Finding a lease in San Francisco can be a multi-week challenge. It has been said that signing a lease in SF rivals signing a marriage license in commitment.
To help in your search, use Craigslist, or a tool which looks at it like PadMapper. Don't bother with the "apartments for rent" magazinelets you may spot in grocery stores or the like, unless you want bland way-overpriced corporate-run mega-apartment-complex housing.
Watch out for rents that are too low. They might be income-limited. For instance, if you see a listing for $1200/mo for 1 bedroom near Caltrain when the local Avalon is charging $2000 a month, it's almost certainly income-limited. Or they might just be a scam to get your email address and send you mortgage-related spam. If your income qualifies you for income-limited apartments, that's all well and good, but be prepared for major waitlisting action.
At least as difficult as buying a house anywhere, except you're probably spending half a million dollars. You'll also pay more in interest, because you're not buying a detached single-family home, and since San Francisco has historically been weird about not allowing units to be condos, there's a good chance you'll have a Tenants In Common (TIC) legal structure to boot.
Most people end up leasing. Just saying. (If you're worried about "throwing money away", don't forget that paying interest on a mortgage is also "throwing money away.") Note that since most people lease, San Francisco is renter-friendly, and not all that landlord-friendly. This means that if you own and live in a house and later want to lease it out instead, this is easy. If you change your mind, though, you'll be subject to a variety of legal restrictions.
The Cynic's Guide to Apartment-Speak
- "View apartment" - the apartment possesses a window which does not simply face the wall of another building (or the same building)
- "Garden apartment" - apartment is a dark basement.
- "Modern" - apartment building is a boring beige box constructed in the 1960s.
- "Cozy" - You'd better have a wall-mount flat-screen TV, or there just won't be any room for it.
- "Vibrant" - There will be a bunch of drunk people out on the streets making noise at 2am.
- "Jazz district" - this is a euphemism for the Western Addition.
- "Lower Nob Hill" - apartment is probably actually in the Tenderloin.
- "NOT TENDERLOIN" - apartment is definitely in the Tenderloin