SF Startup Survival Guide: How to Find an Apartment in San Francisco

Congratulations! You’ve taken the plunge and decided to move to San Francisco for your own startup or to join one of the hundreds (thousands?) here. Making the decision to move may have been difficult, but nothing compared to all the hassles and headaches of moving to this city.

Having just gone through this and spent a significant amount of time asking friends for advice on making the move, I’d like to share the best advice I received and what I learned myself.  For reference, most people take months to find a place to live and move in. With the tips below, I found an apartment and moved in within 2 weeks of landing in SF. (Update: If you want to save a ton on rent and find an open room instead of renting a new place, check out this guide to standing out when emailing about roommates and open rooms)

How to Find an Apartment in San Francisco

1) Move Yesterday.

When I started looking at rental prices, I was shocked. Prices for real estate in San Francisco are insane. Seriously. Studios in non-prime locations go for anywhere from $1,400-$2,000 per month, while two bedrooms are all in the $2,500-$3,200 range and rising.

I moved into a 2 bedroom in a 20 unit building in Pacific Heights and met a neighbor who moved in just 2 weeks after me and he is paying over $100 a month more than I am. This will only get worse after the Facebook IPO and as major growth companies like Twitter stay in San Francisco as they scale while others add shuttles to take you to and from the city for work. So if you’re going to come, come now or pay later (literally).

  • Pro Tip: A coworker of mine at KISSmetrics spoke with a realtor that says we’re on the same track for real estate prices as the last dot com bubble. When that happened, studios started going for over $3,000 per month. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

2) Find a roommate.

Realizing the crazy apartment prices made finding a roommate a necessity, I immediately emailed everyone I knew that lived in the Bay area asking if they knew anyone with a spare room or was looking for a roommate. I also blogged, tweeted and posted on Facebook.

While I only got a few responses, they proved invaluable; I got a ton of advice about the city as well as some good leads. Not only did their intros lead to my current roommate, but I was able to find a replacement for myself back in Boston.

It can be extremely competitive in the open market, so use your network. Look up any of your long lost Facebook acquaintances, sorority sisters, old coworkers, etc and let them know you’re looking.  You’ll get a low response rate, but if you stick with it awhile you’ll get some leads.

You can also try looking on Craigslist although you’ll find that you’ll be interviewing for any spots posted against 50-100 other people. If you want to beat that crowd, then my this guide to emailing open rooms and prospective roommates is a must.

  • Pro Tip: Don’t just ask friends who live in the Bay Area. Look for people in your town that know others out there. It was a friend of a friend that helped me find my current roommate.

3) Learn the neighborhoods and narrow your search.

Once my friends started offering to help me look for roommates, their first question was, “where do you want to live?” I really didn’t know, but since San Francisco is a 7 mile by 7 mile city I really had to narrow it down for them to be able to help me.

I soon learned there’s a massive difference between living on the eastern side or western side of the city (it’s foggy and less sunny west of Divisadero St). There’s also huge differences from neighborhood to neighborhood as you are unlikely to find someone interested in the Mission, Marina and Sunset for a variety of reasons from lifestyle to commute to cost.

To narrow it down, I first eliminated everything that wouldn’t be easy to commute to work to; I use public transportation, so I limited my locations to places I could get to work in SoMA (aka- South of Market) in under 30 minutes by Muni or BART (the public transportation lines in SF). Next, I asked everyone who had any knowledge of SF to tell me what neighborhoods were like. In particular Zach Cole deserves a big shout out for giving me a breakdown of virtually every neighborhood.

4) Secure a short term living arrangement.

I knew there was no way I could find an apartment without being there to see it and get a feel for the neighborhood so that meant moving to SF without a place to live.  One of my friends I reached out to about moving out west happened to have a spare bedroom in her & her fiancee’s apartment, and they were kind enough to offer me a stay while I searched.

It was pivotal for me because I knew I didn’t have to worry about the safety of my things when I got to SF and I had two welcoming, friendly faces waiting for me when I landed. The latter cannot be overrated as I had just left all my friends in Boston behind.

If you can’t find any friends or coworkers to crash with, your next best bet is AirBNB. There are quite a few tech people that list their couches and spare rooms on there. You can generally find a couch for about $50/night or a bed for $100-$150 a night.  You can also look for short term Craigslist options, but it’s tough to find something that lines up perfect with your start date.

  • Pro tip: Move mid-month so that you can look for places starting the first of the next month; I moved out on March 14th and moved into an apartment then starting April 1st.

5) Pack your things.

Everything I’ve listed thus far were things I did before moving to San Francisco. With these things in order it was time to figure out how to move my clothes, bedroom and other personal belongings.

To save money, time and keep the peace with my roommate who wasn’t thrilled I was moving, I left virtually everything in my Boston apartment except for some cooking items and items from my bedroom.

You really only have 4 options when moving across the country under these circumstances (ranked in order of most to least expensive):

  1. Moving company – Pay a professional moving company to load up your things and take them out west for you.
  2. Relocation cube – There’s Pods, Door2Door and UPack as options. All will drop a container at your old apartment, then move it across the country and hold it in storage until you tell them when and where to deliver it.
  3. Uhaul – Drive across the country with a truck load of your personal belongings. Don’t forget the cost of gas and lodging for the drive!
  4. Throw away everything – I know a few people that took only what fit in suit cases and bought new stuff when they got to SF (Hello Ikea!).

I ended up going with the ABF UPack and couldn’t have been happier with them. They have great customer service, a sturdy, safe container and are about half the price of a Pod. Door2Door is an awkward wooden box that you have to wonder if it will fall apart or leak in the rain.

  • Pro Tip: If you go for option 1) or 2), get quotes from multiple sources then play them against each other.  I talked the UPack sales person down an additional $200 at the last minute with a Yelp discount and the offer to “Close right now and not call anyone else.” 

6) Scout the neighborhoods.

After getting to San Francisco, I met with my potential roommate, Chris in person. Once we realized we could get along, we agreed to scout the neighborhoods we were both interested in. We met up on a Sunday afternoon and drove around all the neighborhoods on our list and talked about what we liked or disliked.

We found that seeing the neighborhoods brought insight our friends alone couldn’t provide. After the driving, we were able to easily cut our list down from 6 neighborhoods to 3 in one specific section of the city.

  • Pro Tip: Every neighborhood in San Francisco has slightly different architecture, so it’s surprisingly easy to note what neighborhood you are in based on architecture and knowing a few key streets in the city.

7) Get your blood sample ready.

When I was getting ready to move, I noticed the list of paperwork to provide your landlord was pretty absurd compared to what I was used to in Boston. It doesn’t actually include a blood sample, but you do need just about everything else:

  1. Reference from a past Landlord
  2. List of past landlords with contact info for the past 2-3 years
  3. Copy of your full credit report (I used freecredit.com)
  4. Pay stub or offer letter to prove you can afford the apartment
  5. Check in hand to pay for first month, last month and security deposit

Yes, this is a lot, but if you have it in hand, you’ll impress the landlord and avoid getting passed over; there’s apparently a law in San Francisco that says a landlord has to take the first qualified applicant for their place. By having all this paperwork, you’ll be qualified.

  • Pro Tip: My roommate and I put our paperwork in a Dropbox folder we shared. This made it handy if we ever needed to print emergency copies and it allowed both of us to look at the other person’s report and see that both of us pay bills on time and have good jobs.

8) Search like a Pro.

On Sunday Chris and I drove around SF to pick what neighborhoods to focus on in our apartment search. That night, we started looking.  Craigslist is weak compared to the real tools you can use: Padmapper and Lovely. I love Padmapper more because of some of their added search map features, but they’re both great.

These two services let you pick your neighborhoods and most importantly, get alerts when any property is posted to quite a few different rental sites including Craigslist.  This gives you a fighting chance of being one of the first people to see a place (basically the only way to get an apartment). You can also check out walking scores, crime rates and some other cool factors that can help you in your decision making process.

  • Pro Tip: Take your email to the landlords about available apartments seriously. This is a sales pitch you want to nail. Optimize for making you and your roommate sound like attractive tenants without lying. If you’re looking to impress someone with an open room, this can help.

9) He who hesitates, is lost.

Chris and I had alerts set for Nob Hill, Russian Hill and Pacific Heights. We saw a couple of options that night and emailed to set up showings.  We set the first up for a 10:00am showing Monday morning.

As I was waiting for Chris to meet me that morning, I was accosted 3 different times by crackheads. Not a good start. Once we got in the apartment, we were further unimpressed. Amateur hour on the renovations showed poorly laid carpet and a cabinet where they messed up their dimensions and had cut a giant hole in the back of a cabinet. The landlord also didn’t speak very good English. This was not going to be the place.

As fate would have it, I found a padmapper alert in my inbox while Chris and I were talking about the poor apartment we had just looked at.  The new listing, in a nicer area, had a phone number to call for a showing. We called saying we were 15 minutes away and would love to see it right away. The landlord agreed to meet us and 40 minutes later we were signing the paperwork on our new apartment (while her phone was ringing off the hook with more people interested).

  • Pro Tip: NEVER go to an open house for an apartment. You will be competing against as many as 100 other people.  Some sketchy landlords will even try to get everyone to pay an “application fee” so they can squeeze money out of all the people coming in addition to the rental fee that will invariably be bid up with all the frenzied lookers.

10) Tough Market != Impossible Market.

The important thing to keep in mind is that everyone I know eventually found a place. Many of my friends that have moved here learned hard lessons about avoiding open houses and the need to have all that paper work ready in advance, but now that you have this post, you can avoid those pitfalls. In the end most of my friends are now in places they really like. With a city this size there’s something for everyone and always places coming on the market.

Realize that apartment searching here is a “full contact sport” as one of my friends described it and commit to putting in the effort to find your ideal place. If your employer gets annoyed about missed time looking at apartments, just remind that how much more productive you’ll be when you stop worrying about this and sleep in your own bed at night.

  • Final Pro Tip: Choose a place you could see yourself living in for a few years; with the current tech boom, prices are only going up for the forseeable future. If you’re like me, you can barely afford the rent now, so you won’t be able to afford to move when your lease is up in a year.

What advice do you have for people moving to San Francisco?