"It is a good thing the early settlers landed on the East Coast; if they’d landed in San Francisco first, the rest of the country would still be uninhabited." (Herbert Mye) Read Guide >
More than 800,000 people are condensed into the city’s 47 square miles. The climate is cool and often foggy but rarely bone-chillingly cold, and it’s remarkably consistent (July’s average high: 68 degrees, January’s: 58). With thriving financial, technology, and artistic sectors, there’s a high demand for living space, and renters can expect to pay quite the tidy sum. Yeah, there’s no denying it, living in San Francisco will be expensive, but if you don’t mind paying top dollar for breathtaking views, historic neighborhoods, and the thrill of living in a famously liberal and cutting edge city, your dreams are about to come true. Now, let’s find you an apartment!
Not only is it very expensive to rent here, it’s also very tough to find a place. The vacancy rate in San Francisco is a miniscule 2%, with a whopping 65% of the city being renter-occupied as opposed to homeowners. Take some of the following tips to heart and you’ll have a much better shot at finding a spot for your extensive record collection.
How much will it cost? Brace yourself. No, seriously—brace yourself. Kiplingers rates San Francisco as having the 6th highest Cost of Living Index in the U.S., and that cost is right in your face when it comes to renting an apartment. Prices vary greatly depending on what neighborhood you’re looking at, but it’s not uncommon to see 1 bedroom units for $2000—yes, that’s monthly. Time to check the couch for loose change! Lucky for you, the city does have rent control laws in place for apartments built before 1979 (most were), so you won’t have to worry about dramatic annual spikes if you do end up in one of those buildings. If your place is newer, be sure to ask about their history of rent increases, as 20% rent hikes after the first year have been known to ruin many a freelancer's mood.
When to rent: Winter is the quietest season, with student activity making things really busy in the spring and summer. But be prepared; finding an apartment in San Francisco will be a challenge—a challenge that could take weeks, months or hours. Hours? Yes, hours. You should be prepared to plunk down your money as soon as you start physically looking at places, because odds are if you like it, someone else will too, and they’ll snatch it up while you’re home “sleeping on it.” Don’t sleep on it.
What you need: Be prepared to raise your game. With the competition for places being über stiff, you’d be wise to treat your apartment search like a job search (and a job search in today's economy, at that). When you get an appointment with a landlord, be on time. Be friendly. Be professional. Have your documents ready. Remember that 3-ring binder you had in middle school? Yeah, get that and put inside of it your credit report, rental application, letter of employment (or your 2 most recent pay stubs), references, and if you’re bringing a pet, you might need a “pet resume”—something to show the management that your precious parakeet has had all her shots and doesn’t have a record of biting people’s earlobes off. Of course, have your checkbook ready too because you’ll need to be ready to act quickly. A security deposit paid on the spot speaks volumes.
There’s no shortage of quality, quaint and queer (this is San Francisco) neighborhoods here, but there are some that you might want to steer clear of as well. The more dollar signs you see, the more expensive it will be, but keep in mind it’s all relative; one $ in San Francisco can be like $$$ in most other cities. We’ll do our best to break some of the biggest nabes down for you here, but for in depth neighborhood overviews click here.
Bernal Heights: Next to but more family-oriented than the Mission (see below), Bernal Heights has parks and restaurants, but also some crime. $$$
Castro: Considered to be America’s first gay neighborhood, The Castro is a mecca for the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population. Remember Milk with Sean Penn? This is the ‘hood where Harvey Milk made history. It’s close to the Haight, close to the Mission, and there’s loads of great shopping and eating. $$$$
Chinatown: A big draw for tourists. Only China has more Chinese than this famous downtown community, and it’s jam-packed with shops, restaurants, vendors and history. $$$
Cole Valley: Just a couple of blocks south of Haight-Ashbury, Cole Valley is a popular place for young professionals & young families to reside among some very nice living options. Cole Valley is one of the smaller hoods in SF so only a few blocks worth of rentals will place you in this quiet and well-to-do area. $$$$
Cow Hollow: Affluent area near The Presidio & the Marina. It’s pretty much just the Marina. $$$$
Civic Center-Tenderloin: The Tenderloin brings with it a reputation for crime and overall griminess. Market and 6th is the worst intersection in all of San Francisco, avoid at all cost. Recently the neighborhood has received nicknames like the “Tendernob” and “Lower Nob Hill” – it is neither of these things, it is still the Tenderloin. Steer clear. $$
Financial District: The central business district of San Francisco and where the city gets its beautiful skyline from. You’ll pay through the nose to live here. $$$$$
Haight-Asbury: Once the epicenter of the 60’s peace, love and bohemian movement, this area has gentrified over the years with increased commercial development. Despite this, it’s still more eclectic than a nacho-eating turtle. It’s flat here, so great for walking and biking and you’re close Golden Gate Park & the Panhandle for a handful of sunny SF days. Upper Haight is a bit cooler temperature-wise (and more shopping/touristy heavy) than Lower Haight, which is just down the street past Buena Vista Park and Divisadero. Both are hip, full of street kids, and full of bars. $$$$
Hayes Valley: Somewhat of an unsung gem, this area boasts great restaurants and culture. It feels clean here, and would be one of the better places to move with a young family. Hayes Valley is fairly centrally located among the other hoods mentioned, so it would make for a nice walk to the Mission or Haight. $$$
Hunters Point/Bayview: Located in the southeastern part of the city, this is where you’ll find the 49ers playing at Candlestick Park, but also where you’ll find gang activity and a high crime rate. Avoid. $
Marina District: Known as a great pick-up spot, Marina is a younger, pricier neighborhood with a great view of the bay. If you would avoid (at all costs) calling yourself a yuppie, don’t choose the Marina. If you might or you do, move full force ahead; this is your choice hood. Beautiful people, great food. $$$$$
Mission District: A large Hispanic community calls The Mission home, though it has become increasingly gentrified in recent years. Here you’ll find murals, great Mexican food, and some rad thrift, antique and used bookstores. If you can, look for a spot near Dolores Park as this is one of the choicest hangouts in the city and boasts one of the best views around. $$$
Nob Hill-Russian Hill: These hilly, cable car-loving, upscale neighborhoods offer spectacular apartments and views at (what can be) astronomical prices. Some blocks lack the Victorian charm of many parts of the city, so if you're adamant about crown molding and vaulted ceilings you might want to take a gander at Google Street View before touring for yourself. Nob & Russian Hill offer big blocks of residential living, so if you’re not looking to be near “loud” all the time, it’s a great spot to consider. $$$$$
Noe Valley: Another primarily upscale residential area that’s home to many urbanites. $$$$
North Beach: One of the classic San Francisco neighborhoods, you’ll find lots of restaurants (especially Italian ones), boutiques and tourists here. There is a seedy section as well. Many young professionals settle in here, and Washington Square Park is always packed on Saturdays, Sundays, and, well, most days. If you can find a spot, it’s a great choice. $$$$
Pacific Heights: Affluent families fill up most of the Victorian homes here, while Lower Pacific Heights can be a great (and still relatively fancy) find with convenient access to the park, Fillmore Street shopping & dining, and Japantown. $$$$$
Richmond District: A very diverse residential area with a strong Asian influence. It’s foggy here, but it’s cheaper than elsewhere. $$$
Sunset District: Great for families, and home to lots of kids, parks, and an increasing amount of surfers. Outer Sunset also has plenty of rental deals. Oh, and fog. The Sunset district is on the westernmost edge of San Francisco and getting into the heart of the city using public transportation alone will be a doozy, but it is doable if time isn’t of the essence. Unlike elsewhere in SF, if you’re moving here (or the Richmond), you’ll probably want a car. $$$
SoMA (South of Market): This is the perfect place to live if you work downtown. Filled with museums, hotels, and plenty of great restaurants, here you’ll find many loft style apartments, an eclectic energy (it’s start-up central), and baseball’s Giants. If you’re after the SF charm associated with Victorian homes perched on hills, rethink your choice. SoMA is a bit grittier, home to many industrial and warehouse buildings & newer highrise apartment complexes. $$$$
Western Addition: Home to the musically rich Fillmore neighborhood, this area also contains Japantown and has no shortage of Victorian homes. It’s primarily residential, but there’s corner stores galore. Check the crime maps, some pockets are better left unexplored. $$$$
It’s not “San Fran”, and don’t you dare call it “Frisco”
The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Muni
The cost of living in San Francisco is undeniably exorbitant, but if you can afford it, you’ll be treated to one of the world’s greatest cities, full of culture, history, open minds, and spectacular food. Congratulations on your move and best of luck finding that perfect pad!