Finding an Apartment in San Francisco

Sep 19, 2014

I recently settled into a new apartment after a grueling two month search, so I thought I’d share some of my experience looking for an apartment during the worst time of the year for it. It can be a harrowing time, and to be honest, if you can put it off until a better time of year, I’d recommend it. Prices will be lower and the competition for the affordable places will be considerably less fierce. Regardless of when you’re on the hunt, though, here are some tips that might help you get through it a little easier. What I share here is from the perspective of looking for a place to myself, but much of it should still apply if you’re looking for a roommate situation.

Know What You Want

When I started looking for a new place to live, it was easy to start rationalizing every place I went into and think I could make this work. I would spend my time applying and put in the application fee, and then a couple hours later realize that I didn’t really want it. Something that helped me to make a decision on a place before wasting too much time and money was to have a set of clear criteria that I could go over. My rule of thumb was that it had to meet all but one criteria, and some were more negotiable than others.

My criteria:

In this case I ended up compromising on the wood floors. To state the obvious, the higher you go on price, the less competition you’ll have, and better odds of satisfying all of your criteria. $2000 was actually kind of on the low end for my criteria, though I eventually found a place for a little less than that.

Be on the Ground

Most landlords won’t even consider you unless they can see your face. If you’re coming in from out of town, you’re going to have a much harder time finding a place unless you find your way to the city first. Expect to pay higher rent and get a lot more rejections. Landlords are on the watch for scammers, too, and for better or worse, one clear warning sign of a scam is that the person is out of town. Your best bet is to find some temporary accommodations in the city and look from there.

Papers, please!

When you go to a showing, typically they will have applications you can fill out, but it can become really tiring and discouraging to spend fifteen minutes apiece filling out one application after another. The California Apartment Association has an application that is pretty generally accepted. You can fill it out by hand and scan/copy it, or fill it out with a tool like Adobe Acrobat or Xournal. Aside from the application, different landlords and leasing agents will expect to see different documents. Here’s a list of documents I’d recommend keeping with you in a folder:

3 filled out copies of an application
2 photocopies of your drivers license or other state ID
1 copy of your full credit report (yes, there is the occasional landlord who wants the full 30+ page report)
2 copies of your printed credit score (nothing fancy, just your name and a number from one of the three credit bureaus)
checkbook (you’re unlikely to need to put down a deposit, but some require a rental application fee of around $50)
2 copies of a reference letter from your previous landlord (you can find a form letter online to send to your landlord and ask them to sign)
2 copies of your most recent 3 pay stubs

The Hunt

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Before we get started, I want to give you a little personal advice: don’t get attached. We all like to think we’re that one delicate and unique flower in the field that is somehow more precious than all the others, but keep in mind that there are probably a lot of qualified candidates applying for each of the units you’re visiting, some of whom have better credit scores. Like sales, apartment hunting is a numbers game. The more places you apply to (that meet your criteria, of course), the better your chances of getting something you like.


Padmapper was my power tool of choice during this hunt. In the past I always just used craigslist search and RSS feeds, but Padmapper makes it so much easier to find craigslist results in the areas that I want to live in and quickly filter them out. I’d recommend signing up for an account and setting up an email alert. My workflow went something like this:

  1. open Padmapper
  2. click open a link into a new tab
  3. respond to the ad by their preferred means if I’m interested (or take a note to do so later)
  4. close the tab
  5. hide the result in Padmapper
  6. repeat

And come back in another hour or two to start the process again…

Side note: I’d occasionally get gateway errors with Padmapper, so if you run into that you can clear your cookies and log back in. In Chrome you can click on the icon to the left of the url and click on Show cookies and site data, and remove them from there.


It’s important to respond to ads promptly, because often times the poster ends up inundated with responses and won’t be as likely to reply after the first few hours or so. You should still respond if you’re interested regardless, but your odds are better the earlier you do.

Some ads will want you to email, others call, and still others just want you to show up at the open house. If they have something marked as a preferred contact means under the reply menu, make sure to use that.

You can make responding less painful having a simple canned email that you can modify for each listing. Gmail has a Labs feature called Canned Responses that you can enable. In your email you should have:

Here’s the message that I used:

RE: Elegant Studio - With full amenities

Hi there,

I saw your ad on Craigslist for a studio at Harrison at Main and the apartment sounds like a good fit for me. I’d love to come check it out if it’s still available. When works best for you?

About me, if you’re interested: I’m 33 years old and I work for a company that helps schools to minimize administrative costs, in particular by reducing paperwork. Sounds kind of boring, but it’s having a huge impact. I bike a ton, climb some, and try to get outside and wander when I get a chance. I’m pretty quiet and clean, don’t smoke or use drugs, and don’t have any pets.

Anyway, so please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know about me. If it’s more convenient, you can call me at ^^^-^^^-^^^^.

Hope to hear from you,

- Robert

This will differ pretty dramatically if you’re looking for a roommate situation, since then it is much more important to express your personality and respond to the specifics of their posting. You can still have a canned email, but you’ll need to customize it a bit more.

Showing Up

Most people will suggest that you show up early for a listing. This is, in my experience, only true-ish. It depends on a lot of factors, and I would still recommend it for the most part, but it can depend on the situation. Some places go first-come, first-serve, many are looking for a pile of decent applications to choose from, and some are actually looking for a personality fit. For the most part I’ve found that showing up 15 minutes or so before the viewing can be helpful, since the person showing it is often there early, too, and you can sneak in before anybody else shows up. Other times you’re one of a mass of people who got the same idea, so your mileage may vary.

Be aware that landlords aren’t your friends. Schmoozing can be productive, but their top priorities are going to be looking for someone who is clean, quiet, and pays their bills on time. Those are the traits that you should focus on exhibiting, with likeability in a close fourth. Often times the person showing the apartment isn’t going to be the decision maker anyway, and your application will have to speak for itself.

Anatomy of a Scam

Whenever there are goods and services being exchanged for money, there will be people trying to scam both sides, and here is no exception. On the property side, scammers will often pose as potential renters who for one reason or another can’t come to see the property. Typically, they are after the bank account info of the landlord with the overt intention of transferring a deposit into it, and the subvert intention of draining it.

From the other side of things, scammers will try to get you to pay them without having any goods to deliver. They will list an apartment that is not on the market and give you excuses why you can’t see it. Either the tenant is out of town, or they already have a ton of applications and want you to get your chance, or it’s under renovation. They might tell you to drive by it and check it out from the outside. They’ll ask you to pay up front and emphasize that time is of the essence, and possibly try to tell you they think you’re the right person for the place, despite knowing nothing about you. A corollary to the bit above about landlords not being your friend is that if they sound like you’re friend, they’re almost certainly a scammer. Some even go so far as to offer you deals if you pay more up front, such as 10% discount for 6-months rent up front and 15% for a year.

Bottom line is, if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Scammers will do what they can to try to look legitimate. They will copy images and descriptions from other postings and websites. They might impersonate a real person, using [email protected] when there is a real [email protected]. They might even be so bold as to copy a listing with an open house that is still available. You go to the open house, like it, and then pay the scammer instead of the real owner. When in doubt, make sure you see the face of the person you’re in touch with.

Additional Thoughts

There’s still a lot I could add to this, but I think I’ve shared the most important parts. A couple of final bits of advice, though.

First off, iterate. I spent a little time every day looking over my application and the process I was using, and it was surprising to find there was always something that could use a bit more tuning, whether it be on my application or my presentation. I even went so far as to get my shaggy hair trimmed up a bit to look more presentable.

A second thought is to ask for feedback. People showing apartments are going to be pretty busy and overwhelmed, but there might be a window from time to time where you can ask them what they’re looking for and if there are any red flags on your application.

If you’d like a bit more reading, here’s another article I found useful when I started my search. Best of luck!