Where Value Lives

Adam L. Brinklow | October 28, 2014 | Story Real Estate

This is part of "Live Large, Spend Less," a comprehensive guide to surviving (and even flourishing) in America's most expensive city. See all of the stories here.

Sure, it’s a little on the sleepy side. Also, “Some people are honestly petrified that in a natural disaster it will sink,” says real estate agent Ann Lovi. But never mind all that: Oakland’s water-encircled neighbor is both charming and affordable, with two-bedroom houses selling for as little as $400K. Home prices in Alameda have appreciated only 23 percent in the last five years, compared with a whopping 121 percent in Oakland. And there really are no bad neighborhoods in Alameda to drive that average down.

Many Bay Area cities have nowhere to grow, but Dublin is doing nothing but growing, increasing by more than 1,100 new housing units last year as its population spiked 7 percent, making it the third-fastest-growing city in the state. Of course, it’s not exactly a cultural hotbed, and it’s pretty far out there (45 minutes to the city by BART). But all that new housing means fewer costly bidding wars, which is part of the reason that even the steepest Dublin housing prices are creeping up at about a third of the rate of San Francisco’s.

A beautiful halfway point between the city and wine country, Novato commands about $360 per square foot for homes, a good deal less than the Bay Area average ($410) and less than half the cost in San Francisco ($770). Unlike in the bulk of Marin, you don’t need seven figures to get
a toehold here; during last summer’s high season, Novato had nearly double the number of sales under the million-dollar mark as the rest of the county combined.

Mosswood (Oakland)
Buyers pushed out of Oakland’s trendiest neighborhoods are drifting a little south to the square-shaped district containing MacArthur BART and Mosswood Dog Park. Mosswood is essentially what Temescal was back before most people had heard of it—meaning that brokers tend to use code words like “transitional” when talking about it. But if you don’t care for artisanal doughnuts anyway, mosswood trumps Temescal from every angle: An identically priced house can yield twice the bedrooms and twice the square footage.

West of the Freeway (East Palo Alto)
The Bayshore Freeway has long been considered the barrier that stops big money from flowing into East Palo Alto. But actually a tiny slice of East Palo Alto creeps west of 101, blurring the lines with Menlo Park and Palo Alto proper. This singular sliver is almost indistinguishable from its richer neighbors, but offers some eye-popping deals for those lucky enough to catch them. Think two bedrooms for $500K just a few blocks from where mini-mansions sell for up to $12 million.

Mission Terrace and Sunnyside (San Francisco)
You may have driven through these adjacent, overlooked neighborhoods joined at Balboa Park without ever knowing their names, but it’s time to learn them. Sunnyside is a hilly residential tract north of City College; Mission Terrace runs along mission from Alemany to Geneva. Houses here go for roughly $175K less than in the neighboring mission and Glen Park areas, with only blink-and-you’ll-miss-it differences in the housing stock. Of course, it may not be the heart of the city—more around the kidney section—but BART and the J-Church provide two quick arteries downtown.

Diamond Heights (San Francisco)
“Now this neighborhood is just bizarre,” says Redfin real estate agent Mark Colwell. “I sold a two-bedroom house there for $720,000. A quarter mile east, in Noe Valley, it would have gone for $1.2 million.” Indeed, some houses in this hilly, foggy district overlooking the Castro do go for over a million, but the median sale price remains well under the city’s seven-figure median. Part of that is because not every house has a million-dollar view, and the famously steep and twisty streets scare some people off. “It’s like Alaska,” says Colwell. “Beautiful, if that’s your kind of thing.”

Downton San Jose
One of the more counterintuitive truths about South Bay real estate is how comparably cheap the center of the Bay Area’s biggest city is. Here, within sniffing distance of the spendy Peninsula, you can enter the condo market for $450K to $500K. It’s not as historic as downtown S.F. or as hip as downtown Oakland. But its urbanist cred should rise soon: BART arrives in 2017.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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