Moving to the Bay Area Part I: Revenge of the Landlords / by Goondaba

A few months ago I moved for a new programming job in San Francisco. I'd never been to the Bay Area before, but I'd been thinking about making the move for a while. So, when the opportunity came, I jumped on it. The start date was just a few weeks away so I booked my plane ticket to make sure I'd be there for my first day... but then of course, I still had to figure out how to move my stuff out West.

The plan was to get out there, start the new job, get a sense of the area, find a place, then finally move my stuff. So first things first, I flew out the weekend before my first day...

Crashing a couch

I was fortunate that I knew someone who knew someone already in the area. In my case my dad knew someone in Oakland who was gracious enough to let me crash on their couch for a week and a half. I had never met the person I would be staying with, but it was very comforting to arrive to a perhaps not familiar, but friendly face.

My host's couch acting as my home base, I set forth to my first day of my new job. I spent the evenings during the week on the couch building up a list of apartments to go look at on the weekend. I mostly used sites/apps like Craigslist, Padmapper, and Trulia.

Whether on a friend's couch or in a hotel room, having a home base in the area while apartment hunting is crucial. Being in the area to act quickly and snatch an apartment before it's taken is so vital, I wouldn't recommend trying to find a place before actually getting here.

Preparing the Apartment Resumé

In preparing to move out to the Bay Area, I read a few blog posts:

The major points I took from these were: neighborhoods are important, rent is high, it helps to have a resumé, landlords can afford to be picky, and it could be a while before you find a place.

Most of those are about setting expectations before you start your search, but there's one important actionable item in there: having a resumé. I'd never had to prepare anything to get an apartment before. My experience had always been: show up, fill out the application, pay a deposit, and wait a day or two. That's it.

But not here. Even though I'd already been accepted for a job in San Francisco, apparently I had to pass a second interview in order to have a place to crash at night. So, I whipped up an apartment resumé that consisted of the following: my total rental history(where & when), a credit check, and a reference from my current landlord. It didn't seem like much, but I figured it couldn't hurt.

Finding a Place

DAY 1:  Saturday

After a week of couch surfing and getting used to the new job, I was ready to do some apartment hunting. I got to San Francisco Saturday morning, grabbed some breakfast, then set off on foot to check out three apartments in three neighborhoods...


In reading about the different neighborhoods, all the articles and posts I'd seen had made a point to emphasize: unless you'd like to begin a career as a poo-flinging crackhead, stay away from Tenderloin. Point taken, but I wanted to see this for myself. So when the first place I had to look at was on the periphery of Tenderloin (cutely called 'Tendernob', as it's on the border of Nob Hill), I walked there through what was the very edge of what is considered the Tenderloin. And it was indeed replete with the poo of crackheads, and the crackheads from whence they came.

When I found the place, I waited outside while a little group of around 5 people gathered. At the precise minute the open house was to start, a man opened the door to the building, and let people in for the viewing.

This was the first apartment I was looking at in San Francisco, so I wasn't sure what to expect, other than small and pricey. But I was still surprised by just how small and pricey it was. You walked into what was the kitchen/living room, which had a spiral staircase up to a small loft area where you couldn't stand up. That was it. It was TINY, and going for $1350. 


Nob Hill / Chinatown

The second place I looked at wasn't too far away. Plus, it was my first chance to walk up and down an insanely steep hill in San Francisco. I had some time to kill before the open house, so I found a nice little cafe to grab some lunch. Then I headed off to the open house: a yet tinier space with a kitchen the size of a broom closet. The icing on top was the lady showing the place cursing under her breath at the other tenants for drying their underwear on lines out their windows.


Pacific Heights

The next place was a ways West, so I figured I'd grab a bus out there. But the open house wasn't for a few hours, and I saw that it would only take an hour or so to walk there. So I decided to take a stroll.

I'd read that the appearance of neighborhoods changed drastically in the city, and walking West for an hour let me see the changing character of the city for myself. I started in close-quartered Chinatown housing, then passed city apartments, then finely kept row houses, then to older Victorian houses.

I arrived to the place and waited outside for the open house to start. This neighborhood was MUCH nicer than the area I had just been in. Though, at $1800 it was near my limit for how much I was willing to pay for a one bedroom, but the listing made it seem like a nice place.

As I waited, a few more people showed up; mostly couples. They arrived in cars with California plates. "Surely, these locals are more experienced in the San Francisco apartment hunt than I", I thought. Then as the time for the open house grew nearer, more and more couples materialized. Hmm, I hadn't counted on competing with so many couples. I figured their applications would probably look better, with a higher combined monthly income.

The time for the open house finally arrived, and a lady appeared out of the door at the top of the steps, walked down and around to the door to the apartment and let us hopefuls in. 

The place was a ground level apartment in a Victorian style house. Once inside you could see a nice carpeted space, with a nice kitchen with modern appliances including laundry machines, and even a nice garden area out the back door; clearly a few steps above the places I had just looked at.

As I glanced over the place, the lady put a stack of applications on the kitchen counter which the pack of viewers descended upon. The others were professional; they grabbed an application and whipped out a prepared sheet, promptly copying over all of their information.

I made my way to the applications and grabbed one, pulled out my pen and began to fill it out. The top of the application was normal enough, but it was the bottom portion that caught me by surprise. I'd read that applications for apartments here would ask for everything but your blood type, but I couldn't quite believe what they WERE asking for. Besides asking for the details of any loans you might have, it was asking for your bank accounts. Not the name of your bank, but the actual account numbers. And then under that it just had a line called "Credit", and next to it a field for "Account". What? They can't possibly be asking for my credit account number, can they? Is that even legal? Even while in the midst of couples hurriedly filling out applications, I pulled out my phone to search online about whether it was legal to ask for this. I didn't find anything right away, and others who had arrived after me had already returned their filled out applications, seemingly having filled out everything.

Whatever. There's no way I was filling out all this crap. I made sure the sensible stuff had been filled out, then returned the application. But before handing it to the lady, I used a nearby stapler to attach a copy of the apartment resumé I'd prepared. I handed the stapled papers to the lady, she asked for my name, I gave my moniker and said thank you, and let myself out. 

Getting out to the open air and away from the mass of people writing down their blood types, I felt overwhelmed. I was sure that not only did I have no chance of getting this apartment, but that it could take quite a while to find a decent place to live in this city...