Viewing and Securing Properties

Meeting the Landlord

Calling a Landlord

The first phone call you make to your potential landlord is most likely the most important. Oftentimes, you will need to leave a message. Below are some tips to help you.

  • Say hi and give your full name.
    "Hi, my name is _____________."
  • State what unit you are calling about. Oftentimes, landlords have several units on the market, so stating this right away will help you avoid confusion and annoyance.
    "I saw your listing on Craigslist for a 1-bedroom apartment in the Richmond. I am interested in learning more about it."
  • Give a brief summary of your status and timeline. Emphasize any positive characteristic that will make you appear mature and reliable. For example, if you are a graduate student or an honors students, mention that.
    "I am a third-year student studying nursing at USF and I am looking for an apartment to move into within the next month."
  • If you have any specific needs, ask about them right away. For example, if you have a pet or are a smoker, you should find out immediately if the landlord allows that in the unit. This will avoid wasting their time and yours.
    "Before we schedule a viewing, can you tell me if you allow pets in the unit? I have a pet dog, but it is house-broken and accustomed to living in a small apartment."
    "Do you allow smoking in the unit?"
  • Ask for a viewing. Be as flexible as possible. The landlord typically has many people interested in renting a unit, so the more accommodating you are, the better chance you have of finding a unit.
    "I would like to schedule a time to view the unit. I am available all afternoon today, if that would work for you."
  • Above all, be sure to be polite, informative, and to the point. Additionally, make sure to speak clearly and sound mature.

If you have to leave a message, be sure to state your phone number towards the beginning of the message, and then give your name and phone number a second time at the end of the message.

Meeting the Landlord

When meeting the landlord, you want to make a good impression. Here are some suggestions:

  • Be punctual: Landlords usually require appointments to view the property. Arrive on time to make a positive impression. If you cannot make the appointment, call the landlord to reschedule or cancel.
  • Be presentable: Landlords want to rent to people who are mature, responsible, and reliable. Your attire can be a reflection of these qualities. Attention to your attire may improve your chances when there are several applicants competing for the same housing unit.
  • Ask questions: Be sure to ask questions about the apartment. You have the right to know everything about the property you will be renting. For a complete list of topics to ask about, see Inspecting the Property.
  • Bring your checkbook: The San Francisco market is very competitive and desirable units are often rented out very quickly. So, be prepared to pay an application, a security/cleaning deposit, and 1-2 months of rent the day you go to view the apartment. Most landlords will not hold a unit for a potential tenant. If you do not have a checking account, you should consider bringing a money order or cashier's check that covers the advertised deposits or fees.

Safety precautions for viewing a property:

  • Tell a friend where you're going.
  • If you have a cell phone, take it with you.
  • Try to schedule the viewing during the day.
  • Consider having a friend go with you.
  • Trust your instincts.

Inspecting the Property

When viewing a rental unit, be prepared to inspect for problems or damage. Completing a unit condition checklist may save you time and money at the end of you lease. This checklist will serve as proof of the condition of the unit at the time of rental, in case there is a dispute about damage. When you complete your Unit Condition Checklist, have your landlord sign it and then give him/her a copy and keep a copy for yourself.

Health and Safety Checklist

  • Cracks in the floors or walls
  • Signs of leaks or water damage.
  • Signs of rust in water taps (be sure to turn on faucets)
  • Leaks in bathroom or kitchen fixtures
  • Lack of hot water (check size of hot water tank; ask how many units share one tank)
  • Defective heating or air conditioning
  • Improper ventilation and lighting
  • Defects in or exposed electrical wiring and fixtures
  • Damage to flooring and carpeting, including stains and tears
  • Damage to furnishings and window coverings
  • Signs of mildew or mold
  • Broken appliances (turn on stove burners, garbage disposal, refrigerator, etc.)
  • Insect or rodent infestations, especially in cabinets, under sinks, and around baseboards
  • What is the maintenance policy? Who is responsible for fixing what?
  • Is there a fire escape?
  • Does the unit have at least one smoke detector?

A picture is worth a thousand words...

It is a good idea to take detailed pictures of the unit before moving in. If there is any dispute about the condition of the unit when you move out, the pictures will serve as good evidence. Save these pictures along with a copy of the Unit Condition Checklist.

Lifestyle Checklist

  • Who else lives in the complex (single professionals, families, etc.)?
  • How is the safety of the nightlife in the area? Do you feel comfortable?
  • How is the noise level in the area? Is there a fire station or a busy street nearby?
  • Where is the heating?
  • Is there enough closet or storage space?
  • Are on-site laundry facilities available?
  • Ask about the painting schedule. If the landlord promises to paint the unit before you move in, get this in writing.
  • Check the conditions of public areas, such as entrances and hallways. That is a good indicator of the quality of the maintenance you can expect.
  • Check to see if there is sufficient overhead lighting or if you would have to provide supplemental lighting.

Property Security Checklist

  • Are the building and grounds well maintained?
  • Are the stairways, sidewalks, and parking areas well lit?
  • Is there an intercom system?
  • Are the exterior doors kept locked?
  • Are curtains, blinds, or shades provided?
  • Are there abandoned buildings and/or graffiti on buildings in the neighborhood?
  • Exterior door:
  • Is it solid core wood or metal?
  • Have hinges on the inside, not the outside?
  • Does the door fit tightly in the doorframe (no more than 1/8" clearance)?
  • What type of security does the unit have (door knob locks, deadbolt lock, peephole, etc.)?
  • Do tree, weeds, or bushes obscure the door?
  • Windows and sliding glass doors:
  • Are they reinforced by a solid strip of wood (e.g. broom handle) in the track?
  • Do they have security bars to prevent entry?
  • Are there sturdy locks on all windows?
  • Do trees, weeds, or bushes obscure the window?

Rental Application

Most landlords will ask you to complete a rental application form, which is not the same as the rental agreement (a.k.a. the 'lease'). The rental application is similar to an employment or credit application. The application will typically ask you for the following information:

  • Name (include any previous names you may have)
  • Social Security Number and driver's license number
  • Current and past addresses and telephone numbers
  • Current and past landlords
  • Current and past employers
  • Financial accounts (bank account numbers, credit card numbers, etc.)
  • Monthly income (including salary, scholarships, loans, etc.)
  • References
  • If applicable, names of other individuals who will be living in the unit

View our Sample Rental Application Packet. Please note that all materials included inside the sample rental packet are samples including the rental application. The rental application may not reflect the actual rental application you fill out.

A landlord may refuse to rent to you if s/he does not feel you are financially reliable. However, federal, state, and local laws prevent landlords from discriminating against people based on protected characteristics (e.g. race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, source of income, etc.). Questions or concerns about discrimination should be directed to:

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing Department
Phone: (800) 233-3212

Part of the cost of finding a new apartment is the deposit you will have to make to move in or even hold it for you. The sections below will provide you with the information on holding deposits and security deposits, as well as what to do if your deposit is not refunded when you move out.

Holding Deposit

If you agree to rent an apartment but are not going to move in immediately, the landlord may ask you for a holding deposit. This is a cash deposit to hold the unit, usually for a stated amount of time, until you pay the first month's rent and security deposits. If you change your mind about moving in, the landlord may be able to keep your deposit.

Ask the following questions before paying any deposit:

  • If you decide to rent the unit, will the holding deposit be applied to the first month's rent?
  • Is any of the holding deposit refundable if you change your mind about renting?
  • Ask for a deposit receipt.

Security Deposit

A security deposit is an amount given to the landlord to guarantee that you will fulfill the terms of the rental agreement and that you will leave the unit in good condition. Almost all landlords in San Francisco require a security deposit in addition to your first month's rent.

The security deposit is often referred to as 'last month's rent' or a 'cleaning deposit.' Regardless of the name, the same principles apply.

For more information on security deposits, see also


Make sure your rental agreement clearly states that the amount of the security deposit and the date you paid it. If you paid by check, you may also want to note the check number on the rental agreement. Always obtain a receipt for a security deposit.

Deposit Amount

State law limits the amount a landlord can require for a security deposit. The total amount cannot be more than the equivalent of two month's rent for an unfurnished unit, or three month's rent for a furnished unit.


The San Francisco Administrative Code requires landlords to pay simple interest on security deposits unless the rent is subsidized by a government agency. The current rate until February 2014, is 0.4% on money held over one year. Many landlords prefer to take the interest amount off of your rent instead of paying it directly to you.


Under California law, security deposits are refundable. There is no such thing as a 'non-refundable' security deposit. All money that you pay up front, except any monies that go towards your rent, must be paid back to you as long as the rental agreement is honored.

The law allows landlords to retain all or part of your deposit under certain circumstances, including compensation for the following:

  • Outstanding unpaid rent
  • Cleaning the unit after you move out, if the unit was not left as clean as when you moved in
  • Replacing or restoring furniture, furnishings, keys, or other items belonging to your landlord
  • Any damage beyond normal wear and tear
  • Vacating the unit without giving your landlord written notice 30 days in advance

Within 21 days after you move out, your landlord must either:

  • Send you a full refund of the security deposit, including any unpaid interest, or
  • Send you an itemized statement that lists the reasons for the amount of any deductions from the deposit.

Note for Roommates and Subletters:

Landlords do not have to return the security deposit to anyone other than the person who originally paid that deposit on the lease. For roommates living together, it is important to understand the best way to deal with the security deposit. If the tenant who paid the deposit moves out while the other tenant stays, it is a good idea to have the landlord pay the security deposit back to the person leaving and then have the remaining tenant pay a new deposit on the lease. This will ensure that the new tenant will be able to get the security deposit back when s/he chooses to move out.

If your deposit is not refunded

If your deposit is not returned to you, here are suggestions on how to proceed:

  • Write a letter to your landlord demanding your deposit. In the letter, inform the landlord that s/he is in violation of California Civil Code, Section 1950. Keep a copy of the letter and mail it via Certified Mail in order to get a receipt of delivery from the post office.
  • If the landlord does not respond, fill out a form for Small Claims Court. If the landlord refuses to return the deposit within 21 days, you may be entitled to additional penalty charges if you can prove that the landlord acted in bad faith. The burden of proof is on the landlord, meaning the s/he must be able to prove why s/he is not returning your money.

    Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to be prepared to prove that you left the unit in good condition, and that you have no unpaid rent outstanding. Having pictures of the unit at move-in and move-out will help to document the condition of the unit.

Small Claims Court is used to settle claims up to $7,500 without the delay and cost of going through a normal court process. You do not need an attorney for Small Claims Court. However, it is important that you have the appropriate documentation for your case, including any letters, receipts, or photographs.

For more information on Small Claims Court:

Phone: (415) 551-4000

Rental Agreement (Lease)

Before you sign a rental agreement, it is important you understand the terms completely. Breaking a rental agreement can have hefty penalties or, in some cases, may not even be possible.

General Information

You and your landlord will enter into a lease or a periodic rental agreement (e.g. month-to-month). Unless the written agreement states otherwise, the rental period is the amount of time between rental payments. The tenancy expires at the end of each period for which the rent has been paid and is renewed with the new payment of rent. In other words, every month your tenancy expires at the end of the month and you renew your tenancy with the payment of rent. Even a month-to-month rental agreement will spell out the amount of time that a landlord must give the tenant for such changes as raising the rent or ending the rental agreement. Likewise, the rental agreement will indicate the required length of notice that the tenant must give before moving out.

A lease usually creates a longer rental term than a periodic rental agreement. Most residential leases are for six months or a year, even though the rent is usually paid monthly. If you have a lease, your rent cannot be raised while the lease is in effect, unless the period of the lease expires for certain reasons, such as failing to pay rent or damaging the property. A lease may be difficult for you to break, especially if the landlord cannot find another tenant to take over the lease. Before you sign any lease agreement, read it carefully and make sure you understand and can meet the terms of the lease. If you have questions about any condition in the lease, take the document to someone who is qualified to give legal advice.

Rental Agreement Elements

The rental agreement should contain the following elements:

  • Parties: names of the landlord, tenant, and all other occupants
  • Property: address and description of the property
  • Term of tenancy: month-to-month, six months, one year, etc.
  • Rent: amount, date due, and acceptable payment methods
  • Late fees: any charges applicable to late rent payments and period at which a payment is considered late
  • Security deposit: amount, date received, percent interest, how interest will be paid, and the process for return of deposit at the end of the lease. Click here for more information on security deposits.
  • Default: what can happen in the event of default (i.e. the failure of either party to fulfill the terms of the lease)
  • Pets: policy on pets, number of pets, species/weight limitations, pet deposit amount and conditions for refund
  • Additional occupants: number of occupants allowed
  • Utilities: utilities included in rent (if any)
  • Maintenance: who is responsible for maintenance and repairs

Always request a copy of the completed agreement after you and the landlord have signed it. Keep the copy for the duration of your tenancy in the unit.

Additional Resources

The following resources provide information on housing and tenancy laws in California:

San Francisco Rent Board

25 Van Ness Ave, Suite 320
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: (415) 252-4602


California Department of Consumer Affairs

You can also find free or inexpensive legal advise at these websites: