Searching for apartments

Monica's_apt_2My main dream in life is the dream of all urban twentysomethings. It’s to live with my best friends in a too-large apartment in a hip neighborhood and have silly adventures.

However, that is a difficult dream to achieve, especially in the Bay Area. Last time I lived here, I paid $650 (+$110 for parking) for a tiny bedroom (maybe 10 by 8 feet) in downtown Oakland that I shared with a college friend and his girlfriend. Nowadays, that room would cost $1000. And if it was posted on Craigslist, it would probably attract thirty responses.

Searching for an apartment or a room in the Bay Area is now a topic that I know a lot about and I am here to share that knowledge. Anyway, suffice it to say that the first apartment I found (in North Oakland, on San Pablo) was an awful living situation. The price was right ($700), but it was basically a rooming house–the landlord rented out all the rooms separately–so nobody knew each other or talked to each other and I felt like I was trapped in my room all the time. And even the room was depressing. It was very narrow, and the windows started at chest height, so when I was sitting down, I couldn’t see outside. Miserable place. Truly miserable. And I’d signed a lease! So I was trapped there until May!

I have to tell you, those were dark days. After awhile, I started looking for ways to escape my room, even if it was temporarily, so I did some apartment-sitting in the Castro for six weeks. During that time, a friend from college also stayed with me for a bit. She too was living in a cheap but not-quite-satisfactory living situation, and we realized that it’d be way better if the two of us lived together.

I still can’t believe how much I hesitated over this, since the results were so amazing, but I waffled for awhile on whether to try to get out of my lease. Eventually, though I negotiated my way out of it with my landlord (and yes, I did lose money, although it was definitely worth it), and went to stay with my aunt in Mountain View for a month while my friend and I looked for an apartment.

People ask why I chose to live in the East Bay, but when we were looking for places, there was never really any question. If you want to pay less than $1200 for a room, the East Bay is where it’s at.

We were, ideally, looking to pay about $1000 a month or less, and we wanted to live near a BART station, so we started off by looking for $1800-$2000 two-bedroom apartments near the MacArthur and Ashby BARTs in Oakland/Berkeley. And those were, frankly, impossible to find. We’d go to these open houses and  there’d be forty other people there, and you just know that one of them makes $150,000 a year and is walking in with a huge deposit and maybe offering to pay more than asking.

I mean, we did all the things that you do. I assembled a little folder with already-filled rental applications and bank statements and pay stubs. And we walked in there with checkbooks ready. But the leasing agents were having none of it. They’d just take our folder (or sometimes refuse to even do that) and then brush us off. The only apartments that we could get were cracker-jack apartments in West Oakland, near MacArthur BART, with tiny windows and laminate floors and whitewashed walls. Not terrible places to live, but not exactly the sort of place you’re thinking of when you’re paying $1000 a month.

So eventually, almost against our will, we found ourselves looking at three and four bedroom apartments. In these cases, the understanding was that we’d rent it and then find a roommate afterwards. And, almost immediately, the search became much easier. Although there are fewer three- and four-bedroom apartments available, there appears to be much less demand for them. I assume that’s because lots of two-bedrooms are rented out by couples, whereas there are fewer groups of friends who are organized enough to hunt for an apartment. Also, we found that these apartments were more likely to be rented out directly by landlords (rather than leasing agents) and that it was easier to persuade landlords that we were good and deserving people.

Anyway, in the end, it all worked out. We walked into our current apartment in North Berkeley and immediately loved it. It was an appointment, not an open house, so there was no competition; I wrote a check on the spot, and we secured it easily. The place is at the upper end of our price range, but still doable. And, as I mentioned before, I think it might actually be the best apartment in the Bay Area. I’m paying about 50% more than I was for the old place, but I’m roughly 400% happier. However, I do feel for all the people in the world who don’t have the resources to make that kind of tradeoff =/

All in all, it took us about 6-8 weeks of active searching, but it was still about five months of nomadism before I really found something.