Be ready for some all-out warfare, folks. I've heard that owners have been getting so many applicants, they've started hosting auction-style competitions during open houses to see how much people would be willing to pay! People are even offering to pay an entire year's worth of rent to claim their tenancy! Hogwash I say!
The silicon-studded city has been flooded with high-tech money and lucrative jobs, which has made it a lot harder to find a great place at a sensible price point. (Have you seen this map?) The modern gold rush in San Francisco real estate has also sent eviction rates soaring, as owners ostensibly rush to convert their apartments into condos for sale on the housing market upswing.
My wife and I landed a luminescent 1BR apartment in Potrero Hill with an amazing view of the Mission for $1595/mo in February of 2012. There were more than a dozen of other wholly eligible applicants, but Nicole and I won over the critical decision makers. Now that we've moved, the management company raised the rent to $1995/mo, a whopping $400 (or 25%) surge. I learned a ton from this successful bid last year. Here are five steps we followed to land a great pad in an awesome district at a decent price in San Francisco.
GO FOR A HUNT
1.) Stalk Craigslist like a European vulture. If it's been posted for more than a few days, you are a few days late, my friend! A few hours, and the posting may already be stale! The only time I ever got a response from anyone (I had sent emails to perhaps a half-dozen others), I was the FIRST to respond to a Craigslist listing, just fifteen minutes after it posted. Padmapper maps out current Craigslist listings on a Google map, but I've found that it doesn't update nearly as often as it should. For best results, go straight to the source.
Also, you may have to compromise on what you just kind of want for what you really want. We got a great location (close to CalTrain), light pouring through our apartment, a price within our budget, and a beautiful, life-affirming view of a quarter of the city (see above). We compromised on the safety of the neighborhood (south slope of Potrero Hill), insulation (single-pane windows), and no dishwasher or washer/dryer.
2.) Write your life story in the email. Well, not exactly, but make them excited to meet you as potential applicant. What do owners want? I perhaps would know, as I'm technically an owner of my own rental property. They want responsible, clean, financially independent, family-friendly tenants! Write about your jobs, your habits (if you don't smoke, tout it! If you don't drink, boast!). Reiterate the fact that you don't have pets (if you don't, of course), and attach a picture that shows your family (or group of friends) as a respectable, responsible party eager to pay its rent on time (I attached a picture of our engagement photo shoot, see below).
MAKE THE LOGISTICS SEAMLESS
3.) Finish the rental application before you arrive at the apartment. If the listing doesn't provide it, email and ask for it! (Twelve other applicants did this too, and handed over the finished application -- with checks -- during the open house.) Dot every "i", cross every "t", sign every line. Have print outs of your W-2s or salary verification documents, and a checkbook ready to write out and hand over the application fee, deposit, first and last month's rent, etc. Make yourself time to beeline to the bank for a cashier's check. Apartment owners want to know if it will be hassle-free to have you as a tenant. If you've got your stack together, they can trust that you'll be just as organized during your tenancy.
MAKE A PERSONAL CONNECTION
4.) The listing talked about a time for an open house, but I asked him if I could see it even sooner. I was ready to pounce on the offer, and to get a first look before everyone else could seal the deal. He actually obliged, and offered to tour the place the night before the scheduled open house. He even gave me a tour in his car of the neighborhood! We hit it off; I had actually admired the company he worked for from afar, and we had plenty to talk about.
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY REALLY WANT
5.) Notice any nuances in the listing that could get you an edge. In the listing title, it said subtly, "March 1st, or sooner." From this, I gathered that the lister wanted some flexibility with his move-out date, and I was ready to give it to him. When I asked him about it, he revealed that he was actually a tenant (not the owner, nor the management company) who was breaking his lease. Because he didn't stay for an entire year, as stipulated in his contract, he was responsible for finding a replacement (and was charged a heavy penalty). He was hoping for a tenant to move in a little earlier (which would help him recoup some of his penalty), and I was actually looking for a more gradual moving transition to San Francisco.
Through old-fashioned negotiation, we made a deal that I would pay him several hundred dollars if I could move in half of my furniture/other items up to two weeks before we fully moved in. (Since I was commuting from Palo Alto to San Francisco everyday anyway, I was able to pack up my van three times during those two weeks, and transport my things piecemeal into the SF apartment.
We were also able to move in the same day he moved out, instead of waiting for the management company to inspect and clean the place over a few days. We did have to clean the place ourselves, but the flexibility was well worth the added list of chores.) That closed the discussion, and the open house the next day was just a pony show. He recommended us as new tenants to the management company, and we were given the keys a few weeks later.
Your potential landlords/owners all have "jobs to be done," things they're hoping their tenants can take care for them. Whether it's keeping the garden alive, reducing noise complaints, or finding a tenant to move in on a particular date, find the secret button and push it. Unfortunately, many apartment managers and owners won't make this explicit in their listing, for fear people will just market themselves a certain way (e.g. "great at gardening"), only to find out later they really aren't that way at all. Instead, they will likely subtly inquire (as if their question is no big deal), but base a bulk of their decision on the answer to that very question.
Almost all are looking for tenants that would increase the overall property value (or those who'd simply pay the rent on time); that's just a given. If applicable, find that extra something and help them believe in you as the "man for the job" (to be done).
SO THERE YOU ARE
As a side note, if I had to pay $2,700 (the average price for a 1BR apartment) to live in San Francisco, I would have given up on the idea. Live near the projects (Tenderloin, Bayview, south-side Potrero Hill, pockets of the Mission) if you can; it keeps you wealthy, not to mention grounded and humble. For more tips on apartment hunting, check out Oh Happy Day's post here and Jason Evanish's post here.