Berkeley, Berkeley CA, Berkeley rental, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano blog

The challenges of a pianist seeking housing

In this no thanks for the memories flashback, I recount the bias I’d experienced along the housing trail, when as a musician, pet owner and mother of a grown daughter, I applied for a Berkeley lease. (Add a grand piano to the mix, and my rental opportunities nearly evaporated)

As it played out 2 years ago:


1) Early yesterday morning I schlepped up to the East Bay on Amtrak to check out a rental that hadn’t yet reached Craig’s List, CAL Rentals, Trulia, Apartment Hunters Z, Roomster, Facebook Market Place, Oodle, Noodle or (Was I going bonkers, dreaming up more housing listings with cats YES, dogs NO, cats and dogs, hooray, or GO AWAY! NOW and forever!)

In most cases, hundreds of ads on Craig’s vanished with a cat box mouse click, meaning that You Tube sensation Aiden cat, my older daughter’s feline during law school and then adopted by me, would be sent packing–orphaned at 7! WE couldn’t bear it!

(Did I say WE?!)

2) “We” is anathema–Renters with cottages and in-laws setups ARE HORRIFIED THAT A SIGNIFICANT other might invade a cat-less space.

Case in point–Yesterday afternoon I was hounded by two feisty mutts (big ones) who had the run of a once promising rental property–that is, before it became a real-time house of horrors!

As soon as the front gate opened, I was surrounded by two hyper-adrenalized, foaming at the mouth canines who were unsure of my pedigree. Was I a dog’s best friend or not?

Was this a harbinger of things to come?

The cottage had been floated by me, in response to my BPN (Berkeley Parents Network Newsletter) housing wanted post. From e-mailed pics sent by the renter, the rooms looked bright and airy. The cottage, however was clearly a converted garage. And in person, it looked like a moderate security prison with dungeon-like doors. Two dogs from HADES blocked the entrance as if trained to do so.

Once I was cautiously escorted inside the living area by the homeowners, the door was slammed shut as a mandatory measure to keep the pooches out–long enough, that is, to steer them over to their Alpo bowls. Such a well-timed break, allowed me to fantasize a huge makeover of this dreary and depressing “cottage.” (It was the antithesis of a fairytale princess dancing about with chirping sparrows perched on her wrists.)


Did I dare mention Aiden cat and my daughter in the same breath? The dungeon suddenly darkened. A demonizing spirit would hex my 29-year old, who was navigating a difficult job landscape in the midst of a faltering economy?

From the homeowner’s perspective, Frankenstein’s extended family was about to exorcise the premises. (But what about their evil dogs?)

Both husband and wife bolted back that my cat was the real deal breaker, not my daughter.

They explained how the feline would arouse the dogs’ wild instincts causing them to attack my precious pet, even within his safe? sanctuary.

(Ironically, my classical music-making was not a problem.)


Marilyn, G., a Berkeley-based realtor and friend, carefully instructed me how to respond to housing ads, to improve my chances of landing a good rental.

1) Don’t include your signature in your email inquiries! (i.e. web and you tube links)
2) Don’t say you’re “a musician.” It has a bad connotation.
2) Replace the M word with CP, “Classical Pianist”
3) And don’t dare introduce another warm body beside yourself into a cottage or in-law.

Heaven forbid..

I thought back on the canines that had corralled me. The homeowners insisted that they could spring out the front gate and escape if I didn’t physically steer them back into the yard.

That’s why I was urged to stay within the cottage, and minimize visitors?

Did they hear me say, “piano students,” inadvertently, in the same breath as “friends?”

Marilyn would have excoriated me for such an ill-timed leak. She insisted that I needed the lease before I shared the intimate details of my life’s work.

Was she kidding? Or had she gone berserk? (in the spirit of namesake, Bezerkeley)


I noticed a narrow, fenced-off space behind the garage, or should I say, “cottage” that could have been a safe haven for Aiden, me, my daughter and the few students that would trickle in to take lessons.

No such luck! The homeowner husband firmly announced his intentions to re-landscape the back area, so the mutts could get their exercise scaling a lower barrier.

Watch out, Aiden! It was worse than a looming mountain lion attack!

That was my cue to beat it out of there as fast as possible, heading a mile up Shattuck to see a rental off Eunice.

Greeted by a chipper young gardener, I was guided through a pleasing in-law space with a trail of students right behind me.

Still, it was a relief not to see dogs, only deer traces of trampled foliage. (It was definitely an improvement over the bald patches of dried grass and howling dogs at the previous location)

Of more concern, were 12 steep wooden stairs that could challenge even highly skilled piano movers.

Oops! Did I mention a “piano” to the gardener, without realizing it?

Marilyn insisted that I should soft pedal it. (no pun intended)

But how could I sneak a piano over those steps without being noticed?

We both knew that the piano was part of my baggage and could be a deal breaker if the elderly man who occupied and owned the home, objected to Chopin or Brahms’s music seeping through the walls into the dining room.


The place stole my heart with its polished hard wood floors, redwood paneling and divine acoustical environment. I could easily imagine my piano, center stage, in the den.

In my fervent excitement, I offered the gardener 6 months rent in cash, but it didn’t fly. Rental practices had changed.

As instructed, I filled out still another application as I sat at a table, overlooking a gorgeous ravine.

A thick packet containing bank statements, a recent laudatory credit report, my record of long established home ownership and rental history, plus a generous list of references, had been lumped in with the paperwork.

Suddenly, I noticed a mom and daughter coming through the gate. They had a glimmer of hope in their eyes.

Surely the youngster had the edge on me in this housing market though in the old days, a first knock rental inquiry, earned an advantage, but not so in the Millennium.

Homeowners often had showings for days, and collected reams of paper to stuff in recycle bins. By and large, they favored students, because of their short stays. Rents could be hiked after leases expired. A healthy turnover of tenants was desirable.


After a long day of cottage/in-law hunting, I headed back to Downtown Berkeley Bart, destination Richmond Amtrak station.

Once on board the train, I recapped the day’s events and made sure to jot them all down.

Part 2, Continuing Journey–getting desperate

I’d say I’m averaging 6 hours per day looking for the purr-fect Bezerkeley rental. In fact, I just slapped down $325 for an ad in the Daily Californian, only to discover that the pricey paste-up landed in the Daily CLOG SECTION, about 5 pages into the rag. (Well it’s the Internet version, so it’s still a bunch of mouse clicks to get to a student blog pile-up) Basically, I’m COMPETING with eager beaver brainiacs to find a place in the “right part of town.” Might that  be  Arch, Spruce, Oxford, Bonita,  La Conte, La Loma, Milvia, etc.—or the whole Gourmet Ghetto?–with easy access to.

Did I say “ghetto?”–Apparently NOT  what I associate with certain neighborhoods in New York City, my birthplace.

In so many words,  my reserved box on Daily CAL  with ” CLASSICAL PIANIST, CAT, GROWN DAUGHTER, and PIANO,” is a  threat to the well-being of most landlords, that is, if I’m  a renter in perpetuity. (No rent hikes for the next—–years) Fill in the blank. Did someone say “rent control?”

Go somewhere else! No Cats, besides!

A realtor friend in the know, tried to head off a housing blunder by e-mailing ahead of my inquiry.  (It was an in-law set–up  ABOVE ground, just a stone’s throw from the GHETTO)

“Don’t worry, this neat and clean lady is seeking a short-term rental– Has plans to  buy in a year.”

Translation: She won’t get too cozy, or frame her “Home Sweet Home” embroidery on the wall.

And what about the grown daughter?

Not a boon to any rental application–with one exception–If she racked up 60K per annum.

Too many adult children had moved back with their parents as a safe haven from financial disaster.

Did I say “parents?”

In Berzerkeley,  I was on the right side of the  rental candidate curve, having no significant other–gay or straight–but only if I promised not to PARTY or ransack the place.

Wait a minute! The same landlord would take a student over me who partied all night.

No doubt the tenant would be pot-sniffing at a new location in less than a year. (automatic rent hike!)–while I practiced Chopin Mazurkas by candlelight.

To the contrary, the roaming renter would be bound for one of the Co-ops–like infamous Cloyne Court on Ridge, with communal refrigerators leaking rotten vegetables. (I recalled the sickening aroma when two of my CAL kids lived there)

I’d be sipping a Ginseng/Green Tea sunburst cocktail while listening to Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations.” Who could care less? No cause for a banging on my walls..


In summary, I’m willing to reward FREE, life-long piano lessons to the first home finder who lands me a nice place with the following specs:

700 Sq. ft min.–in North Berkeley or Westbrae–NOT anywhere near Tilden or Wild Canyon.. no Arlington or Kensington.

Must be BART accessible!

Can be a cottage, or in-law (not underground and musty) that affords freedom to practice without complaint at civilized hours.

And finally, a cat  and grown daughter must be part of the package without threat of eviction. For the digs, I’m willing to  pay $1600 per month, though I’d prefer to shell out $1500.

ME: High Credit score, Excellent refs–former homeowner for 25 years to 2005–immaculate rental history following. Oberlin grad and the rest.


Back to my floating Daily CAL ad that  appears and disappears in a heart beat.

If you spot it on the fly, click it fast enough to obtain contact info.

But just in case you have eye-hand coordination problems, here’s my e-mail address:

POST SCRIPT: Since Fall 2012, I’ve been happily nestled into a tight North Berkeley space surrounded by my pianos and webcams. The neighbors don’t mind my practicing, and they occasionally drop in to listen. What can be better?

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