Normally, when I go apartment-hunting -- and I moved three times last year, so I have some recent experience! -- I hang around on Craigslist. What do I find there? Professional listings that say they don't allow pets but have the "cats are okay -- purrr" box ticked off, students who "need a roomate (sic)" but haven't bothered to spell it correctly, lots of party houses, listings that try to cram every amenity possible into the title ("$2900 / 2br - 1095ft² - HighRise*CourtyardView*GolfCourseView*RentControl*LakeView*Brigh*Cozy*"), open houses in the middle of my workday, and duplicate listings with slightly different titles to get past CL's moderation.
And when there IS a listing that looks like it might be a match -- in your price range, pet-friendly, located close to public transportation -- it's a mad scramble at the end of the month. When I found the apartment I currently rent, I emailed the owner minutes after the listing went up, got an appointment to view the apartment with the onsite manager that night (9 PM!), and turned in my application and deposit before work the next morning. Turns out there was another applicant scheduled to see the place after me, and at least one more the next day. My application went in first, though, and so I got the place -- approved 2 days before my lease was up on the old apartment. That's nerve-wracking!
So one of the draws of Vacancy.com is that its listings are for apartments in larger complexes, where the managers know when a tenant is about to move out and can list their units in advance. There are lists of amenities and lots of photos (often lacking on Craigslist), so you have an idea of what will or won't work for you. Each listing even has a floor layout! (When negotiating with roommates, it's important to know where the door to the bathroom is located and whether you'll have to walk through anyone's sleeping space to get there.) There's also a section for ratings and reviews (sparsely populated as the site's still in beta), so you might be able to get a feel for the other tenants and how management treats them.
On Vacancy.com, where I can search by location (city or zip code) or even by school, I've found a lovely East Bay apartment -- appropriately in Library Gardens! The interactive map shows me that it's only a couple blocks from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, which is important because -- while I'm attending online classes at SJSU and don't need to go to campus -- I do need to get to my job in San Francisco Monday through Friday. From the apartment complex to my partner's current work location, it's a 30-minute straight shot by bus (no transfers), or even less than that if she takes her bike. The area is full of Berkeley culture, food, entertainment, and parks -- and the apartment is literally RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the Berkeley Public Library. How awesome is THAT for an MLIS student??
Here are some more details that make a two-bedroom unit here an excellent choice for me, my partner, and our housemate:
There's a City CarShare on site. Snag an appointment for a couple of hours, pick up your roomy Mazda 5 "compact minivan", and make an IKEA run! Or maybe you want a MINI Cooper Convertible for surprising your sweetie with a romantic daytrip or overnighter in Napa wine country. Can do! Just book an Extended Freedom Trip and keep the car for up to 24 hours. Own your own car? That's unusual in bike-friendly Berkeley, where it's often hard to find parking, but the complex has a private garage.
This open layout in the living area is great for having a few friends over to dinner. (And there's parking for them!) My sweetie has requested that our next place allow her to socialize while she's busy in the kitchen... voila!
There's plenty of cabinet space, too, along with high-end amenities I haven't had in my last three apartments: a dishwasher AND a garbage disposal.
The only room for improvement I see is the floor -- hardwood would be much friendlier toward my allergies than carpet. Our two cats would really like curling up on the couch in this living room, though -- I can already see it with our furniture.
They'd be looking down into a courtyard like this:
The complex seems like a busy semi-private community -- and that says "safe" to me. It's a place where you might invite your neighbors to a picnic in one of the grassy common areas, or at least feel comfortable running into them in the laundry facility on your floor. (That's right, one on every floor! Open 24/7!) I could sit out on a bench or blanket and enjoy the Berkeley sunshine while doing my coursework aided by the shared wireless connection.
And check out that artwork!
Yes, that's quite the place to live during my grad school years. My lease is up in a month... I think I'll look at Vacancy.com this time around.