Moving to the Bay Area
March 19, 2009 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan my move to the Bay Area!

Thanks to everyone who answered my last post, you were all very very helpful. Now that I'm at stage 2 of the move-to-Bay-Area process, I'm hoping the hive mind can help me again.

I'm planning a scouting trip to California at the end of April, about a month before my job starts, to look for housing options and figure the region out. I will have about 5 days. With the previous help of Mefites, I've narrowed down the places I think I can/want to live to pretty much two zones: downtown San Mateo and Potrero Hill in San Francisco (the latter for its proximity to the Caltrain system, which I will have to use every day to get to work in San Carlos, the former for its drive-able proximity to San Carlos and because I want to live within walking distance of shops, restaurants, etc.)

My questions are:
- Do you know anything about these two areas - what are they like as places to live? I am also still open to other area suggestions, though, so feel free to chime in on that. I would really love to live in SF but have realized that unless I live within walking distance of a Caltrain station I will start hating the commute really quickly.
- Is Millbrae worth checking out? My only reason for asking is that it attractively has both BART and Caltrain access.
- Any advice for how to go about looking for rentals in these areas? This is my first job out of college so I have no experience with this sort of thing. I've read as much as I can online and it sounds like I need to go with a credit report and checkbook in hand. Is this true? How current does my credit report need to be? (E.g. can I print one out now, in March, and still have it be convincing for a landlord in April/May?)
- Given that I start work immediately after graduation and won't have much time to shop around for housing, should I stay at a motel for the first week of work while I find a lease, or should I look to rent a place during my recce trip and pay for a month's rent without living there? I'm assuming that landlords won't appreciate the "I love this place and want to live here but can only move in in a month" spiel. Are there any other options I haven't considered?
- If I live in San Mateo, I will need to buy a car. I'm looking to buy something used and cheap - is a budget of about $4k reasonable for a small, modest, but safe and functional car? Any advice for where to go in the area to purchase one? Any car type recommendations to avoid sky high auto insurance?
- What's the best way to use/organize my limited time on the scouting trip? During the trip I'll be living with a friend in Berkeley, if that's relevant.

Any other first-time-renter/first-time-move to CA/first-time-car-owner advice would be very very welcome. The contract is for one year, so long-term stuff isn't really a concern for me. I'm sorry to bludgeon everyone with so many questions all at once - thank you all in advance!
posted by skaye to Work & Money (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Look for sublets on Craig's List. That will buy you time before you commit to a lease. Bonus, you can try out both San Mateo and Potrero Hill (VERY different places to live in) and get a sense of each without really committing to anything long-term. It will also give you time to save up some money for security deposit and/or furnishings.

If you need some continuity of address for bills and such get yourself a mailbox at a commercial mailbox place near where you work.
posted by ambrosia at 11:51 AM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I lived in San Mateo for three and a half years (the neighborhood around the retail district 25th Avenue). My husband and I chose San Mateo solely because of its proximity to his work, but it turned out to be a place we were fairly happy. Having just left San Mateo and moved south into Silicon Valley, I can also say that I have a much greater appreciation of San Mateo after living in a place that is not quite as nice or well-planned.

But that said, comparing San Mateo with San Francisco is hard to do. It has a small-ish downtown, and after three and a half years I had only a handful of restaurants that I would go to regularly. Of other places on the peninsula it is a good option, but if you really like San Francisco I'm not sure it will be very satisfactory.

Here are the best things about San Mateo:

- Draegers grocery store...the best grocery store on earth, and sadly its branch in Los Altos is not as good as the one in San Mateo. Sign...

- Yogurtuille, the mix-your-own frozen yogurt store with fun orange chairs

- La Cumbre taqueria

-Clay Oven (Indian)

- Jack's Prime (burger joint)

- Large movie theater downtown

- Central Park - nice destination, but it's not like rambling through Golden Gate Park.

- Proximity to 92/101/280

- Proximity to SFO

- Express Caltrain stop (Hillsdale)
posted by handful of rain at 12:01 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

within walking distance of a Caltrain station

The entire SOMA / ballfield area is pretty much open to you then, too. Especially if you like high-price condos or industrial hipster warehouses.

should I stay at a motel for the first week of work

I'd find a short-term sublet on CL anywhere in SF. That will likely be cheaper.

If you're in the South Bay suburbs, you may need a car, but if you're in the city, parking will be a huge headache. They sell parking spaces in the city for up to $200k, which makes sense because it's practically the same amount of space as a studio apartment (400 sf once you include the circulation lanes). Before buying a car, look into options like joining City Car Share.

I'm a big fan of downtown San Jose. You might add that to your list.

Do rent a car while in Berkeley if you're going to be doing a lot of traveling to the South Bay.

Best of luck!
posted by salvia at 12:05 PM on March 19, 2009

I'd never plan a one-year contract around driving the worst part of 101 twice daily - San Jose to San Carlos. Jesus on a pogo stick.

The problem with PH is that while it's close to Caltrain and BART, it's isolated from the rest of SF as it goes. I'd actually recommend something like the Glen Park area so that you're close to BART *and* MUNI, and when you need Caltrain, you hop down to Millbrae as needed. Glen Park is nice because it's not as industrial as SOMA, PH, or other downtown areas, but yet it's easy to access SF proper when you want. It's not immune from problems by any means, though.

Do try to get by without a car until you absolutely cannot. It's entirely possibly here and worth the reward if you can make it work. That said, I just bought a scooter and think it's a great solution for intracity trips (most of mine are) and cheap fun to boot. A 250 or 500cc moto would work if you want to commute to San Carlos from the south of SF (not SSF) on 101.
posted by kcm at 12:10 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I know Berkeley better than the peninsula or SF. But in general:

* San Mateo is pretty sleepy compared to SF.

* Finding an apartment: Everybody uses Craigslist. You should too. But actually, I found my place by driving around the neighborhood looking for "For Rent" signs.

* As for the month in advance hurting you, it varies. If the unit is currently vacant, then yes, the landlord will want to fill it as soon as possible. But often the unit will be occupied, but the tenants will have given their month's notice (this is what happened to me). In this case, you actually wouldn't be able to move in until the beginning of the next month anyway.

* Twice now moving across the country, I've signed one-year leases during my "reconnaissance trips", and this has worked out for me. But the short-term sublet like others have suggested sounds like a great option. If you can it's good to drive around the neighborhood at various times of day (e.g., how loud is it at night? how crowded will your commute be?)

Good luck!
posted by sesquipedalian at 12:21 PM on March 19, 2009

Do try to get by without a car until you absolutely cannot.

This is what I do in Berkeley (Zipcar + CityCarShare), and I'm sure you could in SF. It's hard for me to imagine doing this in San Mateo.
posted by sesquipedalian at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2009

Just to confuse you more, consider adding the Mission into the mix - it's warmer and sunnier than Glen Park, but if you find a place near either the 16th St or 24th St BART stations, you can get to a Caltrain station and be nearer the center of the action.

Are you looking to get a place by yourself? Because you'll pay less money and possibly get a jumpstart on your social life if you move into a place with other people. Craisglist is full of shared housing/rooms for rent ads. This site, which I posted about a while back, gives you an idea of what rentals are going for in various neighborhoods.

It's your first time living on the West Coast and you just got out of college - live in San Francisco! Peninsula towns will still be there in a year if you really hate living in the city.
posted by rtha at 12:27 PM on March 19, 2009

Potrero Hill is nice but rents there are not so cheap (at least this was true ~3 years ago). I have friends who commute regularly to stanford via caltrain from other parts of the city, so depending on your commute tolerance.

With regard to renting, Craigslist is the place to look. Pretty much all rentals will be listed there. I have heard that rents are going down somewhat so it may not be as competitive as it once was, but I think going with a credit report in hand and names of 2 or 3 friends who can serve as references makes you a more competitive candidate. That's what I did during my search, and it seemed to work well. You should definitely bring a checkbook although most places you'll have to submit an application and then wait a day or two for them to decide.

Are you planning on looking for a 1BR or studio or getting a place with roommates? Plan on spending $1600/mo + on a 1BR (probably more like 1800 - 2K). Most roommate situations will also do interviews but will probably be less focused on your credit and more on whether you'd be a good fit.

Personally, the idea of looking for housing while also starting work has always seemed like a huge hassle to me, so I've always just eaten a month of rent to get a place before I moved out. You may not have the finances to do this, but I have found this the lowest stress way to do it.

Oh, and rent a car while your on your scouting trip.
posted by pombe at 12:33 PM on March 19, 2009

If you have to live walking distance from a Caltrain station, remember there are two Caltrain stops in San Francisco:

4th & King: To walk here you'd have to live in SOMA. Housing in this part of town can be a bit soulless - newish condo complexes etc. Though rumours are there are some funky warehouses to still be found.

22nd St: To walk here you have to live in Potrero Hill of which is half is charming hilly Victorian San Francisco (like in all the brochures!) and the other half (southeast mainly) is a bit of a rundown ghetto. There's also Dogpatch which is even closer to the station than Potrero Hill and is one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco- though its tiny so housing is hard to find.

The problems with a BART to Caltrain commute (which I tried for a while) are threefold:
1) Total commute price may be higher
2) Commute time may be longer since it involves a transfer
3) You are depending on BOTH Caltrain and BART having no problems that day.
posted by vacapinta at 12:39 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I grew up in Foster City (10 minutes from San Carlos and San Mateo) and live in Belmont (five minutes from San Carlos). Before we bought our house in Belmont we rented a place in San Carlos. So I know this area pretty well.

That being said, while the various towns on the Peninsula are great places for a family to live and raise kids, they are all pretty sleepy, and offer nothing like the excitement of living in San Francisco, Even San Mateo, which is the most vibrant of the mid-Peninsula towns and whose downtown has undergone a nice renaissance in the last 10 years, ain't nothing like San Francisco. Now, this is exactly perfect for me and my family, as I love it here and i don't want to live in a big city, but this might be torture to someone who is younger and has different interests and priorities.

Also, by living in SF and commuting to San Carlos, you'd be doing a reverse commute...except that Oracle is headquartered in Redwood shores, just across the freeway from Belmont and 1 mile up the road from San Carlos, and that really affects traffic around commute time.
posted by mosk at 2:01 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: Living in Potrero / Dogpatch: the shops along 18th st. are nice, and there's a Whole Foods at 17th and Rhode Island, so you'll have the basics covered. It is a bit of a hike to the rest of the city, though, with a weird maze of buses from Potrero to everywhere else. In the dogpatch, you'll be relying on the T line which is fine but rather roundabout to get places.

And as for people telling you to connect to Caltrain in Millbrae via BART... well, you can do that, but BART takes a relatively long time because, even from Glen Park, it goes pretty far west before hooking back to connect at the airport. And there are no express trains. So if you do that, it's quite possible you'd run into a 30 minute BART ride and a 20 minute Caltrain ride, instead of just Caltrain (e.g. if you lived in SoMa or Potrero).

- Is Millbrae worth checking out? My only reason for asking is that it attractively has both BART and Caltrain access.

No. That factor is the only attractive thing about Millbrae.

- Any advice for how to go about looking for rentals in these areas?

Craigslist, and you will likely need to share a place for your first year or 3 here. 1 bed places, even studios sometimes, are over $1500, but decent 2 beds can be found for $2200 or a bit more.

In terms of what you'll need: 1 or 1.5 months rent for a deposit, credit check, and as many housing references as you can reasonably provide (should at least go back a year or 2).
posted by rkent at 2:19 PM on March 19, 2009

Live in SF. Trust me. Living in the Valley, if you're at all young, interesting, or adventuresome, will quickly feel like a death sentence. You'll never make it up to the city because of the transportation hassle (whereas doing it the other way, to go to work, is enough incentive to make it happen).

(Quoth the Stanford grad student who is slowly being driven suicidal by Palo Alto.)
posted by paultopia at 2:43 PM on March 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, I meant to close my previous post with: if you have any other specific questions about San Carlos and the immediate area, feel free to send me a MeMail.
posted by mosk at 2:58 PM on March 19, 2009

The Bay Area is Craigslist Central. Seriously. You'll be able to find an apartment or sublet, furnature, and all sorts of shit on there.
posted by radioamy at 3:54 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I grew up here, and have lived all over the peninsula and currently live in Potrero.

Downtown San Mateo isn't all that, somewhere close to Burlingame Ave in Burlingame is quite a bit nicer a downtown and only about 2-3 miles from there and its right on the train tracks.

I grew up in Millbrae - it pretty much sucks. If you want to be on the Peninsula look at Burlingame downtown (off Burlingame Ave NOT Broadway) or head south to Palo Alto.

All that being said go Potrero Hill. Its a bit more family then the rest of the city but its a great hood. Awesome weather and walking distance (if you need to) of both SOMA and the Mission. Bit note TRY TO STAY ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE HILL. The south side can be nice but turns into projects real fast.

Craigslist is the way to get apartments, especially in the Bay Area, bringing a credit report has never been necessary for me and most landlords will still run your credit.

Email me if you want more details.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:13 PM on March 19, 2009

Response by poster: thank you everyone, that's very helpful! i don't even know which to mark as best answer because they're all so good. thanks especially those who said i can memail them - i will take you up on that with much gratitude.

if anyone else stumbles across this thread, i would still love to hear your take on any of this :)
posted by skaye at 8:38 PM on March 19, 2009

Both places are good if walkability is a high priority. If you want to socialize and meet people and you have a large budget, I'd go for the city and get into a roommate situation. If you are going to work at a startup where you will be collapsing after 18 hour days and weekday drinking is out of the question, having a bed close to work means that you can sleep enough on weekdays to get out on the weekends. Caltrain's hours are also crap if you want to use it for commuting really late. If you live in San Mateo, biking to work in San Carlos should be do-able, but there aren't zipcars and such nearby for easy rentals like in SF.

So like most things, it depends on what you want out of this stay and what your priorities are. I'd assume being just out of college and wanting to try new things means the city is a better fit.
posted by benzenedream at 12:53 AM on March 20, 2009

Contrary to popular opinion, Craigslist is not your only option.

Many big apartment complexes (I've lived in two different ones) do not advertise there. You just walk into their rental office and ask for whatever is available. There is one like that 4 blocks from Caltrain, where King and Embarcadero meet. Big complex with swimming pools, security guard, etc... Not my kind of place, and it is not the cheapest, BUT they always have empty apartments available for immediate move in, and at least in the ones I've lived in, they let you have a 3 or 6 month lease, while you find something better.

My office is very close to Caltrain on 4th and King, most of the people who move here from elsewhere find a room in shared apartment on Craigslist and live there while they find something they like. Several have found places within a 10 minute walk, everything from new condos and remodeled warehouse lofts to apartments around the new federal building.
posted by dirty lies at 12:53 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You want San Francisco. Really.

While I agree in general with rkent that Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch are, I guess, relatively remote to the rest of the city, really, that distance is largely psychological, if anything. The city is truly a tiny place. Its actually pretty funny, when I think about it, that PH/Dogpatch could even be considered remote when you've got something like 4 large neighborhoods even further out to the south it.

Currently, I live in the Castro/Corona Heights area of town, but for a few months I lived in the Excelsior which is certainly a lot further out and less fashionable than either PH or the Dogpatch. However, living there, I realized, that while yeah, living in Corona Heights is certainly better (for me) than living "way out" in the Excelsior, really, for my day to day living, the Excelsior was totally fine. So, it meant another 10 to fifteen minutes on the Mission bus after drinks rather than stumbling home or whatever. My point is, that being far out (which, again PH and Dogpatch really aren't) in San Francisco is still, for the most part, being in San Francisco (with all of the attendant glories and downsides), and while I'm not claiming you necessarily want to live just north of the Daly City border, if you're even just a bit young, creative, adventurous or into living without a car (and really, who needs the expense?), you really don't want to live in San Mateo (although its fine in its own right).

Regarding being within walking distance to restaurants and stores: In SF, most neighborhoods have neighborhood-serving retail corridors. Meaning, you'll usually have some decent to great restaurants, small corner markets/liquor stores, the ubiquitous Walgreens and random small shops, bars and professional offices close by. While the Dogpatch's and PH's commercial corridors aren't as extensive as say, Hayes Valley's or North Beach, they will still probably meet your every day needs.

Also, if you can get to work via Caltrain and walking/biking, and you are living in SF, the need for owning a car is obviously a lot less than living on the Peninsula , especially using City Carshare or Zipcar. You'll save so much money and hassle not having to deal with parking, parking tickets, looking for parking, gas, insurance, etc.

So, this answer is completely too long, but I hope its helped a bit. I personally think, from what your conditions set above, that some place like the Dogpatch or even the area around the ballpark on King Street would be your best best. PH is also good, but the steep hills there, while great for views, add to the somewhat isolated feel of the neighborhood and make car-free living a bit more difficult. While the Dogpatch can also be seen as somewhat isolated (again, compared with downtown or Hayes Valley), its flat and right between both the Caltrain line and a Muni Metro T line, so, in my mind, its a bit more accessible and car-free friendly. Its also a fairly unique place to live with the quaint neighborhood village feel typically of many SF neighborhoods juxtaposed with beautiful abandoned and refurbished industrial uses. Also, if you haven't already, check out mapjack to take tours of SF neighborhoods and to get a *very rough* idea of a particular neighborhood's transit shed and walkability. Oh yeah, don't rent from CitiApartments or any of their related companies.
Good luck!
posted by flamk at 1:53 AM on March 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

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