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A street in San Francisco. There are residential buildings and stores. There are vehicles in the street. Trees line the sidewalk. Photo by Patricia Chang

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The San Francisco renters’ guide

Everything you need to know about renting in SF

“How much do you pay?”

It’s a common question overheard at dinner parties, on dates, and at work. Rent. Your monthly rent. A frank subject matter that, while a touch gauche in other cities, makes for divine casual conversation in San Francisco. Rightfully so. The majority of denizens’ paychecks go to paying the monthly lump of dough that rises higher and higher each year.

But have no fear—or, have a reduced amount of fear. Below you will find everything you need to know about the rental process in San Francisco, starting with an honest step-by-step guide on how to find an apartment. Good luck.

How to find an apartment

1. Set a budget. Expect to pay more than anywhere else in the country—even New York City. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set reasonable expectations for what you are willing to shell out each month. Rent Cafe reports that a single-bedroom apartment in the city rents for a median price of $3,733/month. But it’s $3,490/month, according to Zumper. Whatever the price, you’ll most likely have to put down a security deposit, first (and sometimes last) month’s rent, plus a nonrefundable application fee. It’s a lot of money to fork over, but that’s the cold hard truth.

2. Choose your neighborhood. If you can afford to be picky, select a neighborhood close to your job, a BART/underground Muni line, or your preferred venue(s) of entertainment (e.g., Dolores Park, Chestnut Street). You could also choose an area where you feel a kinship with its cultural, like the Castro or the Mission. If you’re not sure which neighborhood is what, let this guide help you make your decision.

3. But set realistic expectations. Not everyone will get to live their ideal neighborhood, like NoPa or Hayes Valley, two pricey neighborhoods popular with well-to-do millennials swaddled in Patagonia vests. The rental scene in San Francisco is competitive, and the rental vacancy rate is pretty grim at 3.18 percent. according to the most recent Census data. Keep that in mind so your hopes aren’t shattered. With a frustrating supply of little housing stock, bidding wars aren’t uncommon. Some people even offer six months rent upfront. Not everyone, mind you. But it happens. So don’t limit yourself to one neighborhoods.

4. Search for an apartment. Get off your phone and close the laptop—and take to the sidewalks. Walking neighborhoods will help you spot for-rent signs that aren’t listed online. (Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, and the Tendernob are good places to start.) The internet is your second-best resource. In addition to searching Craigslist for a San Francisco apartment, be sure to check out reliable alternative sources such as, Zumper, Apartment List, Padmapper, Hotpads, Roomiematch, Roomster, and Facebook’s Marketplace. There are even Facebook groups, like Juanita’s List, dedicated to helping house minority and marginalized groups.

5. Brokers. You don’t need one. San Francisco renters have traditionally been more do-it-yourself. Unlike New York City, we don’t use brokers. But well-moneyed newbies might use third-party agencies for convenience’s sake.

6. Credit checks. You’ll need a solid credit score. Alas. Almost every landlord will ask to conduct a credit check before considering you as a potential leaseholder. Be aware that multiple credit checks can bring your credit rating down, so only apply for apartments you actually want.

8. Pets. Not all buildings allow pets. Some allow only cats. Some only dogs. Keep this in mind before applying. Abandoning your pet to a shelter for a lease is never okay.

9. Apply now. Sometimes timing is everything. And getting in early could land you that sweet two-bedroom, top-floor Victorian. Have key pieces of personal information ready, like phone numbers for your employer and former landlords.

10. Below-market-rate homes. The homes, know as “BMRs,” come in two forms: rentals, for very low-income people, and for-purchase condos, for people who make a little bit more money—but not too much. To learn more, check out Curbed’s guide to below-market-rate housing.

How does rent control work?

A rent-controlled unit in San Francisco can be viewed as the golden ticket or a pair of golden handcuffs. Rent-controlled homes—which cover multi-unit buildings in SF built before June 1979—have limits on how much rent can be raised every year. Effective March 1, 2019 through February 29, 2020, rents can increase 2.6 percent for units under rent control. This means that tenants pay much less than they might have otherwise over the longterm.

For apartments not subject to rent control, landlords can raise rents to whatever level they wish.

Rent control also acts as a shield from at-will eviction. Tenants can only be evicted for one of 16 “just causes” unless the tenant shares the rental unit with their landlord. According to the San Francisco’s Tenants Union, “Most of these evictions deal with allegations the tenant can dispute (e.g., tenant is violating the lease) but some are ‘no-fault’ like owner move-in or an Ellis Act eviction.”

You’ve signed your lease. Now what?

1. Deposit. Landlords require a deposit at the lease-signing. This can be any amount they decide, ranging 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. However, some landlords will find reasons to not refund part or all of the deposit—usually based on cleaning or wear-and-tear.

2. Know your rights. Check out the San Francisco Tenants Union, a non-profit tenant’s rights organization, and its municipal manifestation, the San Francisco Rent Board.

3. Roommates. Sometimes you will need to find a roommate or a new roommate after you sign your lease. The San Francisco Tenants Union breaks down what you need to know. Most important, your landlord cannot raise the rent when you get a roommate, but the landlord could petition to raise the rent for added operating expenses.

4. If there’s a problem with your apartment. Talk to your landlord verbally, then send a dated later detailing the issue. Civil Code Sections 1941-1942, the San Francisco Housing Code, and the San Francisco Health Code define your landlord’s obligations to keep your home in habitable condition if you live in a legal unit. If you need to file a complaint, you can contact the the Rental Protection Agency, a national rental service that helps tenants with landlord/manager issues.

5. Eviction. You can get evicted for a myriad of infractions—failure to pay rent, illegal use of unit, nuisance or substantial damage to a unit, owner move-in. Remember: You live in someone else’s property and should respect it as such. Fore more details, read the SFTU’s section on evictions.

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