A Comprehensive Guide on Finding Housing in San Francisco
Everyone has different priorities in life. That’s why I think a few common misconceptions about San Francisco housing need to be brought to light. They are supported by some hard price facts, checks from Craigslist, thoughts, and some intuition from me, a guy who has lived in SF for just three years.
The real truth of the matter is that how people find housing in any city depends on quite a bit of things but I think I’ve narrowed them down to just a couple in this list that we’ll go over.
What are your housing priorities?
This is probably the number one factor that matters for everyone. Priorities between a new graduate in tech, a single mother who’s a teacher, or a family of four that wants to find a good school for their kids, will all be different. I might be slightly biased in my own priorities in what I’ll write here because I’ll admit, as a single guy in his twenties I haven’t really given any thought to the schools, which I’ve heard is very complex in navigating the system. But I also don’t want to try, so I’m going to skip that one.
- Crime and Safety
- Commute to Work
- Food and Nightlife Access
Let’s start with the obvious.
What can you afford? Slash what should you afford? I don’t think a new-grad tech worker should get a 1-bedroom in the city. Why? Let’s do the math.
New Grad Software Engineer: $120,000 x Tax Rate (0.65) / 12 Months a year = $6500 dollars a month
Nice One Bedroom in City Center = $3500
Money Left Over = $6500 — $3500 = 3000 dollars for your life.
And that’s on the high end for a new grad software engineer in my opinion as long as you’re not working at Facebook, Google, etc.. Or around 55% of your after tax income going straight to rent.
WHY! NO! Just don’t do it. The old adage is you want to spend one third or less of your after-tax income in rent. Especially when you look at the savings in price you can get once you get just one more roommate. Have you ever seen those charts of the financial bloggers where they show you the different amounts of money you make when you save a ton at different ages and how it compounds? That chart looks cool.
If you are the type of person to be spending 3500+ on rent, then you are probably not the kind of person that wouldn’t blow some of the left over 3K dollars on a table at Temple nightclub if given the opportunity. This may be a biased metaphor.
Tip #1: Get a roommate!
New Grad: But wait, Jay, actually I make over 200K dollars because I’m severely overpaid for no real reason.
Me: Okay, then get whatever apartment you want. It just means everyone else in the city gets cheaper housing.
I honestly believe that there exists a 1500 dollar room for rent in every single neighborhood of San Francisco. There sure as hell are people that pay less than 1000 dollars for their room but that’s another case of finding a good deal by going on rooms and shares on Craigslist.
Background and Exposition
The price of San Francisco housing has always been historically judged as high. In the last few years, the price of San Francisco housing on average exceeded the prices of Manhattan and bulldozed its way as the most expensive city to live in the US.
There’s a couple reasons for this, not besides the fact that this confidently factual statement may actually be pretty biased. Why? One point is that the available occupancy of very expensive apartments is much greater here than in New York. There is higher disparity between the low-end and high-end in San Francisco versus the low-end and high-end in New York. There are better deals and specifically more deals to be found in SF than in NYC.
Back in 2012 to 2015, the tech startup boom took off in San Francisco when startups started hiring like crazy. Young people wanted to live in San Francisco and were being hired at Uber, Airbnb, Square, Twitter, Zenefits (RIP) crazy fast! Think 1000s of job openings, 50 new people starting every single week, each new hire being trained by employees that had started there only one month prior, everyone was having a blast and venture capital money was pouring in like crazy, funding every new startup and subsidizing every millennials life. When a city has intense year over year growth, housing prices increase because the rate of the growth of supply stays the same while the rate of growth of demand increases.
But imagine what has happened in the past three years instead. Since apartment development projects take years to complete, housing developers and landowners would negotiate rates for residential building prices based on the expected growth rates when SF was at peak frenzy, only to find that the actual population growth rate in the past three years has gone down, although still maintaining steady.
Which is all much better for the renters.
Which segue into my next tip.
Tip #2: Winter is coming…..and it’s cheaper
Amazingly enough, since San Francisco is a big city, and people move into big cities, you can generally find more deals in the winter time when you move during the “off-season”. Think November and December when everyone is settling in for the holidays, going home, etc… There aren’t many people moving, yet leases end uniformly. Generally this theory is posited on three assumptions:
- More people leave their leases/apartments than find new apartments.
- Units are being built and put on the market at a constant rate.
- Landlords are trying to minimize time in-between vacancy.
- I found my dope house deal at the end of November. (Personal anecdote and maybe alternative facts).
Generally I would avoid looking in the summer or any other time where recruiters are hiring like crazy in this city.
San Francisco is iconic because of its truly distinct neighborhood, housing, and structural building types. If you were to imagine a San Francisco townhome, generally you would think of the Victorian painted ladies style house. And something good to know, those style buildings probably are held under rent control.
Therefore, given pricing is also relative, we can split San Francisco housing into: Rent Control vs No Rent Control
Rent control allows tenants that live in buildings built older than January 1979 max increases in rent per year at the rate of generally ~2% (2018–2019 that number is 1.6%).
However the main exclusion is that single family homes don’t have rent control protections. The true advantage of rent control lies in apartments on Craigslist and Facebook groups that are renting out rooms instead of entire apartments. Note that when an entire unit clears house, most rent controlled apartments go immediately to market price.
Tip #3: Look in Craigslist Rooms and Shares
I’ve already written a blog post about this, but I’ll recap that when you look for single room housing in an already existing apartment or house, the price will be a lot cheaper because of the existence of rent control and relax.
Don’t let these averages knock down your hopes if they’re out of your budget. Remember that in all averages, there are a ton of great deals on the low end, even in the downtown area. San Francisco apartments are old AF, which means landlords are willing to rent them out for less than market.
Tip #4: Be Chinese, or speak some, or bring a friend who speaks Chinese.
Would you believe me that most of the landlords in San Francisco are ethnically Chinese? Probably, I can’t prove it, but I do have a personal anecdote that I’ve gotten discounts from speaking Chinese. I’ve gotten first priority over a place because I spoke just a little Chinese. I’ve negotiated my rent down 100 dollars because the landlord only spoke Chinese. There are apartments in Chinatown, Richmond, Sunset, etc.. that are literally less than 500 dollars for a room. I’m just telling you they exist, now it’s your opportunity to find them.
Tip #5: A listed 3 bedroom might actually be 4 beds. And 4 bedroom might actually be 5 beds.
What does this mean? San Francisco has a law out there (or maybe California does), that a room is only considered a room if a closet exists inside of it. Given that there are many houses in San Francisco with additional bonus rooms, offices, etc…these rooms aren’t officially allowed to be listed as an additional bedroom.
Try reading some of the descriptions within Craigslist postings very carefully to see if they mention extra rooms. These rooms are generally pretty big and well-sized, will probably have a window, may or may not be connected to general heat, but you can be sure as hell someone would be willing to pay at least a 1000 bucks to live in it!
Mark Twain said, but actually didn’t say the summer of San Francisco was the coldest winter I’ve ever experienced and everyone still laughs and forgets and imagines SF as being equivalent weather-wise to Los Angeles. Not true, if you want pure California stereotyped weather, move to Palo Alto and join your baby-stroller pushing brethren. In San Francisco we brazen the cold and the wind.
Let’s get it straight, the highs are between 60 to 70 Fahrenheit degrees every single day in San Francisco regardless of what day of the year it is. Notice I say between 60 to 70 degrees, which means it VERY rarely hits over 70. Always one layer jacket weather.
Fuck Chicago, we’re the real windy city. And boy does it get windy here in the summer. This phenomenon really creates the effect of it being generally a bit too hot in the sun, and a bit too cold in the shade. You really can’t win in this city.
Also, observe the phenomenon known as Karl the fog created from the wind and other weather things.
This slideshow explains it really well why the fog comes into the city and how it’s generally formed. But one thing to note is how the mountains and hills like Twin Peaks and Mt. Davidson block a good amount of the fog. And so if you want to live in sunny San Francisco in the summer specifically, I would advise you to live east.
That means neighborhoods like Downtown, SOMA, Potrero Hill, Mission, Portola.
The fog in the summer will generally roll into the city in the morning, burn off by around 10 or 11am, and then seep back into the city by 4 to 6pm. This means that if you have a regular 9–5 workday commute, you may rarely see your neighborhood filled with sunshine in the summer.
Neighborhoods like the Sunset are really good for not seeing the sunset. Basically anything east of Divisadero, Northeast of Twin Peaks, and hell even Visitacion Valley and Bayview will probably be sunny most of the time. And wait, why do I add judgement to those two neighborhoods.
4. CRIME AND SAFETY
Crime usually has to be talked about with an asterisk just because everyone has a different perception on what kind of behavior constitutes crime for their comfortability. What is considered a dangerous neighborhood to one person may not be the same to another, and yet it still creates a bias that influences many different levels of politics.
Crime heat maps are also considered to be inaccurate because they get confused with population density maps. And that’s true to a point. Fortunately for San Francisco it seems like the entire city is generally more evenly dense compared to many other cities. But I feel like total statistics are a reasonable metric when you are a parent that wants a neighborhood where your kids can play around and feel safe. Crime rates in this city are represented by the cops documenting and writing up 911 incidents, and in my opinion, total statistics make way for reasonable neighborhood differentiation.
But really, you should be checking it out on your own. Granularity on a data scale can only go so far. So besides knowing that the Tenderloin is where the homeless shelters are and the known place for crack addicts to hang out, most other neighborhoods in San Francisco are generally safe.
The area around Civic Center Bart, Bayview, and Visitacion Valley get a bad rap. So does East Mission and near the 16th and 24th street Bart station.
What about homelessness, San Francisco’s biggest problem? Generally you probably don’t want to live near tent city. Avoid living next to bridges and the highways that run throughout the city notably 101 and 280 on the eastside.
But honestly, make an intuitive and educated guess when you check out the area. Each person has their own safety standards and what constitutes unsafe in their own frame of mind. It’s not something that can be determined on a numerical scale nor on a statistic.
5. COMMUTE TO WORK
There’s generally three main commutes if you live in San Francisco.
- To Downtown SF (maybe Mission, maybe Dogpatch, maybe UCSF)
- To the Peninsula/South Bay
- Unpopular case of to Oakland/East Bay or Sausalito/North Bay
To Downtown SF
If you’re commuting into downtown, generally you can live anywhere in the city and have under a one hour commute without having to drive.
If you live within a 15 minute walking distance to either the MUNI line that starts at West Portal station or the south BART station of City College/Balboa Park, your commute will max out at 45 minutes granted no delays. The West Portal station is the last MUNI station that goes underground and therefore travels at appropriate speeds without getting blocked by ridiculous SF drivers that interweave through the train tracks in an effort to beat the train.
But here’s how the breakdown goes:
Commute Time = walking to stop: (max 15) + time on train/subway: (max 15) + walking to work: (max 15)
Tweak that formula as you wish but I think that 15 minutes is the max walk time before you would take a bus instead. Also you can live anywhere in the city and be within a 15 minute combined walk + bus time to a MUNI or BART stop. And if you aren’t, then there’s probably a bus that takes you to your workplace in under 45 minutes unless for some reason you’re living in the Presidio and commuting to Excelsior and which I suggest you to just straight up move to the Excelsior. No real reason for you to do a tour of San Francisco on the bus every single day.
And let’s just look at this map of BART in 2050 to dream of when the time comes.
To the Peninsula or South Bay
There’s three ways to get down south.
- Driving in a car
- Bart to Caltrain
- Shuttle bus by mammoth tech company
If you decide to drive, I would very much encourage living by the freeways or at least in a neighborhood that is close to the freeway entrance. The farther south you can go, the more you’ll avoid the SF traffic. This does not mean highway 1, this means 101 or 280. Recommended neighborhoods: Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Bayview, Portola, Glen Park, Excelsior, MAYBE south mission. Just try not to live somewhere with a lot of non-optimized traffic lights between the freeway entrance and your house, which is everywhere in the city.
Tangent: Owning a Car
I would not pay for a parking space in this city. Truly, it’s not worth the 300 dollars a month minimum all of the apartment complexes charge. But at the same time I would not be willing to move my car every two days because of street sweeping.
If you can, live in a neighborhood with only single family homes that have a driveway or parking space with street sweeping hopefully only once every two weeks. This situation is even better if you choose a neighborhood that doesn’t get too crowded with cars so that you don’t have spend 15 minutes driving in circles trying to find a place to park. Generally the rule of thumb is also that the further away from commercial real estate you are, the easier it is to find parking.
What is commercial real estate? Well check out this picture of SF from Google Maps.
All of the areas that have tan colored hotspots are essentially zoned for commercial real estate. This means metered parking, parking cops, and lots of millennials phone zombies to accidentally hit while you’re too focused on finding parking.
Recommended neighborhoods: Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Richmond, Sunset, Glen Park, Twin Peaks, Noe Valley, Castro, East Mission, Cole Valley.
There are only three Caltrain stops in San Francisco. I would advise you to live within 15 minutes walking distance of them if you don’t have a car and need to commute to the South Bay. It’s truly debilitating if the MUNI bus breaks down and then the Caltrain ALSO breaks down. At least if that happens on the BART and you’re commuting into the city you can get out and order an Uber that doesn’t cost 100 dollars.
Bart to Caltrain is a little tricky because the two systems don’t really have overlap with each other.
to Anywhere Else
Just move there. There’s no hope for you.
6. FOOD AND NIGHTLIFE ACCESS
Nothing says you’re a San Francisco resident until you can sip on your six dollar coffee, buy an artisanal vegan donut, Instagram your brunch, all within a five minute walking distance from your apartment. Fortunately there exists many neighborhoods for you to do such activities.
Here comes my ranking of most bourgeois/trendy/millennial based neighborhoods
- Hayes Valley: Nothing can really compare to this neighborhoods trendy wealth in which almost every variation of retail shop imaginable exists that would instantly fail if it were somehow relocated to anywhere else in the world. There is an artisanal chocolate store, a boutique backpack shop, three different ice cream shops that use either nitrogen or store an organic kale flavor, a Warby Parker pop up, a Google Home Mini Donut pop up, literally any kind of pop up is here! There’s also a couple of cool bars though.
- Pacific Heights: Quite possibly the wealthiest neighborhood in terms of home price, this neighborhood features not only the most expensive Victorian style homes in SF, but also a strip of commercial real estate that rivals Hayes Valley in term of underground boutique expensive clothing brands you have never heard of on Fillmore St. Also a little fratty and filled with white people if that’s your shindig.
- Valencia Street in the Mission: I specify Valencia street because it in itself is highly differentiable from Mission street. Some of the best food in San Francisco is on this street, retailed on commercial revitalized modern architecture. Dandelion Chocolate, a shop dedicated to Chai Tea, and Four Barrel Coffee stand out in this spot if we’re talking about specific drink shops that you couldn’t imagine having a sustainable market elsewhere.
- Honorable Mention: Noe Valley and Union Street in the Marina.
- Polk Street: Get wasted here, get in a fight, break shit.
- 16th Street Valencia: Chill out, drink some good beer at Monk’s Kettle, go dancing at Double Dutch.
- The Marina/North Beach: Get wasted with white people.
- Upper SOMA: Pre-game for Temple.
- Nob Hill: Get fancy with cocktails and middle-aged people looking for affairs.
- Castro: Get wasted with the gays.
- Hayes/Haight: Get drinks with your friends that live there.
- Mid-Market SOMA: Pre-game for Audio or Booty SF.
The funniest thing about San Francisco neighborhoods is how distinct each demographic is. It may not be as concretely grandiose as most cities, but it is definitely the city that has by far the densest population for how separated each demographic is.
Neighborhood demographic examples from personal opinion
The Marina: White people, 30 something year old mothers pushing babies in carts, and people from the Greek system.
The Sunset and Richmond: Old Asian families, people, and food in a sprawling suburbia with the Henry Doelger assembly line design of house
The Mission: Little Mexico
The Castro: LGBTQ
Haight Ashbury: Hippies and Counterculture
A couple less defined ones from personal experience.
Bernal Heights: Hilly, lots of now one way streets from cars parked on either side, stores and restaurants in the downtown that look like the first floor of someone’s house.
Noe Valley: You move here when you’re a newly married tech couple and want a kid.
Excelsior: You move here when you’re a newly married couple and want a kid and can’t afford Noe Valley. Also a historically old neighborhood that has resisted many of the gentrifications of it’s retail, eating, and other shops along Mission street. Aka very cheap for the city.
Dogpatch: Old manufacturing buildings now renovated into either apartment complexes, commercial tech space, or brunch spots.
And I’m done.
I hope you got something out of this. I wrote this for fun so I got something out of it. If you have any questions, maybe email me. Or check out my website. Or offer me a project. Or give me another job.