Renting a home in San Francisco is, to put it gently, a nightmare, littered with Craigslist scams, dozens of tenants competing for places and rushed tours from indifferent property managers. Adriana Popescu, a 20-year-old student at the University of San Francisco, avoided that by going straight to TikTok.
In between the never-ending stream of mini-videos featuring people getting down to “Get Down on It,” she started seeing content from The Apartment Plug SF—a TikTok account launched by University of San Francisco MBA student Daisy Hernandez that promotes apartments for rent in the city. In less than two years, The Apartment Plug has grown to more than 50,000 followers.
“I was always keeping an eye on her account, and I always noticed that the apartments she showed would go instantly,” Popescu said. “It’s like the lottery when it comes to San Francisco apartments in general.”
Hernandez has layered a shiny new digital patina on a decidedly old-fashioned industry. Replacing the hassle of touring countless dead-end apartments on their own, renters can now turn to accounts like hers to land a place to call home.
“I'm kind of like that friend in San Francisco who’s showing you an apartment,” Hernandez said.
Overall, prices for apartment rentals in San Francisco have remained below their pre-pandemic peak. What’s more, according to Crystal Chen, a spokesperson for rental listing site Zumper, the number of San Francisco properties on the platform dropped 7% in January year-over-year.
However, that broad price decline fails to tell the whole story. Dave Chernosky, a broker who’s worked on apartment rentals for the last two decades, said the pandemic had an uneven impact on the city’s rental market, hitting Downtown prices hard, while Northern neighborhoods like the Marina have become more competitive.
That means both brokers and prospective tenants are looking for any edge. Some are finding it on TikTok.
When it came time for Popescu to find a new apartment after an “unfortunate roommate situation,” she champed at the bit to connect with Hernandez. Popescu sent an email to the woman she kept seeing on her feed; within 24 hours, she said, she heard back.
Popescu now lives in a one-bedroom in Cow Hollow with her cat—a bit far from campus, she said, but it’s in a highly coveted location, comes with an in-unit washer and dryer and is below the median price for a one-bedroom in the city: $2,900 a month.
The Rise of the Influencer-Broker
On the face of it, Daisy Hernandez is a traditional social media influencer who has become a bit of a microcelebrity in San Francisco. That has directly translated to revenue for the landlords that she works with.
During a recent sunny morning at Tarragon Cafe in the Lower Haight, the charms that made Hernandez a TikTok success were immediately apparent. She was dressed chicly in a cream-colored coat that whispered “quiet luxury” and bore a perpetual grin consistent with her social media persona.
She first moved to the city in 2015 to attend San Francisco State in the hopes of becoming a physical therapist. But when she got laid off during the pandemic, her entrepreneurial hustle kicked in. She started a business making bespoke picnic baskets; a year later, she founded The Apartment Plug SF, inspired by her own challenges moving around San Francisco. (For the eight-odd years she’s lived here, she says she’s had to find a new place every year.)
“It's scary, especially as a woman, when you go on Craigslist and you meet with a random person. You have no idea who it's gonna be. Like, is it a scam?” Hernandez said. “I offer the alternative, and it's just a more fun and safe experience.”
When she started in her MBA program at the University of San Francisco, Hernandez pitched The Apartment Plug as a side hustle to a few landlords, including the one who rented out her current apartment.
She declined to provide her exact fee, but says that she gets paid for posting an apartment on her feed (much like sponsored content), as well as for doing marketing and showings until the units are rented. She is also paid by TikTok via its creator program.
Hernandez remembers her early TikTok posts flopping before she secured any significant views—or leases. But once she figured out her persona—a mix of candor and approachability—she began to draw incoming renter interest.
Within the past year, Hernandez said she’s secured over a million dollars in leases for her landlord clientele. During her two-year-long stint on TikTok, she’s rented over 100 homes in San Francisco.
Fellow broker Chesnosky said he’s experienced a shift over the past five years in how apartments in San Francisco are marketed. Whereas the most action used to take place on Craigslist, listings have slowly moved over to more reliable sites like Zillow. He believes posting rental listings on TikTok represents the inevitable next transition in the industry.
“I think in another five years, it’ll be videos and maybe even interactives like VR,” said Chesnosky, who goes by @rentingSF on TikTok. “Most owners don’t care. They just have the position ‘Get me the place rented at the price I want.’”
Chesnosky, 52, initially thought the TikTok user base was too young for his typical clientele. He was convinced to start his account by his wife, an avid user of the platform who also handles the photo and video for his brokerage business.
His opinion shifted when he posted an apartment video about a $4,000-a-month Russian Hill rental that got 80,000 views and more than 15 rental inquiries.
Manny Bravo, a 25-year-old student at the City College of San Francisco who does double-duty at a restaurant and nightclub in the city, said he started watching Hernandez’s videos while also simultaneously searching on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for his new digs.
No one on those sites got back quickly enough for his liking, but he heard back from Hernandez in less than two days. She was knowledgeable about all the neighborhoods they toured, and frank about their pros and cons.
“[Tenants are] seeing the news, hearing all the crazy things about San Francisco, but then they come and see it in person, and it's not as bad. It’s not even bad,” Hernandez said. “I feel really safe here.”
“I go based off of my intuition, and my intuition led me towards Daisy,” Bravo said. “That's just who I felt most comfortable with it.”
‘Absolutely on Fire’
Of course, being affable and good at posting isn’t enough to get sales; you also need to know the hustle.
Andre Ferrigno, owner of San Francisco property management firm GRM Properties, recalls that just after renting an apartment to Hernandez in Lower Haight, she pitched him an idea. She wanted to use TikTok to market his remaining units. Ferrigno took her up on the offer.
“If you think you've got a better way to rent these units, I'll make it worth your while if you want to try it,” Ferrigno responded.
There was a lightbulb moment when he knew that her novel vision had paid off: A video she posted of one of the company’s rentals garnered 2 million views.
“She’s just been absolutely on fire to the point where we don’t really use Craigslist anymore,” Ferrigno says. Over the course of six weeks in 2022, Hernandez rented 22 units for GRM Properties alone.
Traditional San Francisco property management companies like Mosser Companies (@mosser_living), which owns some 3,000 units across the city, have also become content creators. Other firms, she said, have reached out directly to hire her after seeing videos she’s done.
Hernandez doesn’t seem to mind the competition. It helps, perhaps, that she’s the most recognizable of the bunch: One couple touring units, Ferrigno says, gasped in immediate recognition when they saw Hernandez walking in mid-tour.
After she graduates from her MBA program, she wants to keep The Apartment Plug going—and expand it to work more with real estate agents looking to sell homes.
Bravo, the City College student, is hunting for a new apartment with Hernandez’s help. Popescu, too, is planning to work with the TikToker again if she ever moves out of the home that Hernandez helped her land in the first place.
“If you told me a year ago that I was going to find my next apartment because of TikTok, I would have told you that it sounded weird and dystopian,” Popescu said.
But, she admits, if it works, it works.