You can start your search for housing before you leave for San Francisco, but be aware that rentals go quickly and are usually not available much in advance. Finding housing in San Francisco can actually be done in a weekend if you are not too particular, but the better approach would be to allow several days after arrival. Here are some suggestions for starting your search:
Become familiar with housing vocabulary
A helpful list can be found here: Housing Terminology.
Come up with a wish list.
List the things that are important to you, and then try to order them by importance. Do you need laundry? Do you need to live on the top floor? Do you want to walk to work/school, or is public transportation okay? Do you need a parking spot? Can you deal with carpets or do you need hardwood floors? These are all important questions to decide on before you start your search.
Most landlords require a record of credit history and rental history references.
Their applications might also ask for a social security number or a driver’s license number. Since you are an international student or scholar, you may not have any of these documents. Instead, you may want to request a recommendation letter from your UCSF HR Generalist to give to the landlord. It also helps to mention that you are an employee or student at UCSF and that you have a degree (B.A., M.S., Ph.D.).
Become familiar with the names of neighborhoods
You will want to look for housing in a neighborhood near the UCSF campus where you will be working or studying, or along public transportation lines to make your commute more convenient since parking is difficult to find.
Check bulletin boards at UCSF (most ads are for roommates). The most popular ones are located at 513 Parnassus Ave in the Medical Science Building, near the main elevators on the first and second floor.
Walk or drive around looking for “For Rent” signs posted in the windows of houses and apartments.
After compiling a list of places that you are interested in, call to make appointments for viewing. It might be a good idea to borrow or lease a cell phone from a telephone or electronics store (see TELEPHONE SERVICE section). You may also want to prepare a script when leaving telephone messages for the landlord, mentioning that you are a new employee or student at UCSF and that you are looking forward to seeing the rental property. Remember to slowly and clearly state your name and telephone number where you may be reached.
When you find an apartment that you like, do not hesitate to let the landlord know immediately that you are interested. Suitable accommodations that satisfy your unique needs are hard to find in San Francisco. Make sure you have a blank check ready to make a deposit.
If you are able to secure an apartment you like, have someone look over your contract and application to check for possible problems.
Appropriate questions to ask your landlord might include what utilities are included in the rent (water, gas, electricity); when the apartment will be available; deposit amounts; safety of neighborhood; parking availability and costs; acceptability of pets (be aware that few landlords permit pets, especially dogs).
If you are looking for a roommate, it is perfectly acceptable to meet with the person for an interview. You would not want to move in with someone that might not be suitable for you. In fact, because the cost of housing is so high in San Francisco, it is common that people will live with several roommates to help share the cost of rent. Do not be surprised if you are asked for an interview yourself from everyone in the house.