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Bay Area Wisdom: finding a place, SF neighborhoods, transit, and more

Welcome to San Francisco! 

Here's what I've learned about moving to / apartment hunting in SF, both from my experience and from friends'.  

It's a lot of info, but hope you can use whatever info is applicable to your situation.

Good luck!

-- Will Benjamin '07

1) How to get around
    a) Do I need to have a car?
    b) Getting around without a car
2) Short term housing
3) Deciding where in SF you want to live
4) Getting a permanent place, either by:
     a) Starting a new lease or
     b) A shared space without starting a new lease (i.e. Craigslist)

1) How to get around
     a) Owning car here can be nice, a pain, or unnecessary

Street parking during the day can be difficult to find and/or expensive.  For parking at night, you can get a yearly city neighborhood permit to park on the street (~$100/year), but in some neighborhoods it can take 20 minutes to an hour to find a spot at peak times.  The other option is a spot in a parking garage, which is expensive (around $300/month in Nob Hill).

Many people who live in SF don't have cars.  There's good, though not amazing, public transportation.

That being said, a big benefit to having a car is going on weekend and impromptu trips.  Rental cars are an option, and can be very affordable compared to owning a car for a trip every month or so.

     b) Getting around without owning car:

Buses (aka "Muni"), BART, and Caltrain are convenient and generally on time.  All three accept the Clipper Card, which has monthly plans or pay-as-you-go, and you can manage online.  Buses here are pretty clean and safe, and many young professionals use them.

Many people commute south to Menlo Park, Foster City, etc. by taking Caltrain, and to the East Bay by taking BART.  It's also common to take a bike on Caltrain as a part of their daily commute, as is biking to directly to work for shorter commutes.

Zipcar is great when you need a car for short trips: They're located all across the city, include gas/insurance for about $12/hour, and can be rented/extended in just a minute or two.  (Here's a promo code for Zipcar that will get you $25 off: ginhjpae)  Renting a car as needed on weekends is quick/easy once you're in the company's system.  Once you factor in parking, car payments, and insurance, a combination of using Zipcar for short trips and getting a rental car when needed can be very practical and economical. 

2) Short-term housing
You want somewhere to stay for while you're looking for a permanent place.  It could take a while.  It took me over 2 months.  (Though I wanted to be in a fairly narrow area of the city, didn't want to start a new lease, and Sept. 2011 was more competitive than it seems to be in July 2012.)  I hope you find a place that you love quickly, but I'd recommend having a plan in case that doesn't happen.

And, actually, I highly recommend taking your time to find a really great fit.  It's tempting to move in somewhere quickly.  But it's not worth ending up in a place that's not a great fit that you'll end up wanting to move away from in less than a year.  Moving is a huge pain.  And, you increase your options the longer your window of looking -- if you look for 4 weeks instead of 1 week, you see four times as many options.  And in a market with such pricing variations, that's also a great way to find a really good deal.

Beyond that, you'll want to stay somewhere that is:
  •   Close enough to where you work 
  •   Close enough to where you'll be looking for apartments that's easy to look at potential apartments on short notice
  •   Flexible enough that you can extend or cancel your stay without losing too much money.  
    • Most new-lease apartments will start at the beginning of the month, and some Craigslist apartments will too.  You don't want to lose half a month's rent or not get the best place because you find the place you love, but it's ready when you still have 2 more weeks at the temporary place you've already paid for

You can get that flexibility from:
  • Staying with friends/relatives
    • A lot of people living here stayed on someone's couch for their first month or so here, and would be happy to "pay it forward."
  • Craigslist "Sublet/Temporary" section 
    • Probably best to get a month-long one, so you don't have to patch together several different ones, or to go with one that has a nightly rate
    • Disadvantage: Will require interviewing, so not a great plan for the first nights after you arrive
  • Hotel
    • Convenient but expensive
  • Weekly Rate Hotel
    • Cheap like a hostel, but you have your own room.  The only one I've checked out is the Cable Car Court Hotel on California street (but there should be lots more around town if you look online).  It's $350/week, and not too nice, but is definitely basic/livable, safe if shabby, seemed to have a good number of young European travelers, and is on the edge of a great part of town (Nob Hill).  To ensure that you have a room there for as long you need, I'd recommend booking individual, extra weeks there online.  There's a $50 cancellation fee, but if you always have 2 more weeks booked, it's like a $100 insurance policy against not having a place to stay.  http://cablecarcourthotel.com/
  • Airbnb.com
    • Haven't had any personal experience with this, but it looks like you can pay a nightly rate to stay at someone's house/apartment like a hotel, but is cheaper.  They screen to make sure you're not creepy beforehand, so the people are probably more legit than otherwise, and I'm guessing that you can "lock in" your place so that you can know that you have a place to stay when you arrive, vs. Craigslist which only works when you can physically be there
    • Some friends of mine have lived in this 10 bedroom place in the Mission -- great people, and a truly unique,fun living/work space!  You can stay there temporarily, and it's a great way to meet people when you first come to the city.  Clicking here should show you the rooms they have available.

3) Deciding where in SF you want to live
This is an important question.  But have fun with it!  Ask friends, ask people you meet, check out online resources, but most importantly walk around the areas yourself.  If nothing else, it's a great way to get oriented to the city.

Factors you consider may include:
  • Proximity to where you work, or a Bart/Caltrain/Muni stop that will get you to work
  • The culture of the neighborhood
  • Price
*A few notes:
  • The Tenderloin can be very sketchy and dangerous.
  • The Mission and the Marina are pretty different, but are similar in that people either love them or hate them.  Also, people who live there tend to stay in those areas more than they might otherwise go to other areas of town.  
  • My 2 cents: I love being near Polk St.  Super convenient for all of your needs, has character, not too upscale.
* Apartment listing sites (besides craigslist):
* Walking Scores

* Craigslist Rent Stats

*Stats/Demographics by Zipcode (enter the zip you're looking at in the URL

4) Getting a permanent place, either with a) Starting a new lease or b) A shared space without starting a new lease
Bear in mind that it is much, much more difficult to get a place without physically being in SF: Property managers have enough demand that they can opt to rent to someone in-person, and people want to get a good feel for new roommates before committing.

     a) Starting a new lease

So, you're either going to live on your own, live with roommate(s) you already know, or are going to find roommates(s).  

If you're going to find roommate(s) your options include sending emails out to friends to ask if they know anyone who needs a roommate, talking with people you meet and asking if they know anyone who needs a roommate, and looking for a roommate (with no current apartment) on Craigslist. 

For finding the apartment itself, Craigslist is where almost all listings will be found.  Property managers (for both single properties and large property groups) seem to simply post to Craigslist.  In stark contrast to some other big cities (particularly New York), renters don't usually employ real estate agents to help them find apartments.

Being the first to submit an application can be key, as licensed realtors have to offer the apartment to the first qualified (i.e. good references, good credit) application submitted, and then go to the next in line if that person decides not to put a down payment on the apartment.  To do that, you need to be combing the listings frequently, and be prepared to go to open houses on a few hours' notice and submit applications if the property management group has them available online.  If applications are available online and the apartment seems like a good fit, seriously consider submitting the application sight-unseen.  You're committed to paying the application fee (some I saw were ~$40), and you don't get that back, but you'll be first in line and won't be on the hook for the full deposit/signing the lease.  Otherwise, bring generic application information / credit reports to the open house so you can easily / quickly submit the application.  If the person doing the open house isn't a license realtor, then unfortunately it will be a "beauty contest" and you just have to take your chances that your application will be selected.

Know what you want and be aggressive, so you're ready to pounce when what you're looking for comes along.

     b) A shared space without starting a new lease
This means Craigslist.  

There's a lot of competition here.  It's important to write an email to potential roommates that gets you noticed, while sounding normal and being upfront about who you are.

You'll want to have a block of text about yourself that is easy to paste in, so you can send in a bunch of responses.  It's a bit like fishing.  But, you'll also want to include a little bit of personalized info at the beginning, so it sounds like you read the ad and are actually interested.  (After being on the other end of this process, I can tell you that there are a lot of replies that don't say what they like about your listing, which quickly skipped over.)  Here's how I did it:


It sounds like this could be a good fit.  [Then, I'd write more here if I really liked the listing.  I.e. "I noticed in your posting that Kate spent time in Brazil, and that it's important to all of you to not leave dishes in the sink overnight.  I spent a month in Brazil, and am the same way about dishes!"]

Are you available tonight or tomorrow to meet up and show me the apartment?

-- Will

Here's a bit about me:
[This is where you put the block of text about yourself.]

        I also included a picture.  [Shows you're a normal person/not sketchy, but less intrusive to me than my Facebook profile.]

So, I'd just paste all of that into the email to the Craigslist poster, and then write a bit more as describe above if desired.  That way I could crank out emails while staying personalized.

I also created a new Gmail address, so that I wouldn't get spammed afterwards to my main email account.  I set it to automatically forward to my main email address so I saw replies as soon as they were sent to me.

For finding the listings themselves, I'd recommend using Padmapper.com .  Padmapper pulls all Craigslist (and some other sites') listings from an area you set, will email you when new listings are posted, and will let you easily send initial email responses to the ads.  Livelovely.com is another option that is apparently similar, though I haven't checked it out myself.

The key to this seems to be that it's a waiting game.  There was high demand vs. short supply in Sept. 2011 when I was looking, and I went to one open house with 35 people who all wanted the same room  (Try to get 1-on-1 meetings if possible.)  But the wider area you look in, and the more places you look at, the more likely it will be that you find an awesome place.  It also depends on how selective or “this’ll work fine” you are.

But you can do it!

It can be tough, but that's just because SF is awesome and everyone wants to live here.  Just think about what an awesome living situation you're going to create for yourself!

Resources for getting settled in:
For very affordable (though far from lifelong quality) kitchen and household items, this place is amazing affordable : http://www.yelp.com/biz/kamei-restaurant-supply-san-francisco
I love my dentist.  She is fantastic.  http://www.yelp.com/biz/cynthia-k-brattesani-dds-san-francisco
I use OneMedical for my primary care physician.  They require a flat additional $150 per year over insurance co-pays, but I've been very satisfied with the extra level of care and attention that has provided.

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