A tale of two apartments, and tips on smart subletting

The guy in Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, traipsed between the East Coast and the West coast, with a lover on each one. I don’t have his luck or attention span. But I lead a double life when it comes to apartments. Up until now, I had two homes: one in San Francisco, where I’d lived until recently, and a temporary one on the East Coast. But it’s the one in the Golden State I was really saving myself for.

Once upon a time, I went through a rough end of a long lease and started looking for a new one. I checked out countless apartments, pretending to be interested in properties that looked nothing like their pictures on the internet. Plus, there was that lingo in Craigslist ads. “Cozy” means tiny. “Up and coming area” is code for muggings. “Very quiet neighbors” is often people who’ve been put there by the homeless association, or renting since the 19th century for $50 a month, hating on you for being a yuppy if your income is higher.

At some point during the search, moving into your parents’ basement in the suburbs and adopting a cat might start to seem like a good idea.

I was becoming desperate. Why was everyone I knew hosting dinners and board game nights, working out to Jane Fonda videos, or vegging out in their living rooms, while I ran around town still looking for “the one”? Why couldn’t I just settle down in a decent apartment and call it a day? There was no shortage of “nice” ones. Once, I’d even ended up at the same open house twice by accident. Perhaps I’d seen all there was to see, done all there was to do. Friends and family were beginning to worry. Some would have inklings: “I just know it! This is the week you’ll find it!” Others blamed my high standards. Even my father now joined the search. We’d cruise around San Francisco, trolling for “for rent” signs in my target neighborhoods. Now that the Jewish family got involved, the pressure was mounting.

And finally, after 31 futile attempts, I had found it. It was a sunny morning in July, with the bells of a streetcar chiming on Market Street. I followed the landlord up to the fourth floor, cognizant of the carpet’s softness against my heels, noticing the urban-looking warehouses and the highway through the windows. The stairs creaked lightly, underscoring the 1920’s detailing. I crumpled the paper with the addresses of other apartments I was scheduled to see right after and held my breath as the landlord opened the door.

And there it was. My apartment. It was big and sunny. The ceilings were high and fresh paint glistened on the walls. Its energy was like a bubble bath inviting you to step in and stay awhile. The Victorian bay window on the top floor afforded the views of treetops and rooftoops. Even the scent was warm and musky, rather than the mixture of Clorox and THC I’d gotten used to in my search. I smiled uncontrollably, probably appearing desperate – or nuts. I even got physical, running my hands along the walls, to inoculate the apartment from competition. And although the landlord tried to play hard to get with the contract and pricing, it was eventually mine. The perfect apartment.

Decoration came next. A dozen curtains and nearly as many coffee tables were purchased, tried, and then returned. Ten rolls of rugs were plopped up the staircase and then back down, until I found the perfect one. The wall paint had to be just so – not yellow, but custom-made “sunshine,” and the blues and the greens splashed from a palette of an inspired decorator in a committed lease. Like a good Russian girl, I’d even instituted the “no-shoes” policy”: visitors had to remove their shoes. After all, this was now my home.

There was the first soup cooked on the flickering stove top. The first morning coffee. The first dinner party.


Two years later, however, an opportunity came up, across the country. But I could not let my home go, so a dear friend kept it cozy in my absence. I’d informed the landlord I was in and out and he was okay with it. And when my friend needed to leave, I found temporary renters for three weeks on Craigslist: a couple, men in their late 20s, employed and courteous on phone and email.

Less than a week later, I received a call from the landlord. “There’ve been complaints from two neighbors about your subletters,” he barked into the phone. “They say it’s domestic violence. They’re thinking of calling the police.” Now, if you rent in San Francicsco or anywhere, you probably know that the “s” word is not a good word. Subletting is  illegal, even if verbally the management agrees. Details began to emerge. The couple, landing a place to sort out their relationship, argued and fought just about every night. In my sanctuary. They had to be out at once, the landlord said. From now on, it was either me in there – or nobody, he said.

As I haul out the furniture, the plants I’d once repotted, pictures of horses, curtains and dishes that entertained many-a-guest, as I trash those apartment tchotchkes that mean so much yet matter so little outside its walls, as I buy paint and primer to cover up the colors, as I scrub the subletters’ stains off the fabric and neutralize the smells, I reflect on what could have been done differently.

So here are some tips on subletting.

1) Don’t sublet.

2) If you must, clear it with the landlord by being transparent, depending on your relationship.

3) Always start with friends, or friends’ friends.

4) Advertise on Craigslist or Airbnb – and only respond to people whom you might be able to track down later. Don’t respond unless they indicate where they work and use a realistic email address. Those might be phony too, but it’s a start.

5) Look them up on Facebook and LinkedIn. Google their email address and name. You might be surprised by what the internet coughs up. Maybe it’s a photo of a shirtless man in leather pants with a whip. Or a dating profile of a recent college grad who likes to drink and party with people of all sexes, at the same time (yes, all that happened). Is your apartment old enough for that?

6) Their relationship status. Are they single and looking? They could be doing a lot of various looking on your bed while you’re gone. Is their relationship rocky? Think of all that throwing and lung power.

7) Charge a huge deposit, just to be safe. In my case, it turned out to be helpful.

8. Ascertain your neighbors. My next-door neighbor was troubled to begin with and dramatized the situation to the landlord (a separate post about warning signs to come).

9) Remove all valuables, including expensive liquor. Anything that closes can be opened.

10) Specify that this is a quiet building. Freak the renters out with stories of evil-doers and the wrath.

The odds are, none of these tips will work. The odds are, they will. I could have been back home now, kicking back on my couch and squinting at the sunlight pouring through the window, if not for a nasty neighbor and poorly-researched tenants. Instead, I’m out the door to sell the rest of my furniture. So I’ll sign off with two things. Be smart about subletting. And even if the landlords double the price when you move out (welcome to the housing boom of the Mission District), there are other apartments out there. It will just take time, they say.

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