4 Things to Know Before Renting an Apartment in San Francisco
Ask a Tenants’ Rights Lawyer is your chance to learn how to survive as a tenant in San Francisco. Tenant’s Rights Attorney Daniel Wayne has a lot of the information you need to keep you in your home. This month’s topic: Things to think about when choosing a new apartment. For an expanded version of this article and additional resources for tenants check out Daniel’s blog: www.wayne-law.com/blog. Have a suggestion for a topic you want Daniel to tackle? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward it on.
The monthly rent, the length of your commute, the relative decrepitude of your washer and dryer — all these factors are important when you’re choosing a new apartment. But in San Francisco there are other considerations that can seriously affect your future as a tenant.
Even if you think you’ve found your “forever” rental, consider doing some extra legwork. Taking these basic steps could reveal potential red flags, and save you heartache and money down the road.
1. Is It Covered by Rent Control?
Your new place is in San Francisco, so it must be covered by the city’s Rent Ordinance, right? Not so simple. As a general rule, rent control applies to all multi-unit residential buildings in the city built before June 13, 1979. New construction? Not rent controlled. That swank loft in SOMA? Nope. Additionally, unless you’re moving into a condo or single family home with someone who’s been there since 1996, single family homes and condos are not covered by rent control (**Note: There are some exceptions for condos, provided it was built prior to 6/13/79). Thus, when you’re trolling Craigslist for apartments be sure to check when the building was built. For the most part you can use your better judgment – i.e. if it looks old it probably is. But, if you want to be careful or don’t trust your vast knowledge of period architecture you can plug the address into this handy search tool on the San Francisco Planning Department website which includes a ton of helpful information about the property. If it’s not rent controlled you may think twice about renting it. Rents in the city have been increasing at a steady clip, and if the apartment isn’t rent controlled your landlord can increase your rent to whatever “market rate” is at the end of your lease term, and upon 60 days notice (for increases above 10%) thereafter. That’s potentially game changing for many of us.
2. Is it Covered by Eviction Protection (“Just Cause”)?
Eviction control applies to all residential buildings built prior to June 13, 1979, including single family homes and condominiums. As a rule of thumb the building has rent control, it also has eviction control (but not vice versa).
Under the SF Rent Ordinance, there are sixteen just causes for eviction. However, if the building was built after 1979, it is not subject to the rent ordinance at all. This means that your landlord doesn’t have to have a good reason to evict you – just sixty days’ written notice (assuming you are a month to month tenant and have lived in the unit for at least a year). It also means that if you ever have a dispute with your landlord the San Francisco Rent Board won’t be able to help you as they only have jurisdiction over those units covered by the Rent Ordinance.
3. Who is the Landlord?
As you may have gathered, not all landlords are created equal. Consider these questions before you agree to move into a given property:
Does the landlord have a history of being sued or filing bogus evictions? Bad landlords tend to have a history of wrongful eviction or habitability lawsuits, which you can find in the court records. San Francisco Superior Court has a handy case query site; just search by the name of the company or individual to see a list of lawsuits they’ve been involved in. The SF Rent Board also maintains a searchable database of cases that have come before the Rent Board, but you can only access it in person at their offices.
What’s their reputation? Along the same lines you might try googling the landlord, or searching for them on Yelp. Other places to look include the Eviction Mapping Project’s “Dirty Dozen” list of notoriously bad landlords.
You might also consider asking the landlord point blank whether there is much turnover in the building.
Some traits to look for in both big and small landlords are responsiveness, transparency, and diligence. Are your phone calls returned without delay? When you press for more information about lease terms or the building history, does the landlord get squirrely or defensive? Does she make an effort to address your concerns, even if it makes more work for her? Imagine dealing with this person for the next few decades: how would that make you feel?
4. Any Skeletons (or Mold) in those Closets?
Then there’s the property itself. Have any city agencies issued notices of violation? If anyone–tenant or neighbor–has filed a complaint with the city’s Department of Building Inspection, a record of it will show up online. It takes just a few minutes to search by address on the DBI website. These complaints have to do with code violations, so records of many habitability issues will show up here. If there’s a history of violations at the building, it’s a sign of a less-than-attentive landlord.
We know you can’t always be picky when it comes to choosing a place to live. But even if you decide to move into that not-quite-perfect place, information you dig up now might serve as armor down the road. There’s nothing like apartment-hunting to make you feel disempowered, as though the landlord’s holding all the cards–but you can take back some control simply by knowing what you’re getting into.