Ask a Canadian: Where to Live in the Bay Area

I’m going to tell you about what happened when my husband and I first decided to move to the Bay Area and let me know if any of this rings true for you.

My husband was offered his job and they told him it was located in the lovely town of Mountain View, which is roughly 23 miles (or 37.4 kilometres) south of the San Francisco International Airport.

So we started looking for a home near his office that would accommodate our family of five plus dog, household furniture and sundries, because why commute when you can live close to work, right?

We set our budget for a rental and the number of bedrooms we desired and plugged those numbers into Zillow (I have a love/hate relationship with that app now) and got….bupkis! Zip! Zilch! Zero! No matching results.

I cast a wider net, setting the geographic catchment area for our desired rental further north and further south. Still nothing.

I increased our rent budget by a smidge. Nada.

I dropped a bedroom from the search (we could leave a kid behind, couldn’t we?) and all of a sudden we could find something that resembled student housing. Yuck!

The panic set in. I felt sick to my stomach and thought, “have we just made the biggest mistake of our lives?” “Are we going to have to cram into a teeny tiny bug-infested apartment and live like refugees all for this stupid job opportunity?”

The point I’m trying to make is housing in the Bay Area is E.X.P.E.N.S.I.V.E. and it has been for a long time now.  So if it’s a shiny, brand-new 4,000 square foot house with a 3-car garage you’re after, the Bay Area is going to be a tough place for you to live.

Eichler  Home

California, and this part of Northern California is a highly desirable part of the world to live in. You’ve got mountains, ocean and roughly 300 days of sunshine a year. What’s not to like?

So how do you figure out where to live? I hate to say it, but “that depends” is the answer. It depends on your income, whether or not it’s just you moving or your entire family, if proximity to grocery stores, daycare, schools or religious institutions matter...you get the picture.

Regardless of your individual situation, I’ll do my best to give you some information that might help you narrow down your search.

A word to the wise: use Google Maps to plot the commute from your desired neighbourhoood to the office *at the time of day you will be commuting*.

This will give you a realistic picture of how much time you will spend in your car or on the bus/shuttle. According to Rentcafe.com, the average cost of renting a 1-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is about $3600 a month. In San Jose, that number is closer to $2700 a month.

To live in the heart of the peninsula, close to Mountain View, it will cost you roughly $3200 a month for a 1-bedroom apartment.

If, like me, you have a family and require a home that has three or more bedrooms, the sky’s the limit depending on what you’re willing to pay.

Palo  Alto Condo

I have found the United States to be a country of extremes, and this is evident in its housing market. For those with extreme wealth, you can rent an 8,000 square-foot 4-bedroom 5-bathroom luxury home in leafy suburb of Los Altos for a mere $20,000 a month.

For those of more modest means, you can rent a sub-2,000 square foot home with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms in the range of $3500 to $5000 in the Willow Glen neighbourhood, just south of San Jose’s downtown core.

 

While the cost of the first rental is shocking, I’d have to say so is the second rental. It ain’t cheap to live here.

Keep in mind most homes here do not have basements (unless it is an older home built in the early decades of the 1900’s) and people use their garages for storage. Homes also tend to skew smaller in square footage (unless you’re the person who can afford the 8,000 sq. ft. mansion!). Popular opinion suggests this is because the weather is nicer here and people tend to spend more time outdoors. I would challenge that assumption, but that’s just me (between the five of us we have a lot of STUFF that needs storing).

Ideally, everyone would live close to where they work and have access to public transit (or bike or walk) for their commute, but in reality, most people live quite far from where they work because of the cost of living and end up driving (or if you work for big tech, take the company shuttle).

The Bay area is just that--a peninsula surrounded by ocean and bay in a very mountainous region. Not unlike Vancouver, there is only so much real estate to go around.

Where you come from will also inform what you consider to be a desirable neighbourhood. I come from Toronto. I LOVE the hustle and bustle of the big city. Traffic is a pain, but it doesn’t scare me. Access to great shops, restaurants and cultural centres are a must and public transit was my prefered method of transportation to and from work. Unfortunately San Francisco is nowhere near my husband’s office, so when I need my city “fix” we drive into San Francisco on weekends.

If you come from a smaller Canadian town or live in the suburbs, then you may want to find something similar in the Bay Area.

According to the Bay Area Census, San Jose is the 10th largest city in America with a population of just over 1 million people.

San Francisco is the 13th largest city in America with a population of just under 900,000 people. 

San Francisco Architecture Design Historical Adg LightingBut if you look at the entire Bay Area, from Silicon Valley in the south to wine country in the north, there are 7 million residents living in nine counties made up of 101 cities.

Each area has its own unique topography and microclimate. The weather in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Marin County in the north and east Bay is vastly different from the weather in San Jose in the South Bay. And then there are all the communities dotting the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose, with the ocean and Santa Cruz mountains to the west and the Bay to the east. We haven’t even talked about the south east Bay yet with the communities of Milpitas, Fremont, Pleasanton and Dublin. The regions, communities and municipalities of the Bay Area will be another upcoming blog post we’ll be tackling.

[NB: there are LOTS of bridges in this area and they create major traffic snarls. Check to see if there is a bridge involved in you or your spouse’s commute to work. Bridges can be a serious deterrent to choosing a particular neighbourhood or municipality.]

If you have kids, selecting an area based on the schools is another major driver of where you choose to live. Public schools are locally funded through property taxes so think about it this way: expensive homes= high property taxes; inexpensive homes= lower property taxes. We’ll dive deeper into the issue in, you guess it, another blog post on schools and education.

Deciding where to live is a big deal and not an easy decision, especially when you are unfamiliar with the area’s geography. There can be lots of complicating factors, but hopefully this information will make it a bit easier.

Here are some online resources available to you where you can begin your search:

Zillow- an online real estate and rental marketplace that is chock-full of mapping and data. It even provides school ranking data based on standardized testing and demographics (beware: this information can be insidious IMO)

Craigslist SF- the online version of traditional classified ads, it has lots of apartment rentals listed, making it ideal for students and small families on limited budgets. The only drawback: no map to show you where the rental is located so if you’re unfamiliar with the area, it isn’t very helpful in your search

Padmapper-Strictly for rentals, this site pulls data from Craigslist as well as other sites and plots them on a map. You can also put filters in to get you better results based on your search criteria.

Hotpads-Acquired by Zillow, this site is very similar to Padmapper and maps the location of the rentals for you. Could be helpful as you figure out the distance of your commute from your home to your office.

Apartments.com-Another great site that allows you to plug in your search criteria and plots the results on a map for you.

If you are contemplating buying a place (a discussion about mortgages and lines of credit to buy a house is another upcoming topic in this series!), you should definitely enlist the help of a real estate agent. The best way to find a reputable agent is by word-of-mouth. Friends, colleagues, etc. should be able to help you out with this. If not, ask your employer’s relocation services team about getting a referral to a realtor.

In the meantime you can peruse Zillow, or even realtor.com and Redfin and find out if you are brave enough to dip your toes into the Bay Area real estate market.

Good luck on your house hunt and take heart--it’s your family that makes a home, not the house itself. Welcome to the Bay Area!

 

 Dorin Greenwood is originally from Toronto. She relocated to the Bay Area is January 2018.

 

 The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or positions of the Digital Moose Lounge.