judgment. I've heard many stories of people losing money because they just trusted a little too much and the person they handed money over to skipped town and was nowhere to be found.

So there you have it! Lots of information about how to find a house to rent. Between where you look and helping you figure out what to look for, I think you are now well prepared for what's to come. Let me know how it goes. Or let me know if you have any additional questions. I'd love to hear from you, especially if you found this information helpful.

Best of luck finding your next place!

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