What’s so special about Berkeley, anyway?
Berkeley is everything that, say, Lubbock, Texas isn’t: wildly liberal, perpetually buzzing, and jam-packed with a wide range of curious characters. The city is home to arguably the country’s most competitive and diverse educational institution, the University of California Berkeley, whose 35,000-plus students hail from pretty much every country you could think of (we suspect a few may come from other planets, as well). Quite simply, there’s a freewheeling, all-inclusive vibe in Berkeley that’s remarkable even for the East Bay’s loose-goose standards.
I’m not really the “heck, no, we won’t go” type. Will I be out of place in Berkeley?
Yep. You will stick out like a sore thumb (or like a liberal in Lubbock). Chances are, you will awake most mornings to find picketers lined up outside your apartment, protesting your ambivalent stance towards fighting “The Man.” You’ll be lucky if you last a month among the wide-eyed zealots of Berkeley.
Just kidding, of course. The city may be forever be known as the hub of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, but times change, and it’s been quite a few years since protestors took to the streets of Berkeley on a regular basis. The leftist vibe remains, but Berkeley in the 21st century is so much more than just an epicenter for the Abbie Hoffman-Che Guevera-Hunter S. Thompson types among us. The streets of Berkeley are dotted with museums, bookstores, bistros, coffee houses, live music haunts, vinyl record shops (yes, those still exist), art galleries, parks, botanical gardens, theaters, and a variety of low-budget, mid-priced, and high-end eateries featuring foods from every ethnicity imaginable (plan to pack on a few extra lbs every time you hit up Gourmet Ghetto on the north side, by the way).
Bottom line: Berkeley has something for everyone, not just radicals, and you could live there for years before discovering every last attraction the city has to offer.
I bet it costs an arm and a leg to rent there, huh?
The good news is that you can keep your limbs. The bad news is that you might have a little less luck hanging on to your bank account. Even a studio unit or modest 1-BR pad is likely to cost $1200 or more unless you come across a killer move-in special (which is rare). If you want a place with a little extra leg room (800 square feet or more), be prepared to buck up between $2100 and $3500. The cost of living index in Berkeley is a staggering 80 percentage points higher than the national average, meanwhile, so don’t expect to save much money on things like utilities, shopping, and dining, either.
What can I expect out of a Berkeley apartment?
The city has plenty of quality lodgings, but it’s important to realize that you’ll be paying as much for the atmosphere outside your walls in Berkeley as you will for your actual apartment. If you prefer spaciousness and solitude over hustle and bustle, concentrate on the Berkeley Hills neighborhoods further from the city center. As far as amenities like tenant parking, washer/dryer availability, and pet-friendliness go, they differ from place to place, so scope out a residence carefully before signing the dotted line.
Are apartments hard to come by?
It all depends. If you roll into Berkeley looking for a place to call your own during the middle of a UC semester, many apartment complexes (especially those in the inner city) will already be at full capacity. The further you go from the city center, however, the more likely you are to come across available rentals. In the more laid-back, family-friendly North Berkeley and Berkeley Hills neighborhoods, for example, apartments, townhouses, and freestanding houses are easier to come by. Our advice is this: If possible, begin your apartment search during the renting “offseason,” just prior to the end of the spring semester (mid-March to early April), when many renters are nearing the ends of their leases. Move-in specials aren’t exactly abundant during these months, but at least your selection pool will be a bit wider.
What will I need to score my crazy-cool California crash pad?
Just like apartment managers everywhere, landlords/property managers in Berkeley require some basic documentation from prospective leasers, including a list of previous residences, a certified check that covers your move-in/good faith deposit, and banking/income verification. Most apartments will run credit and background checks on you, so if you have a history of burning your landlord with bad checks and terrorizing your neighbors with loud music, it might come back to bite you in Berkeley. And if you’re a student with no job, no bank account, and no renting history (You bum! Kidding … sort of), you will need a co-signer to cover you in case you conveniently forget to pay the piper one month.
Also, you should approach your leasing application like a job interview. Expect apartment managers in Berkeley to toss you some questions that landlords in other cities won’t. What hours do you keep? What kind of music do you listen to? How often do you have company? What kind of, um, extracurricular activities are you into? Keep in mind that Berkeley is a seller’s market, and landlords generally have no trouble filling their rooms, so they can afford to be choosy. Our advice: You know that tie-dyed Grateful Dead tee-shirt you love so much (the one with the psychedelic bears transforming into magic mushrooms)? Maybe you’re better off shelving it until after you’ve signed the dotted line.
Any parts of town I should avoid?
Like any city, Berkeley has its trouble spots. Many locals advise newcomers to avoid parts of West and South Berkeley (on Oakland’s doorsteps), but if you dismiss these neighborhoods entirely based on reputation alone, the truth is that you might be missing out on some of the city’s most affordable and attractive areas. But don’t take our word for it: Spend plenty of time in a neighborhood, both during the day and after the sun’s gone down, to see with your own eyes if you’re comfortable with it.
What’s the best way to bum around town?
Unless you plan to stay in the outlying areas, do yourself and the rest of Berkeley a favor and leave your car in the garage. Parking in the downtown area is frequently a nightmare, and an unofficial pastime in the city seems to be walking in front of moving cars and daring them to hit you (so the fewer cars, the better). Instead of relying on your own set of wheels, you may want to take advantage of the city bus or the BART subway, which hauls commuters not only around Berkeley but also to San Francisco and Oakland. The inner city is also extremely biker and walker-friendly, and most streets are equipped with sidewalks and bike paths.
Anything else I need to know?
Just this: Berkeley may be open to people from just about every walk of life, but not Stanford supporters. So dial down on the Stanford Cardinal red unless you’re in the mood to get taunted by hippies, yippies, and yuppies alike!
Got it? Good! Enjoy your apartment hunting adventures and welcome to Berkeley!
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