Renting in San Francisco

It was the fourth time that I attempted to maneuver my car into a small street parking spot, that day, when I suddenly noticed the fire hydrant. I barked, pushed the gas, and swiftly moved the car back out of what was to be its temporary home, into the street ahead of me. It took me another ten minutes to drive past some gorgeous hillside houses, before I found parking on the edge of Cole Valley and the Haight, two of San Francisco’s greenest neighborhoods.

I was there because my own temporary home just didn’t cut it anymore. Since I started working in the Bay Area about two months ago, I had been staying in a beautiful, one bedroom apartment in Santa Clara, a suburban town next to San Jose, and the home of technology giants Intel and McAfee. While it was a nice, safe, and close to work neighborhood to live, I found that for just about everything, I needed to take out the car, and go for a drive. Yes, there was a small grassy park nearby, and a large mall, but none of the tiny, cute stores I had gotten used to in Seattle. Going for a drink was similarly difficult- bars are actually hard to come by, and everything seemed to be built for families with young children. In other words, it was probably heaven on earth for quite a few people, but I was not one of them.

Instead, I started looking for a more permanent place to stay in the city of San Francisco. Every time I have moved to another city, I’ve been in search of a “big” place to live- millions of people around, thousands of independent stores, and bustling streets filled with people. So far, I have failed a bit- in 2006, I saw a few photos online of Perth, Western Australia, and believed it would be a giant, sprawling Asian metropolis.

That turned out to be a bit different than expected.

Seattle on the other hand had bustle, but it was still a relatively small city. While in both cases, I ended up falling in love with the city after giving it a wee bit of time, the opportunity to move to San Francisco has been one that allowed me to find a place to live in the large city I’ve been looking for. More specifically, in the words of the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, San Francisco is an Alpha world city, the third highest category. In practice, that means similar to Amsterdam or Brussels, but San Francisco’s weather, the bay, and the colored little houses does certainly have a flair all its own.

It was clear to me quickly enough that this particular neighborhood wasn’t going to offer me any of that bustling life. I showed up in front of the door, surprised to find no less than 15 others waiting in line to view the apartment. It turned out to be over 2,500$ a month, less then 500 sq ft in size, and below the owner’s house- in many ways it felt like anyone who’d live there was moving in with the grandparents.

Still, I walked up to the owner, gave him my application package, and got an instant nod of approval. Immediately, I felt it was a horrible mistake.

How did it get this far?

This was apartment number eight I’d been looking at that weekend, and it was only Sunday morning. San Francisco is an incredibly competitive market for housing, as Craigslist can tell you in a single glance. To provide some context, in Seattle I viewed just two apartments prior to making a decision. In both cases, I had ample time, to the order of several days, to make a decision, with little risk of my favorite being taken by another applicant.

In San Francisco, each apartment generally had about ten other interested people, each competing to be the first to apply. Thus, at each apartment, it is somewhat expected that you show up with application forms in hand, a check to pay the application fee, and tons of additional data that will prove to the home owner that you come in peace.

Here is a shortlist of things I was asked for during the various applications, in order from what I consider normal, to what I’d consider unusual:

  • A duly filled out four page application form;
  • Proof of employment;
  • Three references that will support your application;
  • Your credit score, or your social security number, so they can check you paid your bills;
  • Five years of rental history, with contact information for previous land lords;
  • Pay stubs of your current employer;
  • All of your credit card numbers and credit limit;
  • Print-outs of your internet banking application to prove you have $$$;
  • A check of $$$ to pay for your rental application and background check.

By far the nicest apartment I saw during my hunt was the very first one. A balmy victorian unit with soft yellow painted walls, right next to Buena Vista park, one of the nicest places to hang out on a swell summer day in San Francisco. The owners were somewhat unique in that they required you to apply prior to coming to see the unit, which I duly did. Despite this, I was fifth in line, and did not get an offer to rent. Based on this encounter, I spent an entire evening preparing a package with all of the items above, and created some ten copies of it.

During the next visits, I was prepared. Even before looking thoroughly at an apartment, I would walk in, introduce myself to the landlord, and hand him the application package. This type of pro-activeness led to the nod of approval I mentioned above, and with limited exceptions to me afterwards not accepting the offer to rent the apartment.

Some advice from a colleague also came in handy. In San Francisco, property owners generally open up their home for a limited amount of time so it can be visited by interested parties. Quite often, these are snap showings that are less than 15 minute in length, and consist of random people walking in, looking at the place, and immediately moving on to the next one. I found that the vast majority of people apply during or immediately after these showings, and the best thing to do was to call the building owners, send them all documents proving you are a wunderkind in advance, and telling them you can’t make the official showing, but would like to meet with them. If you like the place, you can then apply way ahead of others, and have plenty of time to show off the pluses of having you into their apartment, early on.

By the end of the day, I received a call from the owner of the apartment in the lower Haight, congratulating me on being the lucky applicant for his 400 sq ft apartment. I explained to him that in fact it was a little bit too small, and too far away from public transport for my taste, and he told me that it wasn’t a problem- over 15 people had applied, so he was bound to find a good renter. I asked him about the process, and he told me he hadn’t seen it this crazy since the boom in 1999.

On a good note, after finally putting it all together, and on my fourteenth apartment showing- I found a place that I think will work out great!

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