Though prices have steadily risen in the Houston rental market, housing is still much cheaper here than many other major cities. In fact, it's been ranked as one of the most affordable major cities in the U.S. If you're in the market for a sweet Houston apartment, there are a few things you should learn about "The Big Heart" first:

The basics
Houston is surrounded by a series of highways, providing various loops around the city. The main business district lies in the center of the city at the conversion of Interstates 45 and 10 and U.S. Route 59. "The Loop," as locals refer to it, encompasses the entire downtown area, circled in its entirety by 38-mile Interstate 610. The outer loop – mostly composed of outer neighborhoods of Houston proper and a few suburbs – is encircled by the Sam Houston Tollway, or Beltway 8. State Highway 99 is currently being developed as the third loop of this sprawling city, encompassing mostly suburban areas.

One reason people like Houston is that there's no state income tax, which can be a big money-saver. However, a car is basically a necessity here. Although Houston is the fourth largest U.S. city, it takes up 627 square miles – in comparison, more populous and still sprawling L.A. is 503 square miles while Chicago is a compact 234 and NYC is just 302 square miles.

The average price of rent in the Houston area is $1,044 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,377 for a two-bedroom place. The most expensive neighborhoods are near Rice University, River Oaks, Greenway Plaza and Upper Kirby, Montrose and Mid-town, all of which are located in the West Loop. Along with the northern neighborhood Greater Heights, rentals in any of these neighborhoods average between $1400 and $1650.

Cheaper areas are generally outside The Loop – in northeast and southwest Houston. The cheapest neighborhood is Westchase, which is located almost outside the western city limits, where rent averages $850 per month.

The hunt
Begin the apartment search about a month to a month and a half before you plan to rent. There's typically a $50 application fee. It's important to be truthful on applications because many apartments use a lease that has a clause confirming that if you withhold or falsify information, the landlord can withhold your security deposit. Here are the basics about three popular neighborhoods:

  • Montrose/Neartown – It's located in West Loop, is extremely walkable and has a quirky, fun vibe.
  • Greater Heights – It's located in the northeastern corner of the loop and isn't very walkable, but it has some excellent restaurants and cafes.
  • Binz – It's near the Houston Medical Center, is very diverse and quite walkable with several outdoor activities nearby.

Insider Tip
Got a four-legged member of your family? Houston is extremely dog-friendly, and is getting more so every day. While it should be easy to find a place that allows your pet, you may also want to look at which neighborhoods have the highest concentration of  dog parks and dog-friendly restaurants. Three to start in include Downtown, Midtown and Montrose.