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Relocation & Rental Homefinding in the San Francisco Bay Area

  • Lisa

Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area: DIY or Hire an Expert?

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Set yourself up for success with intention, education, and a plan of action.

If you’re relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area - whether it’s a move across continents, states, or even from a neighboring town - you may be experiencing a range of emotions. Feelings of exhilaration and anticipation of the possibility of a new chapter in life (great culture, dining, nightlife, outdoors, yes!) are mixed with fears of change, the unknown, and of making mistakes (rental prices, location, schools, commute times..ouch!) As a relocation consultant, I have seen hundreds of clients go through these emotions as they move their family, pets, belongings, and entire life from what used to be their home to build a new life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I have found that my clients who prepare, are introspective about what their needs are, and have a good sense of what to expect at the beginning have an easier time with their big move. Here are four key “pre-game” steps for anyone considering a move to the Bay Area. Using these steps, you will build a solid foundation for a happy and successful move, and gain the tools for an informed and intentional relocation. Developing a moving roadmap, learning the unique rental market here, knowing who the key players are, and, last but not least, gaining an understanding of your own rental personality type will help you to make the best plan to achieve your goal: Finding the perfect new home here in San Francisco.

Are you ready?

Step one: Make a list or mindmap of your ideal move.

It should include your basic housing requirements, as well as the intentions and fears that go along with a big move. Take this time to discuss your hopes and fears with your spouse and family. Think about your ideal home together and write down all of its characteristics that would make you and your family happy. Be sure to include ideal commute times, school environment (if applicable), and your family’s needs in order of highest priority. You may realize at this point that hiring a consultant to help with the relocation process is the way to go or you may decide to give it a go on your own.

Step Two: Educate yourself about how local rental mechanisms work.

This seemingly obvious step is often ignored, leading many of my clients to have unrealistic expectations and confusing agent interactions. So, let’s start with the basics: how does the rental market work in San Francisco and the Bay Area?

It is unique. Unlike other large metropolitan areas in the US, San Francisco does not have a Multiple Listing Service for rentals (the MLS is used by real estate agents to post and share access to rentals or homes for sale with other agents). In other parts of the country real estate (sales) agents show rental properties but in San Francisco, this is rare. Because there is no MLS, owners of rentals often contract with specific leasing companies/property managers to show their rental. Only that company’s “rental agents” have keys to the properties to show them. This is very different from the MLS-based system where any real estate agent may access a property, as long as they are licensed. As a result, there are specialized rental or (relocation) agents who show rentals only and do not sell homes. It is also quite common for owners to show their own properties and lease their rental directly to the tenant.

Another unique thing about the San Francisco rental market is that it’s the hottest in the nation right now. Therefore, not only do you have to figure out who and where you find rental listings from, you are probably competing against several people just like you.

Step Three: Learn Who the Parties Are.

Next, gain a fundamental understanding of the three basic types of people you might interact with when looking for a rental. They all have different motivations, and may or may not fulfill your moving needs, which could range from basic (just show me your cheapest apartment!) to involved (I need someone to get me the best listings!)

Who shows rentals in SF?


Rental/Leasing Agents:

These are real estate agents that specialize in rentals, not sales. They contract with brokers that may list a small handful or several hundred properties various owners in San Francisco. This agent has access to all of them via keys or lockbox. Types of companies that employ rental/leasing agents are large real estate companies or local property management companies.


These are licensed real estate agents and the properties they show are often professionally managed. They have first access to the properties listed by the brokerage that they represent although they will show them to other agents /private parties in the interest of renting the property.


Listing agents' primary objective is to lease the property for the owner/broker, so leasing the property for the owner may be their top priority. Some, but not all, rental agents charge a percentage of the monthly rent to the tenant (up to 75%) and they generally only show properties listed by their brokerage, leaving the client without access to hundreds of possible rentals outside the network listed privately by owners or by other brokers. Rental/leasing agents may only work in San Francisco but not the surrounding Bay Area cities, and vice versa. If you need comprehensive relocation support (area tours, education consulting, or government/services registration) rental agents may not be right for you as they focus on the rental aspect only.

How they work with renters:

Rental/leasing agents may ask questions about your criteria and housing budget then recommend an area and send some listings for approval. They will arrange to meet you or will escort you to each property and will try to show you as many properties as they have in their network as they have time for (which could be a little or a lot).

How they are paid:

Rental/leasing agents can either be paid by the renter or by the owner of the property (typical fees are between three percent of the annual rent or up to a full month’s rent.) The kicker: some agents are paid a percentage of the annual rent by their company on top of the fee they charge clients, which could incentivize them to funnel you to certain properties.

Tip: Ask upfront if the agent charges a “broker’s fee” (percentage of one month rent), a homefinding fee, or both; and if they are paid by their leasing/property management company or just by you on each transaction. This will help you to determine the motivation of the agent and if they will be working in your best interest, or the owners'.


Property Owners/Landlords:

Because the Bay Area is a “landlord’s market,” many homeowners cut out the middleman (the real estate agent) to save money. They list their properties on craigslist and find tenants DIY style. Anyone may contact an owner advertising a property on craigslist and make an appointment to tour the home.


Lower rents. Without the rental agent fee to contend with, owners can afford to offer a lower monthly rent. Also, some owners take pride in their rental homes so repairs and maintenance are handled right away. This is a more personal experience than you would have with a leasing company.


Renters will be traversing this arena alone, navigating possible craigslist scams, difficulty in setting up appointments with elusive owners, and sometimes tricky leases. The application process and lease is managed by the owner who may have a poor understanding of California law as it relates to leases, deposits, tenants' rights, and habitability.

How they are paid:

The negotiated lease, directly by the renter.

Tip: Take some time to really talk to the owner and get to know them a bit before renting from them. If you see disrepair, unprofessional behavior, or any other red flag, listen to your intuition and move on. Never send money to an owner before seeing a property in person and read this article on red flags alerting you to common scams.