Hunting for a new place to call home? Well, move over–you’re not alone. According to the National Multi-Housing Council, which surveys apartment-related firms from across the country, the apartment market has tightened in the last year, especially since spring 2004. What does that mean to renters? Less apartment supply and more tenant demand.

How to start looking for a new place and improve your odds of nabbing your dream space? Keep in mind that the less expensive units go first (and fast), while the higher-end places may already be vacant and waiting.

No matter what you’re looking for, start with people you know, from school, work or place of community. Most universities and junior colleges have both bulletin boards and apartment listing services in many areas. Local bulletin boards can also be found in smaller towns at grocery stores or even the local post office.

Next, learn to read a map. Not just a map of the area you’re looking to rent, but a zoning map of the area, too. Most cities have site-specific zoning maps, such as ZIMAS in Los Angeles, which shows where apartment zoning is located. Checking with your local department of city planning should yield the same result and help with zoning definitions. Surprisingly, some great rentals are tucked among residential areas, but are a well-kept secret with only signs in the front yards to advertise their vacant wares.

In many cities, the small mom-and-pop-type operations only advertise with small signs in the front yard. Why? As longtime landlady Kitty Marks declared, “If they know my neighborhood, they’ll see my sign”. Hand-lettered and small, some signs are sometimes hard to read from the street, but worth pulling over to check out. Driving around, map and notebook in hand, is a worthwhile way to spend a few hours searching. Be prepared to spend a few hours on the project.

Not looking for hardwood and charm in a small building? Looking for a rental in larger buildings is easier for those types who prefer the extras such as swimming pools and gated parking. Some areas are zoned with dozens of larger properties, and just walking door to door may yield a few vacancies to check out. No one home? Most areas require a manager phone number to be posted conspicuously by the mailboxes or entry, and calling the manager directly sometimes connects a renter to a place.

Legal or not, some managers or owners screen their calls, so prepare a basic and clear message in a friendly tone to improve the odds. “Hi, this is Jay Jones; I’m looking for a place anytime after the 1st. I’m best reached daytime at my office between 9-5 and after 6 p.m. at home until 10 p.m.” Leave your number slowly and clearly, with area code noted, and repeated twice for best results. For some landlords or managers, returning calls is drudgery, a task made easier by an easy-to-return message.

Worn out the sidewalk looking for a place or just have the time? Check out local papers and classified sections. Online sources abound, too, many linked with newspaper listings, while others are separate rental agencies.

Watch out for agencies that charge a fee and be sure you get your money’s worth. Some services provide written guarantees within a time period, such as 90 days or your money back, while others only charge if you rent a place. In prime areas, fees or commissions are sometimes charged to the renter when signing the lease.

Another place to check out is the local phone directory. Surprisingly, under the heading “Apartments” are listings for various-sized buildings. Checking out “Property Management” will link you to another source, too. Always be sure to note whom you spoke to when calling for a vacancy, noting the price and unit number to avoid any surprises when you come to see a listing.

Beware of being inviting to a multiple showing, since “bidding wars” have been known to break out over a prime unit. Try to get to an individual appointment, or for an open showing, the earliest time possible in order to get your application processed early.

What to bring? Picture identification, checkbook and any credit information are sometimes helpful. Some agencies include a free credit check, which can be printed out and presented to prospective landlords. While not all landlords will take a hand-delivered copy, it’s a “foot in the door” for some renters.

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