Should we move from SF to Berkeley?
February 21, 2017 3:06 PM   Subscribe

We're outdoorsy introverts who live in the Mission. We want to move. Should we move to Berkeley for the space and quiet? Or is a short commute worth less space, even if it restricts our ability to use our free time? We're made of special details, but we're interested in opinions from anyone who works in SF and lives in the East Bay; we're also interested in other people's guidelines and heuristics for balancing cost, commute, and space.

We're mid-20s. As far as the outdoors go, we like biking, hiking, camping, skiing; our indoor activities are more reading, playing games together, cooking, spoiling our cat. My partner works on a lot of acrylic/metal/wood/led sculpture: think Burning Man, except we don't go to Burning Man. Partner works in SoMa, a 15 minute walk from civic center station.

We need to leave our current apartment: it's too small for 4 people with hobbies that take up a lot of space (we've had to put our outdoor equipment in storage). The things we do have space for, we just barely have space for; I've given myself an RSI from my makeshift desk. If I walk to the bart station by myself, I get (heckled, sexually harassed, physically assaulted) more often than I'd like. It's expensive: Partner and I are paying 4k/month for our share of the apartment.

Option 1:
We've viewed a couple of places in Berkeley near the stations, and we really like what we've seen, both regarding the houses themselves and the neighborhood (they remind us of living in Shadyside in Pittsburgh, except with a bigger city attached). We saw one we really liked this weekend, and we've been in contact with the landlord. It looks very likely that we can get it.

Partner and I would be paying a hair under 3k for our share of the rent, which would be 1k/month savings for us. We would also be able to stop paying for a storage unit (70/mo), and potentially be able to cancel Partner's techshop membership (a large upfront cost + convenience vs 160/mo). We'd have space to work on partner's projects, we'd be able to bike again for fun, renting a car to go skiing a couple times in the winter and camping in the summer would be easy, ...

But the downsides: First , partner's commute would be at least 50 minutes: ~10 minute walk, ~30 minute ride, ~15 minute walk. We've estimated that their commuting costs per month on bart would be about 120/month. They expect to be able to work from home at least once a week, and the new place has an ideal space for a dedicated home office. They may also be able to move their working hours forward or back.

Partner has previously commuted by muni, which ranged from 25-50 minutes; they didn't like the unpredictability, but did get a lot of reading done. They're concerned about this commute length, but they're not sure if it's because they have a very short commute now (15 minutes to Partner's office by bike).

Second, they're also concerned about losing city conveniences, like how we live on top of a grocery and have a dozen take-out places in a two block radius. The Berkeley place is two blocks from the nearest grocery, and it seems more expensive.

Third, they're worried that we'll be more socially isolated: If we move to the east bay, our current 4th housemate would not move with us. 3's datefriend would live nearby, though, and knows a lot more people in the east bay, and would help introduce us to people; we also know a few people in Emeryville, who'd be a 15 minute bike ride away, and who already Partner goes to see regularly in the evenings (despite it currently being an hour+ one-way trip). Still, it would require more planning to see other people.

(We don't have to worry about current 4th housemate; they've lined up new housing already; they can move in with their partner, whose apartment just gained a vacancy, if they don't continue living with us.)

Option 2:
We've been looking at a few places further from 16 and closer to 24, in the 20-Cesar Chavez range. Most of the places we've seen down there are about the same size as our current place, but cheaper. The two of us would be paying more like 3,500/mo, though.

Our 4th housemate would continue living with us, which would be really nice; we'd see a lot of them and their partner. We'd still be within biking distance of our current neighboring-friends, and they're the biking type, so we'd still see them, if less frequently than now.

My partner's commute would be more like 25 or 30 minutes by bike. We could live near corner groceries and a large supermarket would be within a half mile. On the other hand, I suspect we're not wanted just as much at 24th street as we are at 16th street (and I can't blame them for that), and one of the main reasons we're moving is that we're tired of being on guard.

Outside of that part of the mission, there don't seem to be many places meeting our criteria (as big as our current apartment, ~1500/person, neighborhood doesn't actively dislike us, near bart). We also have a strong, but not absolute, preference for single-family home.

To finish:
We're particularly interested in hearing about how people with similar commutes feel about said commutes (especially North Berkeley to SoMa); but also how other people determined what space/commute/money tradeoffs to make. We've been spinning in circles since Saturday and need some outside opinions.
posted by you could feel the sky to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked into casual carpool options for commuting? Or transbay bus?

I don't know but I lived in SF for a decade and moved to Oakland. All that was a long time ago and I mainly always worked in the East Bay.

But my basic opinion in that Berkeley is sort of annoying. It's hard to get around and it always feels like everything is far away. It veers between studenty and longtime Berkeley folks. I think if I were going to live a carless/commuter friendly life in the East Bay, I'd look in Oakland. Maybe Bushrod/Idora Park (near Ashby BART)? Or near Lake Merrit BART?
posted by vunder at 3:27 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Why not near BART in Oakland? SOMA & Civic Center would be awfully short and easy commutes. I guess I don't really see what North Berkeley has in common with the Mission by your criteria and interests? Oakland seems like the obvious choice. I commute to all corners of the bay from Oakland going to a downtown SF BART station is by far the easiest, simplest, and quickest. I can get to the Mission from where I live in Oakland way faster than people who live out on the west of SF or rely on a Muni line to get around.

I think you would find Berkeley socially isolating not because of distance (good luck getting SF friends to visit you tho!) but because you're not involved with the university. Everyone your age up there is deep, deep in their respective programs.
posted by bradbane at 3:32 PM on February 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hi, I lived in Berkeley and couldn't wait to get out. I agree with vunder that Berkeley is annoying - but it is really the people that make it that way. Have you seen the South Parks bit on Bay Area Smug Alerts? For me, the only place in the Bay Area that really rings true is Berkeley. People feel it is their right - and responsibility to tell complete strangers everything that they're doing wrong with their life.

A good friend is a surf kayaker. He is 6'6" and has two gigantic dogs. He also works in construction and is a committed conservationist. And...he owns a pickup truck. Because surf kayaking, two dogs, and 6'6" don't really fit too easily in a Prius (note: I own a Prius and can fit many things in there). He lives in Berkeley and a week doesn't go by when someone doesn't come up to him on the street to tell him he's responsible for global warming, or heckle him about his choices in driving a truck. He is an incredibly sweet guy and always says something friendly but I bristle seeing people treat him like that.

Long way of saying: how about Oakland? If you're looking at things that include commuting across the Bay, Oakland tends to be more affordable (though it is certainly experiencing a lot more popularity) and I really like the neighborhoods a lot. Lake Merritt is pretty awesome and has lots of local grocery stores.
posted by arnicae at 3:36 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I bounced between East Bay and SF apartments over several years. It is unquestionably a change in lifestyle, and SF can seem far away when you're nestled in Elmwood or Bushrod. But if I moved back to the Bay Area today, I would probably look in the East Bay first: SF is close enough, especially if I'm commuting!

For money and space, East Bay is certainly the way to go. Part of what we with the money we saved on rent was to budget for not feeling bad about taking carshares back home when we needed to. BART vs Muni is a pretty big difference, but of course BART is not super reliable either.

One commute option to consider: cycling to West Oakland, jumping on BART through the tunnel, then riding from Embarcadero. The Richmond line trains are always too crowded for this notion to be entertainable during commute hours, but the non-Richmond lines tend to have space to ride the one stop. I did this several times a week, but not every day.

I used to do rides through the Berkeley/Oakland hills several times a week: for recreational cycling, it is an absolute dream to have that in your backyard.

I say try it for a year and see how it goes! I tried it for a year myself, once, and didn't want to leave!
posted by xueexueg at 3:37 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think I did a bad job explaining how we’ve narrowed down our choices; the Mission and Berkeley are definitely opposite ends of a scale.

If we stayed in the Mission (moving further south), we’d be able to continue to live with two housemates, who we get along with well. Partner would also have a short commute. We don’t actually like living in the Mission, though—we’ve experienced multiple burglaries, and lots of harassment on the streets. There’re definitely benefits to being in the city, but wherever we move in SF, we’d likely still be frustrated at the size of the apartment.

If we moved to Berkeley, Partner would have a longer commute and we’d only live with one of the two housemates we've been living with. But we really like the neighborhood we’ve seen, and we also really value having more space and privacy. A side-project that Partner and 3rd Housemate have involves going to Emeryville frequently, so we're hoping to make that easier, too.

We haven’t ruled out Oakland; we’re asking specifically about Berkeley on account of being partly through getting a rental there already. We’ve been looking near Lake Merritt, Temescal, Rockridge; we haven’t seen many places that appeal to us. We’re hoping to switch to a house for space & privacy reasons, which is why we’re not looking in downtown Oakland.
posted by you could feel the sky at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would absorb numerous inconveniences to avoid being constantly harassed and occasionally assaulted/burgled. That just isn't acceptable to me. If you make your choice on that basis alone, I just want to be a voice saying that that is completely okay and you don't have to justify it with cost savings, etc.
posted by delight at 4:30 PM on February 21, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've lived in both SF and Berkeley, and currently live in a large victorian in West Oakland for the same price as my old studio in SF. My commute is around 50 minutes, and while that's not great, I do love what I get for my rent dollars here in the East Bay. I love having a yard for my dog, a quiet neighborhood where I know my neighbors, and space to work on projects at home. I also feel a lot safer here coming home at night, which was definitely NOT the case in SF (I lived in NoPa). I don't remember being hassled ever in Berkeley, so I can't weigh in on that. . .maybe I blend in?

It's great being so close to national parks and the marina. And don't worry, there are lots of awesome restaurants that deliver out here!

I like it out here, and for me the extra commute time is worth the benefits. Maybe your partner can ask for an extra work-from-home day?
posted by ananci at 5:05 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can speak to the social aspect of things. We live in Oakland but have friends in SF. It does make it harder to see people because it can be a haul to get there, BART shuts down at midnight, and in general it becomes more of a production to go out. You end up having to arrange things, rather than being like "hey, come on by!" That said, if you work in the city (I don't but my girlfriend does), then you're already there and you can meet people after work.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:08 PM on February 21, 2017

Unlike some others above, I find that living in Berkeley (or North Oakland/Emeryville) is quite nice. Well, for people who are happy to bike places. I find it much easier than living in SF. (Things like an easy, flat ride to my choice of grocery stores, bike to the doctor for routine appointments, walk or bike to work.)

The long commute would be tough for me to stomach. I recently ruled out a job in SF that would have had a similar walk-train-walk commute for me (though it was partly because I'd have been juggling a second job in Berkeley as well). But the street harassment would me harder for me to stomach, so I can see why the decision is tough.

Can you keep looking and perhaps find a place closer to BART, but still meeting your criteria? I'm pretty confident you can find something with your budget. Maybe near MacArthur or Ashby.
posted by ktkt at 5:11 PM on February 21, 2017

I work in San Francisco and commuted from the East Bay (Oakland) for 2 years. I moved to SF (Twin Peaks) last fall primarily because I felt socially isolated in the East Bay and because the commute was getting to me.

For a public transit commute my situation in Oakland was relatively good. The 19th Street station has 2 SF-bound lines and could generally get a seat when I changed to MUNI at Embarcadero Station to go into SOMA. Door-to-door the trip took around an hour, which to me is just on the edge of tolerable, but the experience was often unpleasant—jam-packed, stifling BART cars and frequent unexplained MUNI delays. The few times I started out in Berkeley, which has just one SF-bound BART line, I always had to let a few trains pass before I could squeeze into a car. I also drove to work about once a week if I wanted to do something after hours (transit runs much less frequently outside commute times) and door-to-door drive times ranged from 30 minutes to nearly 2 hours.

My public transit commute did not get better when I moved to SF. I now pay for parking and drive to work every day, which is expensive but gives me a consistent 30min commute each way.

The social isolation was a real problem for me. My work, family, and most of my Bay Area friends are located in SF or on the Peninsula and the commute length/unreliability made it hard to attend weeknight events back in the East Bay after work. As one of those much-reviled gentrifying tech workers, I sometimes felt that longer-term East Bay residents didn't really want me there. Asking SF or Peninsula residents to make the trek across the bay to visit is like proposing a trip to the moon.

Access to outdoor recreation was easier living in the East Bay. Since I have a car, access to "city conveniences" was often easier in practice there as well—a short drive to good grocery stores (boy, do I miss living near the Berkeley Bowl), farmers market, restaurants, etc. with less parking hassle. If I had a lot of space-consuming gear or hobbies, or wanted a detached house, I would have been more inclined to stay in the East Bay as well.
posted by 4rtemis at 5:44 PM on February 21, 2017

I live in Berkeley and work in the Mission. Depending on where in Berkeley you're looking, it can be convenient, but almost nowhere here is going to be as convenient as living in the Mission. Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley Bowl West are much, much better than any grocery in your neighborhood, though.

Commuting to work generally takes me 45-60 minutes. For the most part it's not bad; it's a good chunk of time to listen to podcasts or read. But every so often there'll be a public transit meltdown, and that sucks.

I'll also disagree with the commenters above who characterize Berkeley as completely oriented around the university and/or smug; I've lived here for years and that's not been my experience at all. (Do both exist? Sure. Can you avoid them if you want? Also sure.)
posted by asterix at 8:40 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi. I live and work in Berkeley so I can't speak to commutes, but I can address the culture and any town/gown misconceptions. If you live blocks from the campus, then it'll be harder to avoid campus life (makes sense), but if you live out a bit it's easy to forget it's a college town. There are a lot of people living in Berkeley who work in SF. In fact, I am often the odd one out among my Berkeley friends for working in the city (and the university). It's definitely become more common as people are priced out of SF or want more room to kind of settle down. The old stereotype of Berkeley eccentrics is waning, though they still have their moments. Out in the flats, it's increasingly SF professionals.

That said, Berkeley is kind of small town but I like that I can walk or ride my bike anywhere. (I never do to the hills.)
posted by kendrak at 9:51 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I lived in the East Bay from 2007 to 2012, give or take, so my info might be out of date. Berkeley seems to have become a more popular option for people who are commuting to SF, and the area around the Downtown Berkeley BART in particular has picked up a lot. I think North Berkeley could be a really pleasant option if you could afford it, even though yes there is some of that annoying Berkeley attitude. If you aren't easily bothered by people, though, I don't think it would get overboard.

I really like the Temescal area around Macarthur, and feel like it hits a sweet spot between Berkeley and Oakland, plus its very easy to go to other areas, like Piedmont Avenue, that have a totally different feel. Prices have probably moved beyond me, but if I could afford it that's where I would want to live.

I think Rockridge and the part of Berkeley that leads into it to be the most annoying of all—truly the only part that feels really yuppy and expensive-for-its-own-sake, without any real personality.

I get the impression that Emeryville is getting more interesting, but it wouldn't take much for that to happen, and it would take a lot to make me interested in living there. The Ashby Bart/West Berkeley area has a lot of flux and can be kind of weird. West Oakland has been changing fast, but it sounds like you guys are prioritizing safety and comfort walking around at night, so I don't think it would interest you much.

Living in the hills is wonderful but not great for the commute, sadly.

Good luck!
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 5:44 AM on February 22, 2017

This is entirely anecdotal, but I did the reverse commute for around two years each in two different situations. First, a commute from the Outer Richmond to Berkeley, with a 80 minute, two-hop route, more or less against my will (driven by both romantic and economic considerations). Second, a commute from SOMA to downtown Berkeley by choice a few years later, driven by my desire to live in a place that I liked. (You and I seem to want exactly opposite things in homes. Living in downtown Berkeley made me itch to flee to an actual city as soon as possible. SOMA felt like a breath of fresh air after Berkeley. But, human diversity is a great thing!)

The first commute was terrible and made every day a drudge. I was desperate to escape. I suspect much of the reason is that I didn't feel like I had a choice in the matter, and also the horribly over-full MUNI commuter buses that travel to and from downtown. Commuting to save money, rather than living in a smaller place where you actually want to be, will grind you into the dirt, in my experience.

The second was entirely sustainable. 30-40 minutes on public transit each way sounds like a long time, but it's a chance to read a novel or listen to an audio book and escape from obligations for a bit. A transit commute on a single line is a hundred times less annoying than either a car or multi-hop commute. I left for job reasons, but could have easily handled the SOMA-Shattuck commute for decades without complaint. It was just fine.

Also, worrying about shopping and restaurants when moving to Berkeley seems a bit weird, unless you're really considering the middle of nowhere on the edge of town. It's hard to think of a town with better take-away options, even including SF.

For me, personally, deciding whether you want to live where you work or live where you play is a hard choice. They both have trade-offs. But either choice is far better than deciding to save money by commuting from a place you don't want to live and can't work; you'll pay more than the equivalent cost in lost time and frustration. Putting up with a really shitty apartment is worth a whole lot more than an hour a day, no matter what your salary.
posted by eotvos at 7:37 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been living in the Rockridge area of Oakland for about 8 years now, commuting to/from SF every day. Never lived in SF.

My morning commute is actually through the casual carpool program. It's free (unless the driver asks for a $1 tip, which is increasingly rare), and the dropoff is on Howard and Fremont, so pretty much SoMA. I believe most of the pickup points are near a Bart station so if you can't get a ride or the traffic is shit that day, you at least have an alternative. In the evening, I take Bart home.

My average commute is 45 minutes one-way. I don't mind it, since I can enjoy the scenery as my ride goes over the Bay Bridge. If I'm taking Bart, I snooze. Standing on Bart does suck though.

Living in the East Bay indeed makes it harder to hang out with friends in SF, because you're at the mercy of Bart. For me it's fine because I hardly hang out with friends anyways, but if you're highly social and your social circle is mainly in SF then the East Bay is a tough sell. That said, some of my (very social) friends have made the SF->East Bay jump and they don't regret it. They have more space for less, they feel safer, and they have a lot of recreational options (hiking, great biking routes). I love the Berkeley area because TREES. I love trees, and Berkeley has plenty of them.

As for Rockridge, it's a nice quiet place, and you'll probably have good chances at renting a house that allows pets. It's more expensive than the rest of Oakland though, and the vibe is definitely more towards middle-class young families and older folks. As for safety, it's considered safer than most of Oakland. Not 100% crime-free of course - I got mugged back in November - just safer.

Does your partner have work-from-home options? That would help immensely.
posted by curagea at 11:43 AM on February 22, 2017

I used to commute from Bernal Heights to Oakland (either 19th St. or Lake Merritt BART, whichever train was faster that day). That commute was tough because neither my home nor my office were within walking distance of BART. The commute, each way, was walk > bus > BART > bus > walk. It added up, about 60-90 minutes each way. With multiple modes of transit involved, planning became very difficult--I ended up getting used to assuming I couldn't be available until at least 90 minutes after leaving work, for instance. That's tough when, as an example, I need to pick up the dog from the boarder by 7 pm and pick up paint for one of the kids before the store closes at 7:30. None of this would have been an issue if my point of departure and destination had been nearer to BART.

Our oldest is now a student at Berkeley, so we're over there a lot. It's a breeze. He lives near North Berkeley BART. Biking to and from BART in Berkeley is easy, but during rush hour getting a bike on BART is going to be a hassle (but feasible). Your partner should test ride the commute a couple times, during the working week if possible.

I'm not sure how moving from 16th to 24th in the Mission is going to come with an increase in feeling unwelcome. In terms of BART stations, 24th is less intense. Then again, we're a gay couple and still get "this is the Mission, get the fuck out" from time to time when we're, like, holding hands while walking the sidewalk. It's not ok, but it's not going away any time soon--that goes for the Mission, Oakland, Berkeley, just... anywhere right now. Get to know your neighbors and do what you can to avoid the creeps at transit hubs.

Have you considered looking further south down Mission Street? If you're up for it, follow the path of the 14R. Your partner can get to SOMA quickly, and the further south you go the more likely you are to find more space and better monthly rates.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:51 PM on February 22, 2017

Response by poster: We ended up turning down the place in Berkeley, because after reading everyone's advice and comments, partner/we realized the worries we were having weren't stemming from the commute; they were stemming from the condition of the house. We're going to keep looking, but we have a better idea of what tradeoffs we'd be making if we stayed in SF or moved to East Bay.

posted by you could feel the sky at 4:12 PM on February 24, 2017

Response by poster: As a hopefully-final update: we ended up looking at a place last weekend in the Castro that we really liked; we applied and have been accepted! We're signing the lease this weekend, I think.

We'd effectively ruled out the Castro this time around because most of what we were seeing was way more uphill than we wanted to be and smaller units than we wanted; this one happened to be fine on both of those fronts. Partner's commute is only increasing by ~15 minutes a day, and we're staying near most of our SF-based friends. Some friends in the east bay offered to rent Partner some studio space, so it seems like everything is set for us to keep living in the city a few more years.

We're still expecting to eventually move to the east bay, but it's a ways off.
posted by you could feel the sky at 4:54 PM on March 3, 2017

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