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.

Cellarspot: Why It Failed

Some classmates and I launched a social network for wine lovers called Cellarspot, which was my first pseudo-business endeavor. We had about 90 registered users within the first week of launch, and now, about nine months later, we have about 100 registered users. I thought some other young internet entrepreneurs would be interested in hearing why I thought it failed and what I would change if I did it again.

Before diving in I should spend some time describing Cellarspot. The main purpose of the site is to allow people to become friends and share taste notes, bottle collections, and blog posts. There are a few other smaller features as well, but the core of the site focuses on taste notes, collections, friends, and blogs. I worked on Cellarspot in class and also outside of class with a few of my classmates.

Problem 1: UI
The largest problem is the UI. Our original thoughts were that we should focus on a functional site and not on an aesthetic site. We thought that as long as features were discoverable and intuitive that they’d be used and loved. We were wrong. According to Google Analytics, our overall bounce rate is roughly 70%. That is, of all the users that come to our site, 70% of them leave after viewing the first page that they landed on.

This metric implies that either the content being presented on each page isn’t useful, the content isn’t easily discoverable, or the look of the site doesn’t leave people wanting more. I think we got all three of these wrong. First off, the site is very unattractive. In fact, there isn’t a single image on the entire site – just plain text. I questioned some of our preliminary users about why they didn’t like the site, and most of them said that they didn’t enjoy looking at the site. We should have spent more time on an aesthetic UI, which for me means delegating the UI work to someone else. I’m confident in my CSS abilities, but I absolutely cannot make pretty looking layouts with images, design elements, awesome colors, etc. I think we did a good job of making data discoverable and useful, though.

Problem 2: Landing Pages
Landing pages are pages that people land on when they first view the site (in most cases this is the front page). We should have spent more time thinking about how people would access our site. It turns out that people won’t always land on the front page and might instead land on a bottle page. We didn’t even consider this, and it turns out that most of our traffic comes from organic search and lands on a bottle page. I’m sure that most people who land on this page say, “What the hell does this site do and why is it so ugly?” We should have included some descriptive text on the bottle page so people would at least be able to learn more about Cellarspot.

Problem 3: Understand Your Demographic
As much as we thought we understood our demographic, we didn’t; we were too general. For example, we said that our demographic was “wine lovers.” What does that mean? How old are they? Are they computer savvy? What background do the come from? Why are they going to be using our site? These are questions that we should have answered better. If I could do it again, I would build the site for young Web 2.0ers and not so much for older wine lovers. There are a few reasons for this belief. First, young people are less likely to have lots of wine, making their initial commitment to Cellarspot very small (they don’t have to type in lots of bottles and notes). Second, Web 2.0ers are easier to market to in that viral, internet-based marketing would probably do the trick. Generally you have to spend money on various ad mediums to attract less tech-involved people to the internet. Third, Web 2.0ers are more likely to understand design elements such as tabs, drop down arrows, etc. If we targeted young Web 2.0ers from the beginning, we could have catered the UI more, making the probability of it being used and spread higher.

Problem 4: Know Your Use Cases
We should have spent more time thinking about use cases, which go hand-and-hand with understanding your demographic. When a user is on page X, what are they looking for? Why are they on this page? What is the main thing they are trying to accomplish? By truly understanding use cases, you are more likely to create a site or feature that will be used. Don’t try to figure out these use cases on your own either. Ask questions to people that might be using your site at some point. I did tons of research for Cellarspot, where I spoke with young and old wine lovers about how they would use the site. I did a poor job of synthesizing those thoughts and understanding Cellarspot’s use cases.

Problem 5: Make Economic Decisions
I spent a lot of money on a rack-mountable Dell server thinking (knowing) that Cellarspot would be successful. I also spent (and still spend) too much money colocating that server, although now the server is actually being used by lots of other sites, including this blog. Start small with hosting and scale your hosting options as demand rises. Start with a standard web host or Amazon EC2 and buy your own servers later only if you have to. Don’t get me wrong, buying my own monster rack-mount and colocating it in a data center was awesome, but it’s absolutely not economic. Here are some bonus pictures of the server and data center:

Robert playing with things.

Tony, our network admin, hanging out in the data center.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Think; It Matters What Your Users Think
While rereading my post before publishing, I realized that I say “I think blah” a lot. This made me remember the words of a former professor of mine, John Castle. You can make claims about what your users will think, but you have no way of validating those claims unless you actually speak to your (potential) users. Prior to making a product, do some research. Talk to some people in your demographic. Ask them what they want in a product and how they would use that product. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what your demographic thinks. The best way to know what your demographic thinks is to interview them and find out for yourself.

Cellarspot was a failed business but not a failed experience. I learned an insane amount from pursuing Cellarspot, and to this day most of my interviews involve Cellarspot. I don’t regret anything about it at all, but I wish I had the time and motivation to launch a sweeter, more badass Cellarspot. Try your best to launch an awesome product, and make sure you learn as much as you can from the launch. In my case, the experience gained from launching a product greatly outweighed all other aspects of the product, especially the (negative) cash flow