There's a freeway running through the yard
May 23, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I could use a reality check, before we get any deeper into planning. Can we buy a house/condo in a livable neighborhood in Los Angeles for $400K or under? Is this doable or do I need to remove my rose-colored glasses? And if it is doable, which neighborhoods should we be looking at?

The babes are growing fast, and 3 years from now, will both be done with HS, thus freeing us to move away from Michigan (shared custody has kept us here). 3 years seems like both an eternity and a blink of an eye - but we're beginning to lay the groundwork and planning.

We live in Ann Arbor, so a move to the west coast will be somewhat less of a sticker shock from here than from some other parts of Michigan, but I'm worried about whether a $400K purchase price is going to get us into a neighborhood we'll like. I've been looking at Trulia, etc. and there are definitely houses/condos that fall under $400K listing price-wise, but it's hard to tell what the neighborhoods are like from those kinds of sites.

We're not looking for swanky or fancy, we're totally okay with the idea of it being a modest or even "transitional" neighborhood. Would like it to be a real neighborhood, though, with a little bit of retail/services included in the area - don't want a must-have-car-for-every-single-errand affair. We're actually looking forward to living in a real city, so an urban feel is fine - even desirable.

We've visited Los Angeles (stayed in Pasadena and generally liked it) with a mind to moving; we're planning another exploratory trip in the fall. We're also considering Seattle, but my husband's field of work seems to favor Los Angeles, which I actually like very much (weird for a Great Lakes girl, I know).

About us:

* He's a filmmaker (and British, been here almost 10 years)
* I'm a web designer (lived in MI & IL almost all my life)
* Both work freelance, from home
* Late 40's (not kids anymore, but we certainly ain't dead yet, either)

About what we want:

* Can afford up to $400k (maybe a bit less if it's a condo with fees)
* 2 bedrooms must, 3 would be better
* Don't need "good schools"
* We both like the idea of more urban, more dense, more cosmopolitan
* We understand that there will be more crime in a more urban area, but don't want someplace so rough that we'd be afraid to walk around in our own neighborhood. (We do know how to comport ourselves in a city and are not overly skittish; he lived in London, I lived in Wash DC & Chicago previously.)
* Things that would be nice to have nearby (less than 15 min walk): train/subway stop, major/frequent bus route, grocery (just milk/bread/eggs/beer is fine), bar, restaurant or two, coffee shop, library
* Liberal, creative, even artsy-fartsy neighbors would be nice
* Would like to live with just one car
* He's also a member of the camera operator's union and it would be good to be near-ish to where the bulk of that sort of work happens (wherever that is)
* I'm assuming we will rent for a little bit before buying

Can we get all that for $400K in LA or do we need to be able to go higher than that? And if we can do it, what neighborhoods would you recommend we look at? Or should we bail on LA and look at Seattle instead?
posted by agentmitten to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is totally doable if you don't care about schools, and easier if you are cool with a condo rather than a house. Check redfin for prices, if you do a search with your qualifications it yields quite a fair number of results.

However, it seems that the Eagle Rock / Mt. Washington might be a good fit for you. Prices aren't super high, it's not super cosmo but a decent mix of suburban/urban with a good mix of bars, restaurants, markets, stores. I jokingly refer to it where "hipsters go to retire" so there's a liberal and artsy crowd. Only issue is that there isn't really a convenient train/subway stop. The Highland Park Gold Line stop is probably the closest which really isn't too far away but it's not a 15 minute walk. Also that area is close enough to Burbank and Hollywood for entertainment work.

Also, you might give North Hollywood and the surrounding valley a try. Cheaper housing for sure, and a different vibe than LA proper, but close enough. There's a fair amount to do in terms of shopping/bars and there's a growing art scene. Traffic can be annoying to get into LA, but there is a subway stop in NoHo that makes it easy to get into town.
posted by xtine at 12:00 PM on May 23, 2012

Why buy? You can rent a perfectly awesome place near Hollywood (it sounds like any street off of Melrose would work for you) and you won't be locked into a location.

Let's look at the numbers. If you put $50,000 down, and then financed the rest, your P&I would be $2,300 per month. Let's say property tax is about $3600 per year, so that puts rent at $2,600, not to mention monthly maintenance on the property, fixing stuff that breaks and property insurance. So if you invest your money, and rent, you may break even, or come out ahead by investing your money into a retirement fund. Plus you have the ability to be mobile. Remember, California has weird housing booms and busts, and who wants to deal with that?

LA County Taxes are computed this way:

They are 1% of the assessed value (price paid), plus 2% increase in that value per year, plus locally approved bonds and so on. The prices can not go up beyond that. That makes the property taxes $3000 plus bonds the first year, $3030 plus bonds the second year, and so on. The key is then finding out how much the bonds are in a particular area. Los Angeles has quite a few School bonds that passed in the last 10 years or so... it could be a few hundred dollars more a year. The real estate agent should be able to tell you exactly what it is.

Let's have a chat about earthquakes, shall we? Earthquake insurance is very expensive and the deductible is typically 33% of the purchase price of the home.

Rent a nice little bungalow in a lovely little neighborhood. Put your money into a Roth or muni bonds and let anything that breaks in the house be the landlord's problem.

Some neat neighborhoods would be West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Pacific Pallasaides (well, yeah, but kind of a schlep into Hollywood, but gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:00 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

He's also a member of the camera operator's union and it would be good to be near-ish to where the bulk of that sort of work happens (wherever that is)

LA and Vancouver, BC seem to be where a lot of film work are done. That said, if you're looking at Seattle, the house market is said to be at a low point so, if true, it's a good time to buy. Tacoma is a more artsy-fartsy city and is about 35-40 minutes south of Seattle. You'll be able to get more home per dollar. There are public transit options to get you to Seattle.

If you want downtown Seattle, Lake Union, Eastlake and Capitol Hill are walkable neighborhoods with the amenities you're interested in, and you might be able to find a place in that range. Capitol Hill is particularly artsy.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:06 PM on May 23, 2012

you won't be able to find a 2-3 BR house in a decent neighborhood but you might be able to find a condo—even then, you're limiting your neighborhood. it will be a stretch and you would be compromising on neighborhood. seattle would be a much better bet but you still wouldn't be able to get into the nicest neighborhoods in seattle proper with $400K for a 3BR—you may have to look further out. you may be able to find a 2BR but it would need work.
posted by violetk at 12:22 PM on May 23, 2012

Start reading Curbed LA, and checking out the listings they feature. They're from all over town, and the comments can be particularly enlightening as well. Here's one from a couple of days ago, for a Jefferson Park house going for under 400k...and a lively back & forth in the comments about how likely you are to be mugged and/or murdered in that neighborhood.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:36 PM on May 23, 2012

Tacoma is a more artsy-fartsy city

This is not a sentence I would agree with. It's definitely cheaper, though, but that's a long, slow, infrequent ride to Seattle.
posted by zvs at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've been super curious about the Expo Park/West Adams/Jefferson Park areas of LA lately, especially with the recent opening of the new light rail line that runs between downtown and almost Culver City. In the next 5 years or so, the 2nd phase will run all the way to Santa Monica.

You can definitely meet all your pricing needs down there, but it is rougher than Los Feliz or Eagle Rock.
posted by hwyengr at 1:00 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Has he worked with any LA based production companies or directors? If not, it's a tough slog. There are not nearly as many local union jobs as there once were and there are 10,000+ film school grads with Red cameras getting off the bus every day.

I live in far downtown, in a loft in an area that's newly trendy, and I pay $1 per square foot. I can't walk to anything, really, but there are groceries and restaurants nearby. Pasadena is more walkable but doesn't feel urban.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:05 PM on May 23, 2012

Let's have a chat about earthquakes, shall we?

Oh. Hadn't thought about that - thanks for the heads up there.

Further info: we'd be looking at something like $150K down, $250K mortgage. Given your calculations, @Ruthless Bunny, I'm looking at about $1700 out in PI & tax. Does that change your advice?

[Aside: property taxes are *completely* bonkers here in A2. We pay about $5000 a year on a $220K house, so that's actually better in LA.]

Has he worked with any LA based production companies or directors? If not, it's a tough slog.

Should have noted: we're not counting on him having a lot of camera operator work - he does stock footage on his own and that's his current largest client. But good to know that it's a tough market. Not that we assumed it would be easy, of course - but gotta think it'll be better than MI, where work is nonexistent.

Thanks for the suggestions, all - this is all very useful information and advice.
posted by agentmitten at 2:30 PM on May 23, 2012

@Ruthless Bunny, I'm looking at about $1700 out in PI & tax. Does that change your advice?

Nah. I'm a disenchanted homeowner. I still think your better off renting. Run the numbers.

Plus I'm ALWAYS going to advocate renting for the first year so you can get a feel for where you are, and where you might like to live.

Oh, Venice might be a thought too. Funky.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:40 PM on May 23, 2012

You can rent a FANTASTIC apartment in a great area of Los Angeles for a years and see how you like it. Explore. Find out where you think you'd like to buy. LA has a LOT of really good rental options and that gives you way more flexibility.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:27 PM on May 23, 2012

Seconding Ruthless on renting.

My experience is that once you start down the path of considering houses there's tremendous pressure to buy. Also, the max limits can creep upward very quickly. Some of that is just the difficult psychology of making long-term financial decisions. But you also interact with a lot of people - real estate agents and mortgage brokers, in particular - who stand to benefit from your purchase and they are, in general, very skilled at exploiting that psychology and convincing you that renting is evil, buying is next to godliness.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 3:41 PM on May 23, 2012

Another vote for renting first. I think you can buy a condo in a decent area but you'll have to figure out what your compromises will be. Mt Washington is cool but not very walkable I think (depending on where you are). Pasadena/South Pasadena is another possibility with the train, but not that urban. Based on what you've said, I'm thinking you'd like Venice and Santa Monica if you're going to have one car and want to bike and walk around. You may also like downtown LA. Friends who live in a condo near Little Tokyo have great restaurants around them and get around by sometimes by train. Also, have you lived in a condo before? I'm also a disenchanted homeowner after our condo experience with terrible neighbors and a crazy condo board. I'm now a happy renter (so I guess I'm biased). But I would really take my time to investigate before buying a condo because of the co-owning aspects.
posted by biscuits at 3:54 PM on May 23, 2012

Yes, you absolutely can. Strongly seconding xtine, especially to look around on redfin to get an idea of what you get and where. The valley would probably be a good place to look, since you won't need to worry about the commute. But rent for 6 months and spend that time exploring LA and getting a sense of all the different areas. For that price you can get a house in Ladera Heights, or a condo in West LA, or a townhouse in the Valley.
posted by Joh at 3:55 PM on May 23, 2012

Definitely rent for a while and figure out 1. What neighborhood you actually want to spend years and years in, 2. Whether or not you can get the work you need and want to live, and 3. Whether LA is really the place you want to be.

I cannot think of a single logical argument to buy a house if you are not intimately familiar with the area. Spending a year in an apartment (which you could probably get for less than you want to pay for your mortgage, therefor saving some extra money) will let you really get to know the area, and figure out where you want to spend the next chapter of your life.

When I moved up to Seattle we moved to an area people had recommended, and it ended up being terrible for us. Had we bought a place, we would have been stuck there for years. We took our time and ended up buying in a fantastic neighborhood.
posted by markblasco at 4:15 PM on May 23, 2012

also try LALife to explore neighborhoods by house prices and safety stats.
posted by calgirl at 8:06 PM on May 23, 2012

Mt Washington, Eagle Rock, and (parts of) Gassell Park sound like they would fit your criteria.
posted by teamnap at 8:35 PM on May 23, 2012

A lot of the condos in the nicer areas have some pretty high condo fees (easily over $500 a month). Just something to keep in mind.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:21 PM on May 23, 2012

I would second looking at the east side - Mt. Washington, Eagle Rock, Echo Park and Los Feliz. Also Culver City on the west side.

I bought a 2 bed, 2 bath condo last summer in Los Feliz for under 300k. Love the area, fees are $300/mo. I got mine in a short sale and I think there are 2 more coming up in my building shortly, so there are options out here if you look hard enough. I looked at plenty of 2 bedroom places under $400k.

Everyone saying to rent first makes good sense to me - I lived here 12 years before buying and I'm glad I did, because I did buy in an area I wasn't incredibly familiar with. Turned out great so far. Good luck!
posted by buzzkillington at 12:32 PM on May 24, 2012

Definitely rent for at least a year. Los Angeles is a very affordable rental market compared to the price to buy, and it's very hard to predict which area you will really want to live in.

To be by the beach it's great to be in Santa Monica/Venice or Marina del rey. Culver City is very charming and near the central part of the city and the beach cities. If you want to be central look at West Hollywood or 3rd and Fairfax area, and the east side (Silverlake, Los Feliz, Echo Park and further out into Mt Washington or South Pasadena) is very liveable and fun, but is very different from the west side. For example, the climate is totally different between the east and the west sides and your proximity to the ocean is much less on the east side. Downtown is great if you really wish you lived in an urban city, but it doesn't feel open the way the rest of the city does.

I think it's impossible to predict from Michigan where you'll want to live. You can definitely get a condo in a nice neighborhood for $400K, but you can easily rent for less than you would pay in a mortgage + fees/taxes and be able to figure out what areas you actually like.
posted by Sockowocky at 7:20 PM on May 27, 2012

I just moved from LA to the East coast and lived in Santa Monica in a condo that we owned and then Mar vista in a house that we rented and highly recommend renting over buying. First of all you can't buy anything in West LA that is $400K except a condo in a not so great neighborhood and you can rent a small house for about $3500. Not less- on the West side.
We moved to Mar Vista from SM because it was less expensive and $3500 for a two bed/1 bath was the best we could find that was decent with a yard and in god shape. Still, we heard traffic all the time from Venice Blvd.
Venice is very expensive now- we looked at renting there and found nothing under $4000.

The East side is much more affordable but a pain to get to if you like the beach. The traffic is a force to reckon with especially on the weekends.
If you don't care about the beach though go for those neighborhoods mentioned above.
I personally don't think you can live in LA with one car and enjoy it. We tried for a couple months and it was a real pain and we even lived in walking distance to some stuff. But most everything is about driving there, keep that in mind.
posted by privatechef at 10:46 AM on January 1, 2013

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