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?
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'.
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.
Relocation Consultants (Destination Services Consultants):
These are local, independent contractors with broad Bay Area knowledge encompassing the rental and sales market, public and private schooling options, government registration, and other needs related to a complex international or domestic relocation. They learn their client’s unique needs and guide them through the moving process. Relocation consultants do not usually work for a particular brokerage, and may partner with an employer or individual to provide rental homefinding and a wide variety of other services related to relocation.
Personalized, customized relocation packages and an expansive suite of services for individuals and families that need more than rental homefinding help. Since they are paid directly by the client and not by a brokerage or owner, they represent and advocate for the best interests of the client. Relocation consultants may stick with the client throughout the relocation ( taking clients on an area tour, finding schools, home, and settling in) providing much-needed moral support during a big life transition.
Not all relocation consultants are licensed real estate agents and some do not have direct access to the MLS. Since there are no universally accepted criteria establishing a relocation consultant as qualified, there are wide variations in the experience level and qualifications of relocation consultants delivering destination services.
How they work with renters:
Relocation consultants conduct an in-depth intake and create a customized program based on the renter’s needs. In a complex relocation, renters may have additional needs such as a tour of private schools, preschools or assistance with government registration. Employers with new hires or transferees often contract with a relocation consultant (destination services consultant ) on behalf of their employees to make the move easier. However, anyone may contact a relocation consultant for rental homefinding support or settling-in services.
How they are paid:
The consultant will find their client a rental home and provide additional services at a pre-quoted, fixed fee. They usually do not receive additional fees from landlords or property management/leasing companies, so they are motivated by their client’s needs only.
Tip: Ask the relocation consultant for a cost sheet to provide to your employer and ask to be reimbursed or for a relocation allowance to offset the cost. Ask the relocation consultant how long they have been in business and look up online reviews if possible. Ask if the consultant is a licensed real estate agent and if so, if they collect referral fees when their client leases properties. If they accept referral fees, this may incentivize the consultant to show certain properties over others.
Step Four: Take a look at yourself and find the right fit
Now that you know the three basic types of Bay Area parties you may interact with, it’s time to think about what kind of renter you are. Read below to see where you fall under three general renter personality types. This will help you develop an intentional renting plan.
“How you move” profile: Which type are you?
The Independent Researcher:
You are the kind of person who loves late-night research and saving money by doing the bulk of the job yourself. Delegating is not your thing. You are someone who plans out every detail of life based on data you’ve meticulously collected for months. For moving, why would it be any different? You want to know about all the details like neighborhoods and commute times, and use many methods of research to make a decision. Talking with friends and colleagues, downloading rental and public transit apps, and reading blogs like this one are a part of your strategy and you have time and energy to independently tackle the rental process.
Recommendation: DIY and directly deal with landlords or rental agents. Use rental sites such as craigslist, Zillow, Trulia, Zumper, and Padmapper, but be cautious of scams. Make as many appointments on a weekend or weekday as you can with owners of rental properties.
The Uncomplicated-Relaxed Renter:
You know a bit about San Francisco Bay Area neighborhoods and where you might like to live, and you have a very short, simple list of rental needs. You don’t have a lot of time nor is research your favorite. More importantly, you are generally pretty happy with a basic apartment or home. You spend most of your time at work or out with friends, have a healthy rental budget, and want your rental process to be free of complications.
Choosing between too many options is not the best use of your time, so you’ll frequently pay a bit more for an item for the sake of convenience. To you, there are more worthwhile things in your life than to spend too much time on the homefinding process so you prefer to give someone a budget and a few requirements, have them show you several options, and be done with it.
Recommendation: Work with a real estate company that has a rental department or a large company that manages hundreds of properties throughout San Francisco. A rental agent may show you a shortlist of properties that they currently have on the market but will not overwhelm you with choice (you’ll also likely have the same typical apartment as others like you but that’s OK). You’ll also work well with a relocation consultant/company if you tell them to keep it simple but probably won’t need the additional services or extra attention.
The Intentional Renter:
You have some anxiety about your move due to your complex needs ranging from neighborhoods to schools to commute times. Or you just know yourself well enough to recognize your strengths and you know when you are in over your head. Or time is of the essence and the learning curve is too steep to be efficient and you prefer to collaborate with an expert rather than start at square one ( you need to find a home, a school for the kids, and get a social security number and driver’s license quickly.) You are not familiar with the Bay Area or are not from the US and you need extra help to settle in.
Whatever the reason, your relocation has extra importance, and you have an intention behind it. Home is important to you and your situation might be more complex than the average renter.
Recommendation: Put your move in the hands of a local relocation consultant. A relocation consultant knows the ins and outs of neighborhoods, schools, and government offices scattered throughout the Bay Area. They have access to rentals offered by private owners, rental agents, and off-market listings through their network. They specialize in providing support beyond rental homefinding: choosing an area that fits with your needs, finding a good school, advising on the commute, and guiding you through the complicated process of getting your social security number and driver’s license if needed.
No matter which road you take, remember the reasons for your move and enjoy the ride!