I had heard trying to find an apartment in San Francisco was comically difficult. I can confirm this.
I read this blog post and was prepared for elbowing my way to the front of open houses, throwing a credit report and deposit down at the feet of the property manager. (This basically turned out to be true.) If you’re actually planning on moving to SF, read it first, then come back for an outsidecat supplement.
What I didn’t realize was that first, I’d need to figure out where to throw my money. You should know that housing prices in San Francisco are, as the classy say, ridonkulous. As I am an open person, I’m going to throw some numbers at you. When we moved to Boston (a big city with fairly expensive costs of living), we paid $1,400/month for our one bedroom apartment. We bought a two-bed condo in a fancypants area of Cambridge and our mortgage was in the $1,800 neighborhood. The lease we just signed fora two bedroom place was for $3,750. Per month. It is not downtown. Or filled with gold coins.
I would highly recommend figuring out a budget for what you can reasonably spend on housing. For us, we were willing to pay more for the convenience of being a short commute to home, and more importantly to the daycare where we could pick up our daughter and spend quality time* with her before going to bed.
Our holy trifecta of desired filters were: near a park, near a grocery store, near public transportation that would shuttle us to work in less than a million years. Oh, both Jason and I will be working in SoMa, so we were keeping an eye on how one would get there via public transportation/bike/scooter.
I highly recommend padmapper.com, as they use a number of sources (including the almighty Craigslist.org), and puts the homes on a map so you can see what neighborhoods the apartments are in. They also have slick features like a crime overlay (so you can see how shady things get). A few protips for searching:
* use the padmapper email hourly updates. You can set limits and let padmapper email you when a new listing pops up in your range. This means you can jump on making an appointment to see the place.
* also check craigslist.org directly, on the weekends. New listings take a while to make it over to padmapper, so on weekends when there are many open houses, you might find one that went up that morning that other chumps haven’t seen.
* it was Jason and I searching, so we logged into the same padmapper account. You can use a collaboration feature, we didn’t try it.
* padmapper has mobile apps. This is good for checking for new places while away from your computer, and for using the map to finding places you’re interested in.
As for neighborhoods, there are four axes (like Cartesian coordinate system, not chopping tools) to consider: hill, sunshine/fog, bums, cost. Neighborhoods are plotted this way. A great, funny breakdown of this can be found here.
On to actual San Francisco homes. Tho, first a caveat: we went to Berkeley, and decided to limit our search to SF proper. Though the train makes it a reasonable commute, the psychological barrier of going across the bay means fewer people will come hang out with us. As we’re new to the city and building a community is important, we’ll stick to the expensive hilly bits.
Trends in apartments I saw:
* if the layout isn’t guessable from photos (assuming there are photos), they’re probably hiding the fact that it’s weirdly laid out.
* learn to identify wide-angle lens photos. This will help with your expectations of the size of the place.
* the bedroom:bathroom ration is 1:1. Deal with it. We’re going to use the second bathroom for storage.
Finally, our story:
We started by driving around neighborhoods. We discovered that the main streets were gritty, asphalty, loud, busy, and had a goodly number of homeless folks. Just a block or two back, and you’re in nice tree-lined residential areas. We (to be fair, mostly I) decided that sunny was better than fog, close to work was better than a 45 minute bus ride, hills are OK, we like family-friendly neighborhoods, and we’re willing to pay a bit more to have these things.
We looked at:
Noe Valley — the parks are far from the public transportation, so despite the fact that it’s THE family-friendly neighborhood, it wasn’t our first choice.
Bernal Heights — this is where we housesat. The north side of the neighborhood is great. The south side requires a trek OVER A MOUNTAIN I SWEAR to get to public transportation, and it takes 45 minutes to get to SoMa. It is sunny, though. Oh, and lots of lesbians, so it would be like Western Cambridge.
NoPa — (north of panhandle park) totally cute! Clean, residential, more space for your dollar; farther from SoMa, gets kinda foggy
Alamo Square — like NoPa but closer. Great park, Victorian architecture; gets a bit more expensive because it’s closer to downtown
Cole Valley — south of Haight Ashbury (which was a little grungy for my crunchy-yuppie-mama eye), totally cute but would require a long bus ride.
Potrero — sunny! parks! grocery store! close to work! There were very few listings for this area, so we had to pounce like a caffeinated kitten.
We’d kept our eye on listings in other neighborhoods, but when we saw that we could go to a Sunday showing for a 2bed apartment in north Potrero (north really meaning “close to work and not up a giant hill”), we packed a kit of snacks and toys and hit it up. Jason discovered we could print the application online. This wasn’t mentioned in the craigslist post, he just is that awesome. So, like the blog post I referenced in the second paragraph, we had an application all filled out, our credit reports, bank statements, letters of intent for Jason’s job (because he hasn’t started it yet) and a checkbook. We got there 15 minutes early. Others who showed up (maybe 5 more couples) deferred to my 1st place lead, which was great because I was starting to feel uncomfortable being aggressive.
We went upstairs to the apartment, I took a quick look around, and park myself next to the realtor and asked if we could submit an application right then. I believe legally they have to give the apartment to the first person who applies, so this is an important moment.
The realtor said “you can just email us the app”. Fuuuuuuu. We were all unhappy. Who would be the first to email the application? Who knows? Trying REALLY hard not to badger, I asked if a paper copy would work. It would not. Could I hand over credit reports? No, they do their own. There’s a fee.
Folks started trickling out, to see if they could use their iPhones to take pictures of their applications.
No one else was around when I asked if I could pay the fee right then, and then email the application later. The realtor was like “suuuure!”
I WON. I’ve never written a check so fast in my life. The fact that no one else did made me happy in a kind of scary way. Jason’s reading over the lease as we speak, and we’ll email it tomorrow. That closes the chapter of my life where I move to San Francisco and learn the Law of the Land in a week.
Last thing to note: we moved from across the country, and our previous bank is not here. We needed cashier’s checks for ridiculous sums of money (first month, plus last month and security which was 1.5 monthly rent), and it was complicated getting it transferred. If you’re moving away from your bank, go into a branch and make sure you can wire money to yourself in large sums.
So, that’s it! Bonus links:
Great overview guide to neighborhoods
A good map for learning the neighborhood names
* “quality time”means not time eating or slowly washing hands or fighting about toothbrushes or pajamas.