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.

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