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What You Need To Know About Renting In San Francisco: The Basics

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to our inbox.

Here are some basics, set forth on the premise that you've just landed at SFO and have only a limited time to couch-surf and find a place to live:

This being San Francisco, a town with firmly-entrenched renter's rights, there's a great deal of highly-detailed material available online about your rights as a tenant. It tends to be adversarial- how to fight your landlord- because the history of landlords and tenants here has been ugly, fraught and underlined by opposing agendas. Landlords look to maximize their revenues regardless of their expenses, and tenants usually seek long-term occupancy and low rents regardless of market pressures. Check out the San Francisco Tenant's Rights Union, a non-profit and militant tenant's rights organization, and its municipal manifestation, the San Francisco Rent Board, whose website tries to clarify decades of statutes and regulations, and for the most part, succeeds with admirable clarity. The Rent Board approves rent increases for individual units, which can be invaluable in finding out how much your landlord can legally charge you or raise the rent- after you've signed the lease- and it's a bit of research well worth doing.

Rent Control:

If the building you're about to rent an apartment in was built before 1979, it's rent-controlled and subject to stringent regulation, especially as to rent increases. But this applies only to rental buildings- if you decide to rent an apartment where the actual ownership is in the form of a house, condominium, co-op or TIC, rents can be increased when the lease is up for renewal by any percentage the landlord chooses, and of course, this applies to rental buildings built after 1979.

Application Fees:

You will probably be required to fork over a non-refundable fee with your application to rent to cover the administrative costs in background and credit checks. There is no guarantee they actually do the checks- although you can check your credit rating to follow up- and some landlords actually make a few bucks. Consider it a cost of doing business. More seriously, be aware that multiple credit check are sure to bring your credit rating down, so only apply for apartments you actually want.

Agency, Management Company, or Craigslist? Some renters- especially busy corporate types- prefer to use an agency to wind down out their choices and schedule appointments. Landlords like these because often the tenant will have been screened in advance. Some agencies are also property management companies, and so marketing and leasing are part of the service they offer the landlord. In most instances, the agency fees are paid by the landlord. The benefit to tenants, aside from just one credit/background check, is that the agency can handle potential negotiations over rent for both sides.

Some old-school buildings (or a group of properties owned, for example, by one family) are self-managed. The best example of this is the Brocklebank Apartments, the French Renaissance-style home of Madeleine and her green Jaguar in Hitchcock's San Francisco classic, Vertigo. The spacious apartments are covered by rent control and there's a multi-year waiting list; most tenants move out feet-first.


Landlords will require a deposit at the lease-signing. This can be any amount they decide, ie. from a few hundred dollars to two months rent, but the amounts must be held in escrow and they must pay you interest annually. There is also no such thing as a non-refundable deposit in any way, shape, or form, but obviously many landlords will find reasons to not refund part or all of the deposit- usually based on cleaning or wear-and-tear. While there is some recourse with the rent board, these matters usually wind up in small claims court.

There's no getting around the fact that looking for and successfully renting an apartment in San Francisco can be tough. Except for a brief moment two years ago, San Francisco has, for almost two decades, been a market that favors landlords. The lack of control and the seeming randomness of it all can be daunting; you're starting a new relationship with a stranger who holds all the cards. Try not to be a dick.

Up next, the crazy world of finding a rental via Craigslist.