For twenty years, two factors--rent control and a strong economy--conspired together to create an impossibly tight rental market. [Yes, rent control encourages housing shortages--Econ 101 teaches that a byproduct of rent control is decreased supply.] Now that one of those factors (the economy) has changed, it's suddenly MUCH easier to find a place to live in Berkeley. But to seal the deal, follow these apartment hunting tips from the real experts--the housing providers you're trying to rent from!
Where to look: The online listings at Craigslist are a good (and free) place to start in the tech-savvy Bay Area. (Remember that postings change daily.)
Check the truly-local papers before looking at the San Francisco Chronicle. These include the East Bay Express, the Berkeley Daily Planet, and the Daily Californian
Listing services will, for a small fee, focus your search dramatically, and typically provide fax or email notifications when a home meeting your criteria is listed. Try ehousing or if a student or faculty at UC Berkeley and affiliated institutions often turn first to Cal Rentals.
Some real gems can be found off the beaten path: realtors may know of un-advertised opportunities, and gathering places like gyms and tennis clubs may have very helpful bulletin boards.
Be prepared: Be prepared when you attend an open house. Dress appropriately. Don't bring "tag-along" friends, but DO bring anyone who you plan to live with--roommates are a touchy issue in Berkeley, and any good landlord will insist on meeting them. Bring your checkbook and be ready to provide a security deposit on the spot. If you will need a co-signer, have that arranged beforehand. Gather all the personal information needed to run a credit check. Consider assembling a renters resume, including letters of reference from past landlords. If you have a pet, consider assembling a pet resume.
Don't be afraid to negotiate: It really is a free market, and you are part of it. If you really like a place, but the rent's too high, don't be afraid to negotiate. Plenty of housing providers would rather have a good tenant who is excited to live in a place he or she loves than one who feels resentful over a few dollars. Perhaps there's a service or condition you'd like--a pet? A parking space? A shorter (or longer) lease? You never know what's possible until you ask.