The Stanford Student’s Guide to Renting in the Bay Area

Palo Alto Insane Rent
Utilities not included.

Stanford guarantees four years of on-campus housing, a really great perk given how expensive the surrounding area is: homes in Palo Alto sell for a median price of $3.3 million, and rent can be just as exorbitant. For people who return to campus for additional years (in my case, a 5th year to finish my Master’s in Management Science & Engineering), getting housing on campus suddenly becomes a lot harder. To avoid the uncertainty of the on-campus housing lottery, I decided to look for a place to call my own (at least for a year) in the surrounding area. Weeks of searching at the beginning of Spring Quarter paid off – I’m now living in a 4 bed, 2 bath house in Palo Alto, just a couple miles from campus. Here’s my advice for fellow Stanford students (and other college students in general) looking for their first place to rent in the Bay Area:

Create a list of Needs and Wants

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White picket fence with an ocean view? Probably a want, not a need.

Before you start your housing search, decide on your wants and needs, your negotiables and non-negotiables. What is a must-have feature or quality of the place you’ll be renting in the near future? What is the maximum amount of money you’re willing to spend on rent, and what’s a range that you’d consider comfortable/reasonable? Do you want a private room, or are you willing to share with one or more people? Take some time to think through what matters most to you when it comes to housing.

My personal must-haves included 1) a private room, 2) a kitchen, and 3) a washer and dryer in-house or in-building. My wants included space to garden, easy access to Stanford and the 101 (to get to work during the summer), a quieter neighborhood, and widely available parking space.

Find your Housemates

Who do you want to live with? (Photo Courtesy of Devin Avery: https://unsplash.com/@officialdavery)

In any other geographic area, I’d also recommend asking “do you want to rent a place on your own?” under the “Needs and Wants” section, but that’s unrealistic in the Bay Area, especially if you’re just starting off. Chances are very high that you’ll be living with other people in your new place, and there are a couple ways to go about it.

First, you could look to rent a room in a house or apartment where other tenants already live. In this case, the current tenants are looking for someone who bonds with the overall group well. If you’re a good fit, then you’re all set.

The other common scenario is to go looking for a place to rent with an established group. This group could be people you’ve known for years, or new friends in similar circumstances; regardless, they are the group you’ve decided to house hunt with.

Each scenario has its own pros and cons, but it’s something that you should decide on earlier in the search than later to narrow your search criteria. When looking with a group in particular, it’s a good idea to know everyone’s needs and wants before you begin to explore potential places to live.

Cast a Wide Net

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Map view is your friend.

Once you’ve determined your needs, wants, and housemate scenario, it’s time to start searching. Zillow, Trulia, and Craigslist are all common sites to use, and SUpost.com is a great Stanford-centric resource (it’s essentially Craigslist, but focused on Stanford students and people living close to Stanford).

For SUpost, search under the “housing” category to see all housing posts. For Craigslist, I recommend going to the map view for a better searching experience (here’s the SF Bay Area/Peninsula page – click the “see in map view” box). Narrow your search by focusing on places looking to rent, and tailor your search further by adding in desired number of bedrooms, bathrooms, price ranges, and other non-negotiables.

Of course, make use of other avenues to learn about listings. Facebook Marketplace and Facebook groups often have people posting about available leases and sublets. You might know some students living off-campus who are preparing to move out at the end of the year or summer, leaving their rooms and houses available for future tenants. Physical ads in newspapers and on flyers, although less commonly used by younger generations nowadays, still provide a great way to find housing in a way that many of your peer house-hunters will overlook. Keep your options open, and see what you can find.

Get in Touch

Woman standing alone looking down at her phone
If you find a place you think you’ll like, it’s time to reach out to the landlord. (Photo Courtesy of Daria Nepriakhina: https://unsplash.com/@epicantus)

Once you start building a list of potential properties, your next step is to reach out to the landlord. Some sites have you fill out a contact form through the site; other landlords may provide their contact information and request that you reach out directly. If you’re interested in the place, send a short email to the landlord with the location’s address or listing title in your header, or call directly if that’s the preferred option. In either circumstance, request an in-person visit, and seek to clarify any particular information about the listing you weren’t sure about. For example, if you really want to have a pet dog in your new home, make sure the landlord is okay with pets before you continue any further.

Reaching out helps uncover a lot of potential housing scams. At this stage, if someone asks you for money before you meet them in person, assume the housing listing is a scam and leave it be (read through the “Watch for Scams” section below for more common scams).

Prepare for Next Steps

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Gather the information you’ll likely be asked for in a rental application before you need it.

Housing goes fast in the Bay Area. During my housing search, a few listings were rented out within 24 hours after I had a chance to visit! To increase your odds of getting the place you’re interested in after a visit, gather important info that you’ll likely have to fill out on a rental application. I recommend that everyone in your group gather the following information and forms:

  • Previous residences – if you’re coming straight out of college, these may only be dorms and/or your family home, but you still need to include them. You can either list your RFs or an RA as the owner/manager of a dorm if absolutely necessary, but you could always choose to leave that section blank – landlords usually understand that a dorm doesn’t often come with the same landlord/tenant relationships that renting a house will require.
  • References – A reference from Mom is probably not going to cut it. Start getting references from previous landlords (and/or an RA or RF), personal references (friends not in your group), and professional references (people you’ve worked with in past jobs/internships/volunteer experiences).
  • Credit Score – it’s a very common proxy of your ability to pay rent on time, and you’re now entitled to obtain three free credit reports a year. Go to annualcreditreport.com and select one report to download (save the other two in case you need them later – you don’t need to download multiple credit score reports at one time).
  • Proof of Ability to Pay – bank accounts (the amounts in them – don’t write down your bank account number), job/internship offer details, and/or a promise from the Bank of Mom and Dad to cover things if necessary.
  • Emergency Contact(s) – for many people, your parents will be your emergency contacts, although they don’t have to be. Figure out a couple people who you’d like to designate as emergency contacts, and ask them ahead of time if they would be willing to be your contacts.

When you’re given a rental application to fill out, this will make turnaround time much faster, which impresses landlords.

Visit in Person

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The house may look pretty online, but what’s it actually like in person?

I knew a few people at Stanford who made the mistake of renting a place sight-unseen for the summer. When they arrived, first month’s rent already mailed in, they discovered a family already living at the address. When in doubt, follow The Golden Rule: NEVER give anyone money until you have 1) visited the place in person to confirm online details, and 2) physically signed a contract with the landlord.

When you go visit in person, bring as many people in your group as you can (or, if you’re looking to fill a vacant spot in a home, many sure as many current tenants are available to chat with you as possible). Talk with the landlord, realtor, and/or current tenants as they guide you through the house, and try to get as full picture as possible of the pros and cons of living there. To help make the process a little easier, I’ve created a comprehensive checklist you can use when visiting a house.

There’s Always Room to Negotiate

Use your bargaining power to your advantage. (Photo courtesy of Jan Vasek: https://unsplash.com/@jeshoots)

Once the landlord sends a lease over for you to sign, he or she has indicated interest in having you all as tenants. If the terms are good, feel free to sign, but in my experience there’s always room to negotiate. Even in crowded markets, it can be hard for the landlord to find good, trustworthy tenants; if a group backs out at the last minute, the landlord also has to go back to more house viewings and more applications to review. You can negotiate specific phrases of the lease, request explicit approval to sublet, or even try to negotiate the rent down to something more comparable to other rental places in the area. At the very least, I recommend making sure there’s an “Act of God” clause (you don’t have to pay rent if the house becomes unlivable due to something outside of your control – an “Act of God”) in your lease.

Watch for Scams

expectation reality treehouse
Expectation versus reality.

You will inevitably come across at least one scam during your search for housing. Here are several common scams to look out for, and ways to avoid them.

The Golden Rule: NEVER give landlords money or a way to access your money until you’ve 1) visited the place in person to confirm online details, and 2) physically signed a contract with the landlord.

“Credit Card Pre-Screen” – you are asked to fill out a pre-screen application for the rental property, which includes entering your credit card info “for verification purposes.” I have yet to meet a real landlord or realtor who would actually try to verify you using your credit card, so it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid these listings.

“The Current Tenants Don’t Want to be Disturbed” –  I don’t care how it’s phrased, if the “landlord” tells you that you can’t visit the house before you sign a lease, it’s almost certainly a scam.

“It’s too Good to be True!” – if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. No one is renting a gorgeous 2 bed, 2 bath single-family home for $500/month in Menlo Park unless it’s sitting on a fault line and haunted by the nagging ghost of Jane Stanford. Feel free to reach out, but the moment you’re asked to sign the lease without seeing the property (“we have lots of potential offers, so you’ll need to act fast!”), hang up and move on to the next house.

“Let’s go in Through the Side” – some of the sneakier scams involve actually touring the house the “landlord” claims to be renting. If the landlord doesn’t unlock the front door with a key to let you in, leave. Of course, it’s possible the landlord is already inside and opens the door to welcome you – in that case, make sure he or she actually knows his/her way around the house.

The Bay Area is a very hot market right now, but good deals are still out there. Keep this tips in mind, and best of luck on your housing search!

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