Apartment Hunting in SF (1)

During the peak of dot com boom, finding an apartment in San Francisco was an Olympic style 100 meter dash, both physically and mentally. I¡¯ve heard numerous horror stories where a couple of dozen people fighting over a shabby hole, at a hefty price, too. It required not just money but also techniques to win over your prospective landlord, presentation and strategies were all required in order to succeed.

I¡¯m very glad that second wave of gold rush is over.

Being somewhat fortunate I bought a house soon after started my first job, in 1995, when it was the darkest days of the last recession. The housing market in the bay area had collapsed, people who lost their jobs had to sell their houses at a lower price than what they had bought it for a few years ago.

As a result, I am a complete novice in the art of apartment hunting.

¡°How would you pick if you find a bunch of them that are relatively similar?¡± I was puzzled, staring at the long list of rental listings on craigslist and metrorent. They all sounded good on paper.
¡°Oh, you always know!¡± Gui assured me, ¡°At least that was always the case for me. You¡¯d see some very bad ones, then some mediocre ones, then you¡¯d see THE one and you would just know, this is it.¡± She frowned and continued, ¡°I had to see so many bad ones that I already started to worry will I ever find the one, then, boom! There it is!¡±

It sounded dramatic enough. Still half doubting myself, I set out to the city. On Friday night, I printed out a stack of listings from my on-line search, planned to see four open houses on Saturday and another four on Sunday. In addition there were a few backups that I would try to call and make an appointment on the fly in case I found myself in between open houses and have time to kill. Knowing my bad sense of directions, I even planned my entire driving route on yahoo maps. They were all neatly labeled and stapled in order of their open house time.

The truth is you could never plan as fast as things change. Even before I finished breakfast on Saturday. Mom quizzed me on my knowledge of San Francisco neighborhoods. Unlike me, she has been watching evening news everyday and apparently quite a few neighborhoods has deteriorated to their pre-dot-com days. Such as the mission and south of market, even Sunset is no longer safe. I dug out the city map and immediately realized my very first target was in a fishy neighborhood.

Okay, one down, three to go.

I went straight to my second target. It was on the same street as one of our favorite restaurants– ¡°Strait¡¯s Caf¨¦¡±, one block away from Geary, four or five blocks away from the ¡°New Chinatown¡± on Clement street, where my favorite bookstore Green Apple and the lovely Blue Danube Caf¨¦ were at. Good neighborhood. Good public transportation. Despite its proximity to Geary, the street itself is very quiet. On-line, this apartment had by far the best looking interiors and it boasted 1100+ square feet of living space! I¡¯ve exchanged emails with the owner during the week and he said he would meet me at the door at 1pm. I arrived ten minutes earlier. The apartment building looks nice, too. I waited. 1pm, 1:10pm, 1:20pm. On one showed up. I called the number on the listing, his voice mail picked up, saying he is probably out showing apartment to other clients. But, I am the ¡°other¡± client! Eventually I left a msg with my cell and asked him to call.

Continued on to my third target. First I had to go to an agency on upper Market, in the heart of Castro district; picked up a key to the place after leaving $20 key deposit. I would have an hour to view the apartment. Based on my clubbing experience, I remembered this neighborhood was extremely difficult to find parking. But maybe everyone was down at city hall getting married that day, I found street parking right away. What a miracle! Too overjoyed by my good luck with parking, I didn¡¯t look at the map carefully before I set out to look at the apartment. I managed to get lost right away. The Upper market/Duboce Triangle/Twin Peaks area had always been the most confusing place for me. I had never been able to drive out this maze of one-way streets and many dead-end streets without getting lost. The curbs of all the narrow streets were full of parked cars. I couldn¡¯t find a place to stop and take a good look at the map before continuing on. I drove around in circles for about twenty minutes, finally I just parked at someone¡¯s drive way and realized mentally I¡¯ve placed myself on the wrong side of Market Street.

Finally I arrived at my first apartment viewing. On paper it was described as:

Charming Victorian! Top floor, newly decorated; sunny, quiet, some view, shared yard. Good public transportation. Shopping nearby. 1 bedroom/1bath, with one extra room! Hardwood floor!

Nice, huh? Between the two of us, we have two desktops and two laptops. I was thinking the extra room we could convert to our computer room. And who would resist ¡°Charming Victorian?!¡± 🙂 Some View, too! Wow! All for $1475 a month, what a bargain!

It was on the southern end of Noe Valley, which was a full-fledged yappie colony. While I was working as a consultant, majority of my co-workers lived here. Instead of barhopping, one weekend evening we did apartment hopping in this little neighborhood. Every apartment I had been to that night was somewhat unique. Old houses tend to have more character than the cookie cutter ones we have out in the suburbs. Some of the place had high arched ceilings, some had mexican red tiles, some had lavely bay windows and claw-foot bath tub in the bathroom, etc. etc.. They were, truely, charming.

It was not far from a stone church, I circled around once and found street parking one block away. Not a bad sign. As I was walking toward the building, I noticed the keys in my hand. There were two keys. Both were painted rainbow colored. Hmmmm, a gay landlord, maybe? Gay tenants, too? Interesting. Maybe Mi would be interested in photographing their stories!

All the excitement was shattered as I fumbled to open the front door. The door itself was squeaking. The stairway was dirty and cracking as I walked to the second floor. When I opened the front door to the unit, a strong and potent moldy smell almost gagged me. All the rooms were tiny, hardwood floor was old and darkening, there were holes on the room doors, the walls were pealing off, and it was dark. I saw no view. Most of the windows either faced other tenants windows, or to an empty sorry looking opening in the middle of the house, it was covered with concrete. So people would pay $1475 for these?! I felt my heart was slowly drowning in despair. How much I have to pay in order to live in a ¡°decent¡± place?

I stood in the hallway, ready to leave. Wait, maybe I should look at it more closely maybe there were some ¡°charm¡± I missed? Maybe, just maybe I could live here? So I tried again, walked from room to room, peering over the windows, trying my best to find some charm some courage in me to say, yes, maybe it is not so bad.

But it is. I cannot possibly live here. No way.

As I returned the key to the agent, he said, ¡°There is another one that is having an open house right now. It is just around the corner, you could walk over and take a look. It is also 1 bedroom for $1475 a month.¡± I was skeptical. I didn¡¯t need more depressant. But as I walked into the sunlight, I turned toward the place anyway. What would be the harm? I¡¯m already here.

Thank god I went. It lifted my spirit a little. First of all, it is bright! The kitchen was large and was just upgraded with marble tiles. There was a little sunroom off kitchen, completely enclosed with glass windows, bathed in sunlight. It was small, but could be lovely for an eat-in place. There were hardwood floors throughout the bedroom and living room. It was newly painted. Too new almost, and seemed to be painted in a hurry. Lots of cabinet doors were either jammed or sealed by the paint that I couldn¡¯t open. Somehow I felt a sense of faked cheerfulness in this place. The new paint seemed to try to cover something up. And the hardwood floors near each radiator were all completely black. What had this place endured? What did it look like before this new coat of paint? The marble floor in the kitchen looked detached from the rest of the house. Something was off-balance. Not quite right. A couple was there when I went in. I was alone for a while after they left. Then in came this girl carrying a small daypack. In her thick British accent, she exclaimed happily, ¡°Oh, how lovely!¡± ¡°A bit expensive, though.¡± I tried to look at this place through her eyes. I still couldn¡¯t block out the black molding patches under each radiator and the roughly painted walls. Yes it was a hundred times better than the ¡°Charming Victorian¡±, but is it really THAT ¡°lovely¡±?

(to be continued)

2 thoughts on “Apartment Hunting in SF (1)

  1. Good Luck for the apartment hunting. It is an interesting experience anyway, my apartment hunting helped me get familiar with neighbourhoods and city corners I may never see otherwise. Along the way, there were quite a few close to what I expected, until I found the one, bright, open and with high ceiling, though I hated the window unit, I sent my deposit immediately. ..

    Jean’s Reply:
    Yes, my experience is very similar to yours. I’ve put down a deposit and currently having a lease in hand to sign. 🙂

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