Bay Area Apartments: Explain like I'm 5
December 4, 2013 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I have a job offer in San Francisco. I understand that renting there is more difficult than it's ever been. My requirements are: I want to be able to walk + bike + BART/Bus to work, which is around South Beach. Other than that, I am cool with East Bay, South, whatever. I could swing $2500-ish a month, but that is an upper boundary. Tell me about neighborhoods, tell me whether there exist "apartment headhunters" who could reliably do this for me, school me thoroughly. Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
To be clear, are you okay with having roommates? If so, $2500 is plenty. Six months ago, I was rooming in a nice 3br for $1200— great apartment, landlord, location.

Whatever you're looking for, SFBay Craigslist is a good way to get a feel for the housing market.
posted by yaymukund at 9:32 AM on December 4, 2013

When you say "apartment headhunters" do you mean real estate agents? There are real estate agents who work with rentals though you may find them harder to work with than just doing the legwork yourself.
posted by dfriedman at 9:35 AM on December 4, 2013

Parts of South Beach* are as close or closer to Caltrain as they are to BART, which opens up the Peninsula as a possibility. There are a bunch of suburbs there some of which have pretty cute walkable main streets. They are pretty quiet and suburban, and while you would be ok commuting by bike/transit, it's not somewhere I'd want to live without a car. If that's your thing consider Burlingame, (parts of) San Mateo, redwood city, Palo alto, mountain view, and maybe Menlo park. These would all leave you with a 1-1.5 hour commute.

The other canonical answer to this question is Oakland. I don't know much about it so I'll let others step in there.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:00 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Apartment brokers aren't really a thing here the way the are in some places (like NYC). There may be a few who handle places in all the new construction in SOMA and South Beach, but from everything I hear, the vast majority of people use craigslist.

Will you be here in order to look for places? Do you want to live alone, or are housemates okay (at least for a while)? Caltrain is certainly doable, but you will be constrained by its schedule; ditto BART if you live in the East Bay (BART stops at midnightish; there are all-night buses, but...). But if you're working in South Beach, both the East Bay and down the Peninsula a bit will be slightly less painful commutes than if you live in the Marina (for instance) or way out by the beach. Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and parts of the Mission will have okay-to-easy commutes. This heatmap of median rental prices per bedroom here in the city will give you a rough outline of what's where and how much.
posted by rtha at 10:02 AM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

CA real estate laws plus the vagaries of the market itself make brokers more or less impossible - I just found out the same thing while trying to figure out how the hell to find a place to live in Los Angeles when I don't live in Los Angeles already.

You could hire a person to actually go walk around and do legwork for you, but they would basically be a personal assistant rather than a commission-paid real estate professional.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:28 AM on December 4, 2013

San Francisco landlords do not, as a rule, rent to people who have not seen the apartment in person (in my experience they apply this requirement to all housemates, even spouses.) Your best bet will be to get a short term place via sublet or AirBnb and do your apartment hunting after you move, both so you can get a feel for the various neighborhoods & towns of the Bay Area and so that you can do the application legwork in person.
posted by kelseyq at 11:00 AM on December 4, 2013

This guy wrote an article, SF Startup Survival Guide: How to Find an Apartment in San Francisco, last year about finding an apartment in SF; yeah, it's a year old but maybe you'll find something useful in it?
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone I know who has an apartment in San Francisco, found it through friends.

I was invited into my building in Oakland, when the previous occupant of the apartment went into the hospital for the last time. I lived out the "waiting for someone to die" trope. God Rest Her Soul, but it was worth it.

Find a sublet near your work for a few months, and really get to know the places you might want to live.

When you start working, get the word out, tell everyone you know, everyone you meet, everyone you bump into that you're looking for a place. Network like you've never networked before.

Be picky. San Francisco proper has rent stabilization (so do some other east bay cities) so you want to pick a place you'll be happy with for a LONG time. This is not the time to rush things.

Going through a housing hunt is something you do rarely in San Francisco, so really make it count.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:27 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in SF and found both my current place (just moved in last week) and my last place through Craigslist. Apartment brokers are definitely not a thing here. $2500 will get you a 1br in most neighborhoods in SF. If you have pets or want off-street parking then you are a lot more limited.

A lot of what people like or dislike about neighborhoods is subjective and based on personal taste. The only thing I would caution is to stay out of the Tenderloin (and the adjacent "Tendernob" and "Lower Nob Hill") because it's just not freakin safe. I am not afraid of the City or homeless people, but that area is far beyond my tolerance for bullshit.

A lot of people like Oakland and the East Bay just fine, but personally I moved back to the Bay Area to be in SF (I am from Marin) so I wanted to live in SF. I would not live in the South Bay, that is a long-ass train ride.

In terms of transit, you can use Google Maps to figure out how long it would take to get from potential places to your office and factor that in.

There are some nuances to it, but as RB pointed out SF does have rent control so most people stay in their places a while so it is worth it to find something you do like.

There are some snazzy new apartments in SF in SOMA and the Mid-Market area, but most buildings are going to be older. A lot of them have "charm" but it does present some challenges. The last place we lived had no direct sunlight (our windows faced our neighbors windows!) and it was so dark and cold. There were baseboard heaters but they were a joke, and combine that with the lack of insulation, hardwood floors, high ceilings, and darkness, and it was fucking freezing all the time.
posted by radioamy at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2013

Note that rent control in San Francisco only applies to buildings built before June 1979. If you move into new construction in South Beach and the price of a 1 bedroom in that neighborhood goes up to $3,000 (or $3,500) per month, which is not out of the question, you're getting a big rent increase.

There are lots of threads here about renting in and around the City, and your question is pretty non-specific. I'd suggest reading through those, making some decisions and then coming back to add specifics to the question.
posted by cnc at 12:21 PM on December 4, 2013

I live in South Berkeley east of the Ashby BART station. The area is sort of finished getting gentrified but borders areas that are still in process. It's near a grocery store or two and some drug stores, and decent restaurants, more accessible via BART, walking or bus (or cab). There is a strong renter's association and strong pro-renter laws.

Central Berkeley is near the Berkeley BART station. If you're willing to transfer, Rockridge is a gentrified area, and of course SF is just across the bay via BART (about a 35 minute ride). There's lots to explore and enjoy.

I think solo apartments are swung around $1500 - $2000 a month, shared ones much cheaper.

Also if you are transitioning in, you might try renting a bedroom in a house owned by empty nesters while you find a situation better suited but are able to take your time doing it. That'd be word of mouth or craigslist, but doable.
posted by kalessin at 2:37 PM on December 4, 2013

Apartment hunting in San Francisco was one of the most draining things I ever did. It was about ten years ago. I went to showing after showing (found through craigslist and "apartment available" signs in windows), and most apartments were awful (think weird shit like all pink tile bathrooms or 70s shag carpet or windows with a view of your neighbor's window). It was seriously depressing. About two weeks in, I finally found a place I loved, and lucked out that the rent was relatively low. Gave the landlord a check on the spot.

Apparently at the moment, even this is no guarantee, but you have to be ready to act right away if you find something you like. If you spend time thinking about it and the place is halfway decent, inevitably someone else will snatch it up. Figure out what you actually want, and then be ready to jump on something that works.
posted by ktkt at 12:47 AM on December 5, 2013

I just remembered that curbedsf has been doing a series of "What can $XXXX/mo get you in SF?" Here's their $2100/mo post. A lot of them are links from, which I'm unfamiliar with but is apparently another place besides craigslist to look for rentals here.

you have to be ready to act right away if you find something you like

This is also what I've heard/read, at least for non-roommate situations. Open houses are short and the application process furious. Bring a checkbook, find out if there's an application you can fill out online beforehand, dress nice, bring your offer letter/pay stub, maybe a resume, possibly also references from previous landlords. None of this necessarily applies outside San Francisco.
posted by rtha at 10:15 AM on December 5, 2013

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