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The real estate agent called me on my cell phone as I was driving to our meeting last week.

“I just wanted to inform you that there’s another person coming to look at the property today and she’s bringing cash for a holding deposit,” she said. “It’s $200 cash and first come first serve.”

I had my checkbook in my purse in case I really liked the place, but didn’t anticipate a need for cash, or that I might have to speed to beat out this other applicant.

“Am I racing this person?” I asked the agent. “Oh no. Drive carefully. I don’t want you to race. But it is $200 cash and first come first serve.”

I felt my competitive side rise up when I finally pulled up to the beach cottage in Ocean Beach only to see a small blonde talking to the agent before me. I even thought about giving her a sharp elbow to the ribs.

And so began a week in which I was talked to like a child, treated like a would-be criminal and frustrated to the point of nearly wrestling on the ground with another grown woman over a piece of paper.

It may be paradise to live in a great neighborhood at the fraction of the home-owning cost and without the threat of falling prices, but I was quickly learning what it is to be an apartment renter in San Diego after my husband and I decided to downsize from our large house in Point Loma. When you rent a large house you’re treated pretty well. Dogs are generally welcome and the whole process is cordial, professional and even friendly. There are no suspicious glances or questions about loud music.

But we decided that the house was kind of a waste for just two people and a dog, and we’re always driving to Ocean Beach to hang out so why not just live there?

We’ll save loads of cash and live near the beach. Our visions of beach cruisers and baskets full of fresh flowers and veggies from the farmers’ market were quickly interrupted by the rude imperatives of the property managers that run the area.

“You know there’s going to be a credit check,” they bark, making me wonder if I’m supposed to be intimidated. “You don’t have a dog do you?” “He doesn’t bark does he?”

How to answer the last question? He is a dog after all and they do bark. But you don’t want to be sarcastic in this situation. Might get pegged as a troublemaker.

Finally, we settle on some description designed to make him seem small without lying about his size, which is tricky, and assuring the property manager that our dog is well-trained and not left alone to bark his head off for hours on end. It works.

Apartment renting is a lot like applying for a job at Wal-Mart if Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of the process in the book “Nickel And Dimed” is accurate.

Basically, you’re assumed to be a bad-credit-risk low life, and possible criminal, who keeps a pit bull chained to a tree until you prove otherwise. I’m surprised that landlords don’t demand that you take a pee test to prove you’re not a drug addict. And, apparently, it’s even become routine to check rental and mortgage applicants against the government’s terrorist watch list.

My near wrestling match with a property manager was caused by her refusal to return our rental applications to me after they decided to go with someone who didn’t have a dog. They never ran our credit application so our check was returned and I wanted the application, which is filled with our personal financial data, to be returned also.

“The application belongs to us,” the woman in charge said with no explanation.

“What do you mean? You don’t need the information and I want it returned,” I said.

We went back and forth in this way until she finally explained that the Department of Real Estate requires the company to file reports on every applicant. Sounds dubious to me, but California has crazy rules.

Whatever. I still didn’t want her to have it. She kept waving it in front of me and I have to admit that I came close to snatching it from her and running out the door. I’m not sure what stopped me. Maybe the fact that I’m sure she would have fought me for it or chased me down the street. I could just see the cops arriving at my door later for a statement. Instead I made her redact all the pertinent data with a black marker.

In the end, we found a family-owned and operated beach cottage where we were treated with respect as well as professional and human courtesy. It’s a great place on a quiet street near the beach with a yard and a tolerance for well-mannered Australian Shepherd mixes.

Best of all, our visions of beach cruisers and landlords as human beings have been restored.

— CATHERINE MacRAE HOCKMUTH

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