A friend from college, now living in the UK, recently wrote me to ask where to look when considering a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, with these criteria:
- Good schools in the area (and I know this makes homes much more expensive!), but we won’t rule out private school if we need to
- No more than an hour from the airport
- In an area where we can walk to things like shops, restaurants, parks, etc.
My reply got a little out of control in terms of length, so I’m re-posting here in case it can be useful to anyone else.
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One could really write a medium-sized guidebook based on this, but I’ll give you the best overview I can and you can let me know if you need more information. I just got married and so have no children, so my sense of public schools is not super-well developed; what I’m giving you here is a general sense that you should confirm with more detailed research.
North bay is Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties. They are, in general, wealthier. I don’t know anything about their public school systems but I think can safely infer that most of them are going to be pretty good, given the average household income — although double check that on bigger cities like San Rafael (pronounced “San Rafell”). Petaluma is at the limit of your hour to the airport, but we have some friends to live there and love it; big enough to have most things you need, and influenced by the agricultural culture of Marin. Kentfield/Larkspur/Mill Valley/Sausalito/Fairfax all have higher property values and strike me as lacking edginess and culture (i.e., no poor artists anywhere nearby; everything feels more suburban and tame). If you’re working in the Financial District of SF there are ferries from Larkspur, Tiburon, and Sausalito.
Nice big city. Super expensive. Has a crazy public school system where kids get bussed around a lot to mix things up, which can often mean long transit times; between that and the price of real estate, lots of folks tend to leave around the time kids are 5 for more space and for less hassle about schools. SF is a world unto itself; if you’re thinking of moving there it’s probably best if you read up on its neighborhoods and maybe hit me up with more specific questions.
This is where I live and know best. Living near BART for public transit access to airports and San Francisco is really nice if you can arrange it. For access and commuting to SF from Alameda County, the AC Transit buses are also good. Options of both Oakland and SFO for airports, both accessible via public transit.
Berkeley. I’ve lived in Berkeley 13 years now. It has decent-to-good public schools — opinions seem to vary widely; read the Berkeley Parents Network for more information on schools (and all kinds of other stuff). I live in southwest Berkeley because it is where my wife teaches middle school (Ecole Bilangue de Berkeley, a French-language school) and it’s near that, and near the greatest grocery story on earth, and near the climbing gym. As you go north and east (east up into the hills, which is near to Tilden/Wildcat Park, a very nice very large park), things get wealthier. Shattuck along North Berkeley and 4th street in the southeast are the most “walkable” shopping areas. Really it’s more of a bicycling-scale city, rather than a walking-scale town — which I like, as there are lots of restaurants and shops and other cultural things, but not that far away, and without insane prices (and corresponding tiny residences) of SF. Density is between urban and suburban; most house lots are small (tenth of an acre). The campus of UC Berkeley is nice to have in town for additional culture, but I’d generally avoid living within a 3/4 mile radius around it (too many undergraduates — no stable neighbors, loud late night parties, etc).
Albany. Nice town on the north of Berkeley, like north Berkeley in that it is middle-upper class; home prices are higher but not quite crazy (by Bay Area standards). Slightly less densely populated than Berkeley; good shopping district on Solano Avenue. Kensington is a tiny nearby bedroom community; I think good schools, but not much in the way of anything else.
El Cerrito, Richmond, and other towns heading up into the northern side of the East Bay (by San Pablo bay) may have a few nice pockets but there’s generally less “there” there. The main reason I’ve heard of people moving there is to get larger house lots, particularly along the parks.
Oakland. Large city, often in the shadow of SF, but has been improving slowly over the last decade or two. Half as many people in about the same land area as SF, and so it has lower population density. Neighborhoods are highly variable, but there are some that are nice. Jack London Square was revitalized about 15 years ago and remains a nice area; most housing options are condos. Throughout the Oakland hills there are a lot of pockets of nice houses; Montclair has a nice walking/shopping district. Generally I think you’re looking at private schools here, although some wealthier areas (like Montclair) may be an exception. The Rockridge area is a popular walking shopping eating district and near to BART; not sure about the schools there.
South of Oakland (San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Hayward, Union City, Fremont) are places I woudn’t be much interested in. Lower incomes, houses not so interesting, have to drive to get anywhere, not as much culture. Large Indian and Afghan communities in Union City/Fremont, which are good for visiting for the food.
Piedmont. A small enclave of 10,000 wealthy souls surrounded by Oakland (Oakland grew over the years and surrounded it). Public schools that are on par (or better than) most private schools. Real estate prices are correspondingly astronomical, and there is little in the way of rental property.
Alameda. The “Island”. My law partner lives here. It’s sorta a halfway place between SF and the Far East Bay. Schools pretty good, feels suburban but slightly more dense, but less so than Berkeley. Ferry to SF from the North Side (which is pretty far from a lot of the island). Walkable downtown. I think because of the proximity of Oakland, Alameda feels very aggressively bland and suburban (the police are notorious for giving tickets for minor infractions; the chamber of commerce led a campaign to ban food carts/stalls because they would allegedly harm local restaurants); it is the Ozzy and Harriet feel of LaMorInda (see below) living in the shadow of the gritty urbanism of Oakland right next door.
Far East Bay
This is through the Caldecott Tunnel (highway 24) and on the other side of the East Bay Hills. Houses are more spread out; it was built in the 50’s-60’s and it has a bit of a Ozzy and Harriet feel to it. Main towns are Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda (or collectively “LaMorInda”). Lafayette has a fairly walkable main street (a bit much on traffic, but not awful), and I think Moraga and Orinda are about the same. Schools are good, and at least in Lafayette people seem to take community fairly seriously. Edginess and culture is low, although SF is not too far away. Walnut Creek is a larger town that is kinda the core of the Far East Bay, but I wouldn’t be inclined to live there at all; very car culture centered, giant shopping mall, seems to me like the worst of the urban (crowded, busy, cars, commercialism) without the benefits of suburbia (community, smaller feel).
South Bay (Silicon Valley)
This is the belt from Redwood City in the Southwest bay to Milpitas in the Southeast. I visit South Bay from time to time, but don’t know it as well on a community-by-community basis. It has more of a recent-construction feel to it, and is defined by the large technology companies in the area. Very car culture oriented. Unless you really want to be near to Silicon Valley for work reasons, I’d avoid it. There’s a bit of prejudice and ignorance in me saying that — I’m sure there are some good pockets and places to live there — but broadly speaking it seems like not a good value since people are paying for proximity to Google, Apple, Cisco, etc., and that’s not important to me. If I had extra money, I’d move to a bigger place in Berkeley, or Petaluma, or Rockridge, or Albany first.
San Mateo is between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and I have a friend from law school who moved there recently since his office is near there. It seems kinda decent; a slightly dated-looking main street with some walkable stuff. A formerly blue-collar town that is midway through a transition upscale from proximity to SF/Silicon Valley. I think the main reason to live there would be to be smack next to SFO — if you’re flying in and out every week, might be worth looking at.