Real Estate

A tale of five cities

In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who have recently moved to San Francisco or who are hoping to move here as soon as they find a place to stay. Newcomers usually are looking for a place to rent, not buy. My advice to them — after first suggesting they take a swig of some strong liquor — is that they understand the uniqueness of finding a rental in this market. It’s not like most other places they’ve lived.

I was a renter until two and a half years ago. Before finally buying a condo here in the city, I had rented my housing ever since I moved into the dormitories at the University of Wisconsin. Over the following couple decades, I moved from city to city often enough that you might suspect I was fleeing something, but in reality I was just following the dictates of new jobs or existing relationships. From Madison to Indianapolis to New York to California, I paid my monthly fee to live in apartments, and I have learned that things can be very different in different cities.


Madison: In college, you expect to have a roommate. In my case, my freshman year roommate was a friend from high school, and we weathered the first-year dorms together, where the biggest danger was running afoul of the official line that they were to be called “residential halls” and not “dorms.” The next year I had my own dorm room, but after that it was apartment living all the way.

Indianapolis: Like the millennial whiners of today, I was graduated from college during a time of recession. There were no editorial jobs to be had in Madison, so I moved to Indianapolis when a friend offered a job at a think tank based there. In Indianapolis, housing was so cheap and the market so weak that you didn’t need a roommate; landlords were offering a couple months free rent just to get you to sign a 12-month lease.

Chicago: After a couple years in Indy, I got a new job and moved north to the Windy City. The rent was about the same as in Indianapolis, but the space was dramatically less. I went from a one-bedroom unit to a cramped studio along the lake. But I loved it.

New York: Life is complicated. For a number of reasons, I eventually ended up in New York around the turn of the century. This was my first roommate situation since college. Before moving there, I interviewed with five potential roommates. There was the older man who was a collector of art and artifacts from his world travels, which it was clear to me he would be very upset if I damaged in any way or touched. There was the young man from Virginia who was renting out his couch in the living room and who mentioned having to call the police because the apartment below him was being used as a brothel. There was the French guy who had the most charming accent but whom I could barely understand. There was the unfriendly looking businessman. And there was the friendly looking store manager on the Upper East Side, who became my roommate for the next two years.

Frankly, I would have moved to New York City right after college if I had thought of the roommate route. But for whatever reason, I didn’t even think of it and instead ended up in Indianapolis. Let this be a lesson to you.

San Francisco: When I moved to San Francisco, I was already partnered up, so a roommate situation would not have been in the cards. But I have hired a number of younger employees and interns here who can only make it work if they have roommates. Whether it’s the artist I know who lives in a shared artist loft — sort of a glorified squatter, really — or the cartoonist who rooms with a changing menagerie of roommates in Noe Valley, sharing the rent and the home is the key to living in this ridiculously expensive city, especially when you’re young.

Then again, I have a friend who is about to retire after a long career in biotech sales, and she is a great example of the other side of the San Francisco rental experience. She made good money and could have bought a place here at almost anytime since she arrived here as a young woman in the 1970s. Instead, she got a great second-floor apartment (without a roommate) and after her retirement she will probably buy a place elsewhere with her saved money.

Might I suggest Indianapolis?

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