Where Should I Move To In The Bay Area?
February 24, 2010 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Where should I live when I move to the Bay Area?

Here are the facts:

Later this year, I'm moving to the Bay Area for work. I will know very few people outside of work when I get to town. I'm moving by myself. I have a reasonable budget (around $2k / month, maybe a touch more) and don't need much space. Would love to spend less, but willing to spend that much for the right situation.

Work will be in Palo Alto, at a location that is just about right off of I-280 and the Page Mill Road exit.

My inclination is to live in San Francisco, because I want to live in a city. That said, the commute worries me a little ... I'd have to drive (train's won't work with my unpredictable schedule), and I wonder if I'll be unhappy. I also don't know what neighborhoods/etc. in SF are best for this kind of commute. I'd likely be commuting around 7 or 7:30 am, sometimes earlier, sometimes a bit later; coming home no earlier than 6, likely later in many cases).

Another option would be downtown Mountain View or Palo Alto (near Castro St. or University Ave.) Both of these seem okay, but I worry that I'll be less likely to go out and/or meet people with either of these options. I also worry I'll never make it to San Francisco, despite the idea that "you can always go into the city on the weekends."

A third thing I'm thinking about is San Jose. The thought is that it's somewhat urban/city living, but the commute would be shorter and the rent would be cheaper. Wondering if it'd be the best of both worlds. Have a feeling the cheaper rent is indicative of how bad an idea this might be.

Whatever I choose, I don't know much about neighborhoods, etc. If I decide on San Francisco, I want to be close to the freeway, and would prefer to live in a place where I could get garage parking, but that's not totally necessary.

I'm also open to other towns closer to Palo Alto, but I don't know much about them.


I'm asking now because I'm going to be in the area in the next few weeks, and I want to check out some buildings/neighborhoods/etc., in case I have to make a rental decision before I actually move.

I realize this is a fairly open ended question. I'm hoping to get advice from people who have been in a similar situation, or have thoughts on the commute and the pros and cons of city living when work is that far away.
posted by JakeWalker to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The 280 commute between Palo Alto and SF is really not bad. Look at neighborhoods near 280 in SF- I really like Bernal Heights and you should be able to find something in your price range.
You can make that commute in about 35 minutes each way at certain hours, probably 7am would be fine.
posted by cushie at 8:47 PM on February 24, 2010

Apparently, if you don't live in the city, you will almost never visit it. Even people across the bridge never visit.
posted by mallow005 at 9:09 PM on February 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

I prefer not commuting, and while I know nothing about Palo Alto, I do know that living in SF can be really fun, and agree that you risk not engaging with the city if you don't live in it. So, seconding the 280 advice, and the Bernal Heights advice. You could also check out the Mission, and Potrero Hill, neither of which are too far from 280 and both of which are fun/interesting neighborhoods.
posted by gubenuj at 9:14 PM on February 24, 2010

I live in San Francisco, in the Mission, one stoplight/three minutes from the Potrero Ave on-ramp to 280/101/. I work in Menlo Park, about half a mile from the Sand Hill Rd exit off 280 S - I think that's two exits north of the Page Mill exit.

It's a spectacularly beautiful commute.

It's about 30-35 minutes door-to-door; I leave between 7:15 and 7:30. I take 101 to 380 to 280 (taking 280 all the way around from this point leaves one open to bad traffic around 19th Ave/Serramonte; 101 from Candlestick to 280 can be slow but is almost never stopped. I've timed it; it's faster).

I can't advise on living on the Peninsula, except to say I wouldn't do it. If you can't find a place in San Franciso on Potrero Hill, the Mission, or Bernal that you can afford and have to live elsewhere in the city, add at least 20 minutes to your commute. I used to work in Marin, and my commute was 45-50 minutes for almost exactly the same distance, but 20 minutes of that was driving across the city to get to the GG Bridge.

A while back I made a post that featured this site, which breaks craigslist listings down by size/price/neighborhood/comps in the area for the last 90 or so days.

I'm biased, of course, but if you can swing San Francisco, live in San Francisco. Let me know if I can answer any more questions.
posted by rtha at 9:14 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can probably find some small studio/1BR for $800-$1000. When I was doing the 280 commute down to Sunnyvale, I lived in the Outer Sunset which had the ocean, the park, a chance of street parking (garage probably an extra $200-$300, if available), and I could take the N Judah into the city proper. Getting to 280 was pretty easy via Great Highway (timed lights) and Skyline. Similarly Inner Sunset is not bad, but you'll get sick of 19th Ave.

What I recommend, though, is that you move somewhere that's very convenient for work at first, and use your extra time to explore the Bay Area and make friends as best you can. Then, later, you can make a better decision about how to waste that 1-2 hours of your life on the commute every day.
posted by fleacircus at 9:23 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

How old are you, and where are you moving from? Either way, I suggest you connect with your college's alumni network-- the Bay Area has lots of people looking to make friends with you. Welcome!

Downtown San Jose might be a good compromise, although it's not going to offer anything quite like the SF life. It is socioeconomically diverse and the downtown area supports a college of ungrads and graduate students, so it's rather young. However, the downtown is a bit dead on weeknights and everyone still drives everywhere. The Willow Glen area near downtown is bit more small-town feeling; it's super cute, walkable and nice. If I had to live in San Jose, that's where I would live.

I don't know what it's like to live in Mountain View, other than everyone that I know that lives in Mt. View thought it was boring.

If you're going to live in SF, lots of people do this commute and many people do take the train (even with an irregular schedule). I've done this commute myself driving 280, and I agree that (while it's not THAT bad) it makes even your short days at work feel like long days. If you really want to try out SF, I'd recommend living somewhere in the Mission off of 280, ideally near Dolores Park. This is a hipster-ish area, but there are lots of non-hipsters and you'll make friends. (Note: Dolores Park will actually be closing soon for 1 year of construction... but the neighborhood itself is still decently safe, fun and very "sf".)
posted by samthemander at 9:28 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd be surprised if you can make it from San Francisco to Palo Alto in less than an hour, but then I never drove to work at 7am. Maybe stay in a hotel in the city and test it out?

Another compromise option is Daly City. It's cheaper, a bit shorter commute to Palo Alto and it has a BART station, so it's very convenient to get into the city.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:32 PM on February 24, 2010

Also, if you're looking to make friends, I highly suggest looking on Craigslist for a room in an apartment. Not only will you save money thanks to rent control, you'll be forced out of your bubble to meet new people.

Probably 50% of my friends have had good success using a Craigslist roomshare situation (And not because my friends are weird-- my point is that my friends' experiences are quite common).
posted by samthemander at 9:33 PM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: samthemander - I'm 30, and coming from Ann Arbor (law school for 3 years) via Chicago & Boston.

This advice is exactly what I was looking for so far, thanks, MeFi! (Keep it coming!)
posted by JakeWalker at 9:38 PM on February 24, 2010

Living in San Jose will not be the "best of both worlds." If you want "city" living, you have to live in SF (not that the Bay Area doesn't have other outstanding places to live, i.e., many places in the East Bay). And as others have said, as long as you're close to the freeway (the Mission, Bernal, Glen Park, although a bit too foggy for my taste) it will make your commute easier.

The upside of Palo Alto is the sunshine...
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:58 PM on February 24, 2010

Compromise: move close to work at first and move to the city later once you know what sort of commute you're getting into.

disclosure: I wont commute more than 15 minutes or so by car since I want my work distance to be practically bikeable in the summer. Spending 70 minutes a day driving to and from work seems like a complete waste of your life.
posted by rr at 10:01 PM on February 24, 2010

I have a friend who lives in the Potrero Hill neighborhood and has a fine commute to roughly your work exit - but only if she leaves around 7 or 7:15 at the latest. If you want city living, i.e. urban life, live in the city - San Francisco. San Jose? No - you didn't score a job on the west coast, with the capacity to live in San Francisco on a decent wage, to live in San Jose. There are fine pockets of life on the peninsula, but it's definitely not anything like San Francisco. Now, if you want a bigger place, land, access to the water or trails or better weather most of the year, live down there. You can always move after the first year.
posted by barnone at 10:12 PM on February 24, 2010

I'd be surprised if you can make it from San Francisco to Palo Alto in less than an hour,

If it's the just-off-280 part of PA and you're coming from the southern part of SF, it's doable in 30-40 minutes. I leave for work around 7:30 and get there around 8; my boss (who lives not far from me) leaves around 8:45 and gets there around 9:15. In my experience, even when traffic is heavy, the speed rarely drops below 65 mph. And you get to drive down the San Andreas fault! Keep an earthquake kit in your car.

Getting from SF to the west side of Palo Alto/Menlo Park is a gigantic pain in the ass. Stanford runs a couple of shuttles, but they are few and far between outside of a narrow window of commute hours, and they're slow.

But keeping a car in San Francisco isn't cheap. Gas in California isn't cheap. Renting a garage or dealing with the tickets you will acquire because of non-existent neighborhood parking on street-cleaning days must be taken into account.
posted by rtha at 10:20 PM on February 24, 2010

Getting from SF to the west side of Palo Alto/Menlo Park is a gigantic pain in the ass

This should read: Getting from SF to the west side of Palo Alto/Menlo Park VIA CALTRAIN is a gigantic pain in the ass...
posted by rtha at 10:49 PM on February 24, 2010

As far as cheaper rent goes, it's been my experience (as someone who grew up all around the bay area) that everyone and their mom wants to live in SF/East Bay which for me explains the higher rents, not necessarily a "bad idea" (though I don't really know what you mean by that). Also seconding impossible parking and I'd also like to warn you about the vicious meter maids.

But whatever you do, DO NOT under any circumstances, ever ever ever move to Fremont.
posted by bam at 11:32 PM on February 24, 2010

Downtown San Jose is nothing like San Francisco. Nothing. It is not a compromise, if that is what the intention is.

I actually live in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, and I love it. It's kind of small townish, with a cute downtown area with restaurants and shopping and old neighborhoods.

Downtown Mountain View is really cute. We zip over there from work in Palo Alto for lunch regularly. If I had to move, I'd consider that area.

That aside, I agree with the folks above that said you should move close to where you will be working temporarily and then explore in your off hours to suss out a more permanent home.

Climate varies wildly from SF down to SJ, so that is also something to be aware of.
posted by Edubya at 11:33 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a few points:

I live in SF right on 280 and it takes me about an hour to get to Fry's at Page Mill/ECR with no traffic. When I worked in Redwood Shores it took about 45min in traffic in the morning. This is living pretty much right on top of the 280 entrance at Glen Park.

Commuting royally sucks in every direction from downtown San Jose. If you live downtown, you'd better work downtown. For Palo Alto you'll want to live east of Winchester, maybe Wolfe (i.e. Cupertino) to avoid most of the rush-hour traffic on 280. Upshot is there's plenty of high-density $2K 2BRs in Cupertino, for better or worse.

I'd move first to PA. There'll be plenty of places available in your price range in the various apartment zones, maybe along Middlefield. Just get it month to month so you can jump ship when you get your bearings. Good luck!
posted by rhizome at 11:52 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with rhizome that commuting by car from downtown San Jose is awful. It only makes sense if you work very close and are able take surface streets.
posted by zsazsa at 11:59 PM on February 24, 2010

I went to college in Santa Clara. Our nickname for Silicon Valley was quite literally 'The Land That Fun Forgot'.

Move there once you're married or something. But if you're not in San Francisco, you're not...really...anywhere.

This might change as San Francisco continues its war on its nightlife, but even if it does, it's the East Bay that'll benefit.
posted by effugas at 12:15 AM on February 25, 2010

Live in the Mission. Reasonable rents, good food, plenty of nightlife. 2 BART stops. Close to the Cesar Chavez exit on the 280.

Parts of the neighborhood are still a bit rough though, so use your judgment.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:55 AM on February 25, 2010

Also, the Mission is in a banana belt, making it one of the sunniest neighborhoods in the city.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:58 AM on February 25, 2010

piling it on...

- don't live in san jose, it sucks.
- figure out your routine and what you want out of sf bay area living. (for me, after years in the city, i now prefer the trees and hills of the peninsula to the smell of urine and sounds of buses of the city...but not by much. you give up a lot of options moving south, especially in cuisine and hours of operation).
- don't give up on the caltrain idea entirely. it runs multiple times per hour in the morning/evening and has "baby bullets" and limited stop trains that can get you from the city to PA in 35 minutes. 15 more minutes on a bike, or 20 in a shuttle, and you're at work. caltrain brings a lot of joy, via routine and freedom to read/nap/etc., to a SF->peninsula commuting schedule that driving does not
posted by SeƱor Pantalones at 4:45 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding not giving up on Caltrain. I used to commute on Caltrain down south and there were plenty of Palo Alto commuters on the train. Much more social too than driving down by yourself in heavy traffic, as well as a chance to just relax or work on your laptop.

I know everyone is pushing you towards the Mission. But, depending on your tastes you may prefer the newer development in South Beach rather than the older Victorians of the Mission or Potrero Hill or Bernal Heights.
posted by vacapinta at 5:33 AM on February 25, 2010

When I first moved to California to work in Menlo Park, I got a place close to work (in Redwood City). It was nice to bike to work every day, but it was definitely not city living. We did make plenty of trips to SF though.

After a while we decided to move up to SF. We lived in the Outer Sunset, which is kind of like being out of the city while being in the city. We enjoyed much more of the city this way, all of it a short car ride or a hop on the light rail (N-Judah).

We liked the Outer Sunset because we were literally across the street from the ocean and one block away from Golden Gate Park. That said, it runs a bit cheaper because it's on the edge of the city. Plus, there is fog to deal with and a cooler climate in general. They key thing to remember is that when you get out of bed and it is all foggy yet again, it is sunny and a beautiful day everywhere else (usually) so go do what you had planned for the day - don't just go back to bed.

Getting to 280 from the Outer Sunset is quick as noted above and your commute should be about 35 minutes at the times you note. And 280 is a fairly pleasant drive when you compare it to, say, 101. Parking is easy in the Outer Sunset so that brings down the cost of car ownership a bit.

If you decide to start out on the peninsula, Mountain View is probably your best bet. Forget about San Jose as noted by everyone. Feel free to email with any specific questions.
posted by mikepop at 5:50 AM on February 25, 2010

Apparently, if you don't live in the city, you will almost never visit it.

This aplenty. I used to live in Oakland (great, underrated city in a lot of ways!) and work in SF and most of the time I just wanted to head home at the end of the day. I'd maybe go to a happy hour sometimes, but staying in SF until evening meant a long trudge back across the Bay.

If your commute is more than a half hour one-way, chances are you're naturally going to gravitate toward spending most of your free time close to where you live. If you want to experience SF, live in SF.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:33 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some companies on the peninsula have shuttles to and from CalTrain.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:37 AM on February 25, 2010

Having lived in Ann Arbor, Palo Alto, and San Francisco (and many other parts of the Bay Area), I'd say:

-- San Jose is nothing like San Francisco, if you're expecting it to be like San Francisco. It doesn't suck, and I would not say "forget about it," but it's a different environment and vibe completely. I would say you would probably be quite unhappy living there if you're expecting it to be anything like San Francisco.

-- Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Mountain View (and all the other cities of Silicon Valley) can be ridiculously expensive when it comes to housing cost -- and landlords there can be very nitpicky about choosing tenants. If money is no object, Palo Alto has a lot of amenities and cultural stuff going on, but it's much, much more like Ann Arbor than it is like San Francisco. I almost never went up to SF when I lived in Mountain View and Palo Alto. The inclination is there, but it's just a bit too much of a drive, unless you really love sitting in Bay Area traffic (which is, let's face it, just absolutely horrible most of the time, no matter what part of it you live in, even on weekends). If you commute to and from SF, you will be in traffic a lot of the time, and others may have found ways around the traffic, but I just have never found it easy to drive that corridor, unless you are on the 280 at something like 5-6 in the morning and after 7 at night. Don't count on getting home by 6:00 if you are commuting on a weekday from Palo Alto to SF. That doesn't happen.

-- East Bay to San Francisco commuting is not God-awful generally, but it depends on how close you are to one of the bridges, and whether you want to live in the cities that are closest to the bridges. Hayward and Oakland/Emeryville are the two closest cities to the Dumbarton and Bay Bridges. All have something to offer, but all are also love 'em or hate 'em without much in-betweens. I would not advise living any further out than the cities closest to the bay if you are on the east side. Commuting any further than that is a true nightmare (I did it for several years). A big advantage of living in the East Bay is BART, if you live close to it. BART also runs on the west side of the peninsula, down to the airport.

-- If you live in the City itself, it has as many different neighborhoods as Boston or Chicago, with the added difference of significant geographical and microclimate variations that you don't find in a lot of other cities. The Sunset, both Inner and Outer, are as different from the Mission and Bernal Heights as can be, both in climate and in mood/feel. You really have to explore to get an idea of where you want to live if you are considering SF. Don't take anybody's word for it, just do it. I love the Inner Sunset, but I love the fog, and I love the funky, slightly rundown feel of the neighborhood. You may like different things. You have to give yourself at least a week of exploring to get an idea of what neighborhood you'd best like to live in.

-- That area around the Page Mill 280 exit is incredibly beautiful and is one of the things I miss about the Bay Area.

-- Personally, I'd say you're out of your mind to leave Ann Arbor for the Bay Area, only because I did it myself. But having done it myself, I recognize that it must be very hard to live (i.e. survive) in Michigan these days. Admittedly, there's not a heck of a lot to do in Ann Arbor either, if you like city life.

-- If you have any pets, particularly dogs, God help you as far as finding decent housing.

Mail me if you'd like.
posted by blucevalo at 8:57 AM on February 25, 2010

Bay Area traffic (which is, let's face it, just absolutely horrible most of the time, no matter what part of it you live in, even on weekends)

Seriously? Bay Area traffic, as a whole, is fine, especially compared to, say, LA. Maybe it has to do with the economic downturn or something, but outside of normal commute hours, the freeways absolutely fly. I've heard people call 280 the Autobahn.
posted by zsazsa at 9:30 AM on February 25, 2010

I live in Sunnyvale.

San Jose is nothing like San Francisco, if you're expecting it to be like San Francisco. It doesn't suck, and I would not say "forget about it"

San Jose sucks. Holy crap, it is beyond dead. Zombies avoid San Jose. It sucks. Forget about it.

If you're 30 and single move to San Francisco. If you like a quieter life Palo Alto or Mtn View would actually probably be OK as there are a lot of young people there what with Google, Facebook and Stanford. But if you're not bothered by a commute - and as others have said, 280 is pretty good compared to 101 - move to the city.

Besides, if you rent you can always move again once your lease is up.
posted by GuyZero at 9:46 AM on February 25, 2010

Maybe it has to do with the economic downturn or something, but outside of normal commute hours, the freeways absolutely fly.

I guess traffic patterns have really changed since I left a year ago. Vehicular traffic seems to really drop in the Bay Area during every recession.

San Jose sucks. Holy crap, it is beyond dead. Zombies avoid San Jose. It sucks. Forget about it.

I'll agree that San Jose is deadsville, probably more so if you're in your twenties and thirties and looking for anything to do other than twiddle your thumbs.
posted by blucevalo at 10:02 AM on February 25, 2010

And 280 is a fairly pleasant drive when you compare it to, say, 101.

^^^^^ Understatement of the Year award.
posted by fleacircus at 10:10 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Really good advice from all of the above.

1. do not live in San Jose. you will regret it.
2. palo alto and mountain view downtowns are nice, but more appropriate if you have a circle of friends and/or an SO who is already living in that area. you will NOT make it to the city regularly if you live in PA or MV, regardless of your intentions to go up every weekend. you WILL meet less people.
3. the commute from SF to 280/Page Mill can be 40 min to an hour, depending on the neighborhood you pick; worse with bad traffic. if you're optimizing for commute, the best neighborhoods in SF are probably glen park, bernal heights, noe valley or portola. any further south and you start feeling like you're deeper in the suburbs (although everything is a gradient).
4. if you don't mind piling another 10 min onto your commute, my favorite neighborhood is the dolores park area, with the park, tartine, bi-rite, etc all in close proximity.
5. the sunset is nice, but better if you like asian food (yum!) and fog. it's also a longer commute.
6. do not live in daly city.
posted by cranberryskies at 11:07 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, you can walk around SF and enjoy the neighborhoods bit by bit. San Jose isn't much of a city to enjoy without a car, in my experience.

Another thing to consider: SJ is hella hot in the summer. SF, not so much.
posted by vickyverky at 11:51 AM on February 25, 2010

Oh yeah! My other favorite subject: microclimates!

Some are less micro than others, but still, in the almost-ten years I've lived here, I'm still amazed (and very happy) that I can leave my office in Menlo Park on a summer day in July, and it will be in the 90s at 5pm, and when I get home, 30ish miles and 30ish minutes later, I find it's 62 degrees. Awesome.
posted by rtha at 1:21 PM on February 25, 2010

City CarShare and ZipCar have locations all around San Francisco if you occasionally need a car.

SJ is hella hot in the summer. SF, not so much.

In fact, San Francisco can be downright wintry and cold in August.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:06 PM on February 25, 2010

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
posted by GuyZero at 2:25 PM on February 25, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone. I'm looking forward to my trip next week to do some neighborhood scouting, maybe even a hypothetical commute.
posted by JakeWalker at 12:12 AM on February 26, 2010

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