Searching for a Rental Unit? How to Stand Out From the Pack

By Rachel Puryear

Undeniably, renting an apartment or house these days can be incredibly challenging and frustrating. Many renters go through lots of time and effort before securing a rental unit. Rental applications, at times, seem to go into a black hole.

Speaking from a background in property management and real estate, I can tell you, though, that there are some ways prospective renters can stand out amongst their fellow applicants.

Accordingly, here are some tips for folks searching for rental housing:

Note: If you’re a new, small landlord and need to brush up on rental laws, see the California Landlord’s Rights and Responsibilities Guide.

Realtor showing apartment to prospective tenants.

Move Quickly, and Be Transparent

A rental listing for an attractive unit, in a desirable neighborhood, offered at a competitive rental rate, will be a popular one.

To get ahead of the numerous other searchers who will also be interested, reach out as soon as you see the listing.

That means you’ll need to check listings frequently in order to be one of the first to respond.

Reach out with a phone call, as well as either a text or email.

Also, be quick with sending a rental application, if one is available (if it’s not, ask for one). Being one of the first to get an application in is at least as important as being one of the first to reach out.

Have application information and documentation ready before you begin your search, so you can move quickly. That includes current employment, and rental history for you and any co-applicants; pay stubs and job offer letters and other documentation of income, and landlord references.

Fill out your application completely. Applicants with complete and detailed applications tend to get attention first.

Say What You Love About the Unit

When you contact the landlord or agent at any stage – including introducing yourself, and when seeing the unit – tell them what you love about the unit, and why you’re interested in that particular one.

Doing so accomplishes a few important things.

For one thing, it shows that you’re serious about that unit, and not just giving the same message to everyone.

For another, it tells the landlord or agent that you’re someone they would likely enjoy renting to. They want to rent to someone who likes the unit and will be happy there, rather than someone who complains about everything and has unrealistic expectations.

Of course, landlords want tenants to be qualified, and to be backed by solid references. At the same time, they also want someone they will have a pleasant business relationship with, too.

While your application should showcase your qualifications and references, your demeanor in interacting with the landlord or agent should show them that you’re someone they’ll enjoy working with.

That’s especially the case where you’re renting from a “mom and pop” landlord (if this is the case, you’ll likely meet them directly, rather than go through a management company).

If, when seeing the unit, you have questions or see something you’d want changed; be judicious and respectful in asking about it.

If something seems to not be working, ask politely if it can be taken care of. They should be able to give you an answer.

Numerous requests based on preferences rather than needs; such as asking if they’ll swap out the countertops for your favorite kind, or switch a carpet (in reasonable condition) for hardwood, will be off-putting when they have lots of other inquiries for the unit.

If you have a disability and need an accommodation, though, you certainly have rights under various fair housing laws.

Making it Personalized

To demonstrate this point further, here are a few examples.

Let’s say you’re a landlord/agent and you’ve received dozens of messages within a few hours of posting. You’re going through the messages, and deciding who to call first.

All but three messages are a similar variation of, “Hi, I’m interested in the unit. Call me back.” With no other information about them, let alone documentation.

One message, though, says, “Hi, I’m Brian. I recently retired, I’m selling the house I raised my family in, and looking to downsize. This one-bedroom apartment seems much more manageable for me. I also like that it’s all level, and that it’s in a peaceful and quiet area.”

Another message says, “Hi, we’re Anna and Jose. We currently have a one-bedroom, but now that our child is turning two and we’re expecting another, we need a larger place – your three-bedroom house for rent looks perfect. We appreciate that there’s a yard to play in, good schools in the neighborhood for the kids, and a street with little traffic.”

The other message says, “Hi, I’m Rosa. I finished college recently and started a new job, so I’m looking for my own place. I really love the outdoors, and like that the apartment is near beaches and parks. I also love meeting people, so I like that there’s plenty of nightlife in the neighborhood. Plus, it’s a ten-minute walk to my new job!”

(And these three messages are all followed up with income information, or an offer to provide it.)

Which three messages would you respond to first – the latter three, or ones that give you no helpful information?

Look in Your Price Range

This one is hard when you are in a pricy area, but don’t have a high income, I know.

Nonetheless, do your best to focus on rentals where you make at least three times the rental price in gross income. That’s a pretty typical requirement for most landlords anyway. Landlords want to make sure you can afford the unit, so they can be confident you’ll be able to pay rent.

The reality is, if you are close to the income requirement for a desirable rental, there will likely be other applicants who make more than three times the rent. If you have room to shop a little below your maximum affordable rent amount, you could be at an advantage over other applicants for the same unit.

Also, I advise against asking the landlord to lower the rent. But if you do have your heart set on a place that’s a little out of your reach; your best bet is to first meet the landlord or agent and tell them how much you love it, be really pleasant, and then ask them if they’d consider lowering the rent a little – in exchange for something, perhaps some free maintenance from you. It’s still a long shot. But an immediate, one-sided request to lower rent in the initial contact, especially with lots of people competing for a unit, will be a kiss of death.


Of course, you can do everything right, be an awesome prospective tenant, and still not get your dream rental – because there may be multiple strong applicants, and only one could be chosen.

At the same time, if you utilize these tips well, you can stand out better than probably 90% of other applicants.

It’s largely a numbers game. You will likely have to apply to several units before you get one, and timing – as well as a good rapport with the landlord or agent, and a little luck – is also a factor.

Doing these things doesn’t guarantee you any unit, but it can improve your odds, and give you an edge over a great many other applicants.


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to finding a great rental unit.

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