Monday, August 20, 2012

Adventures in Apartment Hunting

You would think that after at least 10 moves in the past 11 years, we would be better at this. But nope, we go through the same frustrations and information overload everytime we look for a place to rent. I don't even want to think about what it's going to be like when we decide to buy a place.

The good news: After shopping around for two weeks (felt like forever), we found a place, signed the lease and paid the deposit and first month's rent last Friday! We'll be calling NoPa (North of the Panhandle) home from this weekend, so while I'm not looking forward to full day of moving this Saturday, I can't wait to get settled in to a place we can call home!
Our current two-bedroom apartment is lovely and checks off most things on our list, but sadly, it doesn't allow pets. Cats are negotiable (boo!) but no dogs. While we have been toying with the idea of dressing up our pug-to-be in a catsuit, for now, we'll have to hold off getting a pug. It saddens me knowing that somewhere out there, a pug with a sad face needs a home. Since we're talking pugs in costumes, here's one of my favorite pugs on YouTube (Yes, I google pugs on YouTube. Judge me all you want, you know you do it too!): Chubbs the Wampug. So, knowing that we may have to do this again in a year or more, I'm writing an Apartment Hunting 101 post to console my future self, and avoid making the same mistakes again!

Tip #1: Do your research before heading out
Yes, it's exciting to comb through Craigslist and start making appointments for apartment viewings, but you'll be so tired, overwhelmed and frazzled by your third or fourth apartment viewing that it'll be pointless and a waste of time. So what research is needed? Curbed SF has some awesome articles that you shoudl start with and it gets you in the right mindset and armed with the right questions when apartment viewing.
For the record, we made the mistake of jumping into the deep end, only to take a breather after seeing a handful of apartments. Honestly, while I was still stressed out about not finding an apartment closer to the move-out date of our current place, the tips and tools from Curbed definitely helped make the hunt slightly less painful. Craigslist was our go-to for apartments, but anyone who loves Craigslist knows that it's not exactly the most visually-exciting website.Definitely try Lovely, a tool which extracts info from Craigslist postings and puts in a super easy to read, visual way. But as Curbed noted, be sure to double check the posting on Craiglist too, because sometimes, the info may be off. 

Also, Curbed has lots of articles on current rental and sale prices of houses and apartments in different neighborhoods, so you'll know what to expect depending on the price you're willing to pay.

Tip #2: Set a budget
How much are you willing to pay? Do you have roommates or a partner? Rule of thumb is that you should not be forking out more than 30% of your income for rent (just had a Suze Orman moment there). You can't run from this because when you're filling out your rental applications, you'll need to prove that the combined gross monthly income for each household must be at least three times the monthly rent.

If you're living alone and looking for a studio or tiny one-bedroom in the city, you can probably get away with paying $2,000 a month, but don't expect brand new everything. If you housemates, it definitely ups your budget and options -- it's economies of scale. 

Setting a budget will also help you figure out what you can get for what you're able to pay for. The boyf and I were looking for one-bedroom apartments based on our budget, so studios were a no-go but we did extend our search to two-bedroom apartments if it was within our budget. Give some wiggle room as well -- we even looked at places that were $100-200 above our budget just to see what's out there.

Tip #3: Make a list of what's important to you
What's home to you? A quiet neighborhood? Cafes up and down the street? Public transportation? The list is endless but this helps put everything into perspective. Make a list of what's most important to you. This could be a short or long list, it's up to you, but we had about 10 things on our list. Prioritize the list as well from dealbreakers to love-to-have-but-we-can-live-without-it. 

This was our list. The first six were dealbreakers, the other four were not in order of priority, but things that we would like to have. We knew that we definitely wanted hardwood floors instead of carpets, so that didn't need to be on the list because it was a no-go zone. At one point, we were so stressed out by our apartment that we even viewed an apartment that checked off everything on our list (except pet-friendly) but it was carpeted, and it just didn't feel right.
  1. Neighborhood
  2. Natural light
  3. Laundry in-unit or on-site
  4. Space, which included size and apartment layout
  5. Noise
  6. Transportation
  7. Fittings
  8. Dishwasher
  9. Pet-friendly
  10. Parking
Other things you can add to your list: "family friendly," "bars & restaurants," "close to park," etc. Having the list also helps you focus on what's important to you as you're shortlisting your viewings and final choices. As you're apartment hunting, just check off the list.

If you want to take it to the next level, we had an excel spreadsheet with the monthly rent, location, Craigslist posting (in case we needed to double check details) and allocated points for each of the things on our list. We then took the rent and divided it by the total score, whichever had the highest index, in theory, would be our top and best choice. Then again, we both love excel and I love making lists, so if you want to skip this, check marks work great too.

Tip #4 Decide on a neighborhood, or two
One of the mistakes we made was we had too many neighborhoods in mind. When we were students, we always wanted to live in the city. I loved Inner Sunset and Hayes Valley. But obviously, after five years of being away, not only has the city changed but we had as well. So on my list was: Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, Mission, Hayes Valley. On the boyf's list: Similar to mine, but he was also interested in the Marina, Pacific Heights, Cole Valley and places around the Golden Gate Park. At one point, he was also thinking of North Bay -- while we loved the sunshine and views, it just didn't make a lot of sense as we would have to travel into the city for work everyday. So as you can see, that's A LOT of neighborhoods. Can you imagine viewing apartments in that many neighborhoods? We can, because we did. Driving from place to place was one thing, but it was utter madness. Even though we took photos of every place we viewed, everything just warped into one at the end of the day and it was complete and utter info overload.

So my tip: Decide on one neighborhood. If you're not familiar with the area, decide on two or maximum three neighborhoods, but honestly, even three is a bit of an overkill.
How do you decide on a neighborhood? Take a walk. Do what you normally do in the neighborhoods that you're considering. When we moved back to San Francisco, we rented a summer sublet in Noe Valley because we knew we wanted to be in a sunny neighborhood. We lucked out because we found an amazing one-bedroom with hardwood floors, close to transportation and cafes, and it was on the top floor, so the views of the Bay Bridge and Sutro Tower was utter plusses. As we were on 28th and Dolores, this also meant that we were super close to the Mission and Dolores Park, restaurants, cafes and shopping in Noe Valley, and a walk away from Bernal Heights.

But if you hate moving around, spend the day in the neighborhood you're considering, grab a bite, do some shopping, explore. Driving around doesn't do the neighborhood justice (but does give you an idea of how difficult it is to find a place to park), so definitely try walking or biking. Schedule time in between apartment viewings to check out the neighborhood -- you want to feel like you belong, you want to feel like you call it your neighborhood.

By our 10th viewing, we were down to three neighborhoods: Noe Valley, Mission and NoPa. Then we decided that while we love the restaurants and shops in the Mission, we weren't hipster enough to call it home.

Tip #5 Off we go!
Now we're ready. Schedule your apartment viewings by neighborhoods so you don't end up running around in circles or across the city. This is especially important if you don't drive.
Don't schedule too many apartment viewings because it's important to give yourself a breather after each apartment viewing and make notes of things you liked and things you didn't. Remember, everything will become a blur after 3-4 viewings. We went overboard and scheduled at least 7-8 viewings on a Saturday, so from 10am to 2pm, we were in and out of apartments.

Take photos! Lots of photos. It's way easier to remember if the unit had a dishwaster or what type of windows a unit has from photos than having to call an agent or landlord. Here's a tip on how to segment the photos between viewings. Start and end your photos with a photo of the front door (so you have the apartment number) and business card of the agent or landlord, so you have the contact info! Photos are a great way to remind you of what you liked and didn't like about the place.

Also, if you see a unit in a neighborhood that you like but the unit's not ideal, ask the agent or landlord if he/she has other units in the neighborhood that's closer to what you're looking for. You'll never know till you ask!

Tip #6 Your application starts at hello
San Francisco is a competitive rental market. Sure, you have to have a good credit history to rent. But it's also important that you like your landlord and vice versa. So be nice at the apartment viewings. If you think you like the place, talk to the agent or landlord who's showing it -- ask questions, be interested, tell them about yourself. Think of it as an interview process. Remember, all this happens before you even fill out an application. If you don't like a place, don't be mean, just thank the host and leave. Don't take an application unless you actually like a place. Submit your application for the one you like best. If money's not an issue (it ranges around $20-$40 for each application), then submit applications for your top 2-3 choices.

When you're ready to apply, prepare an application packet. Yes, this is starting to sound like applying for school, but it makes it so much easier! You'll need both items below, but we also provided a cover letter explaining our situation and had our past tenancy agreements handy. 
  1. Pay stubs from past 3 months
  2. References, one from current employer and one from previous landlord
So there you have it, sounds like a lot but at least it gives you some sanity to the apartment hunting madness. It's not going to be easy and you might need to make compromises along the way, but what's important is that once you've made a decision, stick with it and don't doubt yourself.

After at least 20+ viewings, it came down to two apartments, one in NoPa and the other in Noe Valley. And the problem was, the entire time we took to shortlist the two apartments, we were worried that someone would have swoop in and taken them already. We were toying with the idea of submitting applications for both apartments, but then decided on submitting it for our first choice -- the two-bedroom in NoPa, only to find out that there was an application before us. What was tougher news was that we found out that the applicant had decided to take the apartment, so our first choice was gone. By that time, we had decided that we wanted to live in NoPa so we axed our second choice and starting viewings again in NoPa, but this time, we knew we wanted two-bedrooms instead of one-bedroom because we knew that for our budget, we could get the extra space which comes in handy for friends and family. 

We found ourselves comparing viewings to the first choice apartment that we wanted, but the best part was finding out a few viewings and days later that the original applicant had decided that he/she didn't want to the place anymore! So it was ours if our application went through! The funny thing was, when we got this news, we were planning to view another apartment that was in the same area, was pet-friendly and laundry in the unit, although it was $300 more. Ahh, when it rains, it pours. Needless to say, we ended up signing the lease for our first choice apartment on Hayes and Broderick, and can't wait to move in and go garage sale hunting!

Photos of our new place in upcoming posts!


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