1. Start Early
When it comes to real estate, the early bird catches the worm...or, in this case, the duplex with the extra closet space and huge bay windows. Starting your search early will up your chances of finding the perfect pad. The best time to start looking is at the end of the previous month, when inventory is the highest. That means if you need to move on August 1, you'll want to start checking out places around June 25.
2. Wait 'Til Winter
If your move-in date is flexible and you can deal with lugging boxes down icy sidewalks or in the middle of a blizzard, think about postponing your move. Between the cold weather and the holidays, fewer people are looking to move during the winter months, making November through March the best time to find great deals.
3. Hire a Broker
If you need to find a place fast and you have the cash to spare, you may want to use a broker. An experienced one can give you insider access to "pocket listings," which are apartments and houses that aren't advertised to the public. Another bonus to working with a broker: They'll do the legwork for you, weeding out listings that don't match your criteria or that don't live up to their descriptions. For real estate novices, a broker can identify whether something is actually a good deal and how much certain features are really worth. Just don't expect a broker to save you money -- their fees (which in some cities can be up to 15 percent of the first year's rent!) can cancel out any savings they're able to negotiate on your behalf.
It's easy to fall for fancy extras (sundeck, much?) or a great decor scheme, but don't let those eye-catchers make you blind to the things that will really matter when you live there. We're talking size, location (for example, how far it is from work or public transportation) and, if you have a four-legged family member, the pet policy. After you've got the nonnegotiables covered, use some of those extras you'd love to have (but don't necessarily have to have) to help narrow your search (think: proximity to restaurants, stainless-steel appliances, etc.).
5. Get Your Paperwork Ready
Your dream place is bound to come along, and when it does, you want to be ready. Renting isn't like buying a house, where paperwork and inspections can drag on for weeks. It typically only takes one to two days to process an application, and you don't want to risk losing a place you really love because you couldn't track down your old landlord for a reference or get your credit check done in time.
6. Speaking of Credit...Get It in Check
Having good credit is just as important for renting a place as it is for buying one. The better your credit score, the more negotiating power you have. If your credit score isn't anything to brag about, the landlord is less likely to budge on the rent and may even require you to pay a few months' rent up front or put down a bigger security deposit.
7. Get the Scoop
Talk to the current tenants and/or potential neighbors to get the 411 on how accessible the landlord is when problems arise, what repairs need to be done to the property, if pests are a problem and whether the couple next door likes to throw loud parties.
Nestperts: Chad Rogers, a real estate expert with Hilton & Hyland in southern California, whose clients include celebrities, professional athletes and high-ranking business officials; and Jillian Faulls, an associate broker with Corcoran in New York City