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Does SF really have the most expensive rents in the world?

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A claim that San Francisco suffers the highest median rents in the world made international headlines

The SF skyline seen through the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Victor Maschek/Shutterstock

Finance site WalletWyse published a graphic last week ranking 540 cities by their median-rent prices. It’s a remarkable piece of work, ranging from communities like Mysore, India, on one end ($100/month on average) to cities like second-place Hamilton, Bermuda, on the other ($3,400/month).

San Francisco takes the number-one spot on the chart at an estimated $3,500/month. Note that this appears to be across all rental stock rather than any particular kind of home.

But do San Francisco renters really pay more than anyone else in the world on average to rent a home? There are a few conflicting ways to answer that question:

  • First of all, no. As we’ve cautioned in the past, when most people talk “median rent,” what they’re actually referring to is the median market rent. Whereas popular rental sites like Zumper or ApartmentList will host new rentals at an average price of $2,500-$3,500/month in the city, the U.S. Census reveals that San Franciscans citywide pay closer to $1,600/month and that cities like San Ramon pay more. WalletWyse’s $3,500/month figure is much too high to represent the city’s actual median.
  • But the affordable $1,600/month prices are usually the result of rent control, long-term leases, and other arrangements inaccessible for new renters. For everyone else, WalletWyse cites the cost-of-living site Numbeo as its source. Where does Numbeo get its numbers? “Numbeo relies on user inputs and manually collected data from authoritative sources,” according to the site methodology, adding, “Manually collected data from established sources are reentered twice per year.”
Photo by Klara Zamourilova/Shutterstock
  • If San Franciscans provide Numbeo with data on their own rents, that’s a useful resource, but it’s impossible to tell from the outside whether or not it’s a representative sample. Numbeo presently lists a one-bed apartment in SF as costing between $2,580/month for one bedroom or up to $5,658/month for three bedrooms, depending on whether or not homes are inside or outside of the “city center.” This is comparable to what online rental platforms report, but those averages can vary from each other by hundreds of dollars each month.
  • There are plenty of other sources debating the highs and lows of renting worldwide. In May, Deutsche Bank cited data from Expatisan and concluded that Hong Kong has the world’s most expensive rents, with SF in the number two spot. However, one year earlier, SF had edged out Hong Kong on those same Deutsche Bank rankings. Meanwhile, sources like UK property site Nested agree that SF really is the most expensive rental locale, again assuming we stick just to market rent prices.

Although we like to think of statistics as hard numbers that offer reliable data without compromise, the truth is that different parties may measure the same thing using different methods—while come to markedly different conclusions—but still both be technically correct.

So, there is room for argument: A few sources claim that WalletWyse has it wrong about SF’s relative rental rankings. On the other hand, the fact that several other interested parties have drawn the same (or perilously similar) conclusions is disquieting.

Even if the city manages to squeak into second place worldwide on some metrics, that’s hardly comfort to those stuck hunting an elusive attainable apartment in San Francisco—truly the most dangerous game.