11 Tips for Finding an Apartment in San Francisco

Few “first-world problems” are more miserable than finding a place to live in San Francisco during a summer when the tech industry is booming and people are flocking to the city.  Each good rental listing will have 30+ interested parties bombarding the landlord or rental agency for private showings.  At open houses — many of which have more than 20 potential tenant attendees — visitors desperately compete for the attention of the renting party, trying to prove that they have all the qualities a qualified tenant should have.  Not to mention rent prices are out of control right now — average studios are renting for $1,800+.  I spent the last two months looking for an apartment in San Francisco.  I’m relieved to announce that I found an apartment I love last week and moved in this weekend.  And I’m sharing my advice with you in this blog post.

Before I dive into advice, I should provide some facts about my search:

  • Me and two male friends — Jon and Ryan — were looking for a three bedroom.
  • We were picky about our neighborhood — Mission, Lower Haight, Upper Haight, Cole Valley, NOPA, Western Addition, Divis, Hayes Valley,  Noe Valley, Inner Sunset, Inner Richmond, Castro.
  • And we weren’t willing to pay exorbitant rent prices to expedite our search.
  • Prior to moving, Jon and I lived together in a two bedroom, and Ryan lived in a different two bedroom.

And now onto my tips:

1: Check Craigslist very often

You need to know when a new listing becomes available, and you need to email or call the renting party to express your excitement as early as possible.  Find a good way to check Craigslist repeatedly throughout the day — I averaged about once an hour.  I built a Craigslist search tool to help me (developers: here’s the source).  Find a process that works well for you and stick to it.  There are plenty of qualified tentants looking at the same Craigslist listings, so you don’t have room to be lazy.

In our experience other listing websites weren’t as useful as Craigslist.

2: Be personable and professional

When you email or call the renting party, be kind, excited, and professional. Don’t waste their time with long phone calls or emails. Get down to business and save them time — you’ll be one of many qualified tenants, and they’ll be grateful for your conciseness.

3: Open houses for market research; private showings for applications

Open houses are awful for tenants interested in applying. They’re incredibly uncomfortable, because everyone is competing for the renting party’s attention. It’s like a pony show — “look at me, look at me! I’m great! Rent your place to me because I’m great!” The chances are very low that you’ll get a place through an open house. However, open houses are great for market research and application practice, which are both very important. Try to schedule a private showing for places you want to apply. And try to be the first applying party — there’s huge value in being first.  When asking for a private showing, tell the renting party that you want a private showing because you want them to have a chance to get to know you.

In summary, use open houses for research. Schedule private showings to apply.

4: Start early

Most places in San Francisco are available immediately — very few are available weeks or months in advance. You should still start looking at least one month ahead of your desired move-in date. You may get lucky and find a place that is available at the right time. And you’ll also get practice at your pitch and the application process in general.

5: Be prepared with application material

Go to every open house and showing with material about each potential tenant.  But only apply to places you like. For each tenant have the following information printed and organized into a Manila folder:

  • One general cover letter, with a photo and short bio of each tenant.
  • Generic application with basic information: social security number, previous landlords, personal references, employers, desired move-in date, etc. I’d suggest finding a generic application online.
  • Proof of income: pay stubs, bank statements, stock certificates, W2s, 1099s, anything to prove that you can afford rent.
  • Credit check and score from all three major credit reporting companies.

6: Offer more money if you can

A landlord will love the idea of getting more money for their unit. If you can afford to offer more than the list price, do it. They’ll appreciate your urgency.

7: Negotiating usually doesn’t work

Most places have too many qualified tenants applying — you almost certainly won’t have the upper hand in a negotiation.  That said, if a renting party likes you, you may be able to ask them to accomodate your needs.  For example, they may be open to slightly lower rent in exchange for tenants they have high confidence in.  But again, in general, negotiating won’t work in this market — it’s far too competitive.

8: Do whatever you can to make the renting party’s life easier

Finding an apartment sucks, and renting an apartment sucks, too.  Imagine trying to rent your own unit — the bombardment of incoming requests, stupid questions, disorganized, impatient, and stressed tenants.  Be sympathetic and do what you can to make the renting party’s life easier.  They’ll like you for it and consider you over other possibly more qualified applications.

9: Try to be first

There is no rule that says the first application will get the apartment. But being first makes a big difference. The renting party will remember you better, and if their first impression of you is good, they’ll probably rent to you. Show up to an open house early. Call new listings immediately and try to schedule private showings as soon as possible.

10: Make sacrifices

You’re going to have a hard time balancing work, your personal life, and your apartment hunt.  You’ll need to make the tough decision to set priorities.  The more you prioritize your apartment search, the faster it will be over.

11: Be patient and persistent

We found a place we loved after two months of searching. Most people I’ve spoken to who moved recently have given me the same feedback — finding a good place takes time, persistence, and patience. Don’t give up no matter how discouraged you get. Hang in there, and keep going. You’ll get lucky eventually, and until you do you need to come off as excited and friendly.

Bonus #12: Get Lucky

See Robert’s comment below.

Good luck to those of you looking right now.  It’s a brutal market out there.  But there’s hope.  Luck favors the kind and hard working.

Bonus #13: Understand Biases

Read this great blog post on apartment hunting biases.