What's the best place for me in the SF Bay Area?
October 7, 2011 2:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best place for me in the SF Bay Area?

I recently accepted a techy job in downtown Palo Alto, and I don't know where to live. I've looked at craigslist, padmapper, et al, and it seems the apartments in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Mountain View are usually old and kinda dumpy looking. If not that, then their prices are comparable to what I could get in SOMA. I've also looked farther south toward Sunnyvale and Cupertino. There seems to be more newer, less expensive complexes there, but I don't know much about those areas or how long a commute would be.

I currently live in Manhattan, and I'm not sure living in a city is right for me. I used to live in suburban DC (Arlington) and liked it. Here in NYC, I miss having a car, having a washer/dryer in my apartment, playing on nice softball fields, and playing golf. I never really took advantage of living in the city, but that doesn't bother me. I'm a homebody who occasionally goes out with friends, so I like my place to be nice on the inside since I spend so much time there.

I'll have a Go Pass for free (I think most of my future coworkers come from SF), but I don't mind driving to work either. I'd like a max of a 30-45 minute commute, but I'm not sure how much that limits me. I don't want to live with roommates. I'd like to spend around around $2000 in rent. I can actually go up to around $3000, but I'm not sure I'll get much value from that.

I keep going between SOMA, close to PA, and farther south. I'm kind of paralyzed by all the options right now. Does any one have suggestions on a good place for me to live?

Thanks everyone. I've read the previous questions (incl. this one), but I'm not sure they apply well to me.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: BTW, I'm a 27 year old single male.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards at 2:25 PM on October 7, 2011

Los Gatos and Saratoga are nice and very close to 280 so your commute would be a nice drive! :)
posted by twinA at 2:30 PM on October 7, 2011

Your criteria are conflicting. You don't want to live in a city but you keep talking about SoMa. You used to like the suburbs, but you think the suburbs are boring.

Here's what it *sounds* like: you don't really want to live in SF but you feel like you should cause it's the cool place to be and most like Manhattan. You want to live in a more suburban place because it fits the lifestyle you actually like, but you don't want to feel like a suburbanite.

There's no particular reason you wouldn't like San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, or Mountain View, except that they're all expensive. The city is even more expensive though, and with a longer commute, and parking hassles, and not a lot to offer that it actually sounds like you want.

I work in San Mateo (I'm actually there right now) and I feel like there's no reason you wouldn't like it here. I personally live way out in the country, but I have my own personal reasons for that.

You might also want to look through apartment listings on Craigslist to get an idea about how much it costs to live on the peninsula.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:32 PM on October 7, 2011

Perhaps Oakland would be the best of both worlds? I can't say how much time it might add to your commute compared to one from SF, but a lot of its nicer neighborhoods are a balance of city and suburb, there are houses for rent there in your price range. If you'll have a car and public transit is a lower priority, you have even more options. In Oakland it's easier to have a car than in SF, and there's still more going on than in actual suburbs, it's easy to get to SF, it's easy to get to parkland and redwoods, you're nearer the Alameda beach (a sunnier and somewhat nicer beach than most in SF), and so on.

That said, Manhattan is too much for a lot of people (including me). Longing for something more suburban than Manhattan doesn't mean you don't like cities. Have you spent a lot of time exploring the Bay Area / will you have much time to do so before moving? Neighborhoods in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland vary wildly from each other even within the same city and have very different vibes - maybe there's a perfect one for you. I love Oakland, lots of people don't. I'm not a fan of Berkeley as a place to live, yet a whole city of people live there. Etc.
posted by fireflies at 2:47 PM on October 7, 2011

Soma to Palo Alto in 45 minutes during the morning rush hour is unlikely.
posted by twblalock at 2:51 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps Oakland would be the best of both worlds?

No. No, no, no, no, no it's not.

Do not live in the east bay. Do not live anywhere you need to commute across a bridge. I used to live in Alameda and commute to San Mateo. The bridges are awful. You will hate your commute if you have to drive over the San Mateo bridge every day. Don't live in the east bay.

I actually do like much of Oakland and wouldn't recommend against it as a place to live except for the commute, but the commute is horrible.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:54 PM on October 7, 2011 [11 favorites]

Oakland to PA would be a nightmare without a shuttle (and still a long commute with one). I do think the East Bay can be great for some people but not necessarily in this case.

I'd recommend living in SF - not SOMA - for a year, and then moving to Palo Alto if you still feel like it. It's much easier than moving the other way, and then you'll know that you tried SF and it wasn't for you. There's plenty of neighborhoods in SF that are more Brooklyn (Park Slope, Ft Greene, and so on), or even Queens, and not Manhattan.

Pacifica is another left-field suggestion. I say not to live in SOMA because it's the worst of all worlds in my opinion: boring and bland and expensive and not at all the unique character to experience in SF. That said, you'll probably get garaged parking and laundry in unit if that's what turns you on.
posted by kcm at 2:54 PM on October 7, 2011

Why not live on the peninsula in between SF and Palo Alto? You can have easy access to SF via BART for your free time, and yet your commute and rent won't be nearly as onerous.
posted by twblalock at 2:57 PM on October 7, 2011

If it is at all possible, consider trying a sublet or two before committing to a town, because moving is a PITA, and there is an enormous difference between living in downtown Palo Alto and living in a subdivision in, say, Campbell.

You say you miss having a car. Are you willing to go completely car-dependent, or do you want to still be able to walk to places, to pick up a quart of milk or a cup of coffee?

On preview, agreed that Oakland and the entire East Bay is out. Lovely, but not a good idea.
posted by ambrosia at 2:58 PM on October 7, 2011

You sound like you want the peninsula or the south bay, and the south bay will generally be cheaper. Assuming you're renting, I'd just pick a place in Sunnyvale / Cupertino / Santa Clara / Campbell. They're all serviceable towns with lots of apartment complexes to choose from among them. Traffic is generally better on 280 than 101, so unless you're working right off 101 in Palo Alto, look for a place close to 280. Then see how you feel after six months or a year.
posted by orangejenny at 2:58 PM on October 7, 2011

I lived in downtown Mountainview and enjoyed it immensely - great rail links to the city, enthically diverse, stuff within easy walking distance - but you always had the 280 to bomb down when you really wanted to drive. There are also placed like Menlo Park which has a great bookstore (I hope it's still there...)

I remember there was a cluster of Eichler apartments in Palo Alto that I wanted to live in - and when a place opened up I checked it out. A lady came up to tell me that everyone in the complex loved eachother and no one left their doors locked so that they could come and go into the apartments as needed. Obviously, I ran out of their pretty quickly.
posted by helmutdog at 3:23 PM on October 7, 2011

I live in SF and commute to San Jose and have lived in San Jose (and just about everywhere in between, actually). You are right on the mark about the apartments near PA being old, most of them date back to the 70's or before. There are much newer apartments in and around San Jose because it was the last to be developed and older parts of which have been re-developed. There were also a lot of new condos built in SJ over the last 10 years and a lot of those are coming up for rent.
Commuting to PA from anywhere on the peninsula shouldn't more than 30-45 with no traffic (but that never happens). I can usually drive from SF to SJ on 280 in about 60-90 minutes depending on traffic. My commute is in the opposite direction of most of the traffic. So from a traffic/commute perspective you're better off living north of PA. Also, from my experience, 280 is much less likely to back up than 101 (and it's a much nicer road in general).
One big factor not mentioned is weather and it's something you might want to think about. Generally, SF is anywhere from 5-15 degrees cooler than SJ and places on the peninsula fall somewhere in between. SF and anyplace on the coast will be significantly foggier and cooler than anywhere on the inland side of the coastal hills.
My suggestion would be to find something basic that works and then look around more once you get here. There is a surprising amount of variation in the different cities (considering they're all upper middleclass burb-claves). Once you're here, maybe here you can find a room mate a rent a house with. House rentals are surprisingly cheap compared to apartments. I was looking at an add today for a 3 bedroom house, 5 years old, solar power for $2700. Even just splitting it between 2 room mates would be cheaper then most nice one bedroom apartments.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:25 PM on October 7, 2011

I live in Sunnyvale, work in Cupertino and Mountain View. I have also lived in Mountain View and Palo Alto (right near its border with MV). If I had a job in Palo Alto, I'd look for an apartment in (from least expensive to most) Redwood City, Mountain View, Palo Alto (but not in its downtown along University Ave) or Los Altos. I'm a firm believer in living close to work (less than 30-minute commute) so no way would I consider living as far away as SJ or SF, but as pointed out upthread, most local apartments were built in the 1950s and now have issues.
posted by Rash at 4:44 PM on October 7, 2011

I live in Oakland, I LOVE Oakland more than anywhere I've ever lived. I wouldn't live here if I had to get to Palo Alto every day. I did the commute from SJ to Oakland for a few weeks and it killed me, 880 is a mess of a freeway.

The only problem with the southern peninsula is they have the night life of a smelly boot. Most places close at 10 (with exceptions), but if you don't care, there's lots of big beautiful apartment complexes.

The best part of living near the tech industry and peninsula: The most amazing lunch places you have EVER experienced. I could choose a random country and get amazing food from that part of the world within 5 miles. I mean, how often can you choose between South Korean food from different areas of South Korea?
posted by JimmyJames at 4:53 PM on October 7, 2011

For $3,000 a month you could pay the mortgage on quite a nice house in Sunnyvale in a safe quiet neighborhood. Prices are down and interest rates are too. You can still drive 45 minutes to SF (off peak) or hop a Caltrain when you need a bit of big city nightlife. There are also tons of modern apartment complexes in the south bay if you want to rent.
posted by w0mbat at 5:49 PM on October 7, 2011

The City of San Francisco is nothing like Manhattan. SF will feel like a suburb after NYC. You can live in SF, in a decent 1 bedroom apartment with a parking space for $2000-2200/mo, drive almost everywhere, etc. Vast swaths of the city (not SOMA, however) are quiet, residential neighborhoods with nice parks (and softball fields). It might be a good fit for you if you don't like urban density.
posted by outlaw of averages at 5:52 PM on October 7, 2011

If you're mostly a homebody don't fall into the trap of needing to live in the city. You'll pay a premium for everything there and if you're mostly staying in you're probably going to feel cheated. Especially don't live in the city if it will make your commute longer. Commuting sucks and the longer the commute the worse it is (YMMV).

There are lots and lots of places on the peninsula that have good restaurants and housing and the same sort of "neighborhood" vibe that SF does. I would check out downtown San Mateo - many good restaurants - and downtown Palo Alto - very upscale downtown drag. SM will be cheaper than PA, but you'll probably want to live near CalTrain for commuting. SM has three stations I'm not sure about PA.

What kind of environment do you want to live in? In my experience, downtown Palo Alto is very wealthy and a bit elitist. San Mateo is more "ethnic" with tons of Asian restaurants and even an Izikaya or two.

Figure out what are your priorities. Short commute? Modern apartments? Good food? Large living space?

Personal info: I recently moved to the peninsula after nearly ten years in the city. I'm more of a home body and moving to San Mateo allowed me to buy a condo. When I visit the city I do miss some of the excitement and variety but then I remember that I didn't take advantage of very much of it when I actually lived there. Also, it's all still within driving distance. As a bonus, my commute is now about five minutes and that fucking rocks.
posted by bendy at 9:39 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

That said, seriously, you're young. Live in the city for a year or two. Explore. Learn its history, and all the crazy stories about it. Go to bars and meet young, ambitious, beautiful women. Don't worry - for a year or two - about saving money.

Be impulsive and take advantage of all the crazy adventures you can have in the city. Bay to Breakers, the Big Wheel race down Lombard street, the Chinese New Year's Treasure Hunt, late night food any number of places, drinking in Dolores Park on a hot September Sunday, finding bars with outdoor patios, Chinatown walking tours, visit the Balboa theater, go to a film fest, hit up an event at CellSpace, see the SF Mime Troupe at least once. See the Easter madness in Dolores Park, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Sexy Jesus contest, Folsom Street Fair, SF Pride, Ethiopian food. Take road trips to Marin and to Sonoma and Napa and Tahoe. Spend a weekend in Healdsburg with someone special. Go to Muir woods and Shakespeare at Stinson. Go to an event at The Tourist Club.

That may have been a bit off-topic. But, if you are at all thinking about living in the city, at least embrace all the opportunities that you'll be given. Make it worth that city premium.
posted by bendy at 9:53 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to live in a 4-unit building just off of University Ave in downtown Palo Alto. It was nice. Not cheap, but not insane either. Most of the larger apartment buildings were pretty dumpy and old, but there were plenty of pleasant 2-4 unit apartments scattered throughout the neighborhood. I think you just have to go there in person and look around for "For Rent" signs.

My experience was back in 2004-2005, so maybe things have changed since.
posted by mullacc at 11:36 PM on October 7, 2011

Bay to Breakers, the Big Wheel race down Lombard street, the Chinese New Year's Treasure Hunt, late night food any number of places, drinking in Dolores Park on a hot September Sunday, finding bars with outdoor patios, Chinatown walking tours, visit the Balboa theater, go to a film fest, hit up an event at CellSpace, see the SF Mime Troupe at least once. ...

?? I live on the Peninsula and have done almost all of the things you list. Do you think there's some kind of vortex that keeps us non-city folks out?

Given your question, live on the Peninsula. I know many people who do the SF-PA commute, and even on the Caltrain it's an enormous time/energy suck. Also, think about the weather, as mentioned upthread: San Francisco people won't tell you this, but the weather is terrible up there—foggy and cold, and going from SF to PA means that you basically need to carry your winter coat with you nearly yearround for the mornings/evenings and wear something lighter or short-sleeved for during the day in Palo Alto.

There are people who just wouldn't be happy living anywhere but the city, and I don't think you sound like one of them. Don't get discouraged if you don't like a lot of the rentals available (expand your search northward to Redwood City and San Carlos too). You don't need to like most of the apartments in the area; you only need to like one. By "old and dumpy," do you mean that you want to live in a new building?

As much as I'm a pusher for the Peninsula, I wouldn't live farther south, frankly. I find no charm in Sunnyvale/Cupertino/Santa Clara, and I do think that at that point you're far enough south that you'll never go to San Francisco.
posted by purpleclover at 7:29 AM on October 8, 2011

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