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How to Find Houses for Rent (Hint: An Agent Can Help!)

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Maybe your lease is up, you have to relocate for a job or family reasons, or maybe you just need a change of scenery. Maybe it’s your first time finding a rental or you’re a seasoned pro ready to get out there again. Whatever the reason, if it’s time to hunt for a rental, and you need to know how to find houses for rent, then we’ve got you covered.

According to the Pew Research Center and the most recent Census Bureau data, as of 2019, 36% of the U.S.’s 122.8 million homes were headed by renters.

With rent prices set to increase this year (by 7.1% according to Realtor.com economists), in an increasingly competitive rent market, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by where to look and what to look for — and you want to snag a great deal. Where to start?

To help you through the process, we analyzed the best places to look if you’re in the market for a new rental, along with some possible red flags. We also enlisted the help of Kim Alden, a top-selling agent in the Barrington, Illinois, area who has worked with 87% more single-family homes than the average agent in her area, and who regularly helps clients find places to rent.

A person researching on their phone about houses to rent.
Source: (Panagiotis Falcos / Unsplash)

1. Browse real estate portals

If you’re looking to buy a home, real estate portals are the obvious choice — but they offer rental listings as well. Websites like Zillow, Trulia (which is managed by Zillow Rental Manager), and realtor.com have rental sections where you can browse rental listings in your area. These sites pull listings from the MLS (multiple listing service), and landlords can list on them directly.

While anyone can list properties on these sites, Zillow recently announced a change and will not only stop syndicating from MLSs but will also charge $9.99 per property per week to list a rental on zillow.com, as well as on Trulia and HotPads, both of which are owned by Zillow. These fees will likely make Zillow a more reliable place to find a rental because of the cost involved.

2. Zero in with rent-specific portals

There are plenty of sites out there that are specifically for rentals — Rent.com (which also lists on Apartment Guide and Rentals.com), Apartments.com, Zumper, and HotPads are just a few.

Certain platforms, like Avail (part of the realtor.com network) allow landlords to list on multiple portals for free, or will charge a per-unit fee for more listing options.

When you use a rent-specific portal, it’s likely that, as with real estate sites, you’ll see a lot of the same listings. So choosing one comes down to which one is most user-friendly for you. (Or maybe you want to support Jeff Goldblum’s commercial career — in which case, go with Apartments.com.)

3. Tap into local social media

If you have access to Nextdoor, you can check out the local area and seek rentals. It’s an invite-only neighborhood portal, so if you aren’t already a resident of the neighborhood where you’d like to move, then you’ll have to get access through a current resident. The “real estate” tab may have details on homes for rent, especially homes with local landlords.

Facebook groups can be a good resource as well, but be wary of scams and posts that look a little off, especially along the lines of “too good to be true.” Local buy/sell groups are often where people will list a property that they have available for rent. And Facebook Marketplace has a Property Rentals section dedicated to apartment, condos, houses, and townhouses for rent. On each page, there is a Getting Around section and  a Nearby Schools section provided by Walk Score® and GreatSchools, respectively.

If you’re active on Twitter or Instagram and have local followers, you could always put out a post saying you’re looking for a place to rent and see if it kicks anything up. Reddit is another place to find local groups, which can be a goldmine of information for available rentals.

They’ll reach out because they want representation because a lease is more and more complicated, and they want someone to be able to explain the terms they’re agreeing to.
  • Kim Alden
    Kim Alden Real Estate Agent
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    Kim Alden
    Kim Alden Real Estate Agent at Compass
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    • Years of Experience 17
    • Transactions 1532
    • Average Price Point $324k
    • Single Family Homes 1225

4. Work with a real estate agent or brokerage

One of the most reliable — and safest — ways to search for houses to rent is to work with a real estate agent. Though real estate agents mostly work with buyers and sellers, they will also represent landlords and tenants.

Alden says that she works with a number of renters who, much like a home search, will start their search online “and then they’ll reach out because they want representation because a lease is more and more complicated, and they want someone to be able to explain the terms they’re agreeing to.”

She also has people asking her to scour listings in certain areas, and because she has access to the MLS, where agents can list houses for rent as well as for sale, she can find legitimate listings for her clients.

Another benefit to using an agent’s MLS access is the quality of the listing. Agents will have professional photos taken, so you’re not trying to squint through grainy, blurry photos. The agents will also handle the screening process and credit checks, so everyone goes through the same process. This protects both the landlord and tenant.

Another thing that Alden will do when she’s looking for a rental for a client is reach out to owners of homes that were listed for sale and didn’t sell. Sometimes, she’ll reach out to a homeowner and say “I saw you were on the market — are you still interested in selling? Because I have someone who would like to rent.”

In 2021, Alden’s agency helped 24 landlords and tenants find each other. And she has landlords that she’s worked with for 10 years, so she has the inside scoop on homes; these landlords will let her know when their place is ready to rent again so she can help them find the right tenant.

5. Online bulletin boards and the classifieds

Some areas have hyperlocal bulletin boards, like this one in Colorado that has a classified section with local real estate. These types of bulletin boards have largely gone by the wayside, with people spending more time on Facebook and in Facebook groups, but it might be smart to check whether your area has one.

You can also check out the classified section of your local newspaper — either online or in print.

Craigslist is another place to check for rentals, but Craigslist scams are pretty common. We’ll talk about how to avoid scams later in the article!

a person driving and looking for houses to rent.
Source: ( Spencer Davis / Unsplash)

6. Take a drive and stop for coffee

Sounds like a nice little Saturday! If you’re looking for a rental in a specific neighborhood, you can drive around and look for rental signs and then contact the company directly. You can also stop for a coffee and see if the coffee shop has a bulletin board with rental ads.

7. Contact a property management company

A property management company is typically hired by property owners to manage the day-to-day operations of the rental. This can include maintenance, security, screening tenants, and so on. The company itself will list rentals on its website as well as other rental portals, or you can contact the company directly to see what’s available.

Sam Steinke, a property manager with Property Minds in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, says that “customer service and communication are key in this industry.” At Property Minds he works directly with prospective tenants and helps them “find a home they love by listening to their needs and wants.” He then “gives them the closest options that best fit their criteria.”

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed or just need some guidance, contacting a local property management company can help make the process more personal.

8. Talk with a short-term rental owner

If you’re looking for a place to rent but keep wandering back to the pictures of the beautiful Airbnb that you just can’t quit, you can take a chance and reach out to the owner. The host might be interested in a long-term arrangement, and it can’t hurt to ask!

9. Use your own network

Tell your friends you’re looking for a new place to rent. Tell your mom, your aunt, your cousin, your barista, the lady you sat next to at the coffee shop, you mechanic, everyone! You never know who will know someone who knows someone that may have a lead for a great place.

A person researching online about finding a house to rent.
Source: (Bibarys Ibatolla / Unsplash)

On rental scams and how to avoid them

It’s sad, but there are lots of scams out there when it comes to renting a place. In fact, it’s estimated that around 43% of renters have come across a listing that they suspected was a fraud. Apartment List estimates that 5.2 million renters in the U.S. have lost money on a rental scam, with one in three losing over $1,000.

Alden says that there are a lot of scams out there, but they are particularly prevalent now because there is a low inventory of rentals. Scammers take advantage of this in a variety of ways, so here are some possible indications that the listing could be a scam.

It sounds too good to be true

Alden cautions that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you’ve been searching for the perfect place and are getting frustrated, it’s easy to be taken in by an amazing place at a good price. But if the price seems too low, or the place seems too beautiful, make sure to do the legwork to make sure it’s the real deal.

The listing description is a little iffy

If the listing description is riddled with spelling or grammatical errors, it’s probably best to move on. In a legitimate listing, especially one that was listed with the help of an agent, it should read well and accurately describe the property.

On the flip side, some scammers will copy an existing listing and then re-list it with their own email address. Copy and paste the listing description to see if it comes up elsewhere, and double check all of the contact information.

They want you to wire money or pay with cash or a gift card

I love a Target gift card as much as the next human, but a legitimate landlord or property manager won’t ask for a gift card, cash, or a wire transfer as a form of payment.

They ask for money before you’ve signed a lease or met in person

In a market where rentals are hard to come by, it’s easy to want to lock in that great place right away. But Alden has seen this happen.

She says scammers will tell you to send the money right away, so they can hold the property, but “then [you] go to the door, and it’s the owner, who has no idea what [you’re] talking about.” Now that’s an awkward situation!

You can’t view the property before signing the lease

Again, it’s easy to get caught up in what looks like a great deal on a great place, but you should see the property before you sign the lease. If the agent or “owner” seems evasive, says they’re out of the country, are too busy to meet, or has any other excuse why you can’t see the place in person, it might be best to move on.

Now that you can spot a scam, here’s how to avoid them:

  • Do your research: Copy and paste the listing into Google to see if it comes up in other places. Most listings will be listed on multiple sites, especially if they were pulled from the MLS, but the address and contact information should be the same on each one.
  • Tour the property before you sign anything: You should be able to check things out before you sign a lease or pay a deposit or first month’s rent. That way you won’t be surprised when you show up with your boxes and the owner answers the door.
  • Use an agent: Aden says, “the MLS brings a lot better exposure because you know that both parties are being represented by licensed Realtors®.” Another perk of working with an agent is that “the documentation goes a lot smoother when you have professionals handling that transaction.” And the fees are taken care of by the landlord, so as a tenant, you don’t have to pay the agent for their help.

If you do end up as a victim of a scam, report it to your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commision (FTC).

Looking for a rental doesn’t have to be scary, but you should be on the lookout for scams and deals that seem too good to be true. Checking out rent portals, working with a real estate agent, contacting a local property management company, and tapping into your network of friends and family are all great ways to find a great home to rent!

Header Image Source: (Fab_ Fotos / Unsplash)