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How to Score Housing in San Francisco

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Frank Underwood always gets the apartment he wants

Many move to San Francisco  wide-eyed and optimistic that they will magically land a classic Victorian flat like the Painted ladies in the TV show ‘Full house’,  with cool, like-minded roommates for a reasonable portion of their budget. Some even come with a job already landed!   But none are ever truly prepared for the kind of Craigs-list-a-go-round, musical chair, NSA Credit check, San Francisco-Inquisition, 1-3% vacancy, housing politics that they are really up against.

Luckily, I am the ‘Frank Underwood’ of San Francisco apartment  politics and have literally coached dozens of new San Francisco residents who have little idea of  what kind of crooked, uphill (literally) battle they are  in for. We’ve all noticed a mass exodus of folks getting pushed out of the city due to exorbitant rents or literally having to settle because they did not understand how to play the politics of the “Housing game.” I am writing this article because it will save me time on having to repeat myself. Internalize every word:

1. Be Available! I can’t stress enough that you must be prepared to strike without hesitation! If there is an Open House, then call and beg to see it at soon as possible. When you show up at the open house, be there an hour before. Yes, at least an hour. You want to be first. Often its a first come first service market and the first person who fits the bill, has priority. Don’t think because you work at Google and have the perfect credit score, that you are guaranteed to land an apartment.

If the landlord responds and offers you a time to see the apartment, you take it! The biggest mistake I see people make is treating this like an Ok Cupid date and keep putting it off! Treat this with urgency, people, or it’s going to get snatched up.

TIP:  If you can get yourself at least 1-2 months of a temporary place to stay, that will give you more opportunity to look for Housing while in SF. Because housing is so few and far between, often you are making a year commitment based on the housing pool available the week you are looking. If you can, get a week to week sublet so you give yourself more opportunity for that gem!

2. Prepare to Pay More. This is a test of your mental and physical limits. Know your price point — and then prepare to pay more: You know that saying “ You should not be paying more than 30% of your income on rent?” Well, this is San Francisco, ⅓  of your income can be standard.

3. Make a list of your housing priorities. Prioritize whether you will a) live alone or in a housing share with roommates already on a lease, b)whether you prefer to rent directly to a landlord or a management company,  b) to live in the center of the city or the outskirts.  Each strategy has their benefits. With that said, you should apply to all your C, D, E, F, G choices as well.

Tip: If you have poor credit, you have a much better chance at a share as housing shares rarely check for credit checks vs management companies who require it.

Tip: Prioritize situations where you can become the master tenant. If you sublease, you majorly threaten your rights as a tenant and it’s just not worth it.

4. Property Managed Apartments vs Landlords? Property Managed Apartments are always market rate and can have on site managers that will notice if you have a dog, smoke pot, are loud. It can be a lot like having a Resident Advisor out of college. The upside is, they usually go by a first come, first serve policy so whoever has their paperwork (credit check, references, application fully filled out, with a check for first, last, and deposit, then you can score an apartment fairly easily. It’s not cheap, but if you can be first, you will score the apartment. The strategy is to show up 1 hour or 2 hours before the open house, so you are first in line. Print out the application BEFORE hand and be first to hand it in. You can even try to make up some story on how you are only available before the open house, but it’s your dream apartment so can they please let you drop off the application beforehand.

5. Location, Location, Location.  Research what neighborhoods you want to live in – or rather which neighborhoods you would never live in vs could settle for. This housing game  is one of timing.  It’s a formula where x amount of housing during the y period you are looking will be available based on getting the landlord’s attention, meeting them with all their requirements (credit check, money, move-in date) over the hundreds of competition who want the exact same property as you – and most of them have better credit than you.

6. Be local. Come CouchSurf, stay in a hostel, or sublet in SF to land the deal. Don’t try to apply for housing from afar.  If you get a response from a landlord, you want to see the apartment and close the deal as soon shit out of luck when the local who has been searching 2 months swipes in with their Housing Packet (I will refer to in a moment) and gets that lease over you.

7. Make a Perfect housing Resume – You should have credit check printed, basic application with your details ready to go, one or two landlord reference letters with signature printed, and a cover letter explaining who you are.

TIP:  What to say in an Intro E-mail:
*Keep it brief and clear
*Compliment the apartment or make catching comment to catch attention
*Keep your age ambiguous, as with rental control laws, landlords want someone generally who will stay a while, yet not live there for 20 years.
*Always list all the reasons that you are the perfect tenant: mention how you always pay rent on time, that you are quiet, don’t drink or smoke, have no pets (I believe in do and ask later) and that you can provide great references.
* I like to throw in “and I have a check ready for you with first and last”
* If you can attach a credit report and reference from a landlord, that is A+
* Offer specifics times that you are available – which is ANYTIME they are and as soon as possible.
*If there is an Open House, try to get a reason to schedule an earlier meeting so you can get in there first and spend more one on one time with your future landlord 😉
* Gauge the landlords personality to see if you should make a closing joke, so you stand out, or if you want to keep it more professional and straight edge. From my experience, humor and standing out always help as long as when you get their attention, you make sure to tell them how responsible you are! FINISH HIM!

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8. Nail the Open House. First off, be the first one there or it cuts your chances dramatically. Dress like you are going to a job interview. Your outfit should say: reliable, quiet, pays rent of time, good credit. You should bring a folder with you: credit check printed for them, 1 landlord reference, and checkbook ready to write. Make sure to spend as much time with the landlord as possible so you can be memorable (not not memorably annoying), and let them know immediately your intention to rent by breaking out that check book and handing them a check!

9 Consider Housing Shares.  If you don’t have decent credit and you don’t mind living with roommates, shares are your best best. Share situations rarely check your credit, ask for $30 application fee, or call your references – but it is a popularity contest. You have to be likable – and that is a matter of perspective. What one household finds charming, another may find creepy. Your best shot is to be your most polite and outgoing self and set up a lot of interviews.

10. Follow-Up!  In my own rental search: a small 2-bedroom in nob hill alley, no laundry, parking for market rate, had over 105 applicants in the two days of the Open House. The landlord asked all 105 for $30 to run credit reports (yes, $3,150) that Im sure they ran all 105, a-huh. My credit was not the best, and my self-employed job was not as stable in comparison to the others, but the landlord, Pearl, said she chose me over the others because, and I quote “you were so persistent.”

I made sure to make myself known, that I had my checkbook ready to go, and that this was my “dream” apartment for all they were concerned. I wrote follow up emails, I called Larry’s wife, Pearl, and made my enthusiasm and dedication to being the best tenant my life’s mission.

In Conclusion
The last, and most important bit of advice I urge you to heed, is to think long-term. Although you never know where you will be in 5 years, there is a high chance you will fall head over heels in love with San Francisco and never want to leave. Due to the volatile rental market, this apartment you move into might be the last apartment in SF you can afford to move out of. Literally, two years later after I moved to my 2-bedroom, the one-bedroom around the corner was at the same price point. In two years the market raised 27%!?

Although you may feel desperate to take the first apartment you find, that is why I encourage #3: to make a list of your priorities, explore them and apply for broad options. Prioritize an apartment where the landlords live off premises and own many other units, which lowers chances of eviction. You want a landlord who has no plans to sell and is happy with their rental units.  It is always a risk that will be in the back of your head, but if you don’t like it, you could always move to Oakland.

When you make the final plunge to SF life, just realize, you ain’t in Kansas anymore. If you want nice neighbors who borrow sugar and welcome you to the neighborhood by baking for you, you’ve come to the wrong fairy tale. Yea, those aren’t baked brownies on that street corner. You may have a tiny room in an even tinier apartment, but remember, you now have San Francisco as your backyard; the transients, creatives, and crazies are your new extended family now!  Welcome home…

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Alexandra Liss - Couchsurfer Extraordinaire

Alexandra Liss - Couchsurfer Extraordinaire

Alexandra Liss is a San Francisco native, Entrepreneur Whisperer, Sharing Economy Evangelist. Just Vagenius. Co-author of www.ItsaShareableLife.com, & Videographer for hire www.BrandbarSF.com, Director of www.OneCouchataTime.com.

2 Comments

  1. Kip Konner
    April 11, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    Wondering why landlords don’t respond to you? Follow the directions in the ad! The ad is a test of your ability to follow directions, of your seriousness, of your responsibility. Fail that first test and no apartment for you.

  2. Karlyn Lotney
    April 15, 2016 at 12:15 am

    How so?