Where in California should we live?
May 25, 2011 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Help me find the new hometown of my dreams: quiet-but-not-dull coastal northern California community with a slightly hippy-and/or-artsy vibe and awesome schools. Alternatively, convince me that my desires are self-contradictory and the place I'm looking for does not exist.

This is either a grass-is-greener midlife crisis pipe dream, or an entirely rational reaction to one too many New England winters. Probably both.

Here's what's important to us:
* Good schools. Not an issue immediately, but our kid will be hitting kindergarden age in a few years.
* Not a big city (been there, done that, hated it), not so small-town that it feel lonely or dull (doing that right now and it's getting old), and not a suburban-sprawl bedroom community that empties out during the day when everyone's at work somewhere else. It should be a real town with its own 'downtown' area, but not so big and crowded that you have to worry about whether you'll be able to find parking whenever you go somewhere.
* My two main non-work activities are djembe and fire poi; that's probably enough right there to give you an idea of the type of people I want to be around. If there's a weekly spin jam or drum circle in the local park or something, we're definitely on the right track.
* Minor bonus points if there's an active tech community in the area. I'm a freelance web dev guy used to working remote, so this isn't essential, but it might be nice to actually live near people who do what I do for a change.
* We need to be able to buy a large-ish house, ideally with some acreage for privacy, for less than $1.5M at the absolute most. (We both work from home and need lots of space and quiet, and the one good thing about our current house in the middle of the woods is total privacy; I can give that up if I have to but I'll miss it.)
* I've been thinking coastal, mostly because beach towns seem more likely to have the general flavor I'm looking for, but inland with open space is also an option.
* Major major bonus points if not too terribly far from the bay area. I won't need or want to commute in on a daily basis or anything like that, but we have friends in Oakland we'd like to be within visiting range of. Obviously this severely limits the available choices, but anyplace more than an hour or so away would have to be sufficiently awesome to make up for the terrifying prospect of starting life all over again where we don't know anyone at all.

Is this plausible, or am I kidding myself?
posted by ook to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in Arcata. Humboldt County sounds like your kind of place.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:38 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconded mollymayhem's suggestion. That place exists, and it's in HumCo.
posted by ghostpony at 9:42 AM on May 25, 2011

I can't speak to the schools element or the tech community/culture, but I'll 3rd Humboldt County. Arcata is home to Humboldt State University, and Eureka is the largest Pacific coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Both cities are about 5 hours from SF. There are 5 other incorporated cities, and 39 unincorporated communities.

I think the cost of housing is well within your 1.5 million means. There are some amazing Victorian houses up in that area, and areas with more acreage.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2011

Response by poster: Arcata does look promising, though the weather seems a little chilly... how far inland do you have to go to get out of the coastal fog and into warmer weather? Would doing so put us so far out of town that we'd be lonely and sad?

I'd love to hear any suggestions nearer to SF, as well, if such exist.
posted by ook at 10:08 AM on May 25, 2011

Santa Cruz, CA, meets many, if not all (real estate prices??) of your criteria.
posted by ainsley at 10:17 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

This sounds like Santa Cruz to me, although admittedly I don't know about the schools and am not sure about the largish house for under 1.5mil. You'd have your hippy vibe, drum circles, Silicon Valley just over the hill, a fairly active downtown area, and it's not all that far from the bay area. I've never lived there though, just have family members who do and go every once in a while for work, so perhaps people with more familiarity can tell you if it's actually what you're looking for.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:19 AM on May 25, 2011

The Santa Cruz Mountains are a possibility. Boulder Creek, Felton, Ben Lomond, etc. Although Santa Cruz is nice also. I have no idea of property values but there is a plethora of "alternative" activities there.
posted by Danf at 10:31 AM on May 25, 2011

I'd look in the North Bay. There are some communities that fit this bill. Look between Sausilito (pricier, probably) up through Mendocino, and beyond.

The Northern coast is made up of exactly what you are looking for. You don't need to go all the way to Humboldt, for sure.
posted by Edubya at 10:34 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

How coastal are we talking? If you're okay with an hour inland, you want Ukiah.

If 15 minutes inland is all right, then try Sebastopol.

If 15 minutes inland and Central California is all right, then maybe San Luis Obispo.

Also, Fort Bragg is coastal and northern.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:37 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first thought was Santa Cruz as well, and then I read your criteria again and wondered if you have taken a hard look at the Berkeley Hills. You can absolutely find quiet and privacy there, albeit not lots of acreage. There are plenty of houses tucked away in their own private little wooded glen, away from the full Berkeley thing but you can have it in 10 minutes when you want it. It hits every other item on your list bang-on.
posted by ambrosia at 10:38 AM on May 25, 2011

Nthing Santa Cruz. Housing is expensive, so what you consider a "largish" home might be prohibitive, if you want to live in town proper. But the schools are good, more so on the west side than east, and a LOT of people live out a little ways to afford something less expensive and larger. It has a well-deserved crazy reputation, but there is also a very strong family focus, with ongoing community events.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 10:44 AM on May 25, 2011

Mt. Shasta, CA. Although it is very small.
posted by Packy_1962 at 10:55 AM on May 25, 2011

I live in the Santa Cruz mountains (San Lorenzo valley). Santa Cruz proper is maybe fifteen minutes' drive. Most of my large plot (tens of acres) is covered with redwoods. I cannot see or hear my neighbors' houses. The house is 2300 ft^2 - not very large but certainly plenty for me and my partner. We built it. The only negative I can see with respect to your needs is the fire risk in some places - fire poi is right out unless you create for yourself a fireproof place for it. This limitation will be even more troublesome in the Berkeley hills because the 1991 fires are still very keenly remembered, and acreage is a lot more expensive. Mail if you want details.
posted by jet_silver at 11:03 AM on May 25, 2011

Sounds like Santa Cruz, except for maybe the real estate piece.
posted by cnc at 11:23 AM on May 25, 2011

Grew up in McKinleyville, CA (across the river from Arcata), and I wish I was there right now.

To get out of the fog, go inland about a dozen miles to Blue Lake or Fieldbrook.

Dow's Prairie Elementary was a pretty solid public school back in the day (er, the 1970s). I have no idea if that's still true. I hope so.

Probably too far from Oakland to be practical for you, however.

Fort Bragg/Mendociono/Caspar would be reasonable, drivewise. Twenty miles inland and out of the fog is the Anderson Valley (Boonville), which I've only driven through, but it's home to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which used to feature Alexander Cockburn (and, on link preview, still does), so it can't be all bad.
posted by notyou at 11:23 AM on May 25, 2011

I have relatives who moved to Felton from the Bay Area, but they ended up leaving after a year or so because the fog was too depressing for them (there were other contributing factors but the fog was specifically mentioned).
posted by mogget at 11:26 AM on May 25, 2011

I live in Santa Cruz, and if you don't want to live in the town proper, you can get all of your criteria.

* Good schools: pretty good schools in SC proper, not as sure what the deal is for mountain towns like Felton or Ben Lomond.
* Not a big city: SC is 50,000 people, with an active downtown and loads of stuff to do. Lots of people downtown all the time, between tourists, students, and people not on a 9-5 schedule. Also lots of drifters, homeless and street musicians. If music is important to you, Santa Cruz tends to get much more and more headline-y bands than its size would suggest.
* Alternative: there are LOTS of drum circles - there was(?) one at at the Wednesday downtown farmers' market, which is a huge social event on its own. There's a weekly juggling/hooping/etc. group Sunday evenings at the lighthouse on West Cliff.
* Active tech community: it's 45 minutes from San Jose. There's a commuter bus across the hill with wifi. There's also a significant back to the land/DIY ethos.
* Definitely coastal.
* An hour and 15 minutes with no traffic to Oakland, slightly longer to downtown SF. It's close enough that a lot of grad students I know live in the Bay Area proper and commute down a few days a week. Lots of people go up to the city over the weekend. There's also a TON of outdoorsy/natural stuff nearby.
* The weather is pretty great - a rainy season in the winter, and a lot of sun the rest of the time. The hills are SIGNIFICANTLY more rainy/foggy though, as mentioned upthread.

The house is the only sticking point. You will be hard pressed to find a large house for 1.5 million in SC proper than has any significantly sized lot. It's a pretty built out city. However, if you go further away, for example up Empire Grade or towards the back end of River St, or up by Delaveaga or Branciforte on the East Side you should be able to find what you're looking for.

Feel free to memail me if I can answer any other questions!
posted by foodmapper at 11:36 AM on May 25, 2011

I think any city that meets the description in the OP will have high real estate prices, because it sounds like a nice place to live.
posted by twblalock at 12:15 PM on May 25, 2011

You can easily find 5-30+ acre lots in Ukiah for less than a million, with 3000 sq ft houses on them besides. Ukiah is an hour from the ocean, in the middle of wine country, has easy access to hippies, is 2 hours from Oakland, and was voted the best small town to live in in CA and the sixth best in the nation.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:11 PM on May 25, 2011

Davis may be worth checking out. It meets some, but not all, of your criteria.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:05 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Heh. I live in Davis and while many people are initially fond of it, the enthusiasm soon wears off. If you are not a college student you will want to leave after a year or two.

Also, the tech industry here is small compared to most of the other cities mentioned. Most houses dont have acreage. There is plenty of fire poi though.
posted by twblalock at 3:19 PM on May 25, 2011

elsietheeel: If 15 minutes inland and Central California is all right, then maybe San Luis Obispo.

I was stuck in a Northern California mindset, but with your concern for weather, Arcata might be on the chilly side. Great for jacket or sweater weather (which is always fun to say - sweater weather, sweater weather, sweater weather...)

Santa Cruz is a still isn't balmy, but is getting warmer, but San Luis Obispo is getting warmer. And now I realize this City Data might be skewed to the cold side - SLO (as it is commonly abbreviated) will get in the 90s with spots in the low 100s in the summer, not peaking in the 80s as that weather graph seems to indicate.

SLO is part college town, part land of young adults, part retiree community. Maybe this view comes from being a college student here, who was able to stay here while most of my friends moved elsewhere. From what my co-workers say, the schools are decent to pretty good, with the usual issue with one or two teachers, depending on the topic and the student. The main town is a decent size, and growing. There are lots of great local shops, but an increasing selection of Big Box stores on the fringes, as well as in neighboring towns. There is a cluster of communities and cities in ~35 mile radius from SLO, and only 4 hours to the Bay Area (and 4 hours to Los Angeles). There are plenty of "hippie" types -- the college station's long-running reggae show has a devoted following, I'm sure there are drum circles somewhere in town, and I know there is a belly dancing community (which I think might have a related fire dancing community), as the belly dancers post fliers on the college campus all the time (or used to, when I frequented the campus more).

I'm one of the MeFites who lives in the area, so you can MeMail me with questions.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:12 AM on May 26, 2011

Response by poster: I think any city that meets the description in the OP will have high real estate prices, because it sounds like a nice place to live.

Pretty much, yeah. I just know there's somebody reading this saying to himself "hey, that's my town, but I'm not going to mention it on the internet because then everyone will move here and RUIN EVERYTHING"

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions. Quite a few of these sound like possibilities; I have a good list of places to visit and poke around at before we commit...
posted by ook at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2011

1.5m for a house with land? And not in a city? That will go a long ways in most communities, unless it's similar Santa Barbara, where a nice house in town can cost $700,000. It's a pretty place, but apparently everyone thinks so. It doesn't feel as artsy/hippie as it used to.

By adding in the "hippie" vibe, you're increasing the "weird" factor, which can bring prices down. Polished = more money. Funky = less money.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:08 PM on May 26, 2011

I'm really late, but I have to comment and say you do NOT want Arcata or Ft. Bragg. They're more remote than it might seem like, and not as cute as they seem like should be. My best guess for you is Santa Cruz (as others suggested), maybe further south in Half Moon bay like, Monterey or Carmel. San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara would also be pretty nice. The central coast I think, is nicer than the northern coast - quiet and removed, but not so remote and has a little more cultural stuff going on. Real estate will be more expensive in the Central coast, I think, but 1.5 mil. will get you a nice house where ever you are. I would NOT go further north than Sebastopol.
posted by annie o at 8:35 PM on May 31, 2011

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