Apartment-hunting in San Francisco: Impossible?
March 30, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I are moving to San Francisco (preferably Inner Sunset) from New York. We need to be settled in by mid-June, and we’d like to sign a lease for June 1st. We've read a lot about the crazy SF housing market right now, but still have a few questions about when we should go out there to apartment hunt, living with a car in SF, and general apartment hunting strategies.

We expect to live in Inner Sunset because it will be convenient for my partner’s work and offers more affordable rents. We will also consider other neighborhoods, though — we just need to be within a 30 minute commute to UCSF and want to stay as close to the center of the city as possible (i.e. we don’t want to live in Outer Outer Sunset). We are looking for a one bedroom, and ideally we’d like to pay no more than $2400 (not including utilities or parking).

Our questions:

We are hoping to take one trip to apartment hunt. We’re able to devote a week to this. It seems from what we've read that things move quickly in SF, but we’re unclear on how quickly. When should we go looking at places if we want a lease that starts June 1st? One complication is that we have to be in NYC from May 3 through the 7th. Would it be better to go to SF before or after that?

Also, we are planning to bring our car with us when we move. Are there particular neighborhoods that are better or worse for having a car? If we get an apartment that doesn't include parking, are there monthly parking spots or garages where we could keep it?

Any other advice or advice on how to make this whole process go more smoothly would be much appreciated. We know the ins and outs of New York apartment hunting, but this seems to be a different game. Thanks!
posted by reren to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, I think one of the biggest factors is luck, which you obviously can't control--if something you like happens to become available when you're visiting, and you can respond immediately, you'll have a chance of getting it. Even then, it's tough. I spend several months urgently looking for a new apartment in the East Bay, and I know that my experience was a subdued version of what my friends in SF have gone through. If apartments are a good deal, they do go quickly. If someone lists an open house, try to convince them to give a private viewing earlier.

The good news is that I think that's a good time of year to look, because people will be moving. Can UCSF offer you any assistance with finding something?

I would actually recommend trying to find a sublet instead, if you can, so you have a little more time to search. And have a generic application filled out in advance and possibly written references from past landlords as well, along with proof of your new jobs. Use ifttt.com or some other service to get immediate notices when something goes up on Craigslist. CL is much more widely used here than in NYC, and brokers much less used.

Some of my friends have had luck finding places in the Richmond, so you might consider that as well.
posted by three_red_balloons at 4:59 PM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Unfortunately I have never seen apartments that are renting very far in advance. They usually want someone to move in within 30 days. You might want to find a short-term sublet or AirBnB for when you first move here to give you a little breathing room.

For pricing $2400 is reasonable. I just moved into a place in the Inner Sunset for exactly that price.

Parking varies by neighborhood. Some neighborhoods have permitted parking to try to reduce the number of people parking there - those are generally the areas that are harder to find parking in. We live in a non-permitted area and finding parking is usually just fine. It looks like the area right around UCSF is has permit parking. There are garages around the city that rent, and also some people rent out spots in their garages. I think you'd expect to pay at least $300/month. i just got a flyer for a company called SpotOn that does both hourly parking and monthly but I don't know anything about it.

FWIW, I love the Inner Sunset. It's still city living but it's a little less claustrophobic than other areas. The commercial area around 9th/Irving is really cute.

In terms of other neighborhoods, you should look at the UCSF shuttle map to see where that goes. Also Google Maps will tell you how to get from any prospective rental to your work via public transit. The nice thing is that the NJudah runs right by UCSF, as do several bus lines.
posted by radioamy at 5:11 PM on March 30, 2014

I think it would be better to apartment-hunt in SF after your NY trip is done. Agreed with above posts that typically places rent on a very tight time schedule -- i.e. "this is available to move in now, or in two weeks" not "this is available in 2 months." The neighborhoods you're targeting are popular but not as crazy as, say, the Mission, so you should definitely be able to find a place.

When I moved to SF I did a two-month sublet at first. This took some pressure off but the place I found was available right then so I ended up paying double SF rent for one month. That sucked. Doing a one-month sublet would have been perfect.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 6:04 PM on March 30, 2014

When mr. ruhroh and I moved in the east bay (not as crazy as sf but still pretty crazy because of all the people from sf getting displaced into hipper areas of the east bay like Oakland and Berkeley) the thing that we had that I think set us apart from other people who were looking is that we had a folder with credit checks from both of us, completed generic applications, and a list of references all ready for the potential new landlord. We also started carrying our checkbooks with us and we firmly believe that the reason we are renting our current place (an amazing 1 bedroom 1 block from Bart in Berkeley with laundry AND a garden) is because we were the first people to the open house AND we told the landlord that we had our checkbook and were ready to write a check for first months rent and security deposit on the spot.
We also found that most places have open houses on the weekends, so it might be worth it to look into airbnb or a sublet and then look on the weekends for your permanent home.
posted by ruhroh at 6:24 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Echoing ruhroh: have multiple copies of all the documents you might need printed out. Possible things landlords might ask for: credit reports, a list of previous residences with contact info for the landlords, even pay stubs or bank statements. Yes, it's kind of ridiculous, but this is what happens in a renter's market. It's all about being the first person to satisfy the landlord's ridiculous demands, so the more able you are to do so on the spot, the better.

When I moved to San Francisco, I devoted a full week to the task, and was successful. So it is possible.
posted by baf at 7:22 PM on March 30, 2014

I've only done the search in Oakland, not SF, but my instinct would be to make your trip after May 7.

Nthing the suggestion to show up EARLY for any open showing with documents in hand. We had places snapped out from under us by a matter of 30 minutes-1 hour because we needed to come back with papers.

I believe what got me my spacious and affordable apartment in Oakland (with basically no competition) was that I pursued a craigslist posting that did not include any photos. Also, luck.
posted by dahliachewswell at 7:35 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

How long it's going to take you is dependent on a few factors. It took me 8 months to find a place, and I wasn't real particular about neighborhood. But I had two dogs, so if you're pet free you'll be less likely to go to the bottom of the stack. Street parking really varies by neighborhood, so you may or may not get lucky. The good news is there is good bus and muni service where you're looking. If you can be near the N line, that will take you places where there are garages for rent, as well as places you want to go.

My advice? You need to have your packet ready and with you. When you see a place you want, don't go home and think about it. It will be gone. Give them your packet and write a check right then. Your packet should have the following:

- A rental application. Just find one on Google. It may not be the exact one they hand out at the showing, but they're all basically the same. You can fill theirs out asynchronously; have one filled out and ready to go before you show up. Basically it's your demographic info + previous residences and references.
- Copies of your most recent paystubs. If you don't have those, copies of your offer letters.
- A copy of your credit report. Go online and pick one of the three agencies and get your report and your credit score.
- Letters from your previous landlords, if you have them / can get them.
- If you have pets, pictures and stats, as well as a detailed plan for how you care for them.
- A copy of your renters insurance policy (or statement showing you have one).
- And anything else you can think of that might be relevant.

You're going to face intense competition, so be prepared to commit when you find a place.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:53 PM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're getting good advice here. The one thing I'd add is that you should do as much research as possible in advance. I'd download the Trulia app, and also check to see if Padmapper is still available. (I seem to remember it got shut down, but it may be back.)

Both pull listings from multiple sources and will give you a good overview of what you can expect for your money. If you check them regularly for a few weeks, you'll be in a much better position to make a snap decision when the time comes.
posted by Susan PG at 2:23 AM on March 31, 2014

I know quite a bit about the SF rental market, so here's my advice:

The advice to start looking in May is a good idea. It's the time of year when many college students start moving out of their apartments because it's the end of the school year.

The UCSF housing department is a good place to start looking. Many landlords will post there exclusively because med students/hospital personnel have a reputation for being responsible, quiet and clean.

It is a very good idea to put together a packet with a list of references, credit reports, pay stubs, etc.,. Almost everyone does that these days.

Think about expanding your search to neighborhoods with satellite campuses. UCSF has an extensive shuttle system and you can easily get to work from any of those locations. There are other neighborhoods that provide the amenities of the Inner Sunset.
posted by echolalia67 at 8:08 AM on March 31, 2014

jeffamaphone's advice is spot-on. Be prepared to have that packet and to make a decision on the spot. When I first moved to SF from NY two years ago, I moved to the Inner Sunset. Compared to the other nabes, parking is easier, and my apartment came with a garage, no additional charge.

I hear that because the Inner Sunset is "so far away" from downtown, it's considered less desirable. But you'll still face competition.

Oh, one weird thing I noticed moving here. In my 18 years of living in NY and using Craigslist for rentals, I never once personally encountered a scam. Here, I regularly found myself responding to ads that read as legit with reasonable rent prices that ended up being a scam where I'd get a response from someone who wanted a credit report upfront and my information, claiming it's because her apartment had been robbed and she wanted to be "secure". Beware.
posted by vivzan at 12:23 PM on March 31, 2014

Oh, yeah. Don't fall for the craigslist "just go here and get your credit report and bring it with you" scam. That's just someone trying to get affiliate marketing dollars for getting you to sign up for credit reporting services. THERE IS NO APARTMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT CREDIT REPORT.

Despite the awesome photos of a really amazing Noe Valley pad at below market prices.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:25 AM on April 1, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies -- very instructive. You haven't exactly allayed my anxiety about the housing hunt, but I am grateful to go in armed with a better understanding of the challenge ahead.

Will update once we find a place, whether that residence is a tent in Golden Gate Park or an actual apartment.
posted by reren at 1:36 PM on April 2, 2014

Any update?
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:40 AM on April 26, 2014

Response by poster: Nothing to update on yet. Will report back when there is news.
posted by reren at 10:50 AM on April 29, 2014

Response by poster: So, the deed is done. We will not be living IN Golden Gate Park, but rather very near it in Inner Sunset.

We found the apartment we ended up taking before we left for SF, actually. The son of a friend of ours was looking to get out of his apartment's lease. We got video and had a friend of ours check it out personally. Everything seemed satisfactory and the landlord was threatening to give the place away if we didn't sign the lease expeditiously so we boldly put down the deposit before seeing the apartment. We've since seen the premises and feel quite pleased. The rent was within our budget with a free parking spot to boot.

Thanks for all your advice! The long trip we scheduled proved unnecessary, but that's perfectly alright.
posted by reren at 6:15 PM on May 12, 2014

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