Just when you thought Manhattan rents couldn’t squeeze your checkbook any tighter, prices have busted through the ceiling to reach an all-time high.

Gotham rents in the first quarter of 2012 now surpass pre-recession levels, with the average rental up 6.5% over the past year, according to a Citi Habitats report out Thursday.

The average Manhattan pad cost $3,418 in March, outpacing the previous record of $3,394 in May 2007, according to the report. In fact, rents are at their highest level since the brokerage firm began tracking them in 2002.

“It’s 100% a landlord’s market,” said Citi Habitats president Gary Malin.

How can that be? Before the recession, rising rents were tied to a booming economy. But now, Malin said, Manhattanites are still cautious about becoming buyers, putting increased pressure on rentals.

“People are staying in the rental market longer,” Malin noted. “It’s going to get fierce over the next four months with more people entering the market, graduating from school, and more people’s leases expiring.”

During the first three months of 2012, the hottest rental category on the market has been the studio, according to a report released Thursday by Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate. The average Manhattan studio rented for $2,497, a 10% increase over the first quarter of 2011.

The report also found that the average Manhattan rent was up 6% from the first quarter of last year, with factors including a tight credit market for mortgages and the sluggish regional economy.

With vacancy rates barely unchanged, renters must continue to move quickly or risk losing out on their dream digs.

“I have my clients hand me all the paperwork in advance,” said Citi Habitats rental agent Morgan Turkewitz. “It’s a huge advantage if they walk into an apartment, like it, and I already have their information ready to go.”

Two of her clients were so eager to nab a $3,158-a-month two-bedroom convertible in Gramercy Park that they put in an application after only seeing the pictures.

“We literally slipped it in five minutes before another couple,” said Manhattan transplant Molly Hogan, 24. “I’m moving from Chicago, and it’s nowhere near the stress level of New York City!”

Declining rents

A rental index released Wednesday by RentJuice finds some of the trendier parts of Manhattan are actually seeing a decrease in asking rents from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of 2012.

— Central Park South: Down 26% to $7,069

— East Village: Down 8% to $3,859

— Gramercy: Down 29% to $3,846