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Here's how to land the rental you want

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To make a good impression on landlords in a tight rental market, prosopective renters need to put their best foot forward both in terms of their finances and their personal appearance and behavior.

Whether you're entering the apartment rental market for the first time or you're an old hand at the process, you've probably wondered what can make you stand out among the 20-plus applicants vying for the same place you are.

First, you need to understand that your future landlord cares about only three things: that you pay your rent on time, that you don't wreck the apartment and that you don't cause any problems with your fellow tenants or, heaven forbid, the law. If you have rented in the past, you'll have a "rental resume"— references from previous landlords attesting that you were a great, responsible tenant. If you don't have one, you'll have to behave in a way that will impress your future landlord. Here are six strategies that will help you make your case:

Only look for places you can afford

A landlord's No. 1 goal is to make sure you can pay the rent. Win over prospective landlords by knowing the maximum rent you can afford on your income — and only look at rentals at or under this amount. To calculate your limit, you need to first figure out how much you make per year, including all sources of income. Then take your total annual income and divide that by 40 to determine your target rent. (For example, if you make $40,000 a year, your target rent is $1,000 a month.) If that number is equal to or higher than the amount you're planning to pay in monthly rent, you're in great shape.

Having enough income to qualify for the rentral is just the first step. Almost every prospective landlord will also look at your credit score. (The score can range anywhere from 300 to 850, and for most parts of the country, 550–580 will be workable for a first-time renter with a decent income.) Here, those few late credit card payments in college can come back to bite you. If you have a few blemishes in your credit history, ideally, you'll need to explain the mediocre credit score before the landlord discovers it. When you bring up the dings, have an explanation as to why and how those circumstances have changed.

Know your credit history

Having enough income to qualify for the rentral is just the first step. Almost every prospective landlord will also look at your credit score. (The score can range anywhere from 300 to 850, and for most parts of the country, 550–580 will be workable for a first-time renter with a decent income.) Here, those few late credit card payments in college can come back to bite you. If you have a few blemishes in your credit history, ideally, you'll need to explain the mediocre credit score before the landlord discovers it. When you bring up the dings, have an explanation as to why and how those circumstances have changed.

While plenty of services allow you to check your credit score for a fee, the federal government allows you to check your credit history one time per year with each credit bureau (Experian, Equifax and Transunion) at no cost. Simply visit AnnualCreditReport.com. You'll want to do that before you start looking, so you have time to start repairing any damage.

Have enough cash in the bank

Most landlords charge fees even before you're approved. Make sure you have enough money saved up to cover these expenses. An application fee and security deposit are the most common pre-approval charges. Other fees can include credit check fees, pet deposits, parking permits, broker fees and, in some cases, even the last month's rent. Most of the fees mentioned above are refundable in the event you end up not moving into the property, though the application fee is generally nonrefundable. As a rule of thumb, you need to have at least two months' worth of rent sitting in your bank account, plus another couple of hundred for the application fees, etc. And your future landlord will want to see the bank statement to prove it.

Warning: If you have a very bad credit score, or no credit score (you always pay cash, never had a car loan, credit card or even a cell phone in your name) you may need to prepay several months of rent to land your dream apartment in a tight rental market.

The first three tips will get your foot in the door, but you still have to convince your future landlord that you'll take care of the apartment responsibly. Here, the first impression counts.

Dress up

When attending an apartment viewing and meeting with the landlord or his representatives (agent, building manager), make sure to dress nicely. No torn cutoffs or old exercise clothes. Consider an outfit you'd wear to meet your significant other's parents for the first time. For guys, business casual isn't overkill; a nice button-down shirt with clean slacks or khakis can make an excellent first impression. Women should wear a nice skirt and blouse or a dress, or nice slacks with a shirt. First impressions mean just as much to your prospective landlord as they do to potential employers, and the message you want to send is, "I take good care of myself, and I'll take good care of your apartment."

Be on time

When you are scheduled to meet with the landlord or his representatives, make sure you arrive a couple of minutes early, just like for a job interview. Why is that so important? It's just common courtesy, but also another way of subliminally sending a message to the landlord that you are punctual in your habits and will be punctual in paying your rent.

Don't hide your doggy, kitty or cockatoo

If you have a pet, things can get tricky, especially for first-time renters without a "rental resume" that says how well-behaved your dachshund is. It's simply a fact that cautious landlords will often avoid renters with pets rather than guessing whether the pet is well-behaved and house-trained. Savvy renters can avoid potential problems by suggesting a pet interview, which provides the landlord an opportunity to make a personal assessment of your pet's behavior and demeanor. This can be especially important for problematic breeds that get bad PR, because without personally meeting your pet, a landlord will simply move on to the next prospective tenant.

Following these six tips will show your future landlord that you will be a responsible tenant who has enough income to pay the rent on time and will take care of the apartment. Overall, approach applying for a new rental as if you were applying for a new job. In this market, in both situations, the ratio of qualified applicants to available openings is high, meaning you have a lot of competition. Therefore, if you're genuinely interested in the apartment, it's important to set yourself apart from others being considered. To give yourself the best opportunity to wow potential landlords and be the one to sign the lease to the new place of your dreams, you need to be prepared, professional and polite.

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MyFirstApartment.com helps novice renters successfully navigate the first year of living on their own. The blog shares proven tips and tricks for everything from finding the perfect rental or roommate, to furnishing on a small budget or no budget, to dealing with landlords or roommates' girlfriends.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.