Renting Sight Unseen in California
March 4, 2010 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Help me avoid getting screwed when finding a place to live in California, when I can’t see the place or meet the landlord in advance.

I need to rent a room or apartment in California for about 4 months during the spring/summer. I’d be in the area of Redwood City, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Menlo Park would be most ideal, location-wise. I’m not looking for anything too fancy, just a studio apartment or a room in a house shared with others. I’m looking to spend $700-$1100/month (or less if it were possible) and this seems to be reasonable for the area.

Because I’m currently living very far away from California, I won’t be able to see the place in advance or meet the landlord. So to secure a place I’m going to probably have to send well over $1000 in rent/security deposits to some person I’ve never met in order to rent something that I’ve never seen in a city I’ve never been to. My question is: How can I avoid getting screwed or making a stupid choice?

Specifically, I’d love if some people familiar with the area could discuss:

-What parts should I avoid living in? (eg. What are the dangerous or high crime areas or what else would a local know to avoid?)

-What parts would locals prefer to live in?

-What are the pros and cons of renting from an individual versus renting from some company? What should I watch out for from either case?

-Is it reasonable or common to ask a landlord to provide some kind of reference from a former tenant? Would this have any value?

-Is there any strategy to avoiding really bad housemates? Landlords sometimes ask for references, but what can I do?

-How far in advance is ideal to search for a place in the area? Right now I’ve got about 2 months until I’d be moving – is this unreasonably far in advance to find a place?

-What other tips do you have to help me avoid getting screwed over or making a horrible choice?

I know that's a lot of questions thrown into one, but any little tidbit of help is appreciated.
posted by Diplodocus to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any way at all that you could go and stay in an extended-stay place for a week or so while you look? We tried last summer to rent an apartment from 3000 miles away, based on google and the apartment's website, and it was not a good idea.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:20 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know a lot of people who've done this due to summer internships. If you're doing an internship, the best thing to do would be to ask your company to put you in touch with local fellow interns who either have space in their houses or are also looking for a short term place and can go visit. Yes, it's still kind of a crapshoot, but at least you have something in common with your househunting delegate.

As far as your other questions:
-In general, avoid staying east of the 101. Yes, there are SOME okay neighborhoods, but take that as a rule of thumb.
-I lived in downtown Palo Alto. Downtown Menlo Park is also cute. You pay a large rent premium for their convenience, though. Redwood City near the station has similar convenience but probably prices are a bit lower. Will you have a car while you're there? The answer to that question really determines a lot.
-Pros and cons of renting from an individual vs a company are the same as anywhere. With a company, you get professionalism and probably some more experience dealing with short-stay tenants, but you probably pay extra. With an individual, you may end up with a crazy person, but you may make a lifelong friend. Frankly, you may well end up subletting a Stanford student's place - that will almost certainly be the most cost effective option. I wouldn't rule that out.
-I've never asked a landlord for a reference, but I can't imagine there's any harm in trying. Also, if you look at large-ish apartment complexes, google them! Many are on Yelp or apartment review sites. That's just how they roll in Silicon Valley. The reviews of the last place I lived were very accurate (property manager is nice, hot water takes 5 minutes in the shower, thin walls). Yay web 2.0.
-You really can't predict who will be a good housemate. Most people are on their best behavior when trying to recruit someone to live with them. Ask the questions that are important to you, but be prepared to be lied to, especially if you can't meet in person. Is there any way you can go out for a weekend, or go a few days early and stay in a hotel and just spend all day every day househunting? I feel like that would be a lot easier on you.
-Most places you look other than Archstone type corporate owned places won't be considering anyone who's moving in much more than a month from now, in my experience. Start looking on Craigslist and you may find some people putting places up for rent really early, but you can't really take care of this very far in advance.

Craigslist is everything in the Bay Area. You will almost certainly find your place for the summer on there. You probably won't get an amazing deal because anyone who can show up in person the day the ad is posted and do a credit check will get the amazing deals. But, if you're willing to rent a room in a shared house, I think you can do okay if you can time your stay such that it fits well with Stanford's summer vacation.
posted by little light-giver at 9:21 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Is there any way at all that you could go and stay in an extended-stay place for a week or so while you look?"

This might be a good idea, but the idea of doing it makes me kind of nervous - i.e. I'd be worried about not being able to find a place for too long and wasting too much money. Especially since I don't have a car or a good knowledge of the area, going around looking at places might be tricky for me. Plus, except for three or so days at the beginning, I'd be working during the day, limiting my apartment hunting time.

All that being said, I'm still going to consider this, especially if it looks like I won't have to wait long to find a good place.
posted by Diplodocus at 9:26 PM on March 4, 2010

-In general, avoid staying east of the 101. Yes, there are SOME okay neighborhoods, but take that as a rule of thumb.

Quoted for truth.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:02 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

especially if it looks like I won't have to wait long to find a good place.

I don't think you will. There's a lot of housing churn in that area, especially in early summer. One story I like to tell is that I was in town in late March doing a job interview & visiting my boyfriend, and turned off my cell phone, due to being in an interview. When I turned the phone back on some 5 hours later, my boyfriend had seen an ad on craigslist for a studio in downtown Palo Alto, gone to see it, told the landlord he was interested, finished his credit check, been approved, and put down a deposit. The next day we started moving his things. We'd spent probably three days before that looking, and we were picky too, and had a really specific area we wanted to live in.
posted by little light-giver at 11:18 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just remember East Palo Alto is in NO way Palo Alto. Also, for such a short stay, it's worth paying the premium for location and living near University Ave in PA - or in SF, which will have even more rooms for short term rent and overall fun potential.

There's lots of "cottages" (garages) in PA for rent, though I'm not sure about them being short term.
posted by kcm at 6:25 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in downtown Menlo Park. There's a lot of rental housing in Menlo Park in the area off Willow Road between the VA hospital and Middlefield (look for Coleman Road). It's relatively convenient to downtown Palo Alto, though a bit far-ish from downtown Menlo Park for walking, but super easy for biking (if you don't have a car you should definitely get a bike since everything around those three places is pretty bikeable in the summer). Depending on where you need to be most of the time that could be a good spot to look. And it fits the criteria of being west of 101 though not directly in either downtown.

There's a swath of rentals on or just off Woodside Road in Redwood City but lots of them are kind of crappy and it isn't that convenient to the train station if that's what you need. I have no idea about the short term nature of any of it. Downtown MP and PA are pretty close to each other but RWC is a bit separated by a long stretch of El Camino with not much between.

Depending on when, exactly, you arrive you might find yourself needing a temporary to your temporary accommodation. If you can get someone to do a month-to-month lease they still usually start at the beginning of a month. You should definitely look closely at sublets.
posted by marylynn at 11:22 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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