Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of The Berkeley Graduate’s new graduate student orientation edition.
As the Fall semester approaches, new graduate students are faced with the often daunting task of finding an apartment in the Berkeley area. The rental market can be quite competitive, and around campus this is the most competitive time as there is a huge rush for securing apartments close to the University. To help you keep your sanity and your stipend, this post will offer some helpful tips for navigating the apartment search gauntlet.
Make technology your friend. Search Craig’s List for the neighborhood and price range you’re looking for. It can be helpful to set up an RSS feed to track the latest listings. It’s also useful to do a text search for important items, such as move-in dates, whether there is a yard or garage, etc.
Another great option is PadMapper, which integrates Craig’s List postings with a Google Maps interface. Just input a price range, scroll and zoom to find your favorite neighborhoods, and you’re good to go.
Cal Rentals hosts apartment listings geared especially for members of the University community. While there is a small fee to subscribe and the volume of postings is much smaller than Craig’s List, Cal Rentals can still be a useful resource.
Know the process. Take the time to learn about what you will be asked on a rental application so that you will be able to file them quickly. Be prepared with a check at each apartment showing—many property owners charge an application fee to allow them to run a credit check. Alternatively, think ahead and get your own credit report to provide to property owners, saving you money in the long run.
Know your rights. Berkeley’s Rent Board has a reputation as being friendly to tenants, but you still need to do some due diligence to avoid sticky situations. You are entitled to interest on your security deposit, to a walk-through inspection by your property owner, and to the protection of rent control. Remember that rental laws vary by city, so if you’re renting outside of Berkeley you’ll need to research the local rental laws.
Document everything. Before you move anything into your new place, go through the apartment and take photographs of the entire living space. If anything is broken, tell the property owner immediately. These are key steps to a smooth move-out—the last thing you want is a battle with the property owner about whether you left the place in worse condition than you found it. If you document along the way, you’ll have a compelling case if any issues need to be resolved by the Rent Board.
Use local contacts. Trying to find an apartment remotely can be tough, but if you have some friends or family in the area, it’s time to call in some favors! Have them check out some of your favorite listings so you know whether it’s everything you hoped it would be. Colleagues in your department might be willing to help as well, so don’t be afraid to ask for a favor in return for a beer when you get into town.
Know what to compromise on, and what not to. You probably don’t need granite countertops and fancy appliances, but you might really want some space to garden, a garage for your car or hobby, or a living room big enough to have friends over. The one thing you should never compromise on is safety and comfort. If you don’t feel safe and comfortable walking in the neighborhood at night, it’s going to be very difficult to focus on your teaching and research. If you don’t need a lot of space and can’t afford a one-bedroom in a nice area, think about finding a studio, or try to connect with some students in your department to get a place together and save on rent. One and two bedroom apartments in Berkeley are fairly expensive, but the prices get much more reasonable with three or four bedrooms, since those apartments will often take up one floor of a house.
Technology can help you figure out how safe a neighborhood is. The Berkeley Police Department has a crime map that can give you a sense of how often crimes are committed in an area, and how serious they are. Oakland has a similar site. These are important tools to use since safety can vary dramatically, even from one block to the next. Talk to folks in your department about where they’re living, and be sure not to rely on stereotypes—many parts of Oakland are much safer than some parts of Berkeley, for example.