How I Negotiated My Rent in San Francisco

When I moved to San Francisco from New York in 2006, I was lucky to have built up a small amount of savings. I’d lived at home for a year after graduating from college, and my poorly paying job in publishing had a surprisingly generous retirement policy. I’d moved simply to have a change in my life, and with several close friends already living in San Francisco, it felt like an obvious choice. Still, I didn’t have a job or an apartment when I arrived. My friend Amanda’s parents generously offered to let me stay at their house for as long as I needed to. At my insistence, I paid them $200 every month in rent. I got a temp job doing admin work at an architecture firm in downtown San Francisco so that I could have some income while searching for a permanent job and an apartment.

Like a lot of temp work, my days weren’t exactly bustling. I spent a lot of time on a freelance job I’d taken on before leaving New York: a page-a-day cat calendar that involved writing something cat-related for every day of the year. It was easy and lovely living with Amanda’s parents, who treated me like the adult child I felt like, but I knew I’d have to find my own place eventually. Still, I hesitated. I felt intimidated by the possibility of living with strangers, which I hadn’t done before. After I’d moved out of my parents’ place in New York, I’d lived in two different apartments, both with my boyfriend. Now I’d up and and left my apartment and my boyfriend back in Brooklyn. It felt lonely.

I was curious about living alone, but didn’t consider pursuing it very seriously. I wasn’t sure it was a good fit for my personality. I also knew enough to realize that San Francisco was hardly any better than New York as far as cost of living. By happenstance, one of the men who worked in the architecture office asked me about my apartment search, and explained that he was planning to leave his one-bedroom in the Castro if I was interested in it. I told him I was sure I couldn’t afford it, but he said I should come by to see the apartment anyway. If I liked it, he’d put me in touch with his landlord. Maybe we could work something out.

I called my brother and told him I was thinking about living alone. “Really?” he responded. “I mean, I would never want to live alone, but I guess some people like it.”

I went to see the apartment on a cold Sunday in December. I met my colleague on his front stoop and we walked in together. He had told me that he’d lived here for 10 years, and was leaving so that he could move into his girlfriend’s place, where he spent all his time anyway.

It showed. As soon as we unlocked the door of the building, we encountered a thick layer of coupon fliers covering the entire entryway like a paper ocean. It appeared to be the buildup of weeks, or maybe months, of mail delivery. He had to shove the front door hard in order to create a path through the coupons wide enough for us to walk through. I followed him up a dusty flight of carpeted stairs and entered the apartment at the top of the landing.

My first impression was that it was horribly depressing. Again, my colleague’s relative absence in his own apartment was obvious. The apartment, a small one-bedroom, looked slightly abandoned. Bare bulbs dangled from the ceiling and a sagging three-legged butcher block sat in a corner of the tiny kitchen like a stout troll. The flooring was stained linoleum in a parquet pattern. Despite this initial bad impression, I also saw nice ceiling fixtures, delicate molding, and design details like a marble mantel (the fireplace had been bricked in) and three big windows spanning one wall of the living room. I am not a handy, fixer-upper type, but despite my worries about the financial and possible psychological strains of living alone, I was interested.

I spoke to the landlord and learned that he wanted to rent it for $1,400 a month—an amount that I squarely could not afford. Amanda’s parents, god bless them, assured me that I could stay at their house for as long as I wanted, and that shouldn’t feel like I had to take the first apartment that came along. I sat down with some friends, who suggested that I should negotiate with the landlord. What could I offer the him in exchange for lowering the rent? We came up with a short list that consisted mostly of variations of

• Avoiding the hassle of posting on Craiglist
• Avoiding the expense of basic improvements like painting, etc.
• Helping with building upkeep (questionable; again—not handy)
• Promising to be a model tenant (desperate; who hasn’t said this?)

I called the landlord back and explained that I really wanted the apartment, but that on my salary ($36,000) there was no way I could afford $1,400 a month. But, I added, if he was willing to rent it to me for less, I would move in as-is. There would be no need to paint or spiff the place up at all. I promised to pay my rent on time every month and be quiet as a dormouse. He asked me what I thought I could afford, and I told him $900 a month. He counter-offered with $1,050, on the understanding, later written into the lease, that in exchange for reduced rent, I would help keep the building tidy. Maybe he was also tired of wading through weeks of coupon detritus.

It didn’t seem like the kind of negotiation that ever would have worked out, but it did. I quickly accepted his offer, high on the thrill of a successful negotiation, even though it was still far more than I’d ever paid in rent. A cadre of friends helped me move in a month later on a sunny Saturday morning. The west facing windows let in tons of light, even on short winter days. And as it turned out, I loved living alone.


Leda Marritz is the Creative Director at DeepRoot Green Infrastructure. She still lives in San Francisco.


16 Comments / Post A Comment

Hmm. I don’t mean this as a judgment on the author’s rent at all, I’m just asking because I’m relatively new to earning and spending money–is $1,050/mo rent on a $36,000 salary manageable? Did you have to scrimp like crazy? That annual figure is before taxes and benefits (if you had them), right?

I’ve read here before that your recommended maximum rent should be 1/3 of your income, I think before deductions. That would make Leda’s recommended max rent $1000–not so far off. I make a little less money, so my max rent would be $925. But that seems absolutely insanely high–my current rent of $500 plus $80 in utilities is just enough to let me put some money in savings. What have other people’s experience been in managing rent like that?

MargaretMead (#2,229)

I can’t speak to Leda’s financial particulars, but according to your calculation I could also afford 1,050 a month in rent. I would have to scrimp more and in the end I always prefer to pay as little rent as possible. It is definitely not out of the question though.

@wallsdonotfall I’ve lived alone with rent and salary similar to the author’s. It was a stretch, but I was still able to pay the bills and save about 10% of my income. I’m lucky enough to have zero debt, though, which obviously makes a huge difference. I also lived pretty simply during that time- almost no new clothes, going to movies, etc. It was worth it for me. I LOVE living alone.

keaton (#2,721)

Yeah, I’ve heard the one-third rule too, I think it’s sound advice. I’ve had irregular living situations in the last while, but in my last proper flat my rent was 25% of my (take-home) income, which was pretty good as I wasn’t earning that much and was living in an expensive city.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

This is great. I moved to San Francisco in 2009 and took over the lease of the apartment where I was subletting in 2010. I managed to get a rent reduction when I negotiated my new lease. I’m happy I did and THANK GOD for rent control because I probably could not afford to still live in SF with this new tech boom going on. Hopefully it will mellow out in a couple of years.

Anyway, great read. Do you still live in the Castro?

BornSecular (#2,245)

I lived with various people during my first years in college. That’s how I learned I should not live with roommates or housemates. I am a terrible person to live with. Don’t know how my husband does it!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@BornSecular Yeah, I read the “I don’t want to live alone” part and was like, Huh??? I have never heard of such a thing!

kellyography (#250)

$1050 for a one-bed in the Castro is AMAZING. However: Did the rent increase over the past 6 years? Do you still live there? Etc.

Rent in places like SF and NYC always exceed those “rules” anyway. Most people I know spend about half their salary on rent, especially if they want to live alone or in a nice neighborhood, or both (which is the holy grail for me). In contrast, I live in an okay but somewhat inconvenient NYC-area neighborhood with three roommates and pay rent just according to those “rules.”

hellonheels (#1,407)

@kellyography SF has some pretty intense rent control – the allowable annual increases between 2006 and now ranged from 0.1% to 2.2%. That’s part of the reason why rents are so insanely high here – landlords have to raise rents on newly available units to subsidize long-term tenants.

JustTheFacts (#2,728)


I am pretty close to POSITIVE that rents would not go down one red cent if there was no rent control. That’s definitely the case in NYC.

That “subsidize long term tenants” canard is well-loved by our nyc -wait for it- “Rent Stabilization Association” (by which they actually mean “want to kill rent stabilization with a hot passion and then stomp on it’s dead body, killing it even deader than dead”).

I would absolutely bet that rents would not go down even one little penny, if rent stabilization were not in place in New York City, despite what landlord associations promise as if that were their nearest and dearest wish.

In NYC it’s a fight to see how MUCH you can charge, not to see *how little*. So please, landlords don’t “have” to raise rents on newly available units. Landlords are in it to turn as high a profit as they are able. The number of people who just want to “keep it real” and make a decent amount WHILE ALSO providing a reasonably priced place to live is more the exception than the rule. Totally exists, folks who say: I could charge you more and make more, but I’d rather charge a bit less because fuck it, I can and it’s nice to give someone a break.

To be fair, being a landlord can be a pain (people, man.) But still. Maximize profits. That’s the name of the game. No one is “subsidize those bastards who are getting a slightly more reasonable deal”. It’s just that some folks don’t get in on stabilized (as it’s called here in nyc) rents. But pitting renters against each other is a strategy not designed to benefit renters. Just, if you see what I’m saying… divide and conquer, etc. etc.

(And anyone who is getting an unheard of fabulous deal is either 80 or won the jackpot and is a total legend talked about by folks for miles around. Because it’s. that. unusual.)

Still, though. 1K in the castro that’s a pretty damn good deal.

But please don’t perpetuate the rumor (seeded misinformation) that subsidized tenants cost other tenants money. That’s just not how it works. Their rents would just go up, non-subsidized rents wouldn’t go down, if there were not rent protections.

hellonheels (#1,407)

@JustTheFacts Whoa there. Your point is well taken, but studies have shown that rent control does drive up rents overall. Is rent control the primary cause of SF’s insane rents? No way. That honor goes to the tech companies that pay their employees salaries that allow them to pay whatever landlords are asking (and, in the case of real estate, hundreds of thousands of dollars more). I am in no way anti rent control – in fact I probably benefit from it more than anyone I know – but it does have an effect on average rents overall.

pterodactylish (#2,321)

You can also factor in neighborhood issues. I live near a big construction site and brought up the daily symptoms of living near it in trying to negotiate a lower rent increase. IE, “There is blasting every day at 4 and I cannot open my windows because it’s so noisy during the day.” Changed landlord’s tune from a $100 rent hike per month to a $50/month hike. Not too shabby!

Marissa (#467)

This is inspiring. I live in Noe Valley in a 2-bedroom with a friend. We’ve been there a little over three years and are planning to move out and go our separate ways in early 2013. Even though this apartment has served me well, I’m really excited to move. But the rents in SF right now are INSANE. Another unit in our building is open right now and it’s going for $800 more than our original rent.

I would really love to get my own place but I’ll probably need to find another more affordable house share situation (I work for a non-profit which means I’m not raking in the big bucks). Maybe I can charm some friendly landlord into slightly cheaper rent for a little studio somewhere like this piece’s author did? I’m more than willing to dispose of any stray coupon books!

TARDIStime (#1,633)

This is so timely – I’m about to sign a new lease with MR TARDIStime on Saturday and has prompted me to look into seeing if we can have it written into the lease that they can’t put up the rent during the 1 year term we’ve signed up for (I know this is a thing we can do, but I don’t know specifics?).

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@TARDIStime I don’t know if we are talking about different things, but if you have a one-year lease then whatever monthly rent you agreed to is for that one year term – they CAN’T increase it during the rent agreement. Usually rent increases when you go to re-sign for another year. This is why some people I know prefer 1.5 or 2 year leases (although you are also tied down for longer), because you know your expenses will be constant for longer. If you are month to month, landlords have to give you notice of a rent increase equal to whatever your notice period is. They can’t just increase the rent whenever.

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