Cost-of-living filter: DC (proper) vs. Oakland (or East Bay--not SF).
September 3, 2009 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Cost-of-living filter: DC (proper) vs. Oakland, CA (or East Bay--not SF). I am interviewing for positions in both Washington, DC and the Bay Area, and would need to relocate to either place. I would like specific and first-hand accounts/information about how far my salary would go in either place. Moreover, my goal is not simply to determine which is cheaper (that would appear to be Oakland), but to ascertain HOW MUCH cheaper, and to better inform any potential salary negotiation or decision making.

Relevent Conditions:
A. I am married, my wife and I (no kids or immediate plans to produce any) will be moving together (from Chicago, which we love).
B. We want to make the decisions germane to this question conservatively and in a way that would still work out if my income was our only one (sure, my wife will be working as well, but we want her to be able to be patient and find the right fit).
C. I would strongly prefer to live in DC proper if we move east, or in Oakland (I really like the Lake Merritt area) if we move west (e.g., comparisons of SF to DC or of Oakland to Arlington are not what I'm looking for). My wife is a little more suburbs-positive (I hate long commutes and love walkable stuff, plus we only have one car).

Relevant Facts:
D. Though I am looking for more general information, I will throw out that the salary range I am looking at is around 75-80k (obviously I would ask for more if a position was in DC, I think, but calibrating that sort of thing is largely my goal in writing this question).
E. I work in politics/advocacy and my wife works in museums. Both locations are good for our long-term careers (DC slightly better, I guess), but the Bay Area is a little better for us in lifestyle terms (we like hiking and gardening).
F. Our lifestyles are simple. We don't eat out all the time, never go out drinking or to clubs or things like that, and generally don't do a lot of paid recreation beyond the occasional movie and cheap ethnic food. We don't care if a cocktail or a steak costs more one place or another.

1. How much more money would I need to make in DC for it to be "equal" to Oakland, in terms of cost of living?
2. What is the cost difference between these two places in terms of rent only (we will not be buying), likely for a 1 bedroom apartment?
3. Am I being stupid by ruling out suburban DC?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should have made clear in the question that we have checked out a lot of online cost-of-living charts and calculators, and they all vary. Generally, they say DC is 4-12% more expensive, but anecdotal information from friends in both places makes it seem more like 12+.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:13 AM on September 3, 2009

The one thing that is a plus to Oakland now is that the rental market is very flexible, but this is a limited time (as in until hiring picks up) and if you wanted to lock in a price under rent control, you should do it now. Housing is the largest variable cost of living in the Bay Area, followed in my opinion by transportation.

My biggest advice to you is don't buy now in the Bay Area unless you are able to do so. The smartest move in the market is to secure a rental and then see if the landlord will acquiesce to Tenants-in-Common, which is one level below condominium but you will own.
posted by parmanparman at 9:39 AM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: I didn't know they had rent control in Oakland. Interesting, and thanks.

As for not buying right now--that will not be a problem. We don't have any money.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:42 AM on September 3, 2009

I live in Oakland, my daughter lived in DC for 6 years. You will need a car in Oakland, BART is useful for commute type use AC Transit (the bus system) is a mess.

I know the Beltway traffic is horrible but if your in DC proper who cares? I found the Metro very efficient.

I would not live in the DC area. Weather and getting away from there is a chore.
posted by pianomover at 9:44 AM on September 3, 2009

The buying-vs-renting decision [on preview: not an issue for you!] will be key when it comes to DC, and it will depend greatly on exactly where in DC you choose to live. Cost of living in DC varies wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Plus, I've found that quality of life here depends a LOT on how accessible you are to public transportation, which in my opinion is the biggest knock against living in the mid- to far-suburbs. Everyone who has to drive anywhere in DC to get to work just hates it after a while.

Personally, my wife and I live in Silver Spring, right on the DC-MD border, and really like it. Close to lots of transportation options, many interesting food options (we can walk to good Ethiopian, Cuban, Burmese, Jamaican, and Thai restaurants), and an interesting blend of people from a variety of backgrounds. It's easy to get to Baltimore if you want to escape DC proper for an evening or day, and it's close to the I-270 corridor to get away to the mountains for day hiking trips or other outdoor activities. You'll hear lots of "living in Silver Spring is like living in a mall" crap from people who've never been there; ignore them. Since we moved to the area seven years ago we've lived in Northern VA, DC, and MD, and like MD by far out the best of the three. We've both rented and owned, so I have a general idea of the cost of living in each place.

I can answer very specific questions about cost of living in the Silver Spring area, or about working in the DC museum community, if you want. Feel free to e-mail me.
posted by arco at 9:54 AM on September 3, 2009

I'm having trouble understanding what you are actually asking here. Your actual cost of living will depend on hundreds of variables. What part of town do you want to live in? What kind of house? Do you eat only organic, locally grown produce? Do you plan on driving? So on and so forth.

have never lived in Oakland. I have no basis with which to directly compare the two, but it seems extremely unlikely that there would be a 12% diference. In fact I find it hard to believe that DC would be considered the more expensive of the two. I don't know who they are surveyed for those things?

We bought a nice single family home in the city with a garden in a quiet, safe neighborhood that is now worth somewhere around $350,000-ish. We have several organic grocery stores and several big chain grocery stores in our neighborhood as well as several farmers' markets to choose from for food. Prices are a bit higher, but not that much higher than where I grew up in middle america. We have one small car that sits most of the time so gas prices don't really affect us. We don't go out much, so we don't pay the stupid prices for things like beer that you get at high-end clubs. My commute is 20 to 30 minutes and costs me about $3.50 a day.

We live in the city, but our neighborhood is an old street-car suburb, so we get a feel of both city life and suburban life. We garden in our big back yard and go for walks on our tree lined streets. We know our neighbors. We have sidewalks. We forget to lock our door sometimes. My neighbor lady called us at work when she saw someone on our porch (my dad). Sometimes we drive out of the city to go explore the hills to the West or the coast to the east or Baltimore all within a short drive. If we lived in the actual suburbs I'm not sure we could live as cheaply, especially in the NoVA 'burbs (not that I'd ever consider living there).

We have 4 seasons. We have free museums. I can read any book in the English language or listen to any album or read any newspaper for free at the Library of Congress. Michelle Obama's BFF lives up the street. I can get real, hand made Maryland blue crab cakes at a fast food joint or North Carolina barbecue. The job market has continued to grow in our area, mainly in the government and advocacy arenas.

I don't get represented by my government. Taxes tend to be high (no higher than CA). The crime rate in parts of the city is staggering (no worse really than parts of Oakland though). We have 4 seasons. We have tourists. We have 8th graders. Most folks in town either have an advanced degree from an Ivy or is a high school drop out with little in between (not so true in our middle class neighborhood). You cannot get a fish taco or a chalupa at most fast food joints 9not sure if you can in Oakland though). Work tends to be a large part of people's lifestyles and priorities here.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

To get more specific: a one-bedroom apartment in a good building near downtown Silver Spring will run you $1500-2000 a month. A one-bedroom in Dupont Circle, which is a desirable neighborhood near downtown DC, will go for roughly $1900-2500 a month; other areas will be even more expenses. There are certainly cheaper apartments in DC, but they might not be as convenient to Metro or will be in less-desirable parts of town. I have no idea how these prices compare to Oakland.

One more thing: the DC metro is designed to get people from the outer suburbs into the center of town. It's not necessarily designed to get people from place-to-place within the city. If you know where you would be working in DC, look at the Metro map to see what subway lines go there, then estimate you commute times from various places. Some nice areas, like Georgetown, are not convenient to Metro at all, and it might take you an hour or more to get to work, whereas if you lived in certain suburbs and had a convenient Metro ride your commute might only be 20 minutes.

On preview: DC has four seasons, but Spring and Fall only last a few short weeks. Summer, on the other hand, lasts for years and years and years.
posted by arco at 10:13 AM on September 3, 2009

Incidentally $1500 to $2000 a month will get you a house and some soil for your garden in some neighborhoods of DC if you avoid the "hip" parts of town. Avoiding hot neighborhoods is not equal to giving up safety, accesibility, or convenience either, contrary to what many people in the area tend to believe. Sometimes it is quite the opposite, as in Arco's Georgetown example. Georgetown has a higher crime rate (crime follows money) and no metro access, but the highest rents in town.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:25 AM on September 3, 2009

Pollomacho and arco give good advice.
posted by exogenous at 10:36 AM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: What are some such neighborhoods, Pollomacho?

In Oakland, we would be looking at around $1200-$1300 for a 1br, just for reference. How cheaply could one live in a still-safe-and-convenient but not hip part of town?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:51 AM on September 3, 2009

I hate DC. We pay $1500 in rent for a 1 bedroom that is fairly small and dealing with people who work in politics (nearly everyone) gets extremely tiring. Also, people are not at all friendly and extremely reserved.
posted by anniecat at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2009

I live in DC and my now exboyfriend lives in Lake Merritt; neither of us make as much as your potential salary; I also work in the arts/museum world. I can say that when I saw his apartment, I immediately started looking for jobs in the bay area (and should add that I was also motivated by the fact that I was hoping to resuscitate a dying relationship, but I also genuinely fell in love with the bay area).

For a point of comparison, my ex pays about 1100 for a really nice, pretty good sized 1 br in a well-maintained circa 1940s building with only 5 other units. I on the other hand pay $970 for a studio in an OK, but certainly aesthetically challenged apartment tower in Silver Spring, MD. Now my ex's rent may not be typical (long story but I think for whatever reason his landlords seem to be slightly below market rate), but when I was looking on Craigslist last fall, comparing Oakland, Lake Merritt in particular, to DC, I could get a lot nicer apartment in Oakland even staying well within my budget; DC? not so much.

Unfortunately the exact opposite is true when it comes to jobs for your wife. As much as I'm kinda "meh" about DC, it is a good place for people in the museum world as since most are government jobs, they pay a heck of a lot more than the same job in a private museum (unless you are a star curator at someplace like the Met or a director). Plus there is a high concentration of museums of every stripe here.

I would strongly disagree with pianomover: Weather and getting away from there is a chore. Yeah the summer is a drag if you hate the heat, but this summer was mostly lovely. As for getting out of here, there are 3 airports all reachable by public transportation (well BWI you need to take Amtrak and Dulles a bus). I don't drive and while National is most convenient for me, I've traveled to and from all 3 without any problems.

I would say that while I wouldn't describe people here as unfriendly or reserved, I do find them extremely conventional. I thought that I'd meet more people who had traveled and were from all over the world, but most of the people with whom I work and whom I've met since I've lived here are from the area, never left, haven't really traveled much if at all, married in the their late 20s, early 30s and they started working for the government right out of college. Most are politically left leaning though not that far and relatively smart, but not looking to be challenged. My experience may be limited, but other transplants with whom I've spoken have agreed about the "conventional" tag.

I think that you'd be pleasantly surprised by the lovely bike and hiking trails here. Feel free to memail me if you want more info.
posted by kaybdc at 12:05 PM on September 3, 2009

My wife and I live in Brookland which has very cheap rents* and affordable places to buy. We've been off the market for a while outside of our area, but there have got to be more Brooklands around.

We also mostly manage to stay away from people that work in politics thankfully.

*(not that you'd necessarily pick any of those places, just examples)
posted by Pollomacho at 12:25 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, Pollomacho.

kaybdc: Do you have a feel for other basics, like groceries, etc., and whether they are way more expensive in one place or another?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:49 PM on September 3, 2009

Oakland resident here (and a happy member of the Dunce team!)

First, these are very different cities in many ways which, to my mind, are going to have a much bigger impact on your happiness than a 10% difference in rent. I will say that my limited stays in DC make me believe you can get by in the Bay Area with not only cheaper rent, but lower cost food and utility bills (none of that sweltering heat and occasional freezing - we're locked in between 60-85 degrees 95% of the time. Today it's a sweltering 83 out in Oakland with next to no humidity. Got to love Bay regulated weather.

There is a huge range of living costs in Oakland (and don't rule out nearby Berkeley). In your price range you could have an excellent 1 (or even 2) bedroom apartment in most neighborhoods. I think you'd like Temescal - close to great food and minutes from downtown or Berkeley and BART. North Oakland generally has some great areas, say from 50th up to 65th (where it becomes Berkeley) between Telegraph and Shattuck. Lake Merrit is also great, but I suggest looking a little further north which may also mean a lower rent. Alameda island is great too, Ferry access to SF for the wife would be easy (but not as cheap as BART IIRC and driving off island during commute hours can be trafficy).

Checkout - it's not all inclusive (doesn't list those posts without an address or cross-street) but it's a great idea of prices for certain neighborhoods.

BART access would be great for your wife's line of work: easy access to SF would mean close proximity to most places she'd be looking for work.

Hiking: Tilden Park.

Food: Bakesale Betty and Cheese Board Pizza
(These alone are enough of a reason to choose Oakland).

Gardening: rare freezes so year round gardening and even chicken coops are good to go.

You can get quite a suburban feel in some Oakland neighborhoods but walk a few blocks and your back in the city life. I moved from North Berkeley to the south side of the campus to North Oakland and really like where we ended up.
posted by unclezeb at 1:37 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

kaybdc: Do you have a feel for other basics, like groceries, etc., and whether they are way more expensive in one place or another?

I don't think that there is a huge difference in groceries. I remember my ex complaining once that avocados were $1.99, the same exact price that they were here at the time (and as he pointed out "yeah, but I could go into my neighbor's yard and pick an avocado!). But neither of us do a lot of cooking, and both mostly shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes. There's a great farmer's market in Oakland, but like most, the good stuff is pricey. There are numerous farmer's markets in the DC metro area, some are limited to local farms, and most are really good, but also expensive. I think that food is probably gonna be a draw, although I'd probably come down on the Oakland side for higher quality for the same money.

Can't say about utilities cause I don't know what my ex paid for that and mine are included with my rent. I would guess that if you lived somewhere where they were not included, all else being equal DC has a less temperate climate. That being said, I found my ex's first apartment was really poorly insulated and absolutely freezing during my Christmas visits. He had to buy a couple of portable heaters and that added significantly to his electric bill. I don't know if that was a problem with thatapt. in particular or if Bay area housing in general is not well insulated due to the climate.

I will say that that some of the nicer parts of Lake Merrit are not readily accessible to BART. My ex is about 1.5 miles from the closest stop although there is a bus stop nearby. He commutes into San Francisco mainly by being a "casual commuter" (people with cars who need an extra body to use the commuter lane and those who need rides meet at specified locations. I don't know if you'd feel safe doing it. I wouldn't, but he hasn't had a problem). I imagine that there are similar areas in DC Metro area that equally inconvenient to public transportation (Georgetown being a prime example), but if you get a government job, you get up to $115/month in commuting benefits. Basically I pay zero to commute to work everyday. If it's all gonna be on your dime than I think that the Metro is more expensive than BART, but it depends on how far you'll be commuting.
posted by kaybdc at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks. Wow, I am amazed to learn that Metro (or any other transit system on Earth) might cost more than BART. A lot of the other stuff sounds like a wash, but the bottom line seems to be that rent in Oakland is much less but other expenses are similar.

As for other factors (transit, lifestyle, etc.), I think they kind of balance out. Both have pluses and minuses, and that whole question of where we'd be happier is something we'll put a lot of time into should the situation arise. But at this point, my primary immediate goal is to get a handle on the money end in case I find myself in salary/relocation negotiations.

Thanks to everyone for the input, and keep it coming if you can!
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 2:34 PM on September 3, 2009

I think the main issue is that it's going to be really difficult, particularly in this economy, for your wife to find museum work in SF and any job that she finds there is likely to pay significantly less than in DC (of course there's no guarantees that she'd land a job in DC. either). Ultimately that is what sank me in my quest to move to Oakland.

Good luck
posted by kaybdc at 2:58 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I get that. I think that DC is better for career purposes, and the Bay is better for personal happiness. We could go either way (though we'd MUCH prefer to stay in Chicago), I just want to make sure I'm informed about the financial end of it going into any negotiations.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:09 PM on September 3, 2009

There are tons of one bedrooms near Lake Merritt in Oakland in your target range. But they are not spacious. Most under $1300 will be 500 to 650 sq ft. You can walk down a street with a notebook and fill it with numbers from the "For Rent" signs. The rents are as low as I've seen them in the five years I've been here.

Contrary to some posts, you can get by quite easily without a car unless you are already a car junky. Lots of walkable shopping, close to BART (5 to 30 minute walk depending on where you are) for getting to SF, CityCarShare and Zipcars stationed everywhere, bike lanes around the lake. But if walking a mile is a chore for you, then maybe you need a car.

In my building (an older 1920s building) most of us are single or couples and pay under $25 for gas and electric excluding heat. And if you are from Chicago, you will probably not ever need to touch your thermostat here...

Food costs, that's up to you.

BART is not cheap, but then again it is a regional rail system, not a local subway. $6.20 a day from the Oakland stations to downtown SF. There are also Transbay buses, rideshare programs, and best of all, commuter ferries (fun and fast but not cheap at $6.25 each way).

I've lived mostly in Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco, but I would have moved to this part of Oakland long, long ago if I knew how great the neighborhood/cost ratio was here. Great weather, great diversity, lots of community, excellent arts and foodie scene etc.

Hope this helps and sorry to be a cheerleader.
posted by quarterframer at 4:46 PM on September 3, 2009

Late to this... if you're still checking, you might want to run some searches on rentometer. I know nothing about Oakland, but I put in a search for a great neighborhood in DC (Eastern Market, on Capitol Hill), for a 1 bedroom and $1400 seems about average. ($1600 seemed doable for a 2 bedroom in the same location). You can live in cheaper areas for sure - out in the burbs, further East, or NE in the District, for example.
posted by semacd at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2009

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