By Phillip Molnar, San Diego Union Tribune
Reporter Phillip Molnar moved to San Diego from Monterey. He moved into a 300-square-foot apartment that costs $1,100 a month.
I didn’t cry while searching for a San Diego apartment, but I came close.
Moving to the city on a Sunday night, I had a five-day reservation at a Motel 6 and needed to find an apartment fast. I also had my 6-year-old tabby cat with me and a new job as real estate reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune to start the next day.
I was fairly confident I’d find a place quickly because in the last decade I had managed to get apartments in London, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, rural New Jersey, Northeast Pennsylvania and, most recently, Monterey.
Not only did San Diego turn out to be the most difficult, it made me change nearly everything I thought I wanted.
My criteria was a one-bedroom apartment near the beach that allows cats, a rent of no more than $1,200 and was fairly close to work.
To say the least, I stayed at the Motel 6 longer than expected.
Ignorance of what neighborhood I was in most of the time was exacerbated only by a rental market that has seen prices increase — up to 6 percent in the last 12 months — and vacancy rates plummet.
The average rent in San Diego for a one-bedroom unit is $1,460 a month, according to the San Diego County Apartment Association, and the city has a low vacancy rate of 4.2 percent.
The county as a whole is fairly similar, says MarketPointe Realty Advisors, which conducts a wider rental survey of large apartment complexes. County studios rented for an average $1,301 a month in September and a one bedroom was $1,401. Out of 129,706 apartments in the MarketPointe study, 3,669 were vacant.
It took just two days for me to fight against every thrifty bone in my body to increase what I would spend from $1,250 to $1,300 to $1,350.
The first apartment I saw was a dive in North Park for $1,295 a month that looked like it was about to collapse. Its floorboards were warped, all the appliances looked at least 30 years old (and not in a cool, charming way) and it was boiling hot inside. Still, three people showed up to see it in the 15 minutes I was there.
The next dozen or so apartments were pretty similar. If the inside of the place looked nice, it usually meant the neighbor was blasting music through thin walls. If the price fit my budget, the apartment was smack dab on a major intersection with no street parking. If it was perfect, the landlord didn’t allow cats.
I stayed up late into the night at the Motel 6 sifting through more and more postings on Craigslist, which had the most listings and updated more quickly than other sites I used — Apartment List, Padmapper, Apartments.com, Live Lovely. I even went old school and checked out the San Diego Union-Tribune rentals page.
As the search dragged on I began considering areas outside the city, like El Cajon, Lemon Grove, Chula Vista, National City and Imperial Beach. My goal of living near work or the beach had to be thrown out.
Yet, even those far away searches were pretty awful on Craigslist. A lot of posters did not put an address, only had one terrible picture, and I could waste a whole night driving out there. Plus, it wasn’t nearly as cheap as I had hoped.
The worst night was when a co-worker and I drove around Bankers Hill calling every apartment building we saw. Out of at least 10 calls, only one called back. And it was selling condos — not renting.
Apparently, I was looking at the best possible time (end of September, beginning of October), according to Realtor Jason Cassity, who works with sellers and renters at City Consulting Group downtown.
“That last week and that first week of the month is going to have the most inventory,” he said.
But my problem continued to be a budget. I wanted to stick to it. Even though I would plug $1,350 a month into searches, I really didn’t mean it.
Sticker shock for renters like me in San Diego is the result of several factors, said Russ Valone, president of MarketPointe Realty Advisors. He said the lack of new homes being built has pushed buyers to purchase older houses that would have been used for rentals. Also the luxury apartments being built drive up rent and vacancy rates, allowing landlords ofolder properties to increase what they charge.
“You have to sort of look at it as a domino effect,” he said.
Cassity said he does not hear a lot of complaining about rents despite increases.
“I think downtown, specifically, you have a lot of young professionals who make money. They know (rent is) high, and higher than it’s been in the past, but at the same time they know they want to live in an urban environment,” he said.
There is some data to support expectations of renters but it does not necessarily reflect how happy they are about it. A September report from Apartment List found its users were typing $1,600 a month into a “max rent” form to start their search for a two-bedroom place. The median price for a two-bedroom is $1,900 on Apartment List so the study figured potential renters were not overly disappointed.
Having a cat, who basically adopted me at my first reporting job in New Jersey, turned out not to be a huge factor either. I didn’t even pay a pet deposit for my cat, Shanahan.
Cassity and San Diego County Apartment Association spokeswoman Molly Kirkland said pets are becoming less of an issue, especially those that are small. Many renters want pets so landlords are loosening restrictions.
Stories of renters going above and beyond for apartments are common, but not as prevalent in San Diego as one might think. Kirkland said she hasn’t seen potential renters offering cash upfront for places or many people renting before seeing units, but she has heard of people writing individual letters to landlords.
I eventually decided I wanted a place with parking because so many apartments I checked out required me to park blocks away. Kirkland said it is difficult to have expectations for parking in the city because it almost varies street to street.
I finally found a 300-square-foot studio I really liked near Morley Field in North Park for $1,100 a month. I had reservations because it was so small, but the price was right and it was close to work. It also has a large backyard — perfect for my cat — with a parking spot, which was a relief.
The apartment was recently refurbished with new cabinets and appliances. It is missing the amenities the modern man might expect — washer and dryer, oven, microwave, a bedroom — but it works for me. Just a few days in and I’m surprised how much I love it.
When asked what advice he could give new renters, a real estate economist with CoStar Group, Sam Tenenbaum, could not help but laugh.
“One of the things we like to say about San Diego is it is perennially under-housed,” he said. “We’re tracking vacancies south of 3 percent . . . ‘Good luck’ is probably the best advice we could give.”
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