In any case, it still comes down to budget. This will be a large part of your choices. And since you live in the city now and presumably like it, you may want to check out some of the areas outside of the city and rent there to see if you really are ok with a less urban environment.
Once you make that decision the rest is easy.
We love the outdoors too and enjoy biking and green space, but have an aversion to the 'burbs as we are a couple with no children and many of our friends are the same. We love an urban environment because of the opportunity to walk everywhere but we're tired of the crime and unpleasantness of neighbors on top of you. WE don't mind renting in a neighborhood outside of San Francisco either. Our jobs would require going in to Corte Madera and San Francisco but a lot of home office work and travel. We love design and original places and can't imagine renting without having something interesting to move to. The joy of a backyard would be incredible but we don't need a large space.
We don't plan to buy for 1-2 years. We're not panicked about interest rates, the perfect space matters more and we'd lease until we really learned where we'd want to live.
Renting first is a great idea if you don't know the area well enough to decide where you want to live. Although interest rates will likely rise over the next year, I don't see anything that indicates to me that prices will and knowledge of the area could help avoiding a bad decision as a hedge against any higher costs.
The first question is do you want to be IN the city? If so, there are plenty of 3BR+ places for rent under $4K, but they will mostly be condos or flats with the possibility of a shared yard. If you want a single family your choices will be limited - either need to raise the price or go outside the city.
Outside the city there are a number of areas with downtowns that have the feel of a city neighborhood - Mill Valley, Rockridge, Piedmont, Burlingame, etc... but they are not the same as being IN the city. Either way, most single family homes will cost over a mil for any area you would likely want to be in unless small or fixers.
The best way for me/us to help you is know your budget, desired property type and min beds/baths as this will help direct your search. There are plenty of places in San Francisco where you can get a yard that aren't far from the action, even with a condo. If you are willing to trade a deck for the yard that opens more possibilities.
We work in all the above areas and with both out-of area and international clients, if you send me an email (address below) with more details I can help direct you to what area(s) you will likely be wanting to check out.
And there are companies that handle rentals but craigslist.com will help you get a feel for costs.
Lance King/Owner-Managing Broker
Your profile says Mill Valley however, if you plan to rent in SF, there are many cool and urban pockets you may find to your liking. I recommend North Beach, South Beach, parts of the Marina, Pac Heights, Hayes Valley, Mission, Yerba Buena and Nob Hill. Here is a link to rental listings:
Paragon Real Estate Group DRE 01844627
As I left my brownstone in NYC to see if I wanted to relocate to SF,for a long term commitment. I learned so much! It is not just the money factor, the architecture, the shopping. I have been here now 16 years helping people to make the right Real Estate ,investment and most of all the "get it" factor for happiness in where they live. If I could simply address this in a Q&A box I would. This is not one of those "In a NY minute" answers. I would need to meet with you. If you are interested. My contact information is provided. We need more NY'r's here so I hope you stay!
Honey Brooks Realtor
SF Homes of Distinction
International Luxury Property Specialist
S.R.E.S ( Senior Real Estate Specialist)
W.C.R. (SF former President, Women's Council of Realtors)
"Your Personal Business is My Confidentiality"
Your question mentioned 'less square footage' and not needing a 'four bedrooms'. Knowing that you have a brownstone in N.Y.C; I will be very interested in finding out what is the minimum requirement you might have in square footage, number of bedrooms and other amentities you might prefer (whether it's wants or needs) and your timing.
With a price range of $2,500 - $4,500 and wide open criterian, there are many possibilities. A little more details will be very helpful.
Frank Howard Allen Realtors
Craigslist is a good way to start searching but you won't know if it's in the fog belt unless you get some local direction.