America’s Most Expensive Cities: How to save on rent in San Francisco


Jeanne Lee

Jeanne Lee

Contributing Writer

Jeanne Lee is a freelance journalist with 16 years of experience writing about personal finance and small business. Her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Fortune Small Business, and Financial Planning, among others.

Published June 21, 2018|5 min read

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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.

If you’re hunting for an apartment in San Francisco, the city with the highest rents in the nation, congratulations on bucking at least three trends. First, you’re not joining the mass exodus from the Bay Area to cheaper cities like Las Vegas, Portland or Nashville. Second, you’re not squeezing into a dorm-for-adults where the building mom — er, building manager — keeps the laundry detergent stocked. Third, you’re not moving in with your parents, like one-in-three Bay Area millennials these days.

How much does it cost to rent in San Francisco?

Median rent in San Francisco rose to $3,490 for a one-bedroom apartment, up 3.6% from a year ago, according to apartment listing site Zumper. In iconic Pacific Heights, with its Victorian mansions and stunning views, one-bedroom units go for $3,695. In fashionable Hayes Valley, hip young professionals pay $4,025 for pads near the boutiques and restaurants. Renters insurance is San Francisco costs between $7 and $17 a month. (We've got a roundup of the best renters insurance companies in San Francisco here.)

Per Zillow, renters in San Francisco spend nearly 40% of income on rent. That's slightly lower than the 47% of income renters pay in Los Angeles, where median rents are actually lower, but still well above the 30% most experts suggest you spend on housing.

Why are the rents in San Francisco so high?

San Francisco has a severe housing shortage that is driving many residents to seek extreme solutions. Generous tech wages draw hordes of workers to the Bay Area, but high costs soon drive many away.

Nearly half — 46% — of Bay Area residents plan to move from the area soon, according to a survey from Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored advocacy group. Their top reasons: expensive cost of living and rising housing costs. (Case in point: Even with rents climbing toward $4,000, it's still more prudent to rent vs. buy in San Francisco.)

The city’s post-recession boom created this housing crisis.

“From 2010 to 2015, San Francisco created eight jobs for every home we built...and rents have skyrocketed as a result,” the city’s mayor-elect, London Breed, wrote in a essay on Medium.

How to find affordable rent in San Francisco

Keeping in mind that affordability is relative when it comes to the Bay Area (even New York City has areas where you can find studios for under $2,000), here are some neighborhoods in the area to search if you're looking for cheaper digs.

1. Western Addition

Adjacent to Pacific Heights and Hayes Valley, Western Addition is an ethnically- and economically-diverse neighborhood that includes the small sub-neighborhood of NoPa (North of the Panhandle). There are no convenient train stations, but you can get around easily on a bike or use the multiple MUNI bus lines connecting the neighborhood to employment nodes in the Financial District, SoMa and Mission Bay.

“The western part of the city has smaller, older buildings and is less connected via public transportation than other sub-markets in the city, which keeps rents more affordable,” Katerina Cheok, market analyst at Costar Group, the parent company of, says.

Median rent is $3,300, though a recent online search turned up a bright NoPa one-bedroom — with hardwood floors and a decorative fireplace — listed for $3,095 with parking available for an extra $250 a month.

“Renters can get the nice amenities — shopping, trendy restaurants and bars — available in the neighboring areas, with more affordability,” Crystal Chen, a spokesperson for Zumper, says.

2. Inner Sunset

Another affordable option is the neighborhood of Inner Sunset, just three miles from the Pacific Ocean.

“It used to be like the suburbs of the city, quiet and family-oriented. But within the past few years, a lot of new restaurants and shops have been popping up in the area,” Chen says.

Young professionals looking for a laid-back neighborhood with a small-town feel have been moving there in droves. Though Inner Sunset is on the outskirts of the San Francisco, it’s easily accessible to downtown by the MUNI trains.

It’s important to note that Inner Sunset sits within the fog zone, which means mornings and evenings tend to be foggy year round. The median rent is $2,700 for a one-bedroom.

3. Downtown Oakland

About 20 minutes from downtown San Francisco via BART, Oakland has a variety of relatively affordable alternatives.

Rents in Downtown Oakland are currently hovering around $2,170, per Zumper. With many new residential projects under construction, it’s expected that 5,700 new apartments will be added in the next few years.

“These units will be close to, if not the same quality, as new units in South of Market and Mission Bay — but at much more affordable rates,” says Cheok.

4. North Oakland

North Oakland is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the U.S — even inspiring a web series, “The North Pole,” that explores the changing racial and class dynamics when new residents and trendy businesses settle in a neighborhood.

North Oakland is next to downtown Oakland and also bordered by Berkeley, Emeryville and Piedmont. Renters can expect to pay $2,600 for a one-bedroom apartment, per Zumper.

5. Jack London

South of Interstate 880, the Jack London neighborhood is right on Oakland’s waterfront in a former warehouse and industrial zone. Also known as the Loft District, the area has been transformed by the arrival of live jazz bars and salsa dancing clubs. One-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood go for $2,750, according to Zumper.

6. Bonus tip: Moving in the off-season can pay off

In a quirk of the San Francisco rental market, new apartment buildings with many units to fill tend to offer some type of financial incentive to renters during the slow months. If you’re able take a lease that starts in the late fall or winter, when fewer people are moving, you may be able to bargain for a month or two of free rent or at least free parking, Chen says.

We can't curb burgeoning rents in big cities, but we can help you save on coverage for your stuff. You can quickly compare renters insurance quotes here.

Image: MargaretW