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.