Over the last few months, I have been participating in one of the most difficult, frustrating, insanity-inducing processes one can be forced to endure: Apartment hunting in San Francisco. The market is so ridiculously over saturated with aspiring San Franciscans, landlords can (and do) get away with murder. After almost 5 months of looking, I signed the lease for a wonderful new apartment (for under $2000 a month!) this last Friday. I could regale you with stories of dead pigeons on windows, closet sizes unworthy of storing a Lilliputian’s clothing, bio-hazard apartments going for over $2000 a month, and young professional women sacrificing their bay area feminist pride and hitting on real estate agents. But that is for another post.
Hundreds of articles have been written on the craziness of the SF rental market. Many giving “helpful” advice on succeeding in the hunt. My boyfriend and I have scoured the advice columns in search of grains of wisdom to help us in our search. Some of it helped, while some was a complete and total waste of time. So we have decided to list what eventually worked for us. The following rules of thumb are for anyone looking for a rental, and will make the already painful process just a bit better.
1) Decide what you want
This may seem obvious, but you would be stunned how many singles and couples will start arguing over amenities at a showing – wasting the landlord’s time and their own. In some cases, when you are at a open house, this can be the difference between getting your application in first or second… and getting it in 24th. So, decide what amenities are deal breakers for you before you even start looking. Review them again before going to the showing as well. Have a car and need to commute? Think about the parking situation. Hate laundromats? Better make darn sure there is laundry in the building. Have pets? If it does not mention pets in the listing, email the poster and ASK before you take the time to go. Are you willing to make exceptions for a great place (and if so what)? Figure it out now.
2) Know where to look and how much to pay
Know how much you are willing to spend and know where you want to live. I highly recommend Craigslist. Keep in mind that some people do not know how to list the location properly, so be sure to check the cross streets. Also, cross check the address with SpotCrime to see the crime stats in the area. Take transportation, grocery shopping and commute into account. Are you willing to pay more to live downtown? Do you want to pay less and live in the outer sunset (square)? Do the math on commuting costs vs rent.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be prepared. Have all of your documents in order (I will list the most commonly requested below) and bring them with you to each showing. Have them in order, neatly stapled. Bring your checkbook with you and be prepared to pay an application fee right away. Some places will have their own application form, and others will be okay with a generic one that can be filled out prior to the viewing. Always have documents for ALL of the applicants/residents, even if you will be the primary signer. And bring a pen (your fellow applicant will surely let you borrow his/her pen and show mercy on you… after they submit their own application, putting them in front of you in the 50 or so applicant-pool).
Things to have:
- Recent credit score
- Pay stubs for 3 months
- Photo copy of your driver’s license
- Pre-filled application form (though they may ask you to fill out their own)
- References for both former roommates and employers
- Payment history from your previous apartment, if you have it
4) When to go to showings
Timing is everything, and I mean that in every aspect of the process. From looking up listings on the net, to actually going to viewings. You can’t let your whole life be consumed with constantly going to showings every evening and weekend. You need to make good use of your time. Let’s start with apartments posts shall we? Most of the days listings are posted between 9 AM and 5 PM. So the best time to email the poster is during those hours. The best listings are the ones that request you to call or email directly for a showing time and address. This means that the poster is only going to reply to a few people, making it less likely that the showing will be mobbed with 50 applicants. Then look for weekday, lunch-time showings. These are the best! If you see a listing with a viewing from 11 AM – 12 PM… GO! For the love of unicorns and puppies, go!
In all seriousness, most people will not be able to use their lunch break to go to a viewing, that means less people and less competition. Evening showings are always insane. Everyone gets off work and rushes over to apply. I have personally seen over 60 people at one showing. The same thing goes for weekend open houses. Tons. Of. People.
When you do go to see a place, always show up at least 10 minutes early. Both to avoid stress and to see if there are already 25 people in line, in which case you may want to bail and not waste your time. Please also use common sense and watch out for scams. If the poster asks for your social security number, don’t give it to them.
5) How to behave
Dress appropriately and behave with common courtesy. This is an interview. The landlord is deciding if he/she wants you to live in their building for at least half a year. If they think you are going to be throwing crazy parties, smoking illicit substances, or having an endless succession of girlfriends/boyfriends coming through, they are going to toss out your application before you can blink. But do not suck up to them or beg for the apartment (no matter how much you may want too), desperation is not attractive (in this or any other environment). Most of all, do not try to offer them more money than the list price or tell them how much more they could get for the place. I cannot tell you how many people have tried this, only to have the landlord roll their eyes or take it as an insult. They know how much they can get, they have the advantage in this market. So don’t insult their intelligence by being a smart ass. Plus, the rest of the applicants at the showing might jump you afterwards, steal your wallet and use it to pay our first and last months’ rent.
6) Closing the deal
If you are lucky enough to get a email back offering you the place you want, reply right way. This may seem obvious, but there are at least 15 other people in line. If you drag your feet or say you need to think on it, the place is as good as gone. At the end of the day, the landlord needs to fill a vacancy, and they want to do it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Too much of a delay and it’s back to the lab again with you. So if you apply to a place, be 100% sure so you can say yes right away. I would say reply within a few hours if not ASAP.
(Jon’s note: If you need time to decide – ASK FOR IT. Most potential landlords are fairly understanding. If you ask for 24 hours to decide or hear back from somewhere else, they’ll give it to you. The key here is you need to talk to them and ask. If you say nothing for 24 hours, they will likely assume you’re dead and move on to the next person in the list.)
With all that being said, apartment hunting in San Francisco is about as fun as getting a full frontal lobotomy! Be prepared to spend a good amount of your time looking for a place before you find one. Check the postings every single morning so you know if there is a open house mid-day and have your documents with you so you can jump on something if you need too. Good luck!