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On the Hunt: How To Prepare Yourself For the Perfect Rental

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At this very moment, Curbed's very own Abby Pontzer is on the hunt for an apartment in San Francisco. As any current apartment-seeking SFian knows, it's more difficult than ever to score a lease in the city right now. With that, we're pleased as punch to announce that Abby will be sharing her stories of hope, failure and useful information to help guide you along the path of San Francisco's rental scene. Have a hot tip or question for Abby? Feel free to drop her a line.

[Image via Shutterstock]

The time has come, my dears, to find a new apartment. Turns out I'm not alone. At all. Stories are all over the SF blogs about how vacancies are at their lowest rates, and landlords are taking in thousands of dollars in application fees at each showing.

I'm currently living in the Lower Haight, in a top floor one bedroom I started renting for $1,568 in January 2009. Those were different times, my friends. While that application process was competitive, it was "You're the top choice out of six," not sixty, candidates. I have often joked over the past two years that I would die in this apartment I love it so much, but a wrench has been thrown into those plans. My boyfriend and I have decided to co-habitate, and my landlord is not allowing it. He'll likely be able to charge at least 50% more once I'm out of there. So there you go. If I'm giving up my apartment, it must be love.

Here's what you'll find in columns to come: tips for organizing your apartment search, what to do (and not!) at open houses, what listings say vs. how the apartment shows. I'll also cover a few of the listings I see so you can avoid dogs or get after some great ones, though I probably won't post an apartment if I'm applying for it myself. I hope, at some point, you'll also find a success story from yours truly.

Step One: What are your dealbreakers and your price range?
You've decided on moving, but don't go shopping around just yet. Looking at apartments that don't fit your needs almost always ends up in disappointment. You need to figure out three things: where you want to live, what you can afford to spend, and what's most important to you in a new place.

To a lot of people, where you live in San Francisco explains who you are. There are stereotypes for every neighborhood and microhood, true or not. I've lived in SOMA, Pac Heights, and the Lower Haight, and there are still so many neighborhoods around the city that I love, like the Inner Sunset or Glen Park. We are looking in the Mission (but including parts of Noe Valley, The Castro, La Lengua, and Bernal Heights). Part of the reason for the Mission is personal style, part is having easy access to the highway for getting to the south bay, but we've settled on an area and now we need to be pretty narrow-minded in our search.

As far as price range goes, most landlords or property management companies will require you have at least three times the rent in gross monthly income. For example, if you make $60,000 per year, your max would be $1,666. I personally would be uncomfortable spending one third of my gross income on rent, but it's a minimum requirement for a lot of rentals, so do the math to figure out what your upper boundary is.

Next, decide what you care about most in an apartment. We started by making a list of everything we could ever ask for, and then prioritized the top 3-4 things. Our “must needs” are: laundry (at least in the building), parking, and a quiet bedroom. Our list of nice to haves is much longer and includes things like hardwood floors, a dishwasher, outdoor space, or being on the top floor. The approach here, and I'm learning this myself as I go along, is that if these are truly your deal-breakers, you do not look at anything that doesn't satisfy them. Even in a competitive rental market, you can really wear yourself out going to too many open houses that don't meet your basic needs. Here are some that I looked at, and while great rentals, didn't even meet my basic checklist. I had let lowered expectations and pretty listing pictures get the best of me and I wasted my time. Both are firmly planted in Noe Valley, which shows how well I'm doing at finding apartments in the Mission to even look at.

This one bedroom in Noe Valley is on Castro and 24th for $2,450 had great hardwood, tons of closets, but no parking and no laundry. What was I thinking wasting my time with this? It was really cute though, and I would recommend it for people who don't need parking. The bedroom had great light but was on Castro, so there goes another dealbreaker with the 24-Divisadero going by at all times.

Another great apartment that didn't fulfill my “must have” list was on 24th and Noe for $2,600. I walked into the kitchen and wanted to live there, but again, no parking, and no laundry. Without my list of dealbreakers, I might have been wooed by the streaming light coming in over the accessible rooftop into the kitchen. I would have signed a lease that didn't meet our needs.

Of course, I've seen apartments that checked every box, but didn't feel like home to me. That's a must have that you can't fake, and is harder to tell from a posting. What do you think, dear readers? What are your absolute deal breakers when it comes to looking for a new apartment?
· S.F. Apartment Vacancy About as Low as During Dot-Com Era [SF Appeal]
· In Apartment Hunt, Looking Isn’t Free [Bay Citizen/NYTimes]
· Tenant Troubles: My Landlord Won't Let My Boyfriend Move In [SF Appeal]
· Tech and the San Francisco Rental Bubble [NYTimes]
· San Francisco: Vacation Rentals On the Rise [Curbed SF]