This is a guide for finding housing in the Berkeley area. In addition to reading this guide, talk to your fellow graduate students! They are your best source of up to date housing info.
There aren't really average prices for rents in Berkeley. The rents are highly dependent on location, room size, and how recently the place has been renovated.
The best place for apartment listings is craigslist. You can use this to find apartments and potential roommates. Apartments are generally listed as available immediately, or on the 1st of the next month. So, if you're looking for an August 1st move in, the best time to look is the last two weeks of July.
The university also runs the Cal Rentals office, which will let you access its listings for a small fee, but almost everything that shows up on that site shows up on Craigslist too. There is also the more full-service (and more expensive) Bay Area Rentals. Most students opt to work entirely via Craigslist, though.
Most landlords will ask you to sign a 1 yr lease when you move in. There will be a security deposit, typically something like 1-2 months rent. If you live within the Berkeley city limits, the landlord is required to send you a check for the interest on the deposit each year. Most people do get their security deposits back; if you are worried about not getting your deposit back, it is your right to request an inspection before you move out. The landlord will then point out any areas where they see damage, and you will have a chance to repair them.
After your first year is up, if your landlord does not ask you to renew your lease it defaults to a month-to-month lease. Before the year is up, they can ask you to sign another year long lease.
Look at lots of apartments. Even if you know you won't be living in an apartment, it helps to get a sense of what the market is like. This helps you figure out if you are getting a good deal at the places you will submit an application.
Most people don't realize that you are competing to get the best apartments. Before you even look at an apartment, put together a tenant resume. This is a list of references, bank accounts, etc that show the landlord that you can afford the apartment and are a good risk. You can download a blank resume here. You shouldn't worry about giving a landlord your bank account numbers; without your PIN, they can only make deposits or check balances. PKGW comments: It is true that you're competing for the best apartments, but I've never found the tenant resume to be helpful. If you think that you might want to sign on a place at the viewing, it's useful to have your bank account info and such around, but pretty much everyone will want you to fill out an application of their design which asks for all the information that would go into such a resume.
You will also want to run a credit report on yourself. If you leave it for the landlord to do, they will usually charge you $30, but if you do it yourself, it's free. I think equifax is a good company to use, but don't quote me on it. PKGW comments: In my experience, everyone wants to run the credit check themselves and is just going to charge you the $30.
My strategy is, if you are remotely interested in an apartment, give the landlord your resume and credit report the first time you see the place. This is helpful in showing the landlord that you are organized. While the landlord checks your references, use that time to look at other apartments and decide whether you are still interested. When the landlord calls you to offer you the place, you can still say no.
Keep in mind that, as a graduate student, you are an excellent tenant. You have a very stable income, and you aren't going to throw parties that destroy the building. Convince the landlord that they want you.
So I hesitate to bring this up… but the rent that an apartment is listed for is not set in stone. It is possible, but risky, to bargain with landlords. It's most effective when there aren't many prospective tenants for an apartment; i.e. there aren't many people looking for 5 bedroom houses in March. I once found myself in this situation looking at a 5 bedroom in the Berkeley Hills that was asking $5500. We submitted an application, but offered only $3500. Two weeks passed, and the house was advertised on craigslist for $4500. I contacted the agent and reminded him about our offer, but they weren't interested. I continued calling the agent a couple times a week to see if they responded to our offer, but I didn't hear anything for about a month. Then I offered $3600 to see if that got any response; they came back with $3500, which made no sense. We split the difference with $3550; we've been living in the house now for more than a year. If you're a BADgrad, you'll probably come to a party here at some point.
Incoming Student Strategy
If you're an incoming student, finding housing is even more of a hassle than usual. But it's possible! The most important thing to know is that you must plan ahead. If you show up in mid-August without a lease, you'll get stuck in something expensive and unpleasant. Unfortunately, if you're diving into the market by yourself, you probably can't plan ahead too far in advance: the Berkeley housing market has extremely fast turnover. As mentioned above, most listings are available immediately or at the start of the next month, and desirable apartments are usually gone within a few days. The flip-side of this is that new apartments are continually coming on to the market, so you shouldn't get discouraged if you miss out on a promising-looking place; another one will pop up soon enough.
One highly-recommended strategy is to visit Berkeley for a week around the beginning of July with the express purpose of obtaining a lease for August. You should prepare by skimming Craigslist postings before you head out to get a sense of what's available and what prices are like.
You should certainly talk to your mentor, other members of your incoming class, and other grad students if you have any questions. You might even be able to talk a current grad into checking a place out for you or letting you sleep on their couch while you visit.
Here follows an incomplete list of Berkeley neighborhoods and some highly subjective/judgmental impressions of them.
- North Berkeley - This is a nice place to live on the north side of campus. Close to Campbell and the rest of campus. Rents are very expensive.
- Berkeley Hills - Residential area on the northside of campus. Rents are a tiny bit cheaper than North Berkeley, but walking home could be a workout… Weirdly, many car break-ins and thefts occur here.
- South Berkeley - Close to campus, so many students live here. Rents are reasonably cheap, but it can be noisy due to parties and the like. Safety can be an issue. Very cheap rooms in this area are probably in crappy boarding houses.
- West Berkeley - Biking to campus works well from here, since it's a reasonably flat trip. Rents are relatively cheap. Between Milvia and Sacramento is a fine neighborhood, Sacramento to San Pablo is an alright neighborhood, and west of San Pablo varies greatly.
- Rockridge - Northwest Oakland, bordering Berkeley to the south along College Avenue. Nice looking commercial area nearby. Some real nice houses too, but getting expensive. Rent is much cheaper in the Piedmont Ave neighborhood than Rockridge (and much of Berkeley)– and easy to commute from (51A runs every 10-20 min, and connects you to the 51B to get to campus). 851 overnight bus runs directly from Berkeley hourly, so no worries about getting home while intoxicated. Lots of nice restaurants/shops nearby here too!
- Albany / El Cerrito / Kensington - Neighboring suburban cities to the north. Quiet, and less expensive than North Berkeley. Commute can be significant, but if you're planning to bus or bike anyway the difference is only a few minutes each way.
There are two University houses for graduate students, Jackson House and Manville Aparments. These are very close to campus and are an excellent option for incoming first-year students who do not have time to visit the area and actually look for places before moving in. The downside is extremely expensive rent ($850-$1000/month per student for a shared apartment, though this includes all utilities and even a cleaning service) and a location next to fraternities and College Avenue. Both of these locations also fill up quickly and may have long waiting lists to get in.