How to Find an Affordable Apartment in San Franscisco

in Find an Apartment on by
An adorable row of San Francisco apartment buildings in the city's traditional Victorian style.

Some wishes are pipe dreams, nothing more than illusions that will never materialize, like riding a unicorn. Others are possible, like winning a million-dollar lottery, but highly unlikely to come true. Finding an affordable apartment in San Francisco falls somewhere in the middle.

The key — and highly subjective — word here is “affordable.” Recent reputable statistics report that residential rental rates in San Francisco are the highest in the country, even higher than New York City. That’s good news if you happen to be among the minority of the top Silicon Valley earners, who can probably afford a $3,500 a month one-bedroom.

Based on the standard calculation of what income qualifies you for San Francisco rentals (50 times the monthly rental), you’ll have to have a gross annual income of $175,000 to qualify for a $3,500 apartment. Even using the standard for other cities, (40 times the monthly rental), you’d still have to gross $140,000 to even be offered an application. Keep in mind that to move in you typically have to pay up to two months’ rent in advance, plus a security deposit and application fee, so you’ll also need to fork over around $8,000 to $10,000 before you start packing. And as if all that didn’t seem daunting enough, San Francisco’s rental vacancy rate usually hovers around a bleak 3.18 percent.

But before you decide a nice Midwestern city isn’t all that bad a place to spend your life, you should at least give a San Francisco apartment a chance. The quest takes lots of time, patience, and walking, but it can be done if you have the mettle to see it through. Follow these steps, and you just might stumble upon an affordable home in the city famous for steep hills, colorful Victorian homes and citizens, and stealing hearts.

Establish a Realistic Budget

Nothing’s worse than inflating your income just to get in an apartment and then having to sweat over rent every month. Of course, there are fine apartments in San Fran for around half the average price, but it takes work, cunning, and luck to find one.

Pick a Neighborhood

Next, take the time to decide which is more important to you: living near your job and/or close to public transit such as BART or Muni subway systems, living in an area that has all your favorite amenities like museums, theaters, bars, and restaurants, or being surrounded by a vibrant cultural scene in places like the Mission or Castro districts. It’s easy enough to research San Francisco neighborhoods online to help inform your decision, but you also should physically visit them before moving.

Prepare Yourself for Battle

Not only will you likely be subjected to bidding wars for apartments, you’ll also encounter people offering everything from a year’s rent in advance to stock options, free massages, and babysitting services to get the apartment they want. How you bargain is up to you, but be prepared for backbiting, sly moves, and downright fraud going down behind the scenes.

Stay Flexible

Since San Francisco has such a plethora of unique, wonderful neighborhoods, you should leave yourself open to exploring as many as possible, choosing several that appeal to you and your needs. And don’t forget nearby cities across the Bay and down the Peninsula that have slightly more affordable apartment options and are only 30 to 45 minutes away from San Francisco.

Walk and Search

Find a friend who enjoys walking and take to the streets. After all, there are many rentals that aren’t listed online but just by a simple sign in a window. That being said, you also shouldn’t forget the many rental resources available to you online. While Craigslist is the most popular, you can also just Google “apartment hunting websites San Francisco” and around 10 to 15 more are guaranteed to pop up and help you with your quest. It’s also important to spread the word that you’re apartment hunting to learn about other opportunities not advertised and hopefully gain access to underground sources.

Get Your Credit in Order

Make sure your credit score is stellar before attempting to compete for an SF apartment. Don’t agree to a credit check unless you’re sincerely interested in a place, as too many checks at once will only lower your score. Take copies of references and phone numbers with you during your search to give to prospective landlords. If you have pets, make sure the apartments you search accept them before you visit, and if they cost extra.

Other Helpful Tips

Don’t bother searching for a broker in San Francisco. Unlike New York and many other major cities, it has none. However, there are agencies that, for a fee, can help you with your search.

Don’t forget the power of simple social media. Put the word out to everyone describing what you’re looking for (without divulging any information that might attract hackers, of course), and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the feedback.

If your search is bringing up no affordable options, consider BMR (below-market-rate) rentals and buyable condos for low-income people. The process is lengthy, but it is viable, and this website explains exactly how to qualify.

Living in San Francisco is a treat. It’s not easy, but all it takes is waking up to one sunrise bathed in a gauzy blanket of fog to make it all worthwhile.

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