America's Most Expensive Cities: How to save on rent in San Diego

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Welcome to Expensive Cities, a new series designed to help renters find affordable apartments in the nation’s most unaffordable metros.

Renting a slice of San Diego paradise isn’t cheap. Apartment prices keep climbing for renters who want to partake of perfect weather, yummy margaritas and pink sunsets in this glittering city by the bay.

What does renting cost in San Diego?

San Diego is the ninth most expensive big city for renters, according to apartment listings site Zumper. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego is up to $1,820 a month — a substantial increase of 15.2% over the previous year.

In the most desirable neighborhoods, rents are even a good deal higher. For example, in chic Little Italy, with its European-style piazzas and sidewalk cafes, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,506. In the bustling employment hub of University City, home to Amazon and the University of California’s San Diego campus, such apartments list for $2,063, according to Renters insurance in San Diego costs between $11 and $17 a month.

Why is renting in San Diego so expensive?

Plentiful jobs in the biotech, defense and engineering industries have attracted hordes of young professionals to San Diego in recent years, boosting demand for housing. San Diego is such a hot destination for workers that the percentage of millennials has boomed to 31.6% of the population — making it the No. 2 U.S. city for millennials after Austin, according to JLL, a real estate firm.

Real estate investors have rushed to construct new apartment complexes for millennial workers, charging a pretty penny for the latest amenities.

How to find affordable rent in San Diego?

Fortunately, there are still a few pockets around the city where frugal folks can find a rental to love. Consider these expert-recommended neighborhoods, each with a distinctive character, to improve the chances of finding a perfect, reasonably-priced apartment.

1. Point Loma: Roseville & La Playa

There are virtually no San Diego coastal neighborhoods left that are even close to affordable for average renters — except for one notable exception: Point Loma. This amazing peninsula is right on the bay and has some cheaper, albeit older, apartments.

In particular, renters should check out Roseville and La Playa, two adjoining neighborhoods on the peninsula.

“The historic Portuguese fishing village rests along the bay and is lined with older inventory with few amenities,” Joshua Ohl, a senior market analyst for CoStar Group, the parent company of, says. One-bedroom apartments have an average list price of $1,352, which is “a bargain by coastal standards,” he says.

A renovated condo, a block and a half from the bay, featuring a balcony and stainless steel appliances, recently listed for a relatively affordable $1,595, including some utilities.

Although less expensive apartments likely won’t be tricked-out, outdoor aficionados may be quite satisfied considering the area’s natural beauty. There are hiking trails throughout Point Loma, like the Tidepools and Bluffs Trail, where low tide reveals rocky caves, and the Bayside Trail, lined with prickly pear and California sagebrush. There is also the historic Point Loma lighthouse and a number of yacht clubs. Prime shopping and eclectic eateries are available at nearby Liberty Station.

2. Bankers Hill

Another area that offers considerable bang for the rental buck is Bankers Hill, also called Park West. This older neighborhood sits on the hills west of Balboa Park, the giant urban park that earned the moniker ‘the Smithsonian of the West’ due to the large number of acclaimed museums.

Bankers Hill gets sweeping views across the San Diego Bay, and its vintage housing stock includes a mix of single-family houses, condos and apartment complexes. A number of apartments are situated in former mansions. The walkable blocks near Fourth and Fifth Avenues feature quaint shops and restaurants.

Considering its dramatic location, Bankers Hill offers relatively affordable rents, although that might not last for too long — developers are beginning to build boutique communities there, says Ohl.

One-bedroom apartments currently rent for an average of $1,581.

“Bankers Hill is adjacent to Little Italy, includes San Diego’s culture-centric Balboa Park and is lined with older, often amenity-less inventory in the flight path of San Diego International Airport,” says Ohl.

One second-floor apartment near the park, with a single bedroom and a small office, listed recently for $1,395 a month.

3. La Mesa in East County

For family-oriented renters or those seeking a community with a small-town feel, a good option outside the city proper is La Mesa. This suburb in East County has a lower cost of living, yet is within an easy commute to the beach and downtown San Diego. La Mesa has plenty of green space, including Sunset Park on Lake Murray, where families can enjoy sports fields and picnic areas or bring Rover to a fenced dog run.

Rents in La Mesa have risen 3.9% in the past year, but are still reasonable at $1,421 for an average one-bedroom and $1,757 for a two-bedroom.

Whether your ideal home is in a coastal neighborhood, urban center or semi-rural community, it’s heartening to know the San Diego dream can still be obtained — for a somewhat reasonable price. But, if the high prices have you considering others neighborhood, check out our 13 tips to rent anywhere for less.

Image: Sean Pavone