Day 7: The hunt for rental accomodation

Since I arrived in America, the hunt has been on. For a place to rent that is! But first some background that I didn’t mention in my first blog post.

An opportunity not to be squandered

I’m one of the fortunate ones to get a soft landing arriving in a new country which I’ve explained in Day Zero. I’m cognisant of this fact. What I didn’t mention in my last blog post is the experience my parents went through when they migrated to Australia and why I’m grateful for my experience so far. My only recollection on my parents migrating to Australia is from the anecdotal stories they handed down to me. My mother chose to migrate to Australia because it was one of the few countries that recognised her qualifications from Hong Kong as a nurse. This is because it was also a Commonwealth country. She chose Australia because she knew a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. Basically, some random connection from her home. But it was better than nothing.

She chose Australia out of United Kingdom and Canada. In another life, had she known someone in those other countries I’d be born a British or Canadian citizen. Cantonese was her first language, Mandarin her second and English a distant third. She wouldn’t have spoken any more than basic English when she arrived. Coming off the plane, she had very little money, no job offer and no connections other than this 1 person. She certainly had no driver to pick her up from the airport, 30 days accommodation or a a stocked fridge organised for her.

My mother during her life in Australia has raised 3 kids, looked after my grandma, whilst holding down two full time jobs at the same time. She also completed a university degree during this time and in a language that was foreign to her! She was the first in our immediate family to graduate with a university degree. For some context, my aunty (mum’s sister) did not go to high school and went directly into the workforce. My grandmother never went to school. She cannot read or write in her native language, Chinese. My mother was chosen by my family to attend high school. She was able to do so on a partial scholarship whilst also working at the school tutoring the other high school kids & helping to maintain the school. Mum and dad I love you for what you have provided us & the opportunities afforded to us to pursue our dreams and aspirations.

So I have every advantage arriving in America with a significant head start over what my parents had when they migrated to Australia. I have a job, temporary accommodation, relocation allowance and assistance with my visa paperwork. I’m educated with two university degrees and have 8 years experience in the technology industry. I can speak, read and write English fluently which is the native language of where I’m arriving. I have financial resources. I’m also backed up by my employer. Much love to the HR, payroll, relocation, mobile core teams at Atlassian who I’ve been working with and believed in me to bring me to America. I’m skilled at what I do and I believe I’m world class in the field that I’m in which is mobile apps. That’s why I’ve come to Silicon Valley. I want to work with the best, learn from the best and compete against the best. I’m also joining a fantastic team I already know and work with. It is not lost on me the opportunity that has been provided to me. Hence, I’m going to make the most of this opportunity.

The need for shelter

Now lets return to the hunt for accommodation!

There’s a famous conceptual model of human needs known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Its basically a triangle with the basic needs at the bottom which need to be fulfilled first before moving up to the next level. By understanding people’s needs, we can understand their motivations. You’ll find this model in every standard management textbook.

Maslow pyramid

Physiological needs are considered the most basic needs. These basic needs include food, water, shelter, warmth. The basic needs that are required for a human to survive. Its clear I found food and water since I described eating chicken & waffles on Day Zero! I wonder what my mother ate on Day Zero when she arrived in Australia. I must ask her.

Finding accommodation is the thing that’s probably stressed me the most before I arrived and during the first 7 days. I’ve also become run down from travelling, moving and organising stuff. I’ve got a cold & cough. It can happen to me when I change climates and countries. I’m not used to the windy weather in SF. It’s also been raining a lot in the past 7 days. I probably stayed up to late looking for accommodation as well.

When I looked at the model of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it makes sense to me why I was stressed about it & why I focused on it. Shelter is the most basic human need we have. That’s why psychologically I’m worried about it. I feel that its something I need to control. I need to find something to lock in and secure to feel settled. Then I can keep moving up the hierarchy of needs and eventually to self actualisation (reaching my potential).

But I don’t need to be stressed. I have a job. I have money. I have a company that is willing to help me out and has provided relocation services including helping me look for accommodation. I know how to search the internet. Its only a matter of time. I’ve also spoken to friends here who said I should be able to find a place in a week or so. I’m sure my parents would not have had any of these resources and capabilities back then. Also, the more places I see, the more comfortable I am now. To date, I’ve inspected 5 places and could theoretically decide to accept any of them.

Here’s what I did that might help you in your journey and hopefully de-stress you from the process.


When I was overseas in Australia, I was very limited in what I could do because I wasn’t on the ground. In the 2-3 weeks before I left Australia, I spent several days between packing/organising stuff and looking for accommodation. I started looking on 3 sites: Craigslist, Trulia and Zillow. I also reached out to as many people I knew in the Bay Area to get their thoughts on where to live and what to look for. Thank you to Jade Feng, Christian Thurston, Charles Ma, Andy Chang, Joy Xuan, Mick Liubinskas, Amy Huang, Carmen Yip, and many more for their help & advice. My scenario is that I’m working in Mountain View and I was figuring out where to live (SF or MTV). There were also a lot of useful Quora discussion on this topic as well.

Based on those interactions and my research, I decided that I was going to try living in San Francisco and commute to Mountain View (MTV). The commute is 45 mins on the baby bullet train from SF. This is the fast train. There’s a slower train that can take 1hr – 1hr 15mins. I’ve also been to SF before and quite like the city.

I don’t have a lot of experience being in MTV nor know many people there. I also felt like there were more things to do for me in SF. As a single person, SF was better for me. If I had a family and needed more space, MTV or the surrounding areas would have been ideal. I’d also get more bang for my buck. I would like to spend the first 12 months in SF. As I get more familiar with the Bay Area, explore it and know more poeple, I may move to MTV in the future. I’m keeping that option open.

Having said that, I recognise that my choice will probably have an impact on the city and rental prices. Due to living one hour away, I won’t spend as much time in either location. Its probably not good for the environment either because it takes energy and resources to commute humans from SF to MTV and vice versa. Buses & trains take their toll on the environment. In addition, it probably drives up rent in the neighbourhoods near the Caltrains.

Hence I’m also getting a rental tour of Mountain View and Menlo Park next week to compare. Obviously, Mountain view as thats where I’m working. Menlo Park is cheaper particularly if I want a studio. Palo Alto is too expensive. I’ve been told Redwood is another potential option.

My criteria

I’m going to share with you the criteria I came up with. Its a list I created to share with the relocation agent. I know that sharing the rental budget may also be a disadvantage in any future negotiation. But I’ve been told you can’t negotiate the sticker price for rent anyway! But I hope that by sharing it I can help others set some expectations based on what I am looking for and what you can expect. Maybe you can help me too and point out anything I’m missing 🙂

– Current office location: opposite Mountain View Caltrain station.
– I want to be in SF
– Location has to be close to Caltrain in SF for convenience

– Areas: SoMa, Mission Bay, Dogpatch, Potrero Hill.
– Open to other suggestions.
– Close to Caltrain to Mountain View (4th & King St) or other Caltrain stations (22nd street)
– Within 15mins walking
– Close to BART / MUNI (other forms of transport)

– $1,500 – $2,000 USD for a room in a shared apartment (See notes below on how I calculated my budget)
– # of rooms: 2 (for 2 people).
– 1 bathroom (is more affordable than 2)
– Open to studio option in $2k – $2.2k range.
– Preference is to share as it will be cheaper. Preference is not with a couple.
– Can sign a 6-12 month lease. I would like to try out living in SF and commuting to MTV.

– Must move in by this date: 13 May 2017. I can move in earlier
– Inspectable from 15 April. That’s when I’m in SF
– Close to gym (update: seems to be plentiful in SF)
– Supermarket nearby
– No pets (dogs/cats)
– Prefer not to live with a couple
– Safe area

Research sources
Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow

Budgeting for rent

My initial budget was $1,500 – $1,800 USD. Having spoken to the relocation agent, they suggested I needed to raise my budget to $2.2k (or even up to $2.5k) for the areas I was considering. My upper limit is $2k – $2.1k. When I heard that I needed to increase my budget to this, I was like this is nuts. That is so expensive. That means I’m paying ~$500 USD per week for a shared room which is $662 AUD. Also for a space thats not that big.

I got to this number by doing my own research on the above websites and calibrating it by speaking to people familiar with the area. It is possible to find cheaper accommodation in the lower range of my budget in areas like Dogpatch and Portero Hill. If you move further out to Sunset & west areas, it is cheaper. You can find places that are $1,200 and up. I’ve also seen some places advertised for like $800. I have no idea if they are any good, but that’s what I have seen online.

Some further consideration was working out what I wanted to spend as a % of my salary. I worked out the annual cost of renting and compared that against my salary. I arrived at a range that I’m comfortable with. I came up with a spreadsheet with each price point and worked out what my upper range was. I haven’t done as much budgeting as I should have in terms of working out other living costs.

My intention is to be able to save some money for the future. I want to have enough money that I can put away for superannuation, investments (stocks, property, startups), travel and for a rainy day. The more money I can save underneath my upper threshold, the more I can put it towards other things that I value.

rent as % of salary templateBy comparing it against your salary you’ll have a better idea of how much you want to spend. In the example above, I’ve used an example of a $100k salary. This way you can ask yourself do I want to spend 16%, 20% or 25% of my salary on rent? What is my upper bound? You can access my template here and adjust as needed. Feel free to copy it and make it your own.

I would also like to highlight that I’m cheap 🙂 Well at least I think I am. I’m trying to balance convenience vs price. Its a difficult equation. All the areas I’m looking at are expensive because I want to optimise for the least time to travel to work from SF. I’ve also reconciled that I may take a bigger hit on rent as  % of salary and look to save money in other ways. This could be in the form of eating in, making my own food, eating food at work, using coupons, using UberPool, buying clothes from factory outlets and other means to save money. This then enables me to do the things I care about.

Hence I would recommend thinking about the rent as a % of salary. I was also able to calibrate it with my brother for how much he pays in London compared to his salary to understand how much I should be paying in a bigger city. There’s a reason why San Francisco is the room mate capital of the US.

Interesting discoveries & learnings

I’ve going to jot these down as bullet points.

1. I was able to line up 2 inspections before I arrived in US. I contacted people via Craigslist in the few days before I left Australia. I figured it would take some time to go back and forth in communicating. In Craigslist, you can search for rooms to share and sublets.

2. I arrived on Friday and went to visit my first inspection on Saturday and another on Tuesday. I went to these on my own and used Uber to travel there. I usually arrive about 15-20 mins earlier so I can check out the neighbourhood before hand and also walk around afterwards to orientate myself.

3. Typically, the first day of the month is when rent is due. e.g. 1 May, 1 June.
Hence you need to start paying by this date and you want to move in around this time to maximise what you are paying. This learning is unfortunate for me because my accommodation is paid up til 13 May so I may end up paying for 13 days when I’m already covered. I would try to factor in when you arrive with when rental agreements start and my next point on when properties are posted. It may be difficult for you as you may need to also start work by a certain date.

4. The San Francisco market is very fluid. Properties go up 1 – 2 weeks out from when they are available. Demand seems to outstrip supply. I started looking from start and middle of April. This is too early if I want to move in around mid-May. Hence I’m actually doing the rental tour on the 22nd April for 1 May or slightly later move in.

5. Two bedroom apartments can become 3 bedroom apartments as these apartments are flexed. This means that they convert the living room into another room. Sometimes there is a physical partition (thin wall) or something more moveable like a Japanese style fence thing (doesn’t reach the roof). I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to live in a proper 2 bedroom apartment with only 2 rooms. This is because I’ve visited them and they seem too cramped. Plus there’s no living room and it makes the whole place darker. I want a place that I can relax, eat, walk around a bit. If you want to save money, these are the places to check out. You can find a room for around $1,400 – $1,500 USD if its a 2br apartment has been flexed.

6. Every place I’ve been to has asked for a security deposit and first month’s rent. Typically the deposit ranges from $500 to the rental amount. I’d say the rental amount seems common. So if your place is renting at $1,500 / month then you need to also provide $1,500 as a rental bond. I did visit a place during the week that asked for 2 month’s rent because I was 1) foreigner with no credit history and could leave and 2) furnished. It seemed reasonable when they explained why, but I have nothing to compare it against. I did challenge them on that point. I can understand where they are coming from. I’ve been to other places that only asked for security equivalent to a month’s rent

7. Caltrain’s first stop in San Francisco is 4th & king. It starts to fill up there and then goes to 22nd station. So you can definitely get a seat at 4th & king. In fact it arrives 15 mins earlier and you can get on board. This is also useful if you have a bike. There’s a separate carriage for bikes. I noticed that the 22nd station only has stairs, whereas 4th & king is flat. Its also an extra 5 mins travel to 4th & king. Not all trains stop at 22nd during the day but during the peak travel hours (morning and evenings) it does stop.

8. I did a test run during peak hour from SF to MTV. I caught a train I would typically catch to see what it was like. I’ve also walked from each of the places I inspected to the train station to understand how far it is. This is in addition to using Google Maps to check the distance.

9. 22nd Caltrain station looks sketchy but its fine according to friends and colleagues that catch it every day. It goes underneath a highway underpass, has poor lighting, no signage and has trash littered on the station and around it.

10. Walk around the neighbourhoods to check out the nearby shops, cafes, etc.. You also need to be aware that some neighbourhoods have unsafe areas and also projects nearby. Its not something I’m used to back home. You can ask the person showing you the property about it or check a crime map. My interpretation of the crime map is that green is good. Yellow not so good. Red is bad. I would def check with a local person for places you are considering.

11. There are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco. It is very visible to me and affronting to me because I’m not used to it from back home. It also speaks to the problem in SF of an inequality of the distribution of wealth. I’ve noticed that they do find shelter underneath high way underpasses. I assume its because it provides protection from rain and less wind. I would do the same thing too if I was in that situation. Remember they also have basic needs for shelter and security according to Maslow’s hierarchy. I would like to get involved in some kind of community program to give back to the city and to help them out.

12. You need to factor in about $100/month for expenses such as utilities and internet. Some places include it, but the majority have it as additional to the price of rent.

13. On Craigslist for apartment shares, they ask for your Linkedin profile and Facebook profile. So make sure they are up to date and you are comfortable sharing them. I also updated my location to show San Francisco since I’m here now. I’ve even seen some ask for Instagram profile #sohipster. What is this Tinder?

14. You need to have a US phone number and bank account. Some ads ask for your phone number and you need it to ring people if you are running late or in case you can’t find the place. You need to have the bank account so you can transfer funds. If you want to put a holding deposit on a place, you need to write a cheque. Some banks and credit unions offer temporary cheques. My bank didn’t but I was able to get a money order. A money order has a preset amount on it. That amount will be applied against the security/rent for the first month.

15. If you’re cutting cheques or transferring money, you obviously need to have money in your US bank account. Get your house in order and make sure you move money into your account. It takes time for you to transfer money internationally. From Australia to US is about 2 business days.

16. Landlords will ask about your credit history and SSN (social security number). These are fields in the rental application which costs $30 for them to run. You probably won’t have any of this yet. So a letter from your employer can be an alternative to prove your a reliable and credit worthy person. My employer provided a standard letter with my salary and role. You may also need to provide bank statements, a copy of visa/passports doc, and references. What you are trying to show here is that you can pay.

17. The typical times for inspections are weekends and weeknights (after work). I have inspected some during the day if the person was home. For Mountain View, you can inspect during the day since they are apartment complexes. You also need to provide your ID (driver’s license or some other ID) when inspecting apartments in a complex if an agent or leasing manager is showing you.

18. Some places come furnished or you can buy furnishings off the person moving out. If you’re looking at renting out a full apartment, it probably won’t be furnished. That’s a cost you need to factor in.

To date, I’ve inspected 5 properties that I sourced myself from Craigslist. I’m about to go on my rental tour with a relocation agent in an hour. Will keep you posted in the next update!

If you know of a shared room or you are also looking for a place near Caltrain, please reach out to me.

I’m out like Maslow’s hierarchy,
Matt Ho

One thought on “Day 7: The hunt for rental accomodation

  1. Pingback: inspiredworlds - Day 13: New accomodation, new room mate - inspiredworlds

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