Calling the rental market "hot" is an understatement.
The lingering housing downturn and the prospect of further price declines have pushed more people - especially those in the 18-to-34 age bracket - into apartments to wait things out.
The shift has had a huge effect on supply and demand.
In the first quarter of 2011, the region's apartment vacancy rate was 5 percent, according to Marcus & Millichap, the investment real estate broker. A year earlier, it was 6.3 percent.
In Center City, home to an ever-growing population of young professionals, some real estate experts are putting the rental vacancy rate at 1.8 percent.
About 86 percent of Center City adults up to age 34 are renters, said Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District.
Many apartment buildings were converted to condos during the housing boom, cutting into the supply. Some rental projects are in the pipeline, but they won't be ready for quite some time.
The market is, to say the least, competitive, in the standard one- and two-bedroom apartment category.
"Our advice to the prospective renter is to bring a checkbook, because if you find something you like and delay a decision, it could be gone in 20 minutes," said Rich Lauletta, chief marketing officer of the Philadelphia Apartment Co., a rental agency.
Many renters start their searches online at one of the two leading search engines - Rental.com and Apartments.com - or Google "rental apartments in Philadelphia" or some variation, said Marianne Harris, director of sales, leasing, and marketing for Dranoff Properties.
These sites let shoppers compare prices, availability, and amenities without having to visit the properties to narrow the choices, said Christina Aragon of Rent.com.
Others contact real estate agents who specialize in rentals, or firms such as the Philadelphia Apartment Co., which typically has access to 4,000 listings, from single-property owners to large apartment buildings, Lauletta said, for renters ages 21 to 30.
It's a free service for would-be tenants; landlords pay a referral fee for each executed lease.
"They come to us looking for guidance," Lauletta said. "Many are relocating here, or come from the suburbs and have heard about the more desirable neighborhoods.
"They say Rittenhouse Square, we ask why, they say they heard about it at the water cooler," and the agents begin digging to find out what it is they think that neighborhood provides that they want.
Spring and summer are the busiest time, and Lauletta's agents typically work with 6,000 to 7,500 prospective tenants a month, compared with an average of 5,000 in the other seasons.
"Landlords usually try to free up as many apartments as they can this time of year," he said. Although it's a big time for students, "most people move at this time of year because it is easier than the winter months."
When searching for an apartment, "know what's important to you," said Aragon. If you already have an apartment, take a list of likes and dislikes with you on your search.
"If you feel cost-conscious, take the time to really break down your must-haves from your nice-to-haves," she said.
Cost-consciousness defines today's renter, Lauletta said.
"Price is definitely playing more of a role than it did in the past," he said. "Some renters are willing to sacrifice location and some amenities to save $50 a month," although cable and WiFi are a must.
Some renters also will settle for smaller personal living spaces - most don't spend a lot of time at home - in return for fitness rooms or a pool, Lauletta said. And while many renters don't do much cooking, they want to be able to entertain, so a kitchen becomes important.
Harris, of Dranoff Properties, said the two most important amenities were "peace of mind" and convenience.
Does the property have 24/7 emergency maintenance and management? What happens if your heat stops working on a frigid night, or if you lock yourself out? Will someone be there who can help?
She said security was a peace-of-mind issue.
If the tenant has a car, is the parking provided, or is it a chess game on city streets? Is on-site parking easily accessible and assigned, "or will you be driving around in a garage all evening?"
"Is the apartment convenient to stores, restaurants, public transportation and major thoroughfares?" Harris asked. "Is it up-to-date with washers and dryers in each apartment?"
For Aragon, tenant attitudes are as important as whether the unit has the latest microwave.
Landlords look for good tenants who pay their rent on time, take care of their rental unit, keep noise down, and stay on good terms with the neighbors and management staff, she said.
"Being able to demonstrate that you are a good, responsible tenant helps negotiate the best lease terms possible."
Home Economics: Before You Sign
1. Relationships matter. Establish a good one with your landlord.
2. Think of your first visit as an inspection.
3. Document existing damage before moving in.
4. Know what is included in the monthly rent.
5. Can you customize your living space (paint, hang art on the walls)?
6. Confirm the landlord's policies on pets (including visiting ones).
7. Consider how the cost of commuting to a job will affect your monthly expenses.
8. Ask about automatic lease renewal.
9. What is your "out" clause?
10. Get it in writing, and read every word.
Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, email@example.com, or @alheavens at Twitter.