The Hunt

The one year anniversary of my coming to this strange little city passed mostly without comment in this venue. That may change in the near future, or may not. But a friend of mine who is about to move here from L.A. asked me in email what the apartment-hunting process had been like for me, and that reminded me that back at the end of that experience, I’d promised to do that publically.

So here, briefly summarized, are the things I learned from my apartment hunt in San Francisco:

  1. More than anything else: preprint your own application form, and make a dozen copies of it so that you can hand it on the spot to the landlord of any place you like. What you want is a stapled packet that includes, for each person who’s going to be on the lease:
    • Contact information (name/address/phone/email)
    • Social Security Numbers
    • Name and contact info of current and last employer
    • yearly income
    • photocopy of 2 pay stubs if possible
    • Name and contact info of current and last landlord
    • Name and contact info of 2 personal references
    • a copy of your credit reports (you can get this from https://www.annualcreditreport.com/)
    • pet info: how many, what kind, and the magical phrase “willing to provide pet damage deposit”

    You want to do this because time is of the essence here: you’re going to be seeing 4-8 places a day, and if you have to stop each time to fill out someone else’s form, you’re going to miss appointments (and get wrist cramps), and if the landlord has to wait to run your credit report or for you to fax him/her your paystubs, s/he’s just going to give the apartment to someone else. (Trust me on this: I got passed over for two excellent apartments because I hadn’t figured this out yet.) If you see an apartment you like, you should be able to just whip out the packet, sign it and hand it over with a smile in one fluid motion.

    If anyone’s curious, I can dig up the form I put together in MS Word for this purpose: I managed to get all of the above information (minus the credit report and pay stubs, obviously) onto a single sheet for two people.

  2. Prepare to have your time wasted. A lot. You’re going to need to be very very zen about this process, or you’re going to go to jail for assault and battery (and possibly arson). The jury will be sympathetic, but will convict anyway. Landlords, real estate agents and building managers are all-too-aware of the fact that this is a sellers’ market and will act accordingly: they will show up late or not at all, the descriptions of the apartments in the ads will resemble the actual apartments in ways that could be charitiably described as “fanciful”, they will forget to call you back, and occasionally refuse to take your application for reasons they’ve made up on the spot. There’s no helping it, so you just have to suck it up.

  3. Cozy” means “tiny”.

  4. Rental agents here are, as far as I can tell, 100% useless if you’re not already a dot-com millionaire. I called 4 of them and got exactly zero leads that were even within laughing distance of my price range. Craigslist is the way, the truth and the light: check it every morning and every afternoon, print out the listings that look good, and start making phone calls.

  5. On a weekend, you are racing against the clock and against every other apartment-seeker in the city. Plan accordingly: on Friday night, you should have printouts of each listing you’re going to be visiting, in order, and unless you know the city really well you should use Google Maps to print out directions from each one to the next. The two most productive days I spent apartment-hunting, I had a stapled stack of papers that alternated between craigslist listings and Google Maps printouts.

  6. Private one-on-one showings of apartments are rare: open-houses are the rule (especially on the weekends), and for an even remotely desireable apartment they will be a mad scramble. Show up early. It’s not at all unusual for the first person in the door to hand the landlord an application and a deposit check. You want to be that first person, every time. (Hat tip to for reminding me of this one.)

  7. You can live in San Francisco without a car. You can not effectively apartment-hunt without one, unless you are hunting only in a single neighborhood. (And maybe not even then: “The Mission” covers a lot more ground than you think.) Rent a car for the weekend, or borrow a friend’s.

  8. Have a pet? You have a problem. “No pets” seems to be the default position of most SF landlords: I got rejected from half a dozen places because of my cats; I shudder to imagine what happens to dog owners. Some persistance helps here though: offering a pet damage deposit (basically the cost of replacing the carpets in most places) and a happy reference from a previous landlord will occasionally change people’s minds.

  9. In SF, places with parking are rare. Be prepared to pay extra and hunt longer if that’s a concern. This is probably less of an issue in the eastbay, where parking is plentiful but public transit is (more) atrocious.

  10. The more time you can devote to the search, the better: it took me about 2 months of weekending to find an acceptable place. The ideal thing would be to spend 2-3 weeks non-stop of seeing places every day.

  11. Don’t despair. It was a long and arduous trek, but at the end of it we found a place that we like in a neighborhood we love.

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