So you’re a fresh face in the East Bay hoping to move off of your ex-girlfriend’s cousin’s loveseat. To land the perfect temporary abode, there are a few things you have to know. Chief among them is that the Bay Area is notorious for high rental costs. But don’t resign yourself to living in a closet just yet. It remains possible, and even common, to find a decent living space in a good neighborhood for under $1,000 a month in Berkeley and Oakland.
The area rental market depends on the university schedule. Which means if you’re planning to rent around campus, look up Cal’s academic calendar to see when summer, fall, and spring terms begin, and expect vacancies to open up toward the end of each semester. Most students begin looking for an apartment after spring break ends at the beginning of April, well before finals in mid-May.
Although Berkeley guarantees student housing for two years, many look for other places to live after freshman year, from cooperative housing, fraternities, sororities, or private dorms, to rented rooms, apartments, or houses. Renting an apartment can offer definite perks: a living room, a kitchen, and enough space to house your life-size Jonas Brothers cutouts.
To find an apartment, many simply prowl favorite neighborhoods (students suggested Solano, North Berkeley, Ashby, Rockridge, Temescal, and Lake Merritt) for several weeks in search of every single ‘For Rent’ sign. But Cal undergraduate Christie Nothelfer said Craigslist remains the “the best source for finding one,” a sentiment echoed by others. It’s no overstatement to say that virtually everyone in the Bay Area uses Craigslist. Since its Bay Area debut in 1995, the listings web site has become the primary way for locals to find an apartment. While Cal students, faculty, and staff can pay about $20 for access to campus-area rental listings (CalRentals.housing.berkeley.edu), some say it simply is not worth it.
But all the web sites in the world can’t substitute for an actual visit. When scheduling a viewing, recent graduate Andrew Chang recommends making contact via the phone. Not only is it faster than e-mail, but it gives both parties to the transaction a sense of the other person. “No one wants a weird, creepy manager or an irresponsible one,” Chang said. “If there are any personality quirks about the manager that don’t bode well with you, just go with the flow and don’t take the place.”
But if the signs are right, Chang suggests taking an early tour of the property, because it’s likely that your competitors are also scoping it out. The rental market is so competitive near campus or in desirable neighborhoods that finding the right place takes patience and ample time pounding the pavement. And remember to bring your tools: a camera, to remember what the place really looked like; a tape measure, to determine whether that sectional couch and six-foot-wide bean bag will both fit in the living room; and a family member or friend who can offer a rational second opinion.
And remember too that landlords are not just offering a place to live. They also provide services, including upkeep to the building. Ask what amenities, such as utilities and parking, come with the place. Most will include water and garbage, and some also include gas or Internet access. Student Kameron So also advises knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking them how secure the neighborhood is, whether street cleaning happens at 6:00 a.m., and other questions about living conditions that might not be apparent to an outsider.
Despite the prolonged interaction with strangers, apartment hunting can get oddly personal. “It’s kind of like a job interview,” So said. “You want to put the best side of yourself forward.” Building managers and landlords will likely perform background checks, ask for certified checks, and may ask for a co-signer, usually a parent, if a prospective tenant does not have an established line of credit. Beyond acting responsible, students should be prepared to answer personal questions. Trisha Chakrabarti said that when a fellow student was searching for an apartment, she was asked if she smoked weed, played loud music, and liked to have people over. While some questions, such as those regarding sexual orientation, are illegal under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, landlords are allowed to set house rules, and usually will ask if apartment seekers intend on having a pet.
If the planets align and you feel ready to sign the lease, first be sure to read it. “Definitely make sure you know whether your lease is monthly or yearly and whether there are extra fees if you terminate your contract,” So said. “Also, rent is always negotiable, especially if you live somewhere where rent isn’t stabilized. It’s a good idea to know what the feeling is for the local price.” According to figures from the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board web site, the median price in Berkeley for new tenancy in the first quarter of 2008 is $925 for a studio, $1,175 for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,550 for a two-bedroom apartment and $2,250 for a three-bedroom apartment. But prices can vary a lot, depending on neighborhood and distance from campus. Nothelfer notes that the UC Berkeley Class Pass, purchased by registered students at the beginning of the semester, lets them take unlimited rides on AC Transit and Transbay buses, which makes it easier to live farther away in apartments that may have cheaper rent.
One common fallacy is that your entire security deposit must be returned at the end of their lease. “It’s pretty easy for them to list things and take them out of the security deposit,” said graduate Sabrina Mutukisna. She advises students to “read the fine print” on their lease to avoid nasty surprises. Her landlord once wanted the apartment to be cleaned and polished. Mutukisna thought it was better to have it cleaned, then show receipts, rather than lose part of her security deposit.
The best way to ensure that you don’t get billed for damage that you didn’t cause is to point out irregularities when you tour the apartment. When you decide to rent, take pictures of existing damage and date stamp it as proof that it happened beforehand. Let the landlord know, and keep copies of all your correspondence.
Matt Brown, staff attorney for Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board, points out that state law requires landlords to offer a walk-through inspection before a tenant moves out, and to immediately let tenants know what needs to be cleaned or repaired in a written statement. The landlord can take money from the security deposit if the tenant fails to make the repairs or clean up the place. However, state law also permits landlords to take money from the deposit for problems discovered after the tenant leaves.
If you think your landlord took your security deposit just for kicks, or if you think your rent is way too high for a building that doesn’t seem up to code, Berkeley and Oakland have other resources to protect tenant rights. The Rent Stabilization Board deals with changes in rent and property value, and mediates conflicts between tenants and landlords. Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Board performs similar work, but since Oakland doesn’t have classic rent control, the board is concerned mostly with increases in rent or decreases in the housing services that were included in the lease. Both agencies offer many resources on their web sites. In situations of discrimination by a landlord or building manager, a nonprofit called Housing Rights, Inc. can help by taking action against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, and disabilities, which are protected under federal law, and discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, ancestry, income, and other arbitrary reasons, which are protected under California state law.
Other invaluable resources include Student Legal Services, which offers legal advice for no charge to any currently registered UC Berkeley student, and has a web site with sample forms and information on topics such as terminating a lease. ASUC Renter’s Legal Assistance, also offers counseling and referrals, and sponsors a Tenants’ Rights Week at the end of April in conjunction with the Berkeley Rent Board.
To cover all your bases, including damage caused by natural disasters, your landlord may also request that you purchase renter’s insurance, to protect your possessions in case of damage and disaster. Julèann Mendle from Amica Insurance says that she is hearing more frequently that landlords are requiring their tenants to purchase renters insurance.
The take-home messages are simple. To make a smart choice, apartment hunters should do their research, and have a handle on their rights and resources.