After four years of living in shared apartments across San Francisco, my girlfriend and I decided that the time had come to get our own place. We figured we had already done the hard part – committing to live together. Finding a place would be easy. We both had stable jobs and were willing to pay the mind-numbing price of $1,000 each for a one bedroom. All we wanted was a cozy home where I could write and we could occasionally host a few friends for dinner. Okay, we were also hoping for some iconic SF architectural details like crown molding, bay windows, and chandelier light fixtures. Oh, and it had to be close to BART because my girlfriend needed to commute to Berkeley for her PhD program.
So basically, we needed a miracle.
We arrived 20 minutes late to our first open house, and that's when reality hit. People spilled out onto the sidewalk on Guerrero and 15th. Inside, they packed the place wall-to-wall. Waves of panic sloshed in my stomach as we waded through the stream of well-dressed start-up couples. When we finally found the stony-faced building manager we began blubbing out our entire life story. He nodded slowly and pulled an application from the stack. Sweat crept onto my forehead as I tried to fill in the blanks on the paper: my first landlord's phone number, the date I moved into my second apartment, the address of my personal reference. Jesus, how personal is this reference if I can't even recall where he lives? I watched the other applicants flash their battle-worn smiles and wield their crisp manila folders. Just look at all those perfectly plump packets. We handed the man our scribbled application, pressed his palm with our cold, limp hands, and then got squeezed out the door.
“God, we're fucked,” I said.
Needless to say, we did not get the place. It took us three long, hard months to finally sign a lease. The place is a fixer-upper in the Mission for $280 more than our initial limit. If you want to avoid the agony of a search, move in with a friend or move to another city. If you insist on this masochistic endeavor, here's a list of a few things we learned along the way.
Suck it up and get organized
First, don't look in the summer like we did. That's the peak demand time for apartments in the city. Wait until the late fall and winter. Even better, call your family and tell them you aren't coming home for Christmas. That's when landlords are the most desperate for tenants. Then go buy some nice folders and thick paper, the kind your high school guidance counselor insisted were the keys to success. They're not by the way, but at least your rental packet will no longer look like a cardboard sign from the Upper Haight. Download and fill out a standard lease application. Print a credit report. Line up a guarantor. Craft an introductory letter hinting at how responsible, financially-stable, and great you are. If you’ve been searching for a few weeks already you may want to practice a non-maniacal smile in front of the mirror for a few hours. Seriously, you look like a serial killer.
Become one with Craigslist
Make Craigslist the homepage on all your devices. Check it in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Check it when you go to the bathroom, between bites at dinner, and after you wake up in the middle of the night after a bout of apartment-hunting nightmares. Ask programmers you know to write software that emails you every time there's a new post. You should probably just take a leave of absence from your job and significant other for a few months to dedicate enough time to your new lover, Craigslist.
Learn how to spot a scam
That $1,000-a-month, 800-square-foot one bedroom in the heart of the Mission is a scam. You know it's a scam because the writing reads like it was dictated by a speech-recognition program from the early '90s, and the pictures look like they were taken by a kindergartner who found his mom's old Polaroid. A place hasn't been that cheap in the Mission since before the dot-com boom. If you must respond because of your intense Craigslist conditioning, then be prepared for an email from a woman named Stacy asking you to send her all of your bank information. Come on, she’s in Africa doing charity work.
Here's a short list of key phrases that indicate a place will be a rip-off of blood-boiling proportions: Location, location, location!!!!! (the more exclamation points in general, the crappier the apartment); great skylight (dark); cozy (small); charming vintage details (run-down, possibly vermin). Be extremely cautious of “cottages” in Bernal Heights. Apparently that neighborhood stretches all the way to Daly City and a cottage can be defined as a shed with one tiny window, peeling paint, and a ubiquitous smell of urine and mold.
The open house is war
Avoid the open house at all costs. Finagle a private showing beforehand by either convincing the landlord you're ready to sign, or by coming up with a pity-inducing excuse, like a family illness or a vital meeting to save endangered pandas at your nonprofit. If you can't see the place first, at least get there first and set up a defensive stance around the landlord. Make loud conversation about the decline in value of Facebook stocks whenever start-up types approach. Laugh harder than everyone else at whatever the landlord says. When no one is looking, offer tons more cash.
Be the applicant
they want you to be
Upon entering the open house, determine what the person in charge is looking for in a tenant. It would be ideal to have an advance party feel out the target and let you know whether the landlord wants wealthy start-up types, or has some political agenda like providing cheap rent to young artists. Mold yourself and application to fit that character. Take off your fedora if a landlord seems to have negative feelings toward hipsters. Talk about your father's estate if they appear concerned about wealth.
Landlords are not to be trusted
You know your landlord is a miser who will never fix anything and treat you like a perpetual slave if they do any of the following: price their washer/dryers over 2.00 per load, collect application fees from everyone, auction the apartment to the highest bidder (yes this happens), or ask you to put money down without signing anything to “save your spot.” Of course this can't dissuade you, just like the toothpick support beams in the garage that will collapse in the next earthquake can't dissuade you. If you really want a place, kiss all the remaining shambles of your dignity good-bye and be ready to sign with a creep.
Yes, I mean, say and write things that aren't 100 percent true. Do you make $105,000 a year? That's four times the rent on a $2,200 place. If we all made four times our rent, the entire city – not just an increasingly large portion of it – would be filled by people who get shuttled to work in big white buses. So, add in all that money you make on the side through babysitting, freelance writing, undeclared tips, selling your body, or doing whatever it is that you do (or imagine you do). Put your fellow employee down as your apartment manager if your current manager hates you, or if you took your landlord to the rent board and won a large settlement because you were tired of being treated like a serf.
You’re getting that murderous look in your eyes again. Stop refreshing Craigslist for a few minutes and go outside. No, not just outside your bedroom. Go to the actual outside place with the sunlight. Do an aerobic activity like riding a bike. It will help with the hyperventilating thing you do when talking to landlords. Meanwhile, scan for signs hanging in windows that say “for rent,” especially those written in shaky old-person handwriting. Come on, did you really think this was time to go for a leisurely bike ride? This is your only chance of getting a reasonably priced apartment aside from taking over a rent-controlled lease from someone you know. (Which, by the way, is possible for some one-bedrooms depending on the lease. Contact the Tenants Union for details on this and also to learn your rights before signing with that creep of a landlord.)
Learn to love BFE SF.
Did you know that Excelsior has a really cute retail section, and that the Outer Sunset isn't foggy all the time? Okay, it's not really that cute in Excelsior and it really is foggy in the Outer Sunset, but these are great neighborhoods where the rental market isn't so crazy. No, Bernal Heights and Cole Valley don't count. We're talking really out there. These far-out neighborhoods are where people like you and me with earthbound salaries are moving. In a few years they will be happening spots and you will be thanking the apartment gods that someone gave you a key to a place before the affordable doors closed for good.
Do It Yourself