The standard way of renting a house is through a real estate agent, which require that you inspect the property and fill an application form.
One thing that was surprising for me when I migrated to Australia is that there can be quite a lot of competition for renting a place, especially in certain suburbs and around the beginning of the year. Therefore, it's unlikely your application will be approved if you don't have a job, rental references, or have not viewed the property. Even if you have those things, if there are more people applying for the property, you might not get it. Overall, the process can be quite frustrating.
Another reason not to do this from overseas is the amount of scams there are in sites such as Gumtree and Craigslist, which list accommodation under market value and ask for bank transfer as deposit.
A good way to start is looking for temporary accommodation, such as Airbnb apartments, youth hostels, or shared houses. Some might not be suitable for a family, a reason why some people travel alone and bring their families later.
A final option is asking a friend or relative to inspect houses and apply on your behalf, but not many people are willing to do that, especially if involves paying any money.
Once here, you would search on sites such as RE and Domain, attend the open for inspections and apply by filling on-line or paper application forms.
If you find that there is competition for the rental properties that you've inspected (you will realise that if/when an application is rejected), there are a few things that help make agent/landlords like you:
- Bring a filled application form on the open for inspection day itself and hand it over to the agent if you liked the property; otherwise just bin it;
- Add a cover letter to the application;
- Add rental references, even if from overseas (better than nothing);
- Add some financial information, such as payslip or bank account balance.
Things that, from personal experience, do not help:
- Offer to pay a lot of rent in advance (the law limits the amount of
rent that can be charged in advance)
- Offer to pay more rent that
what's asked (I have been told by multiple agents that landlords are
looking for a tenant that will pay rent on time long term and take
care of the property).
These measures might not be necessary at certain periods, or in localities where vacancy rate is high. At the moment (early 2015), there's an over supply of high-rise apartments in inner Melbourne (e.g. Docklands, CBD, Southbank), while inner city low rise (houses and townhouses) fetch high rents with some tenant competition. At the same time, detached houses in new land estates in the city's fringe (e.g. Point Cook) are plentiful and can be rented for cheap.