Where to live in the bay area - a guide for Cal State East Bay faculty

Orientation The region in which you can reasonably commute to the Cal State Easy Bay campus in Hayward is comprised of five counties: Alameda (adjacent to the bay, includes Hayward, Berkeley, and the city of Oakland) and Contra Costa (north of Alameda) constitute the East Bay. San Francisco county (to the west of Alameda) is the city of San Francisco. San Mateo (south of San Francisco) and Santa Clara (southeast, surrounding the city of San Jose) comprise the South Bay, which contains Silicon Valley (and Stanford).

Traffic Just about everywhere around the bay, commuting by car during rush hours involves slow-moving traffic in some directions. Crossing bridges (which have one-way tolls of about $5 coming into San Francisco) and taking the tunnel to pass under the Oakland hills adds to the delays. You have to do both when driving from San Francisco to Hayward, however you'd be moving against traffic. You also have to cross a bridge if you drive to/from the South Bay, and you need to take the tunnel if you drive to/from Berkeley. Again, going against traffic works in your favor, and you will often be able to commute outside rush hours anyway. There are also good public transport options from San Francisco and Berkeley to Hayward. Still, traffic flows are in general an important consideration in choosing where to live.

There are three major local train systems. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) serves the East Bay, and connects most East Bay areas to San Francisco via several lines. BART trains run every 15 minutes, tickets are usually under $5 per trip (depending on distance), and cheap parking is available at the stations. Hayward lies on the San Francisco-Fremont and Richmond-Fremont lines (the latter goes through Berkeley). The university operates a free shuttle to the Hayward (seven days a week, every 15-30 minutes) and Castro Valley (weekdays, every 40 minutes) BART stops. Castro Valley lies on the San Francisco-Dublin/Pleasanton line. Caltrain, which is operated by Amtrak, runs from San Francisco to San Jose through the South Bay in a single line. Trains run about every 15-30 minutes, ticket cost goes by zones, but is typically under $10 per trip. ACE (Altamont Commuter Express) runs once per hour during rush hours between Stockton and San Jose and, en route, connects the Eastern fringe of the bay area. This is the newest system, tickets cost about $5 per trip (more if distance is greater, pricing is by zones). BART is the best and most useful of the bunch, and that is a point in favor of living in the East Bay or in San Francisco.

Three major airports (San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose) offer direct flights to many domestic and international destinations. San Francisco and Oakland are connected to the BART system, while San Jose runs a shuttle bus to Caltrain. Oakland is the closest airport to Hayward and pretty convenient to use. Bus services are run by local transport authorities. San Francisco and San Jose also have local metro systems (including the San Francisco cable cars). San Francisco Bay Ferry connects Oakland and Alameda island with downtown and South San Francisco. Ferries run up to once an hour, and tickets cost about $6.50 one-way (with some variation by route).

Campus The Cal State East Bay main campus sits halfway up the Hayward Hills overlooking the bay. The Hayward Hills are quite a nice area to live - mid-priced for the Bay Area, a bit more upscale than Hayward itself. You get views and a few shops nearby, and you may be close enough to campus to walk (it will be up- or downhill, you'll live on a slope). Besides houses, there are many apartments of varying quality available for rent, in complexes with some amenities (typically, an outdoor pool). Via the Hayward BART station, which is served by the free university shuttle, you get to/from downtown San Francisco and Berkeley in about 40 (respectively 30) minutes.

Home Prices The real estate market in the bay area is notoriously fast-paced. Properties often sell within a week or two of coming on the market, after holding open houses on one or two weekends. It is common for the listing agent to set a specific day, typically shortly after the first open house, on which he or she expects to receive bids and present them to the client (the seller). In popular neighborhoods, competing bids are the norm for desirable houses, and a majority of houses (at the time of writing) sells a couple percent above the original asking price (up to 5% is quite common, in extreme cases 10% to 20%).

For an idea of what is typical in the bay area, here are some bands of median home prices in June 2013 (a hot market) and associated places:
- very low: under 200K (coastal area north of Berkeley, downtown Oakland, and similar blighted urban areas)
- low: 200K to 400K (Hayward and the area between Hayward and Oakland, as well as Concord at the north end of the East Bay)
- lower average: 400K to 600K (Castro Valley and Union City near Hayward, Hayward Hills, area around Contra Costa Centre and the south of San Francisco)
- higher average: 600K to 800K (Fremont, Pleasanton/Dublin, Alameda, Walnut Creek, Berkeley, San Mateo across the bay from Hayward, Santa Clara)
- high: 800K to 1M (San Ramon and Danville in the interior of the East Bay, the Oakland Hills, San Francisco, Half Moon Bay on the Pacific coast, and the less expensive parts of Silicon Valley)
- very high: over 1M (Lafayette and Orinda just beyond the Oakland Hills, West Palo Alto, and the central region of the South Bay from Burlingame to San Carlos)

In a home purchase, important parameters besides the price are the buyer's financial strength (proposed downpayment relative to mortgage) and willingness to shoulder transaction risks (by potentially waiving the right to cancel the purchase after a professional home inspection or the bank's appraisal). These aspects matter to the seller in a hot market because the appraised value of the property (which is largely based on older "comparable sales") may lag behind the current market price, so that the bank will lend less against the reduced book value of the collateral. Sellers prefer buyers who have enough cash resources to go through with the purchase in that event.

Renting is possible throughout the bay area, but is especially common in San Francisco and Berkeley (there are also many rental apartments in the Hayward Hills around the Cal State East Bay campus, and less than half an hour away in Pleasanton/Dublin). Existing tenants are well-protected from eviction and price increases in Californian cities - of course, the cost to landlords is shared with new tenants through high rents. As rental prices correlate with purchase prices, the comments below in reference to home buying are also suggestive of the advantages and disadvantages, as well as costs, of renting in particular residential areas.

Neighborhoods

Hayward and Surrounds (Alameda County) Hayward doesn't have the greatest reputation, and homes sell at a discount here relative to Pleasanton to the east and Fremont to the south, but the downtown area (which is close to the university) is actually attractive enough. Hayward is also well connected to both San Francisco (via BART) and Silicon Valley (half hour drive, via the San Mateo or Dumbarton bridge). In fact, it is probably underpriced relative to the rest of the bay area. Nearby Castro Valley (in the direction of Pleasanton) is considered a step up as a residential area, while San Lorenzo and San Leandro to the west and north (toward Oakland) are fairly depressing concrete jungles. Each of these towns has its own BART stop (Bay Fair in the case of San Lorenzo), on the San Francisco-Fremont and Richmond-Fremont lines (except for Castro Valley, which is on the San Francisco-Dublin/Pleasanton line). Median home prices range from low (Hayward, San Lorenzo, San Leandro) to lower average (Castro Valley).

Tri-Valley (Alameda / Contra Costa Counties) Interstate 680 connects Danville to San Ramon and the "twin city" of Dublin and Pleasanton, from where interstate 580 runs to Hayward. This region is warmer because it is inland. It tends to attract well-to-do young families, because the uniformly high income levels create an environment of low crime, top schools, and thriving commerce. Whereas most of this region is in a dry, hilly landscape (with some vineyards), Pleasanton is noted for its green and neighborly feel. There has been a lot of recent construction in Dublin, San Ramon, and Danville, so many of the houses are new. Dublin also has a large number of condominiums in relatively fancy developments. It caters to a substantial Asian population in immaculate modern business settings (unlike traditional Chinatowns). While San Ramon is within easy driving distance from Hayward (about 15 miles, like Dublin and Pleasanton), Danville, Livermore (a town east of Pleasanton that improbably mixes a rural atmosphere and vineyards with a big discount shopping presence) and Alamo (a collection of larger, more expensive properties in the hills north of Danville) are all 20-25 miles from Hayward. Pleasanton and Dublin lie directly on the BART line to San Francisco and Castro Valley (from where a shuttle runs to the university); the other towns in the area are 5-10 mile drives from BART stops (Dublin/Pleasanton, respectively Walnut Creek for Danville and Alamo). ACE stations in Pleasanton and Livermore provide additional access to San Jose. Median home prices start at lower average (Livermore), are more typically higher average (Dublin, Pleasanton) or high (San Ramon, Danville), and get very high in the more secluded areas around Mt. Diablo (Alamo).

Fremont-San Jose Corridor (Alameda / Santa Clara Counties) Fremont provides good access to San Jose and the South Bay, so it sustains relatively high prices (compared to Hayward), paid by people with Silicon Valley jobs. Some dismiss it as a sprawling city with high turnover in residents and little community atmosphere, but Fremont has something that is unique in the East Bay - a relaxed, subtropical feeling with palm trees lining the streets. It is also exceptionally well-connected: by BART (to San Francisco), the Dumbarton bridge (to Palo Alto), and ACE (which runs south to San Jose). Adjacent are the somewhat cheaper suburbs Union City (north, toward Hayward) and Newark (south, by the water), like much of Fremont they are 10-15 miles from campus. The drive is either along the drab interstate 880 or sometimes busy Mission Blvd, but both the Fremont and Union City BART stops are on the line through Hayward (and also the one to Berkeley). Newark is about five miles from the Union City stop. Fremont stretches itself along the bay, and eventually transitions into Milpitas, which is a good 20 miles from Hayward and quite far from the BART system (the Great America ACE stop is five miles, the College Park/Santa Clara Caltrain stop eight miles away). Median home prices are lower average in Union City, Newark, Milpitas, and higher average in Fremont.

Alameda Island (Alameda County) The city of Alameda is situated on an island in the bay, off the city of Oakland. Here you find beachfront homes and houses with boat piers - a mid-priced lifestyle that revolves around the water. Geographically, it's close to everything, but access to the island involves frequently congested roads and tunnels, or you can take the ferry to San Francisco. It's laid back living by the water, 15 miles from both the university and San Francisco, but with limited mobility. The Fruitvale BART stop is right across a bridge on the Oakland side and served by the San Francisco-Fremont, Richmond-Fremont, and San Francisco-Dublin/Pleasanton lines. In addition, ferries run to downtown San Francisco. The median home price is higher average.

Central South Bay (San Mateo County) This is the area south of San Francisco International Airport, running from the BART terminus at Millbrae via Burlingame and San Mateo to the edge of Silicon Valley, which starts in earnest beyond Belmont and San Carlos. You have good access to Hayward and the campus by car via the San Mateo bridge (it's about 20 miles), but there is no direct BART connection to Hayward (a change of trains is required at Balboa Park). This is the doorstep to San Francisco (15 to 25 miles) and each town has Caltrain service to the city. Though an expensive area, you get more or less a run-of-the-mill suburban lifestyle here. There is a fair share of nice restaurants and shops, but not like a few miles south in Palo Alto; a hint of urban flair, but not like a few miles north in San Francisco. Median home prices go from higher average (San Mateo) to very high (Millbrae, San Carlos, Belmont, Burlingame).

Oakland Hills and Beyond (Alameda / Contra Costa Counties) The forested hills around Oakland divide the bay area into two distinct climate zones: the often foggy and significantly cooler west (including San Francisco and Berkeley), and the dry, warm east (where weather is, however, still tempered by proximity to the bay). The contrast between the hills part of Oakland and the downtown area could not be more stark.  One is a high-end residential area (as are the surrounding affluent towns), the other is the least desirable part of the East Bay. In the lower hills of Oakland, you get bay views, good walks, proximity to wilderness parks and the popular shops and restaurants of the Rockridge and Montclair "villages." The little town of Piedmont has lush gardens and quaint houses along well-kept sidewalks (it is the most expensive place in the East Bay, since it has the natural advantages of the location, but an independent school district from Oakland's). Near the peaks, narrow winding roads with no sidewalks and no commerce lead to houses perched on cliffs and looking out on impressive mountain vistas. Yet all this is minutes from Berkeley (which can be reached on foot along College Ave from Rockridge) and BART stops. Farther inland, Orinda and Moraga feel more private (if not a bit isolated); they are populated by larger estates on "country roads" with no sidewalks. Orinda has better access to San Francisco (via its own BART stop) and Berkeley than Moraga (which is five miles from the Orinda stop). Piedmont and the wealthy fringe of Oakland are close to the Rockridge BART, which like Orinda is on the San Francisco-Pittsburg/Bay Point line. The BART commute to Hayward involves changing trains in downtown Oakland and is therefore not very practical. However, the roughly 20 miles from campus are drivable without passing through the tunnel. The median home price is high (Moraga) to very high (Orinda).

Berkeley (Alameda / Contra Costa Counties) The heart of Berkeley are the University of California campus and the "boulevards" leading to it: College and University Avenue with the bohemian flair of second-hand shops, fair trade cafes, and affordable gourmet food. Most of Berkeley is, however, a maze of narrow lanes that creep up and down hillsides with old-fashioned overhead power lines through which, occasionally, spectacular bay views open up. Older (and often custom) homes with sprawling gardens duck away from view, sheltered by densely planted bushes and flowers. Berkeley feels unhurried and imperfect, but undeniably beautiful in its abundance of character and color. On the western edge of Berkeley, where the terrain flattens toward the water, the smaller suburbs of El Cerrito and Albany appear. The whole region is 20-25 miles from Hayward (on the other side of the Oakland hills tunnel), but various BART stops offer direct access to Hayward via the Richmond-Fremont line, and these stops are also on the San Francisco-Richmond line (San Francisco is 15 miles away). The median home price is lower average in El Cerrito and higher average in Albany and Berkeley, for mostly smaller homes compared to elsewhere in the East Bay.

Downtown Oakland (Alameda County) The city of Oakland is the West Coast's Detroit, one of the more serious cases of urban decline. The best things one can say about downtown Oakland is that it offers excellent BART connections to campus (less than 20 miles away), Berkeley (which is just north), and San Francisco (only a little over 10 miles), and is the cheapest commutable place to live. The (somewhat nicer) suburb of Emeryville sits on the waterfront between Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco and is also close to the Oakland BART stops, which are served by the San Francisco-Fremont, Richmond-Fremont, and San Francisco-Pittsburg/Bay Point lines. Median home prices are low in Oakland and lower average in Emeryville.

Silicon Valley (San Mateo / Santa Clara Counties) The string of towns between Stanford University and San Jose is home to the headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Ebay, and countless other IT firms. The associated wealth shows in the high-end shops and restaurants littering Palo Alto's University Ave (not to be confused with the poorer East Palo Alto), as well as high real estate prices. Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Redwood City in the South Bay are barely over 20 miles from Hayward, while the towns just outside San Jose, including Los Altos, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View, are about 25 to 30 miles away (either via the South Bay and a bridge, or through San Jose and Fremont). Most of these have their own Caltrain stop (Los Altos is near the San Antonio station), so it's not hard to get to San Francisco by public transport (the trip is a little over 20 miles from Redwood City, but almost 50 miles from San Jose at the other extreme). Santa Clara and San Jose are part of the ACE rail network, in addition to Caltrain. The throng of towns south of San Jose, including Campbell (cheaper by the standards of Silicon Valley), Cupertino, Los Gatos, and Saratoga (expensive even by those standards), is too far from Hayward to commute regularly by car (30 to 40 miles); in addition, it's 50 miles to San Francisco and 5 to 10 miles to the closest Caltrain stops. Median home prices in Silicon Valley are higher average in Santa Clara, more typically high (Redwood City, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Menlo Park, San Jose), and very high in Palo Alto and Los Altos.

Contra Costa Centre (Contra Costa County) Continuing from the pricy Rockridge and Orinda neighborhoods along the northeastern BART line, a bit further out the hills start to give way to busier and increasingly more downmarket, but popular, residential areas. Lafayette, which has a neat, small downtown, is relatively upscale with excellent schools, and closest to San Francisco and Berkeley. Next up,Walnut Creek has one of the larger shopping collections in the East Bay. Pleasant Hill and Concord offer a similar mix of mid-level housing and pedestrian-friendly commerce, at a lower grade and cost. While each of these towns has a BART stop (the one in Pleasant Hill is called Contra Costa Centre), it's on the San Francisco-Pittsburg/Bay Point line, which does not go directly to Hayward. Alternatively, the drive is 25-35 miles (Lafayette and Walnut Creek being closest). Median home prices rise steadily as we move south along the BART line, from low (Concord) to lower average (Pleasant Hill) and higher average (Walnut Creek) to very high (Lafayette).

South San Francisco (San Mateo County) Between the city proper and the airport, lie suburbs that have relatively affordable proximity to San Francisco going for them, but there is a fair amount of unattractive suburban sprawl here. On the western shore, Daly City and Pacifica look out to the Pacific Ocean. On the eastern shore, San Bruno, Brisbane, and the town of South San Francisco cluster round the north end of the airport. Hayward is 25-35 miles away, but this area is served by both Caltrain and BART. Except for Daly City, which has a BART stop that includes all lines in and out of San Francisco, the other towns lie beyond the terminus of the San Francisco-Fremont line, so that one either has to drive 5 to 10 miles to Daly City or change trains there (from the San Francisco-Richmond or San Francisco-Pittsburg/Bay Point line). Median home prices are lower average in Brisbane, Daly City, and South San Francisco, higher average in Pacifica, and San Bruno.

Richmond (Contra Costa County) Abutting Berkeley on the north, Richmond is a rather different proposition. There is a high concentration of poorer Asian immigrants here, and you get the typical Chinatown atmosphere, lower-end shops in run-down streets and buildings. It's separated from downtown Berkeley by the hills to the east, which are slow to traverse, so the only practical access is by interstate. Hayward is somewhat distant (about 30 miles), but easy to reach via direct BART connection (the Richmond-Fremont line): for all its shortcomings as a town, Richmond and the adjacent San Pablo combine low-cost living with good transport access and close proximity to Berkeley and the water (San Francisco is 20 miles away). Further north, El Sobrante and Pinole are a good five miles from the Richmond BART stop. Median home prices are very low in Richmond, low in San Pablo, El Sobrante and Pinole.

Downtown San Francisco (San Francisco County) The true metropolitan experience on the bay is only found in downtown San Francisco. From here, it is easy to get to anywhere else by public transport; the drive to Hayward is just under 30 miles. San Francisco has its famous neighborhoods, of course, but it is not everywhere nice and safe. Other areas in both the East and South Bay attract more of the well-to-do, to towns that are more socially homogeneous as a result. Here you get diversity and urban flavor, as well as the infamous San Francisco weather, which is never hot and can be surprisingly chilly in thick fog. The median home price is high.

Pacific Coast (San Mateo County) Half Moon Bay is the major oceanside town (alongside smaller ones) outside the San Francisco metro area. Living this far out is feasible because there is good road access to the San Mateo Bridge, which brings you to Hayward (30 miles). However, San Francisco is just as far (30 miles) as from most of the East Bay, and there is no public transport close by. The median home price in Half Moon Bay is high.