Moving to the Bay Area -- where to live?
July 12, 2014 6:57 AM   Subscribe

My spouse is about to be offered a new job that splits time between Emeryville (most of the time) and Redwood City. Where should we look for a house? Bonus earthquake question.

We can spend about $500k, and we definitely want to buy a house. We have a dog that needs a backyard. We've been living in houses throughout our relationship, and it would be hard to adjust to a rental. Additionally, we're trying to get pregnant.

I'm especially concerned about safety and green spaces. We currently live in Austin, TX and enjoy a very safe neighborhood (as a woman, I feel perfectly safe walking the dog or going for a run at 1am) and our house backs up on a greenbelt. I love waking up and seeing trees from the window first thing.

I'm also mildly concerned about schools because of the potential kid thing. But since it'll be a while, it's not as important to me as not getting stabbed at night or having trees.

Finally, I don't like to drive, but I have a medical condition that requires close access to doctors. I need to be able to get to the services I need, preferably without driving on bridges or freeways. Bridges freak me out, especially in earthquake country.

Speaking of earthquakes, how can we know a potential home is safe? I know that most of the houses we'll be looking at have survived multiple quakes, but how do I know we'll survive the Big One?

Assume we know nothing about the area. Thanks in advance!

Anon because neither of our current jobs know we're leaving.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can't speak to crime, but can suggest one thing to think about: commuting.

Emeryville/RWC is tough, transportation-wise. SFBay freeways tend to be jammed, and there's no really good public transit option that connects the two (BART doesn't go to RWC, Caltrain doesn't cross the bay). I'd probably suggest living somewhere in the east bay (which is a little cheaper than the peninsula), down a little bit further south than you'd otherwise expect, and planning to BART up north and drive to RWC.
posted by paultopia at 7:10 AM on July 12, 2014

Addendum: that strategy will probably mean driving across bridges, but there is no alternative to that, unless your spouse were willing to just straight-up commute all the way from RWC to Emeryville. If that were possible, RWC is a LITTLE cheaper than most of the Peninsula (but still probably expensive), and is very close to Stanford medical center. It would mean a fairly hellish commute for your spouse though, I'd expect a solid hour-and-a-half or more either on driving or on transit. And you'd have a difficult crime/cost tradeoff in that area---the affordable parts of Redwood City/Menlo Park (or even East Palo Alto) tend to be more crime-y than the rest. Or at least, they have that reputation, though some of that reputation may be silicon valley racism talking.
posted by paultopia at 7:13 AM on July 12, 2014

If you don't know the area, I'd highly recommend renting for a year and exploring Oakland/Emeryville vs SF vs the East Bay vs the Peninsula, and learning what the commute would be like and what 500k gets you in the Bay Area, because it's very different from what it gets you in Austin.

Also, there are a number of Kaiser medical centers around the Bay Area, if you'll have Kaiser insurance you can easily find something not far from one of them.
posted by gramcracker at 7:35 AM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

San Leandro would work on price, green space, location and schools. It's definitely suburban, and the best hospitals would involve driving and bridges, but there are doctors and other amenities. Earthquakes are a factor here, certainly, and a prep class can help with fear, but mostly we don't think about them much. You'll get your house inspected and look at structural safety, and you'll set up emergency kits and plans, and that's most of what you can control.
posted by judith at 7:37 AM on July 12, 2014

Earthquakes are not a big quality-of-life concern in the bay area. Property prices and commutes absolutely are.

500k will buy you VERY little here in terms of house. You are not going to get a safe neighborhood anywhere central with that. You MIGHT get something in an outlying area of the east bay but then you will have a vicious commute to Redwood City. Best bet is probably to look for something in the east bay near one of the outer BART stations, then at least you will have a way to get around the bay, but BART doesn't actually go straight to Emeryville either.

If I were your sister I'd be urging you to come out and do a tour with a real estate agent before accepting a job out here.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:45 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

$500,000 in San Francisco can get you a cute little house. Probably in the Sunset. I ran a quick search in

I like the Sunset District of San Francisco. Decent amount of transportation by bus. Schools...meh...but that's all schools in CA these days (Proposition 13 took care of that.)

Other options would be Daly City or Colma, just south of the City. Burlingame is adorable, but probably out of your price range.

As for Earthquake stuff, you'll hire an engineer to affirm that the structure is up to current code during your inspection.

I'm going to suggest that you rent for a year or so, and take the time to really explore the area first. Go on little day trips, see what communities appeal to you. DO NOT BUY in any community in a hurry. California real estate insurance and taxation is very complex and you really need to understand what all is involved before racing into the area and plunking down your hard earned money. Also, based on the costs of taxes and insurance, that $500,000 may be more like $400,000 once you factor those in. (If you're extrapolating based on what you can afford monthly.) Also note, Earthquake insurance is MONSTROUSLY expensive and the deductible is 30% of the value of the property.

San Francisco, Daly City or Colma would be ideal for the commute because whether it's Emeryville or Redwood City, it's a reverse commute. This would still put you in decent transport areas.

Good luck, I love San Francisco, but living there is a whole 'nother thing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:49 AM on July 12, 2014

I recommended the island of Alameda yesterday to someone who had commutes to Oakland and Redwood City. There's a hospital on the island, so you wouldn't have a long trip to get there. While most houses cost more than your budget, it should still be possible to find something in your price range, and it's green and safe. It also has better weather than many neighborhoods. It's not close to Redwood City, but personally, I think it would be nicer than something farther south. You'll have to deal with bridges/tunnels, but for day to day life, you could spend your time on the island.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:53 AM on July 12, 2014

You want to look at what houses actually sold for, not what they list at. Multiple bids and homes going for significantly over asking is the norm here, not the exception.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:14 AM on July 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

I clicked on a random assortment of those $500,000 houses in SF, and every one I clicked on said "fixer-upper," "needs TLC," or "as-is." Proceed with caution!

I found commuting from Alameda just to Oakland a huge pain in the neck (especially when AC Transit was having union issues), but to commute between Emeryville and Redwood City, you're going to have some unfortunate commute issues no matter what. For a while one of us was going to Berkeley and another to Palo Alto, so we lived in Fremont. Fremont, Newark, or Union City might be an option for you; drive to RWC and BART + bus to Emeryville. Again, this commute would suck and make for long days, but there's no way around that.

It's generally safe, it has dog parks, some people think the schools are good (I have another opinion, but never mind), it has excellent places to eat, and it's easy to get on BART or take 680 down to the San Jose area for shopping and stuff. There are multiple year-round farmers' markets and a community garden. People who grew up in the Bay Area and haven't visited in the last couple of years think of it as a boring, blue-collar place, but it's actually one of the most diverse and well-integrated communities in the Bay Area. There's also a Palo Alto Medical Foundation group there, which I *love*, and they're expanding the on-site specialist services. (There is also a Kaiser there. Meh.) The hospital in town is aging but supposed to be updated soon.

As for quakes, well, you're right on top of the Hayward fault in Fremont, but that's just how it goes. Inspections, preparation, anchoring of bookshelves, etc. and then forget about it.

That said, even in Fremont, $500,000 doesn't go very far (particularly as Silicon Valley workers buy up everything).
posted by wintersweet at 8:54 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I think you're more likely to find something with a yard in Neward/UC/Fremont than in SF or Oakland.
posted by wintersweet at 8:55 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rockridge is a nice east bay neighborhood on BART where I've spent a lot of time. It's considered safe for the east bay (which is a much lower standard than safe in Silicon Valley). Prices are rising rapidly though.
San Leandro is not great, with none of the charm of Rockridge and more crime. It might be all you can afford though.
Given a much bigger budget there would be a lot more and better options available that are commutable to Emeryville (e.g. Berkeley, San Francisco, Piedmont).
posted by w0mbat at 10:37 AM on July 12, 2014

Anyone who tells you you can buy something for $500K in SF is woefully out of touch or delusional. As others have said, the listed price is usually several hundred thousand below the selling price, and anything at that price point will need major renovations to be what you want.

I would strongly recommend subletting a place in the East Bay near Emeryville for 3-6 months to get a sense of what the commute patterns really are and what's available and to adjust to Bay Area real estate prices.

You'll get an earthquake assessment as part of the house inspection, although if you're really concerned, find a structural engineer who specializes in that to look at it. Foundations matter. You want everything bolted to the foundation. There are good maps that show the major shake zones. Purchasing earthquake insurance may give you peace of mind, but walk through the finances of it, as it's expensive and doesn't cover everything. I say that as someone who does have earthquake insurance on our house, but the risk and cost/benefit doesn't work the same for everyone.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:06 AM on July 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

I hate to join those who are raining on the parade, but it's true: real estate in the whole Bay Area has shot up over the last two or three years, and if the enclave exists where you can buy a house for $500k and it's safe, I'd certainly like to know about it myself. Add me to the list of those who recommend that you rent instead in a nice/safe area. I bet you'd feel safe walking around North Berkeley late at night, for example (South Berkeley, where I live, not so much). And if you lived in North Berkeley, your partner would probably even be able to bike to work in Emeryville; it would only be a few miles, and it's pretty flat here and very bike-friendly.

Plenty of hospitals here in the East Bay, no bridge driving required.

And once you've lived here for a year, you'll have a better sense of the lay of the land and where you might eventually want to buy, you'll understand the commuting angles better, etc.

Good luck, happy move, and enjoy the Bay. It is a very beautiful place, recent price craziness notwithstanding.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 11:14 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just a note regarding earthquake safety. What many people don't realize is that a wood frame structure is basically safe because it's flexible. You may get damage to items inside the structure during the shaking, which is why you earthquake strap your tall bookcases and use museum wax under breakable display items, but the biggest question in a wood frame house is whether it is attached to its foundation. The major damage in the Whittier earthquakes in the 80s came from houses sliding off their foundations, not from them falling down on the residents.

I'm a fourth generation native Californian and the worst damage to happen to me or anyone I know or am related to was in the LA earthquakes in 94 -- I had an unattached bookcase topple and some glasses fell out of cupboards and my sister (who was at the epicenter) lost a retaining wall of unreinforced masonry and a gigantic salt water fish tank and all the tropical fish. That's not to say that buildings never collapse or people never are injured or killed but it is so much less of an issue than in any other part of the world --because we're prepared for it.

You probably remember the horrifying pictures of freeways and bridges after the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Northridge quake 5 years later. Interestingly, the state had been in the process of retrofitting infrastructure, starting with the oldest overpasses. The ones that fell in 89 & 94 were ones that had not been worked on yet.

tl; dr -- make sure your home is attached to its foundation and invest in earthquake proofing for indoor objects and that's probably all you will ever need. Incidentally, the bookcase that fell in LA in 94 was undamaged until 2 years ago in SF when a cat knocked it over.
posted by janey47 at 11:28 AM on July 12, 2014

i'm not sure $500K will get you a house you like anywhere that would not mean a very long commute. having to split your time between emeryville and redwood city is a bit awkward commute wise. if anything, commuting to emeryville from the peninsula is easier as largely it's a reverse commute (although still rather fraught once you get over the east bay). the downside is property is generally more expensive on the peninsula versus the east bay.

personally, i love living on the peninsula but gave up any hopes of buying a house. most people moving to the area i'm guessing are in the same boat. i'm always surprised by how many people rent their place. i don't know how much research you've done but if you want a traditional single family home with a backyard etc i'd budget a minimum of $3K a month for rent and even that rules out places like palo alto/SF. the sticker shock may take a bit to get over, but it comes with the territory imo. yes, i've drunk the kool aid.

WRT bridges freaking you out, are you sure the bay area is for you, especially given your spouse's job situation? if you want to go anywhere you'll really need to cross long bridges. the san mateo bridge is about 9 miles and is regularly backed up with commute direction traffic. the only way to avoid crossing a bridge would be to drive all the way down to san jose and back up the peninsula. i'd estimate emeryville to redwood city this way would take around 60-90 minutes without any traffic, and would obviously add a lot of mileage. and there's never no traffic.

for earthquakes i've never felt nay a tremor yet, which perversely i'm a little disappointed about. i moved here from tornado country and TBH, i'll take the once a 100 year event AKA the big one over the every 6 months (real) potential of tornados. frankly, what worries me more is the potential for the drought to really kick in next year. if there's not much rain this winter it's going to get real ugly with rationing and draconian (rightly so) water usage enforcement.
posted by iboxifoo at 12:02 PM on July 12, 2014

A lot of those houses in Ruthless Bunny's link are in the Excelsior or the Bayview -- both are up-and-coming these days because there are a lot of single-family homes there still, but the Bayview is definitely still pretty gritty and some parts of it are dangerous. I live near Mission Terrace/the Portola and don't find it rough, but your mileage may vary.

Plus a lot of these fixer-uppers are being snapped up by flippers who renovate the hell out of them. You would be unlikely to get a San Francisco home for half a million unless you're willing to do a ton of work.
posted by vickyverky at 12:20 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

You'll get a better idea if you look at dog-friendly rentals on Craigslist to get an idea of the pricing.

San Francisco, one-bedroom

South Bay one-bedroom and up -- a lot cheaper than the city

East Bay -- bear in mind that while you might have a yard, it will be scorched this time of year, especially with the drought
posted by vickyverky at 12:26 PM on July 12, 2014

The idea of getting a 500k house in SF in a safe neighborhood where you would want to raise a kid without sinking HUGE money into it is laughable. 800k+ more like it. If you can find a place in Alameda, San Leandro, or a few parts of Oakland it might be worth it.
posted by jcworth at 6:10 PM on July 12, 2014

If you see a $500k house, add another $300k in major major renos. Plus property taxes and other costs.

Rent for 6-12 months and see where you want to live. Anticipate needing to put $300k down and get a mortgage, then have a bunch of savings available if needed.
posted by barnone at 6:21 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Visitacion Valley is one of the cheaper neighborhoods of SF and is relatively safe, as long as you live 3+ blocks away from Sunnydale. Close to the freeway, pretty suburban.

Pros: Most people keep to themselves, little retail presence. Quiet. Big park nearby for dog walking (You probably don't want to walk around the part that borders Sunnydale though)

Cons: Most people keep to themselves, little retail presence. Quiet. You're going to need to drive if you want to eat out. Muni sucks in general, but is even worse here. If you're trying to get downtown on the Muni, there is a pretty decent chance the 8x will be full by the time you get on, around the 9-11 AM time period. Caltrain is alright since no one really uses the Bayshore station (I have literally been the only person getting on or off the train at times).

The safety issue of the neighborhood is pretty overblown. Pretty much all shootings happen in the Sunnydale area, which is a literal ghetto that the city uses to store its poorer citizens. Don't live in that area or go around that area and you should be okay. Rough guide: basically do not live anywhere west and south of the library, until you get to Daly City.)
I don't find it particularly dangerous at night, either, though YMMV. I find it's pretty uncommon to run into another person at night, besides people coming home and looking for parking.

Schools in the area are pretty bad, I forget if public schools in SF are by lottery or by distance, but if they're by distance you might want to consider private school.
posted by Qberting at 10:57 PM on July 12, 2014

Regarding Earthquakes, I would recommend educating yourself on "liquefaction", "soft story" and disaster prep.

Liquefaction zones amplify the destructive effects of earth quakes, especially in larger quakes. These areas have often been filled in to create more land and did not do very well in the 1906 quake or the 1989 quake. Check out the USGS map before choosing a home.

As you can see, almost all of Emeryville is in a major liquefaction zone. Buildings are able to take measures to mitigate this (like extending foundation to bed rock), but I would not buy a single family residence in any liquefaction area. The level of risk you are comfortable with is something you will have to assess.

Soft Story is when the bottom floor of a multi floor building has large openings that impair its ability to properly sway in a quake. This would include things like multiple car ports. This was a problem in the northridge quake of 1994. the building code has been updated since then, but if you move into a rental for a year like folks are suggesting, you might want to avoid soft story.

Third, having some prep for a quake is something you can do to ease your mind. I would get a disaster prep book and make my own kit, but if you don't have the time or inclination a premade kits is better than nothing.

Finally, there is a cool exhibit on quakes at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park. There is an earthquake simulation that lets you "experience" the 1906 and 1989 quakes that might be informative for someone new to earthquakes.

Welcome to the Bay.
posted by poyorick at 11:16 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

We moved to Alameda from San Francisco five years ago because it's one of the few places in the Bay Area that has affordable-for-here housing and good schools. We paid a little over your budget for a small house (2 bedroom, 1 bath, 1,004 square feet). At the time our realtor said we were lucky because with most houses in our price range you could expect to replace one major system (like the plumbing or the roof) and we didn't.

My wife commutes to Emeryville and it's about a 15 minute commute on the back roads. We're on the West end, which is where the cheaper homes are. Redwood City would be 1-1/2 hours during rush hour.

Alameda's great for married or married-with-kids people. The crime rate is very low. There are tons of parks and lots of green, plus beaches (with shallow water and small waves).
posted by kirkaracha at 12:12 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I live here. The commute you are suggesting is crazy making. Also $500k will NOT buy you a house. A decent house, with a tiny backyard without major renovations needed and in a DECENT school zone is going to be 1M. Even at that price you are still looking at small and plain homes. If you compare prices online only look at "sold" prices as houses run $200-$400k over asking (yes, this place is crazy). Also look into our property taxes, they add a thousand or so A MONTH to the cost. Right now it is much more expensive to own a home here than to rent one. Something to think about.
posted by saradarlin at 3:26 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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