Expats who have been in Penang five years or more bemoan the rising prices of rentals. However, Penang today offers all the services (western groceries, upscale restaurants, well stocked wine stores, bakeries and delis) that they didn't have just a few years ago. To a newcomer from the west, it is still a bargain to rent here and, with more new property coming on stream, rentals are predicted to get less expensive; at least for the next few years and then many more to catch up to prices such as you find in Thailand resort areas.
The criteria for hunting rental properties depends on your needs. The popular Gurney Drive area fronts the water and offers easy access to the two biggest shopping malls while still a short walk from old Georgetown shops and restaurants. It is a high traffic area but a higher floor unit (with spectacular views) solves that problem. It is also the one very walkable areas of the island where you really don't need a car. Taxis are cheap and easy to get rain or shine. Prices here can be high here for fancy new buildings such as Paragon Paragon Condo, Gurney 11 and Gurney 8 in the US$2,500+ arena but you can easily find large, modern 2 and 3 BR suites, fully furnished and with all the trappings (pool, gym) for under US$2,000 a month. In a slightly older building, under US$1,500.
Heading north away from Georgetown there is a long strip of land, also on the water, called Tanjung Bungah, the 'Cape of Flowers' in Malay. This area was once a fishing village and it still is to some degree. The long line of 5 star condos are interspersed with concentrations of fishing boats competing for beachfront. As in all of developed Penang Island the beaches are a postcard better seen from a long camera lens. The water is not fit for swimming although it can be clear and clean just a few miles away on islands off the North, West and South coasts. New builds like Harmony with its one suite per floor and your own pool, Infinity, Springtide vie for tenants with slightly older properties like The Cove. Prices are negotiable and competitive but tend to be in the US$2,500 range as they are BIG square footage.
On the point is the Straits Quay development by the Eastern & Oriental Group. This is a huge development including a marina attached to a mall with rows of town houses, stacks of condos, a hotel and serviced apartments. Prices here (Quayside and Straits Quay Suites) reflect the enormous amount of inventory; a three bedroom condo is under US$1,500 a month. Again, lots of taxis available but most people here have a car.
Finally, on the north coast of the island is Batu Ferrenghui. Here you find the higher end resorts like Lone Pines and the Shangri-la with the new Angsana condominiums by Banyan Tree being built further up toward the reservoir. Many other condos and town houses line the hillsides. With traffic, the 20 KM's to Georgetown can seem much longer and you definitely need a car to live our here.