Where should we live? -- SF Bay Area edition
June 2, 2018 9:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a place that has an easy commute to UC Berkeley (either via car, bus, or BART), and where I can get a 1- or 2-bedroom apartment for $1700/mo or less. Is it possible?

I lived in Berkeley back in the day when it was expensive, but not impossible. Things have changed since then. I can afford up to $1700/mo in rent. Ideally I'd like a large 1-bedroom or a 2-bedroom place in a SAFE neighborhood with a reasonable commute to UC Berkeley. (Reasonable commute being =<30 min, via car, bus, or BART). Which communities should I be looking at? I've heard Albany, El Cerrito, and possibly Oakland might work. I only have a passing familiarity with these places, and haven't lived in the area for a decade, so I'm sure things have changed.

Every time I look at housing on craigslist, I feel like crying. It's just so damn expensive. Is there any hope for us?
posted by phoenix_rising to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best case scenario is accepting a significantly longer commute and giving up on a 2 bedroom and adding consideration of studios rather than just 1brs. Are you willing to live with others? It's bad here.
posted by quince at 10:17 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Per my stepdaughter, who just happens to be visiting from San Francisco: Oakland is most likely beyond your price range. Studios there go for around $1700/month, she thinks. Parts of Albany and El Cerrito, as you've heard, would meet your criteria. El Cerrito more than Albany. "Depending on your definition of safe", she says, Richmond, East Oakland, and Fruitvale would have what you want, for the price you want. They have bad reputations, but as long as you know your neighbors and practice some basic street smarts, you'll be fine.
posted by DrGail at 10:22 AM on June 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

I see a 2br in Vallejo on Craigslist for $1750, google says 30 min drive from Vallejo to UC Berkeley. I haven’t lived in the region for a long time either, though.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:32 AM on June 2, 2018

You do not want to live in Vallejo and commute to Berkeley. You’re looking at being stuck driving and having bridge toll every day.

And for safety, Vallejo is worse than many parts of Oakland.

Albany is definitely out of reach for your price range. I’d be looking in Oakland - Fruitvale is a good starting point.

If you’re willing to go a bit farther south, Hayward and San Leandro/San Lorenzo are (slightly more) affordable and on the BART line. You could probably find a 1br for $1700 and your commute would be about 45 mins.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:06 AM on June 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't count on the commute from Vallejo to UCB to be reliably 30 minutes. It could easily take that much time to get to campus and park from the freeway because of traffic.

I agree that given your parameters, it's going to be really difficult to find a place. You might get lucky and find a place in a small, old building. When are you looking to move? Most people have long commutes for a reason here. It's not really by choice.

Albany and El Cerrito are the obvious places to look. I agree about Fruitvale and San Leandro as well. If a place like that exists in Berkeley it will probably be in West Berkeley or South Berkeley.

(Your definition of safe may vary from mine.)
(Don't forget the cost of parking. Also finding a spot on some lots can be tricky if you're arriving after 8:30.)
posted by kendrak at 11:10 AM on June 2, 2018

You MIGHT be able to find something in Albany El Cerrito, but the pickings will be few and far between, so it partially depends on luck. The way you emphasize SAFE makes me think you probably would not feel comfortable in the parts of Oakland you could afford, but people who know Oakland better than I do might have more insight there.

tbh, I think your definition of a “reasonable commute” is...not super reasonable for the bay area on a budget, unless you are willing to look at group housing. Do you have any wiggle room there? If you go east to Walnut Creek you could probably find a 1 bedroom for $1700. I think it would be about 45 minutes (maybe a little more) on bart (including a transfer) and...variable in a car, depending on commute time? Google maps says it is 21 minutes by car, but that doesn’t take into account parking or traffic (you would spend a lot of the drive stuck with all the people commuting into the city).
posted by tan_coul at 11:15 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify, by "safe," I mean I want to be able to walk a few blocks to/from my car after dark (but not too late, say before midnight) without having to worry about getting mugged. I don't mind living in a neighborhood that's a little rough around the edges, I just want to avoid bodily harm as much as possible.

Large studio would be ok, I guess.

Living with other people is a no. We are 2 people (me and partner). My income will be something like $66,000; partner has no income.
posted by phoenix_rising at 11:20 AM on June 2, 2018

Check out San Leandro. A two bedroom apt will be out of your price range, and you'll have to extend your commute. Also, not to be a huge downer, but BART parking garages have wait lists that stretch for years (I waited over a year for a space at Fruitvale Bart, and that was a shorter list than many stations). So when you're evaluating commutes, don't assume you'll easily drive to/park at BART.
posted by missmary6 at 11:25 AM on June 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's really tough. I have seen (very occasionally) one-bedrooms in that price range in Berkeley over the last couple of months. Are you in the Bay Area now so you can go look at places right away? If you haven't yet, sign up for IFTTT alerts so you find out about apartments as soon as they go up on CL.
posted by pinochiette at 11:29 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, if you know anyone in Berkeley on Nextdoor, you could try asking them to post an ad looking for housing for you, or ask them about listings on there. UC Berkeley also has a different housing website that often has listings that aren't on Craigslist at all (I think you have to pay a small amount to use it, if I remember correctly). As I'm sure you can see from Craigslist, $1700 in Berkeley (or North Oakland, or Albany) is basically too low for most studios now, but there are aberrations out there.
posted by pinochiette at 11:34 AM on June 2, 2018

If you don’t mind a short drive/bus over a bridge or through a tunnel to a BART station (Lake Merritt or Fruitvale) check out Alameda. It’s very safe (it’s called the Mayberry of the Bay for a reason) and rents are pretty comparable to a lot of the East Bay.
posted by not_the_water at 12:20 PM on June 2, 2018

Are you or your partner a student of any kind (grad or otherwise)?
UC family student housing (University village) was guaranteed for married students/students in domestic partnerships as of 2015 and the pricing was around your range. I think it was available but not guaranteed for postdocs/teaching staff (waiting list).
It's actually pretty nice, easy as heck commute, worth looking into.
posted by Krawczak at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Living with other people is a no. We are 2 people (me and partner).

You honestly may want to reconsider this if possible because the way rent control (at least in Oakland) works is that rooms can change hands without exposing everyone to market rates.* This means the shared housing market can have a little more wiggle room. (Granted, the people I know who are still in their homes due to rent control fill openings by word of mouth, not Craigslist.)

*This can also result in landlords insisting on new roommates' names not being on the lease in the hope of breaking the chain of names on the lease, thus creating a "new" set of tenants.
posted by hoyland at 1:48 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a tough search, no question about it. 2BR in that price range looks like a hard "no" in all but the most far-flung reaches of the East Bay, outside of your commute tolerance. Since you have a car and are commuting within the East Bay (so not relying on BART or crossing any bridges), I would probably look block by block at Fruitvale, East Oakland, and maybe Richmond. All of those areas have reputations that are middling to "not great" for crime and safety but you can see considerable variation between neighborhoods and even from one street to the next in the same general area.

You can also watch for-rent listings in your price range like a hawk for studio and 1BR listings in Albany, Alameda, El Cerrito, other parts of Oakland, and Berkeley. These areas are often quite nice but they are not cheap, however, places within your budget may occasionally show up. Be prepared to attend the open house with 20+ other prospective renters interested in the space.

+1 on the warning about the waiting list for BART parking spaces being years long. If you can walk/bike/have your partner drop you off at the station that opens up areas like Walnut Creek and San Leandro that are a bit outside your desired commute but you might find okay otherwise.
posted by 4rtemis at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2018

Google maps says it is 21 minutes by car, but that doesn’t take into account parking or traffic

I do the reverse commute out 24 every morning and the traffic coming west is intense. 21 minutes at rush hour is definitely not going to happen, guessing more like 45.
posted by Smearcase at 5:24 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Walnut Creek, Hayward, or San Leandro are your best bets for a 1 bedroom close to $1700--and for all 3 I would recommend BART as your transportation choice. Maybe East Oakland but you will have to poke around and the housing that does exist is in super high demand. If you want to seriously increase your commute time, another option would be Union City; it's still "affordable" there, and about half the commute would be reverse-commute (I drive this several times a week and it is about 45 minutes drive from Union City to Walnut Creek, but then you hit traffic once you get on 24). It's about an hour and a half via BART.
posted by assenav at 6:25 PM on June 2, 2018

I live in Oakland and it would take me more than 30 minutes to get to UC Berkeley during rush hour. If you lived in Berkeley proper, or maybe north Oakland you could do it, but you’re not going to find a 1 bedroom or even a studio for that price unless you are willing to live in a pretty rough neighborhood or you get really lucky.

There is intense competition for housing in that price range (actually all price ranges), and if you’re looking on Craigslist know that there are a LOT of scams. I don’t advise anyone to ever rent a place without being in the city and being very cautious about who you rent from. Getting an airbnb or a sublet will let you feel out the area and find something in your price range and in an area you’re comfortable with. Housing out here typically gets rented in a matter of days, so looking in advance is unlikely to be of any use.

There are housing groups on facebook you can join which might yield better results. I know living with other people sounds weird, but believe me, out here it’s what a lot of people do who want short commutes and cheaper housing costs. If that’s really a hard no for you, you are probably going to have to compromise on your commute time by quite a bit.

That said, no, it’s not impossible. If you find the right place at the right time and get in before anyone else you can find good places at a reasonable price. That’s more likely to happen if you’re actually out here, though. Good luck!
posted by ananci at 10:38 PM on June 2, 2018

I'd definitely focus on locations where you can commute via BART. Traffic is slow at best and stop-and-go at worst. BART is on a schedule that is pretty accurate. Even if your train is delayed you still almost always know how long it will take to get to your stop.

If you have a motorcycle and are comfortable lane splitting it's not unreasonable for shortish commutes. I found that the mental energy to lane split for 40 miles each way exhausted me but for 10-15 miles each way it's totally do able. That would potentially allow you to get rid of a car and maybe increase the wiggle room in your budget to live closer to work.
posted by bendy at 1:27 AM on June 3, 2018

When are you moving? A 1br in University Village in Albany is in your price range, if you’re eligible, but I hear there’s a long waiting list. There’s a bus that goes to campus.

If that’s not an option, BART is your best option for commuting. I live in West Berkeley and can confirm that it can take 30min to drive to campus just from the freeway exit. I would look for something close to a BART station and be willing to extend your commute time, and use that time to read/work/nap if you can get a seat. The waiting lists for BART parking permits are years long, but you can get a spot in the daily fee lots if you arrive early enough. I think West Oakland fills up earliest; there’s plenty of parking at North Berkeley when I arrive around 7am. The BART website has estimated parking lot fill times for a lot of stations (example).

Benicia might be worth looking into - I have an acquaintance who moved there last year to be closer to her grandchildren in Bernal Heights, and she feels quite safe there. She drives to the North Concord BART station (15-20min). From there, it’s about 30min to downtown Berkeley.

MeMail me if you’d like me to send you Nextdoor housing posts in West Berkeley!
posted by kiripin at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies so far! To answer your questions, we're looking to move in late July or early August; I'll be non-faculty staff at UCB (sort of an advanced postdoc), we're not eligible for UC Village, and I'm currently living on the East Coast. I was thinking to go out there in a few weeks to find a place, but looks like our best bet might be a short-term sublet and look for a place while we're living out there in the first month or so. My employer is not providing temporary housing, is contributing just a small amount toward moving expenses, and is not giving us a cost-of-living raise (this is academia). So I'm trying to do the whole thing as cheaply as possible.

Sounds like the best case scenario is that I find something within walking distance of a BART station and accept a longer commute. Or that I get a motorcycle, which I've actually been wanting to do so maybe this is a good excuse.
posted by phoenix_rising at 12:54 PM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another option that would help a lot is adding a bicycle for part of your commute. This dramatically increases the range of what housing is "close to BART" and you avoid the parking issue.

Berkeley-Oakland-Emeryville going to the university is all flat too if you wanted to ride the whole way (from Oakland takes me 30 minutes to ride the cross-town bike route to UCB area, about 6-7 miles from where I live). Then you avoid the Bay's commuting mess almost entirely!

The east bay just rolled out the bike share docks too, I think all of the BART stations have them now.
posted by bradbane at 1:04 PM on June 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Berkeley-Oakland-Emeryville going to the university is all flat too if you wanted to ride the whole way (from Oakland takes me 30 minutes to ride the cross-town bike route to UCB area, about 6-7 miles from where I live).

Not quite. The campus is on a hill. If you are coming from the west side, you are going to be going up hill no matter what. I bike to campus from West Berkeley everyday, and it's not too bad but it is still an incline the whole way.

Another thought about reverse commutes... I work with people who live in the North Bay and commute to UCB. If you bypass the SF traffic, it's not too bad.

Also the possibilities of Benicia/Martinez/Concord. I have quite a few colleagues who live out that way and commute by car or BART
posted by kendrak at 2:10 PM on June 4, 2018

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