Noe Valley Voice April 1998

A Glimmer of Hope for Noe Valley Renters

By Ima Renta

It began with an overwhelming desire to take a bath.

You see, my current apartment has no tub -- just a shower stall. And after two years of crookedly shaven legs -- along with scarce parking, mangy carpet, leaking walls, and nonexistent closet space -- I'm ready to throw in the towel. I've decided to look for a new place, preferably one in Noe Valley, the neighborhood I have come to know and love.

But the last time I went apartment hunting, in 1996, it was a real madhouse. Everyone was tearing their hair out looking for a decent rental in the neighborhood. And they paid through the nose when they finally found one. Was the market still this crazy? How could I dream of landing another apartment? Would I have to take showers forever?

The (Sort of) Good News

To answer these questions, I went to the experts: a local property manager, a few real estate agents, and the head of the San Francisco Tenants Union. And here's the good news: Some folks say the market is finally calming down after years of eye-popping rent increases. At least it has relaxed a bit over the past year.

"Things started to change about the end of October of 1997," says Joel Panzer of RMC Property Management on Castro Street. "By February I had 14 listings available, whereas usually I have two or three. I think some sanity has started to return to the marketplace. People are no longer in panic mode."

Panzer cautions, however: "I can't tell you how long this will last, or what will happen next."

Tom Norwick, an agent with B.J. Droubi Real Estate on 24th Street, agrees that the rental market is looser now. "A lot of landlords have had to lower their prices, some because they ran [open house] ads and didn't get as many people as they expected. There's just more for rent now than there was last year."

Other realtors , including Sue Bowie of Mason-McDuffie, echoed this optimism. "I think there's been more rental stock for the past year, but people are just now starting to find out about it," Bowie said.

But according to Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union, even if there are a few more units available, renters are still feeling squeezed. "If there is any decrease in rents, it's imperceptible," says Gullicksen. "People are still coming in here telling us that it's as bad as ever."

And I can certainly tell you, the newspapers aren't exactly overflowing with ads for affordably priced Noe Valley apartments.

Here's what it comes down to: We've gone from worse to bad. The market is still tight, landlords can still charge outrageous prices and get away with it, and there aren't that many units to choose from. But finally, we may have a little breathing room.

Getting a Decent Apartment

I was hoping to move in mid- to late summer. But my experts all agree that the months of July, August, and September are the worst times to look for a place in San Francisco.

"People are trying to get settled for the fall, families are trying to get their kids in school, and companies are relocating," explains Panzer. "It's better to look in early summer."

"Looking during the [Christmas] holiday season is the best way to avoid the crowds," Norwick says. "Nobody wants to move in November or December, so there's not as much competition."

But no matter what season you're looking, you can still get a good rental through hard work, preparation, and charm. That's even if you're not rolling in dough, my consultants say. Every time you go check out an apartment, try to make yourself as attractive as possible to the landlord.

"Always leave something to trigger the memory of the person you're talking to," says Norwick. "Leave a resume, a letter-- it doesn't hurt to even give them a photograph." A landlord may like you and want to rent you the apartment, but your name and number may not be enough to jog his or her memory of your conversation. Include other information, such as hobbies, interests, and your pets' names.

Also you may want to attach a copy of your credit report. If there are any "dings" in it, explain them to the landlord. Plenty of owners will appreciate your honesty.

Don't be shy about describing your situation to the owner. If you're a single mother, a retiree, or a person with a disability, tell the landlord. She or he may sympathize and give you a break.

If you have roots in the neighborhood, use them to your advantage. Let the landlord know that you've lived in Noe Valley a long time or that you're part of a community group. Since most landlords live in or near their property, they'll be happier to rent to someone who contributes to the neighborhood.

And of course, go talk to the local real-tors. They are always a good source of advice. (See more of their apartment-hunting tips below.)

It Still Ain't Cheap

Feeling a bit giddy from the news about landlords lowering their rents, I started fantasizing about a one-bedroom Noe Valley apartment with a garage for $500 a month.

Forget it, the experts told me.

Tenants should expect to pay $1,200 to $1,600 per month for a decent one-bedroom without parking in Noe Valley -- not exactly cheap housing. And when you're handed the keys, be ready to fork over your first and last months' rent, plus a deposit ranging from $300 to another month's rent.

Yes, it takes a small fortune to rent an apartment in San Francisco. But somebody's got to do it, right?

A Final Note

What's up with the fake byline, you ask? A parting tip: Don't let your current landlord know you're planning to move until you've found a new place.

At best, the prior notice will strain your relationship. At worst, the landlord may start making plans to move someone else into your apartment. And you wouldn't want that. You've already promised the place to a friend -- the one who only takes showers.

Special thanks to Voice reporter Pat Rose, for her earlier research on this story.

Tips on Finding an Apartment in Noe Valley

Here are some hints to help you land that elusive Noe Valley apartment. (On second thought, maybe I shouldn't divulge this information.) --Ima Renta

* Sign up with two or three property management or rental-finding services. Drop by frequently so the staff can get to know you. Maybe they'll call you first, when a plum property opens up.

* Pick up the Sunday classified ads on Saturday (yes, they do come out a day early) and start calling right away.

* Look in all the newspapers, not just the dailies. Most weekly or monthly papers (including the Voice) come out on Wednesdays, so if you wait until the weekend to call, the places advertised will probably be gone.

* Search the Internet. Use search engines like Yahoo ( or browse the inventory of real estate companies that have online listings.

* Use a cell phone -- rent one if you don't have your own. When you hear of a listing you might like, get over there as soon as you can. If you like the looks of the place, call the owner or agent from outside. If you're lucky, you may get to see the place right away -- and you may get dibs on the unit.

* Arrive a half an hour early to an open house. Two friends of mine landed a great place using this strategy. They intercepted the landlord on his way to open up the apartment. By the time other people arrived, my friends had already signed the lease.

* Don't give notice on your old place until you've found a new one. You may not be able to find anything better by the time you're scheduled to move out. Yes, it will be expensive to pay rent on your current apartment after you've signed the lease on a new place, but it's better than being homeless.

* If you're in a real crunch, take some time off work and make apartment hunting your full-time job. If you looked only on the weekends, it could take forever to find a place. Besides, there's less competition during the week.

* Ask your friends and neighbors if they know of anyone who's moving out. Landlords tend to trust a good tenant's judgment -- and they may be less inclined to raise the rent sky-high if you know the previous tenant. This method takes patience, but if time is on your side, it may be the best tip of all.