A Comprehensive Guide on Moving To San Francisco After College

Alice Wang
May 25, 2016 · 12 min read
Alamo Square in San Francisco at night. Credit to Andrew Zarivny / Shutterstock.

There’s a surprising dearth of comprehensive resources detailing how to relocate yourself to a major city after college. This post will focus on how Jordan Mecom and I planned our move to San Francisco.


Roommates

This is a must if you plan on living in the city. The average cost of rent in SF is around $3,670, which is inconceivable with one college grad’s income alone. The more people you can find, the better because the cost per square feet decreases dramatically. Since you have just graduated, there will probably be others in your graduating class moving to SF/a major city. It’s better to get people you are familiar with. This is one of the only aspects you can start thinking about months in advance. I don’t have much advice on this point since I knew I was going to find housing with my boyfriend.

I have heard some people opt to sign the lease first and then interview for roommates. This gives them complete control over the choice of the apartment and roommates. The only downside is that you would need to have enough money on hand to cover the first month’s rent.

If you live “outside” of the city (in the Sunset, for example), you can find places for around ~$1,000 and you wouldn’t need a roommate, so consider which neighborhood you want to live in before you look for roommates. I’ll touch on neighborhoods in a later section.


Cost

The rule of thumb is that your monthly rent shouldn’t cost more than 28%-30% of your monthly income after-tax (the linked article uses numbers before tax, but it’s better to be more conservative with your calculations). So if you’re making $83,000 (the average household income in SF), your rent shouldn’t be more than $1,238/month (since net income will be around $53,080 after tax). This rule is disputed, but is the current rate used by mortgage lenders and the government when they consider affordable housing.

If you’re planning to live in the city, the price of a single bedroom apartment or studio will be around $2,000 to $3,500 (excluding listings in the Tenderloin, which is the area with the highest crime).

Don’t forget to consider the cost of utilities. Some apartment complexes will include that cost in the rent, and others will not. For example, my apartment will cover water, but not gas, electric or internet. From what I read online, cable will cost $60/month on average, internet will cost $32/month on average, gas and electricity will cost around $73/month on average, and water will cost $50/month on average. This comes to about $215/month for utilities. You should also consider this as apart of the 28% of your monthly income if you’re being conservative.


Paperwork

Another thing you need to prepare before you get to the meat of apartment searching is the paperwork. You need to get your credit score and credit history from www.annualcreditreport.com. Annual Credit Report is a government meditated service that provides you with one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. All you have to do is fill out the form on that site and choose one of the agencies to request a report from. The form will ask for basic information, like name, address, social security number, etc.

I ran into quite a few issues trying to get my credit history. The website can be buggy for no known reason, so an alternative to requesting your credit history online is doing it through mail. This may take a few weeks, so plan ahead for this step. I ended up signing up for a “free” account on TransUnion to try to resolve this issue, but TransUnion silently charged me $40 for some notification service. Make sure you read every option super carefully when you sign up. They won’t tell you the costs of certain options and other options don’t even look like options.

On the topic of credit scores, as a college student, your score might not be outstanding since you haven’t been financially independent for very long. If you’ve been paying off your student debt regularly, your number might be pretty good. Apartments care about your credit score so they know how reliable you will be in paying rent each month. To build your credit score, you can open a credit card and use it instead of a debit card. I would highly recommend taking a class on personal finance if your college offers one. Jordan took an entire class on it in his senior year so at least one of us will be more informed.

Apartment owners will also want the your previous landlord’s contact information. If you lived in dorms for all of college as I did, you can give them your RA’s contact information if they want a personal reference. Make sure they have good things to say about you! You could also give them the contact information to your school’s housing managers (eg. residential college director’s office number) in case the apartment owner just needed to confirm your residency.

Finally, you will need proof of employment. This was a really annoying step for us because we haven’t actually started working yet at the time of applying. Apartments usually ask to see a pay stub as proof of employment. In place of a pay stub, we sent the apartments our offer letters and an HR number.


Starting Early

The most common piece of advice I heard from people about moving to SF was starting to look early. I was really confused about this piece of advice because small apartments will be filled within a few weeks of being posted. I suppose the intent of this piece of advice is to start planning the logistics around looking for apartments early. You should give yourselves a few months to find roommates, figure out paperwork, and doing things other than looking for apartments.

The only type of apartments you can start looking for months in advance are professionally managed apartment complexes. Large apartments will know their schedule well in advance, so they will be able to tell you about availability. On that thought, large apartment complexes are generally more reliable in terms of maintenance and quality. I’ll go into more detail about how to look for a specific apartment in a later section.


Neighborhood

SF has many beautiful and unique neighborhoods you can choose to live in. Each has its own vibe, so this is a very important point to research before signing a lease. Jordan’s relative, who live near San Francisco, ended up giving us a tour of the city when we visited them one weekend. This was super helpful because they introduced each neighborhood while we were able to drive through and see it for ourselves. Online resources (such as this one) that detail what the different neighborhoods are like are a good alternative to visiting them yourself.

If you want to be at the center of all of the action, the Mission is where you would want to be. There are so many restaurants, bars, and events going on at all times. It would be impossible to get bored living in that area.

Some neighborhoods will be naturally cheaper. For example, the Inner and Outer Sunset are cheaper because they are further from downtown. They also have more residential housing. That area is less elegant than areas such as Hayes Valley, which has beautiful painted ladies (seen in the splash image of this article). The Sunset is more family oriented, has cheaper housing, has many great Asian restaurants and grocery stores. We originally were targeting this neighborhood, but it is further away from downtown, which means a longer commute for people who work there. Google Maps may report a 30 minute commute from the Sunset to downtown, but that’s only when the express buses are running. If you work late (~after 7pm), the express buses might not be running, so it is a significantly longer commute to get back home. In addition, the express buses aren’t available on weekends, so it will be harder to get into the city on the weekend. With all this considered, Jordan and I ended up prioritizing neighborhoods closer to downtown instead of the Sunset.

On that thought, you should get to know SF’s public transportation system when you are planning which neighborhoods to live in. I’ve pretty much memorized the BART and Muni map by now because I’ve referenced it so frequently. It’s ideal to live near the BART or Muni, but if that’s not an option, the bus system in SF is also sufficiently robust. Here is a map for your reference. SFMTA’s data on the on-time performance of SF buses is pretty encouraging.


The Apartment

So you’ve chosen a neighborhood, price range, roommates. You’re finally ready to actually look at available apartments. I would start taking a peek at the listings early just to get a feel of the average prices available in the neighborhoods you are targeting. You’re not going to be seriously looking at the listings until a month or so before you plan to move. The websites we used were:

Most of these sites had cross listings of the available apartments. Craig’s List ended up having the most comprehensive and up-to-date listings though. The posts are just plain text, which can look a little off putting, but the map interface was the easiest to navigate. We would recommend Craig’s List, if no where else.

Yelp was surprisingly helpful for reviews about the large apartment complexes. You should definitely read through all the recent reviews before locking into a large apartment complex. We found a really good deal, which turned out to be a bad apartment because the management was horrendous (don’t live at the Fillmore Center…).

Some neighborhoods, such as the Sunset, won’t have frequent openings, so it might be worth paying for the month’s rent before your actual move-in date. This would increase the effective average monthly price of apartment though, so take that into consideration.

There’s too much to go into in what qualities to look for in an apartment, so I’ll just leave an unordered list of things for you to consider:

  • Proximity to work
  • Proximity to grocery store
  • Proximity to public transit
  • Cell reception
  • Window/lighting
  • Sound insulation (which floor its on)
  • Neighbors
  • Elevator (Older apartments, such as many of the painted lady units, won’t have them.)
  • Heating/AC (SF weather is relatively mild throughout the year though.)
  • Crime (Refer to this map)
  • Carpeting or wood floor?
  • Walk Score (How close are stores, transit, stores, etc.)
  • Pet friendly? Pet Fee?

Prioritize

With all of this information in mind, you have to decide what to prioritize since it’s very hard (read: impossible) to find an apartment that matches every single criteria we just pointed out. Proximity to work came first on our list because we would be traveling that distance twice a day. A good chunk of our day could be spent on transportation if we didn’t choose a good apartment. Over the summer at my internship, I lived 1 hour away from work, and I would highly discourage doing that for any long term arrangements. An hour doesn’t sound so bad when you think you can read on the way, but the subway isn’t as conducive to reading as one would think, mostly if you have to make transfers.

I personally really cared about crime because I haven’t lived in a major city before and I don’t feel comfortable living in areas more prone to theft until I’ve taken self defense classes and gotten to know the city better. On the thought of safety, it’s legal to carry a small case (2.5 ounce or smaller) of pepper spray with you in SF.

Dream dog~

Another thing I prioritized was allowing dogs. Large apartment complexes are usually the only ones to allow pets. They will also typically charge a deposit (~$500) and/or a monthly fee (~$95) for owning a dog.

If you don’t cook a lot, make sure you live in a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants. If you do cook a lot, make sure you have easy access to a grocery store. I was really surprised at how few East-Asian groceries stores there are in SF. It seems like Nijiya Market is the closest thing to a H-Mart in SF.


Other Thoughts

Hope you’re not bored yet, because I still have more to say. Keep a spreadsheet of apartments you like, finances, and etc. Our set up looks like the following. I’ve suspiciously erased some of the personal information.

Yup!

Allocate some time to live in SF for a few weeks before you sign your lease. You can use that time to learn the neighborhoods and visit open houses. When you visit open houses, be sure to bring all of your paperwork and be ready to sign the lease on the spot if you really like the place.

Last but not least, you will also need renters insurance. Our apartment requires us to have $300,000 in liability coverage. We ended up using Allstate because they had the best reviews. On average, renter’s insurance will cost roughly $15/month. It covers the replacement costs in the case where your furniture or possessions are damaged. You have to estimate the cost of all of your valuables (for example, electronics, clothing, furniture) and the insurance will cover the replacement cost after a deductible. It is recommended that you get renter’s insurance even if your apartment doesn’t require it because your things often cost more than you expect. We set it up over the phone after comparing the cost of coverage from a few providers.


Moving

Choosing your moving company is your next important choice. You should read this guide on how to choose a reputable moving company. Once you feel overwhelmed by that short novel, you can instead go down this list of best moving container companies. Moving containers, or pods, are essentially trailers that you pack yourself and the moving company will drive for you. We ended up choosing U-Pack. You can set up a reservation over the phone and I believe they service all over the US. We set up a reservation two weeks before we needed the container to be at our house.


Decorating

I also want to throw in a few tips on decorating your apartment in this post. For one, you should familiarize yourself with Ikea’s catalog, because they provide well designed furniture at a relatively inexpensive price. /r/malelivingspace and Apartment Therapy also provided us with housing decoration ideas for tiny homes.

Wow

Since your apartment will probably be small, it is also worth looking into using a fold-away futon as a replacement for a full sized bad. Imagine how much space you can save! The fold away futons will be out of the way and super soft. You have to air them out once every while, but other than that, they don’t require any special maintenance.


Gentrification and Racial Segregation

Racial dot map of SF. Blue: white, Red: Asian, Orange: Hispanic, Green: Black

It would do the city well for all residents to be aware of the gentrification and racial segregation problem in SF. Like any major city, or like essentially anywhere in the US, SF is a racially segregated city. In general, this manifests in limited educational opportunities for children of color and depreciated mortgage values for residents in the segregated neighborhoods. This is just one facet of systemic racism and as residents, we can vote to change this. If you want to read more on systemic racism, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era is an enlightening book on the topic. Gentrification causes many people to lose their homes. I’ll go more into this in a separate post, since this one has gotten a little long at this point.


Thanks for reading and I hope this helps! This post pretty much covers everything I wish I would have known and more before I started apartment hunting. Let me know if there is anything I can change or add.

Alice Wang

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Will probably use this blog to write about video games.