Gone West: Apartment Hunting Tips from a San Francisco Freelancer

Living in San Francisco makes you very aware of your income and how far your paycheck can get you. But it’s not simply a question of the “haves” and “have nots”: even people making 6-figure salaries can find themselves living check to check if they aren’t smart about budgeting.

I’ve been in San Francisco for almost 2 years. At different points, I was working contracts, but I’ve mostly lived as a freelancer with (very) variable income. During my short time here, I’ve had to move twice and have done pretty well both times in terms of neighborhood (Outer Sunset → Cole Valley → Mission) and space. This doesn’t make me an expert or a veteran, but I can tell you what has worked for me.

Finding an affordable space with my income has required me to be methodical about planning, be aggressive about the search, and be accepting of the quarks of the San Francisco rental market.

This post lays out my techniques and some thoughts on searching. I hope they help you find a good place in town.

One Tip to Rule Them All

START EARLY! You want time to search without the immediate need to say “yes”. San Francisco is a city with a small amount of rental units, a lot of demand, some extremely desirable neighborhoods, and busy people holding most of the leases (or at least the sub-leases). It can take time to reach people and setup meetings; and the housing options can change a lot from one week to the next.

Give yourself time to reach out, schedule appointments, see different places, and get a feel for the neighborhoods. Starting early will also give you time to save up for the deposits, moving vans, and any other expenses.

Tips for Planning Your Apartment Search

Start by understanding what you really need, want, and will accept. This lets you prioritize certain listings and not spread yourself so thin. Here are some prep activities.

Figure Out Where You Want to Live and Map It

Don’t trust the locations given in listings: a savvy poster will fudge the neighborhood to make the place more desirable and some neigborhoods are ambiguous to begin with (e.g. NOPA). You’re better off thinking in terms of landmarks and intersections. This will also help you search smarter.

Familiarize yourself with the neighborhoods closest to your job, your friends, and anything else you care about; and then triangulate a good area for you based on those points. Use Craiglist’s map view to see the spaces within your preferred areas and then filter by price. This will give you a more relevant set of listings than searching by neighborhood name or CL filters alone.

CL Map View is Your Friend

Besides transit options (see next tip), you will want to think a lot about noise, dirtiness, crime and activities:

  • Noise: San Francisco apartments have surprisingly thin walls and many streets will have foot traffic until well after the bars close. Can you stand living off a major intersection or do you want to be on a side street?
  • Dirtiness: I think all big cities are pretty dirty, but San Francisco’s homeless population means that you’ll find corridors with a lot of debris. There are also people that don’t pickup after their dogs (at least, you hope it’s from a dog).
  • Crime: There have been spikes in vandalism, car break-ins, and other property crimes lately, bike thefts are common, and people do get mugged occasionally. But San Francisco is still one of the safest big cities in the country so don’t stress too much. You’re more likely to be yelled at by a homeless person than anything else.
  • Activities: Do you want a lot of venues and bars, or would you be happier with one good neighborhood bar and good selection of brunch places? There can be more nuance to this, but basically you need to decide if you’re looking for a quiet neighborhood with essentials or a place where you can always find something new to do.

How Will You Get Around?

SF Rail Map

San Francisco is a relatively small city (7x7) and very dense, but the hills and narrow streets mean commutes within the city can take an hour or more. I used to live in the Outer Sunset and work in the FiDi; and the morning commute took me 35–45 minutes on an express bus. Remember that your commute time is not only about distance from point-to-point, but also distance from MUNI, the reliability of a MUNI line, and how many different lines converge near you. Look for locations that give you access to multiple lines/routes, ideally on major streets.

If you work downtown, then living near BART will make your life so much easier. If you can’t swing that, then try to live near the center of the city or along a major bus route.

You should also think about biking even if you haven’t in the past. San Francisco has bike paths everywhere and you’ll find bike racks in most parking lots downtown. Use Google Maps to compare the time for public transportation versus biking, and you’ll find it’s often the same amount of time or faster to pedal around the city.

I don’t drive, but I’ve heard horror stories about finding parking and cars getting broken into. Leave a comment with your parking tips and I’ll add them to the post with a link back to you.

Know Your MVP (Minimal Viable Place)

Some people need a sanctuary where they can feel comfortable and like they are in control. Other folks just want a place to pass out without the fear of getting robbed. You probably fall somewhere in between, but think really hard about what matters to you in terms of living space, storage space, light, appliances, bathrooms, flooring, and so on.

Personally, my main requirements are that my room fit my queen-sized bed, I have some natural light, can fit a dresser, and that I can sleep through the night — in that order. For me, a kitchen just needs a stove and full-sized fridge. And its more important to me that common areas are clean than cool looking.

Know that the pickier you are, the less options you have. There is nothing wrong with being picky, but you’ll need to factor in more search time and will have fewer options.

How Many People Can You Stand to Live With?

Group house situation. Look at the price for a shared bedroom

During your apartment search, you’ll come across 2-bedroom apartments being shared by 6–10 people, closets with bunk beds, and dormitory style housing arrangements where 15 people share a bathroom. There are lots of places with normal living arrangements, but cramming people in is how you keep costs down.

Think long and hard about how many people you can live with. I decided that two was my max, but was willing to consider three with the right group. For me, it came down to privacy and social interaction: I’m friendly but often want some solitude. If you’re super-friendly and social, then you might thrive in a hacker house or big co-op, but remember that every additional person you live with increases the odds of personality conflicts and drama.

If you’ve read this far, then keeping going. The next section deals with searching for apartments online.

Tips for Searching

Now that you’ve got a plan and priorities. It’s time to find suitable places. In this section, I offer a few tips for getting your searching done faster and getting more responses from apartment listers.

Use Every Resource You Can

Most people use Craigslist for their housing search and that’s probably the most comprehensive source of apartment listings in San Francisco. But its also the source that everyone knows. Search there and also post what you’re looking for, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Who’s Your Competition? Pretty much everyone.
 There are still plenty of artists, service workers, travelers, students, and entry-level folks trying to live here. You’ve also got engineers, mid-level managers, and startup founders that are looking for a deal or don’t have the credit history to get a better place. All these people will be looking at the same apartments that you are.

You can increase your odds of finding a good place and limit competition by tapping your social network and looking at other sites. If you’ve got friends in your target areas, then ask them to check Nextdoor and pass you listings, also don’t be embarrassed to post on Facebook and Twitter and let your friends spread the word about you. I got several good referrals from Facebook and a couple from LinkedIn during my most recent search.

I can’t give you a good referral for an apartment finding website. I tried Apartments.com and Roomster but neither one worked that well for me. That said, it can’t hurt to try them for yourself.

Schedule Searching and Responding

I found that 15–20 minutes in the morning gave me a good set of listings to contact. I would collect links to listings first, and then spend 30 minutes sending responses.

The nice thing about doing your searching in the morning is that you can reach people early enough to schedule a viewing for the same day. You also have to think about when people are most likely to check email: evening’s might be easier for you, but someone might have their phone off or not see your message because they are out.

Regardless of when you do it, I suggest establishing a routine so you have a steady pipeline of places to checkout.

Use a Template for Responding to Ads

One of the cool things about San Francisco is that most people are tech-friendly. That means you can send them links to your social profiles rather than writing them a long email. A lot of posters actually request your social profiles. I wrote up a short email template and used that for all my responses. I’d sometimes change up the info or add answers to specific questions, but I mostly just sent this email over and over:

email-template-apartments

The template let me send a lot of emails fast. I could usually send 10–20 emails in 10 minutes and then get on with my day. If I had to do it again, I might make the email shorter and try a mail merge.

If you’ve got a great story to tell or think you can build rapport with a longer message, then go for it. But I’d say start with a template and then modify as needed.

Call People

If someone shares a phone number, then use it. It will set you apart from the legion of tech folk who only communicate through texts and WhatsApp. The phone is especially good if you’re reaching out to an older or non-tech person. I was able to see my last place a day before the open house and get ahead of other searchers because I called the guy and asked if he was free right then.

A phone call also gives you a chance to get a feel for the person before you show up. If they are extremely formal or very laidback on the phone, then that gives you a sense of how they’ll be in person. Use that information to prepare for talking with them.

Respond Quickly

Make sure you have a routine for responding. I tried to respond to any replies within a couple of hours, but there were days when that wasn’t possible. Try to respond the same day, even if it’s late. You want to keep the communication moving at a good pace so you can get in, see the place and figure out if it’s right for you.

Don’t Stop Looking Until You Have the Keys

Apartments will come and go constantly, and a lot of people will wait until the last minute to post ads. Keep looking until you’ve made a commitment and you might find a better place. Don’t wait forever to say “yes” to an offer, but keep your eyes and ears open. Keeping the search going will also give you some options if a place falls through at the last minute.

Tips for Getting The Place

Now you’re looking at places, trying to make a connection, and trying to get accepted. Here are some tips to help you build a relationship and get asked to become a tenant or roommate.

Look Presentable

Take a shower and put on a clean-ish shirt before you head over to a viewing. Good hygiene and a firm handshake still matter when it comes to business transactions. San Francisco is a casual town and people are pretty open-minded about clothes, but know your audience and try to look like you care a little about yourself. Jeans and a t-shirt is probably fine, but make sure you don’t have holes and stains.

Scheduled Showings are Better Than Open Houses

Open houses can have a lot of people and you can feel like you’re being pushed from room to room until you end up back at the front door. You also won’t get much time to talk with the current tenants or ask questions.

Whenever possible, try to schedule showings so you have a chance to talk 1-on-1 with the potential landlord/roommate and get a better look at the place. This gives you an opportunity to ask questions and build a little rapport. It will also make it easier to see more places since you can free up some weekend slots.

Inspect The Place

Turn on the shower, look at the ceiling for water damage, take a deep breath to check the smell, look out the windows, count electrical outlets, check if there is a doorbell, and basically look for anything that might make the place unlivable.

Take a Close Look at Your Potential Roommate(s)

Are they stoned? Are they dirty? Do they look really annoyed that you’re there? If there are more than one, then can you tell if one is more in charge than the others?

You want to get a feel for the dynamics of the house. You won’t have time to learn too much, but make sure you pay attention and trust your gut.

Ask All the Questions

Ask about lifestyles, amenities, guest policies, bathroom habits, significant others and anything else you think could impact your comfort. Find out how much they work and whether they expect to work from home. Check if they compost. Find out if you have to take your shoes off when you come in the house.

You want as much information as possible. You might feel rude or pushy, but we’re talking about your life and a substantial share of your income. It’s alright to want more information.

Try to Make a Connection

If the place and the people look good, then you want to start selling yourself. Look around for things you might have in common and ask questions. Share a bit about yourself and try to have a conversation. Mention your hobbies and any connection you have to the area.

This can be awkward, especially if there is no chemistry or either of you is more introverted. Just give it a try, but don’t push too hard.

Have Your Paperwork Ready

Landlords and sub-letters can afford to be picky and impatient. Increase your odds of getting an offer by providing everything they ask for during your first meeting. Bring the following with you to every apartment viewing: credit report, bank statement, references, contact info for your job, and your check book.

You want to make it easy for them to vet you and being prepared also makes you look like a dependable, organized person.

Some places won’t ask for any information. They are more concerned with you fitting in than other details, or they don’t expect you to stay long. But it’s better to be prepared than risk a place because you couldn’t complete the application.

Only Do Applications for Places You Really Want

You want to be ready to fill out applications, but avoid leaving your social security number and life history all over the city. If a place is a good fit, then do the paperwork, but only do it if you have a good feeling about the place, the people and the location.

Tips for Closing & Moving In

Let’s assume you’ve had success in your search and found a place. Now what?

Get Something in Writing

A lot of places are sub-lets where the lease holder had the place before the boom and is now milking their rent control for income. Don’t take it personally, but try to give yourself some protection. Ask for a lease or some type of document that proves your tenancy. If it’s not an actual lease, then make sure you’ve got something in writing stating what you’re expected to pay and for how long. This should be typed out, printed, and signed by all parties involved.

I honestly don’t know how much legal weight a pseudo-lease will have, but I think it’s important to state things clearly and have a record. At a minimum, it will make it more awkrawrd for them to try raising your rent without a lot of warning. If your new roommate or landlord doesn’t want to write anything down, then suggest a rent reduction or some type of trade to make up for your added risk.

Make Copies of Your Keys

Run to the hardware store and make a copy of your keys. Give a set to a friend or family member. This is less about apartment hunting and more about not being locked out. Having a spare set somewhere safe will keep you from getting trapped outside in the rain or having to track down your landlord in the middle of the night.

Move As Early As Possible

If you can get in a few days before the first or during the week, then you’ll have less trouble finding a moving van or Uber to move your stuff. It will also make the whole thing less stressful because you know you’ve got some slack. If you can’t move in early, then do your move during slow times (early morning, mid-afternoon, after 9pm) . Getting around the city during off-peak hours means faster trips between locations and less hassle if you need to double park.

Is it Worth It?

San Francisco is a fun city with a lot going on and plenty of opportunity. Locals will tell you how much it’s changed and how boring it’s become, but it’s still one of the most unique places in the country.

I don’t know if I’ll be here forever, but I’m glad I’m here now. Maybe I’ll feel different in a year, but right now I think the people, the action, and the opportunity justify paying a premium.

Apartment Hunting Fucking Sucks

I’ve given you the tips I’ve picked up and my two cents. Even with my advice, you’re still going to find that the search sucks. BUT the key thing to take from this post is that you can find an affordable place. If you really want to be in San Francisco then you’ll put the work in.


Originally published at Chris Boulanger Digital.