How to find an apartment in San Francisco

Apartment hunting in San Francisco can be daunting. The first burden to overcome is learning the neighborhoods. Luckily, San Francisco is a relatively small big city, with 800,000 inhabitants in an area roughly the shape of a square, 7 miles on each side. Here’s a pretty decent map that outlines the major neighborhoods.

San Francisco neighborhood maps

Here’s a new map from Burrito Justice called “The Islands of San Francisco” that pretty exhaustively maps the neighborhoods in a stylized fashion (reminds me of those supercool typographic maps of SF by Ork):

islands of san francisco map by burrito justice

However, for the hands-down most accuracy (albeit at the cost of being a little busy), check out the San Francisco Association of Realtors MLS Map. It’s big, so here’s just a taste:

sfar mls map 2010 excerpt

SFGate’s neighborhood guide is a good starting point, but I soon turned to my SF-based friends, family, and co-workers for any information they would share. What I heard again and again in response to the question “Where would you live if you could live anywhere” was “the Mission,” due to its concentration of young people, taquerias, nightlife, and sun. It’s not an area frequented by tourists, so not an area I’d spent any time in before. Which I liked.

Not For Tourists (NFT) Guide to San FranciscoI discovered an invaluable “guide” book intended solely for residents, rather than tourists, the aptly named, Not For Tourists Guide to San Francisco, 2006, which I highly recommend for demystifying San Francisco’s neighborhoods, in particular the areas where stores and restaurants coalesce. But don’t take my word for it, you can actually view the entire book online via a series of PDFs, for free. They even say:

Feel free to view and print these pdfs. If you’ve printed more than 20 pages, perhaps consider buying an actual book.

Very cool. But I digress.

The second burden is the cost of living. Currently (circa 2006) the rent for a 1 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom usually means a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen) starts at around $1400. A month. Most anywhere else in the country, that’s a respectable mortgage payment. On a 4 bedroom house. With a yard. And of course it only goes up from there.

The final challenge is just showing up. Since there isn’t a surplus of vacant rentals, a landlord can schedule a 1 hour long (or less) open house (sometimes with only a day or two’s notice) to show an apartment. If you can make it to the open house at the appointed hour, you show up. If not, well then that’s not the apartment for you. If you’re interested, they’ll provide a detailed rental application to fill out and fax back. It’s definitely worth filling out one of these for fun (they’re like personal history research projects) or at least compiling the phone numbers and addresses for current and previous landlords and employers.

Serious hunters will bring a checkbook with them, necessary for putting down a security deposit (as a measure of serious interest) as well as a recent credit report for each prospective renter (which can be got for free via annualcreditreport.com). With anywhere from 5 to 30 people stopping by in an hour’s timeframe, the pool of applicants (read: the competition) is too great for any landlord to want (read: need) to wait for any promised checks or applications.

In between open houses, fellow apartment hunters can be identified by the stack of ink-jet printouts of open house ads from Craigslist they’re carrying around. I felt a certain fraternity with these souls, knowing that I was doing exactly the same thing. Craigslist appears to have a corner on the rental classifieds market in San Francisco (and I presume many other cities). Aside from pounding the pavement, for many Craigslist is the first and last place to look for rentals.

Suffice it to say, for a dyed-in-the-wool maximizer like myself, this process has been a bit trying—and is compounded by the fact that I live an hour and a half away.


This is the 1st post in a series about finding an apartment in SF.

Part 1: How to find an apartment in San Francisco
Part 2: The great San Francisco apartment hunt begins!
Part 3: The great San Francisco apartment hunt ends!
Part 4: A look inside the apartment, finally!

If you’re interested in buying a condo in SF, check out my Adventures in Real Estate series.

Feel free to if you found this useful.

51 Comments

It’s crazy isn’t it? And it’s sad to hear it hasn’t changed in the past couple of years. I remember getting my first apartment, the Shittiest Studio in Berkeley, showing up with Sean, with dozens of other potential renters, to view the saddest, ugliest, dirtiest, tiniest studio I’d ever seen, and then running down to the rental office to be the first one to put a deposit check in.

And yet there are still so many people there pissed off about new housing in the towns.

This was very interesting. Good graphic. I think cost of living is fascinating. The most I paid for rent was $1600 for a place on Balboa Island in Newport- and that was a STEAL! Way undervalued- it should have been over $2000. It’s all about location.

Yes, very good Justiny details and graphics. Now on to phase two: showing YOUR apartment and its charms. Smiley face!

Brian/Dad

I wholeheartedly agree with Marcia…pictures please.

Wow, Justin, I actually HAVE a 4 bedroom house on an acre and a half with a mortgate payment of just over $1400, north of Austin. How did you know? Good luck with the apt. search—as a loyal reader, I third Marcia’s request for photos once you obtain your Mission apartment.

Marcia/Dad/Tasha, I’m working on it. Unfortunately I’m short on pictures, so you’ll have to settle for words.

FWIW, I lived at Fillmore and Grove, right down the hill from Alamo Square. Depending on who you ask, that’s Lower Haight, Hayes Valley, Lower Fillmore, or Western Addition (or all of the above). I didn’t love my place ($1400 for my 1-bedroom was a pretty OK deal in the 2000-01 housing market, though)….but I really liked Lower Haight as a neighborhood – that strip of Haight has cool restaurants and shops, and it’s fairly quick walkable/bikable access to both Market & The Mission and Upper Haight/Golden Gate Park. The Eastern end of GGPark is an awesome jumpoff for some amazing bike rides that I am sure you would dig. The farther west you live, however, the foggier and cooler it gets. Lower Haight and Western Addition are nice in that they are a little sunnier and the most centrally located. Good luck!

cristina

I am looking for an apartment close to my daughter’s school, francisco middle school, in the north beach area. How can i find something cheap and livable? I am new to SF so I am not sure how to go about it.

[…] advice Once again (in case you weren’t paying attention in part I,) check out this. Try reading it before starting your search, not […]

[…] San Francisco about a year ago and covered his apartment hunt in his blog. The most useful post is How to find an apartment in San Francisco. His apartment hunt ordeals are then detailed in his The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt posts, […]

Jakki n Nicole

Me n my pal jakki are moving to san francisco any advice you would like to share? We currently live in scotland :D

Meenakshi

Nice map. I’d like to see it combined with street names also. And maybe add in other hoods like the Dogpatch and Seacliff and Bayview?

Hi Justin,

Great articles about moving to San Francisco. I’m actually working on a similar project, trying to provide peer reviews and recommendations on neighborhoods. When I first moved into the city, I had a terrible experience trying to find out the different characteristics of each neighborhood, ended up moving to a place I didn’t like.

Anyways, just wanted to drop you line, say great job on the articles, and see if I could get your feedback on my project, RentWiki.com.

Thanks Justin and I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

Eric Wu
eric@rentwiki.com

Do you know the names to any printed apartment guides in San Francisco I might be able to request? I’m in DC and am moving within a year.

cook, craigslist is the way to go.

inbalio

This Map is missing the Tenderloin AKA the TL/Tendernob/The Loin…it’s a somewhat sketchy area that’s technically a part of Downtown but really is it’s own ‘hood’. It’s the cluster of blocks bordered by ofarrel (N) / market (S) Taylor (E) and Van Ness (W)

If one does not mind the occasional crack transaction and corner hustlers it’s a great place to find affordable LARGE apartments…And it’s the unofficial ‘real’ cool kids spot now that the mission is over priced and teaming with hipsters. Amazing food too ;)

Good Luck

inbalio, because of the stigma attached to the ‘loin (even though that, like all things, is changing) many maps, specifically those associated with real estate, tend to gloss over it, either calling it Downtown, as this one does, or Civic Center. This map is definitely not complete (there’s no Cole Valley, no Glen Park), but at a high level, it does cover some of the major neighborhoods.

Tam

Justin,
This is a really nice and useful tool. I wish someone would do it for L.A. I just wanted to drop you a line and say nice job!

Tam, no problem. I always enjoy sharing my little triumphs with the world, especially when they turn out to be unusually intricate. Maybe you should come live in San Francisco!

D Roca

Hi Justin,
I’m looking to move out to San Francisco with a room mate before I start college. We’re 18, with virtually no credit history built up, and I have no job. However, I’ve saved up enough to cover a deposit and about five months rent already. We want to be in the city by the end of July. Do you have any advice to offer us?

D Roca, you might want to look for a short term rental, as many year-long leases may expect you to be gainfully employed and with good credit. Otherwise, just do like everyone else. Scour Craigslist and start pounding the pavement. Good luck.

Chris

Justin, did you come across any “rental brokers” like NYC?

Chris, nope. With a population of less than a million, I’m guessing SF is not a big enough market for a rental broker.

apple

Any tips Justin for those of us who don’t live in SF? It’s going to be a challenge to try to locate an apartment without seeing it first, and I’ve noticed many require that you look at the unit first.
Thanks!!

Apple, can you fly to SF for 2-3 weeks? Alternatively there are some larger complexes that you can probably rent from sight unseen. Park Merced and Trinity Towers come to mind… Good luck.

pragmacat

I was born and mostly-raised on Nob Hill ~ so glad to hear that you ended up loving it! I’m planning a move back (from Los Angeles) this year, so hopefully I’ll find someplace lovely to live in my old hood. Thanks so much for helping the adult-me get reacquainted with my beloved Snob Hill. :)

Pragmacat, I should add that we left that apartment on Pine Street after 4 years to go travel the world. It remains to be seen whether we’ll land in SF when we return, and if so, in what neighborhood. If we did return, in addition to that SF Victorian charm we like so much, we’d also be looking for:

  • a second bedroom
  • a little yard (with space for a grill)
  • laundry in apartment (or building)
  • enclosed parking (at least for 1-2 scooters)
pragmacat

@Justin – I noticed that you had gone on an adventure shortly after I posted my comment! :) I too am hoping for an outdoor space, at the very least to accommodate my pooch’s potty runs.

When I did live on Nob Hill (back when I was 0-13), we had a basement apartment with a gigantic backyard AND an attic. For just $500/month, thank you rent control. It was a pity my parents gave the place up when we moved to Montana.

Do you think it’s possible to find a 2 bedroom in the area for under $2,200/month nowadays?

Thanks for being so helpful and responsive! :)

Craigslist is going to be the best resource to answer that. We were renting our 600ft² one-bedroom for $1600/month when we left. So, it seems possible that two bedrooms should be in that mid 2k range. Good luck.

pragmacat

Good ole Craigslist. Thanks, and safe travels!

Updated the post with the “The Islands of San Francisco” map by Burrito Justice and a sample of the SFAR MLS map. Enjoy.

Antoine

I’m french and i will come with a friend in san francisco, we search a flat or a room for two months for the both. Can you help us ?

Antoine, the only help I can ofter is what I’ve written in this post, and check craigslist!

Jordan

I am from Seattle and have been searching non stop for temporary housing but have not had any luck. I have an internship and need a place to live from June 1st to August 31st. Do you have any suggestions of websites/apartment buildings or anything where I should look? HELP ME!

steven

moving to san francisco for school spring 2012. looking for a cat friendly studio apartment? any advice as to where i should look first. i will be attending the academy of art university…?

CDV

Those neighborhood maps are so incredibly helpful. I cannot thank you enough for posting this. And wish us luck for our hunt in September. We’ll fly out and we’ll have one week to find an apartment… I hope that is enough.

Tina

Awesome tips. Very helpful maps. I’m super excited to be to moving to San Fran over winter break. When I moved to Minneapolis I found this site. It was such a timesaver! Do you know of any sites like it for the San Francisco area??

Tina, afaik, other than word-of-mouth, in SF, Craigslist has a near monopoly on the apartment rental market. Take a look there as soon as possible just to familiarize yourself with what’s out there. Rental rates are way up. Studios hover around $1800 (more than what we paid for our 1 bedroom in 2006), 1 bedrooms are $2400 and up, and 2 bedrooms are $3000 and up (depending on location of course).

Brad

Padmapper was really helpful for me when I was looking for a place. Prices have gone way up, and if you do find something that’s a good deal, odds are others have as well and there will be competition.

michelle

I am moving at the end of may and need a 2 bedroom place!! I haven’t had much luck with craigslist, would you recommend any other websites to look at?

michelle, all i can say is keep looking, lots of new posts appear on craigslist every day.

Breona

Ive ever been to California before but i want to move from Washington to San Francisco as soon as i turn 18 next year. i need help looking for a place to live. i know i wont be able to afford an apartment so i am looking for a little studio apartment. Help me?

Breona, I’d recommend looking for someone looking for roommates in the Mission?

Jason

I found that http://www.PadMapper.com was really awesome. U can filter through based on crime rates, cats/dogs, prices, and more

maurice

moving to San Francisco from Germany, with wife and a 3 year old. The new job is great but the salary not so much. Any advice? Are Oakland or Berkeley any cheaper…? I´ll be teaching at CCA in “South of Market”.

maurice, if you’re looking to rent, you can use craigslist to compare rents in SF/SOMA vs Berkeley and Oakland. I’m guessing the east bay is probably cheaper, and much cheaper to buy in some neighborhoods, but it depends what you’re looking for. Good luck.

Ellarya

Hi Maurice,

I moved as well from Germany to SF. I rent a small house in South City for me and my family. You have to commute, but you pay less.

Mandy

What neighborhoods would you say to avoid? I am looking to move out there but want to stay close enough to the office that I can utilize my bike to go to and from work. I am just concerned with being stuck in a neighborhood that could prove to be less safe.

Mandy, it depends. The Tenderloin and Bayview-Hunter’s Point seem to be the most stereotypically stigmatized neighborhoods these days. But the same used to be true of the Mission, and now you see articles like: Mission District poised to be SF’s most desired neighborhood. (Also see: Gentrification no longer a dirty word.) There’s really no part of SF you must avoid at all costs.

Hi! Thanks for linking to my Islands of SF map. Would you mind using the image on http://burritojustice.com/islands-of-sf/ ? (The version you have has a couple of typos.)

No problem, updated it, and set up some redirect rules so old requests for the PNGs get redirected to the latest JPG.

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