San Francisco Apartment Hunting

As you can imagine from my multi-week radio silence, I've been a bit busy lately. Over the past couple weeks, I finally moved into my new place and am (almost) no longer living out of suitcases and boxes. To commemorate this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to deliver on my promise of a SF apartment hunting post.

It's no big secret that craigslist owns the San Fran rental market. Whether you're looking for or renting a place, you really need not look any further. My company even hooked me up with a rental agent to show me around and all but one apartment we looked at came straight from craigslist.

Having lived in NYC and Boston, two other heavily craigslist-dependent cities, I understood how the game works: landlords or rental agents put up a post and receive 50-100 responses within a couple hours. This creates a seller's market, where landlords can screen for the best credit report and highest income and fast-track those applicants to avoid the hassle of large open house crowds. Convince the gatekeeper that you're responsible, a good neighbor and, most of all, successful, and you're in.

At first blush San Fran seemed like the same game: big city, expensive apartments, huge inventory of renters, relatively standardized offerings. Only one minor difference stood out: landlords here seemed to prefer open houses to save time showing the place. On the whole, though, same game, same strategy.

...But three weekends came and went and I wasn't offered a single apartment. What was going on? I started questioning the agents and landlords- what was wrong with my application? And one by one I got the same answer: "we never even ran your application." It seems I misunderstood the rules of the game.

East coast landlords interpreted craigslist as creating a fair market, where they could select the best tenant with the least likelihood of default, but San Fran landlords hold to a more basic definition of fairness: first come, first served. Despite all the similarities in the markets, the rules of the game were, in fact different. What I didn't know at first was that landlords would run the first 3-5 apps and pick the best one; everyone else has a near-zero chance.

With only one weekend left to find a place, I changed up my game plan. No more schmoozing the landlord, no more wasting time. If I couldn't be the first one at any given apartment, I knew my chances dropped significantly; so I only went to open houses if I could be there 15-20 minutes before the posted time, to ensure my application would be first or second in the pile.

Did it work? Well, I put in six apps that weekend and was offered four apartments. Far better than my .000 batting average prior to that. Most importantly, I now have a great place that I love and didn't wind up sleeping on the street at all.

Have you found success with a similar strategy? Know of others that work well? If so, let us know!

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