Breaking into the Bay Area real estate market has become an exhausting process, a legendary slog.
Just how disappointing is it for buyers?
We asked Alain Pinel broker Rainy Hake to describe what it’s like for newcomers to the region, all those techies with high hopes: “They say, ‘Well, I’m coming from Georgia, and I’m used to having a big beautiful house with a wraparound porch and a lovely yard,’ and you have to tell them, ‘Well, you’re not going to get any of those things and be within a two-hour commute from your new job.’ “
To help bring the market’s realities into focus for readers, we handed Hake, Alain Pinel’s chief operating officer, an assignment: Take the $635,000 median price for a single-family house in the nine-county Bay Area and see what it buys in a dozen or so communities.
“I looked at that number and went, ‘Hmm. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a home set at that price,’ ” Hake said.
But she scoured the listings, anyway, from Hollister in the south to Palo Alto and then across San Francisco Bay to Danville and still farther east to Brentwood in the outer stretches of Contra Costa County. She found single-family homes at or near that median price to be few; her sampling included four. Two were in outlying areas — Hollister and Brentwood. The other two were in Richmond and East Oakland, where gentrification is driving up prices but relative bargains can still be had.
Otherwise, Hake found condos and townhouses, mostly of 1970s vintage and kind of cozy — think 1,100 to 1,300 square feet, mostly, and even smaller in Palo Alto, where the best buy she could find was a 906-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bath condo for $748,000. “But I was surprised you could find anything in Palo Alto,” she said, noting that “it’s really hard to break into that market for less than $2 million.”
She summarized the dilemma of homebuyers: “You’re looking at two options: Go small or go far away.”
“There’s a lot of settling,” she said, “so you have to keep buyers motivated. You have to help them set priorities.”
Hake noted the irony of the situation: If you’re lucky, that supposedly typical median-priced home may really just turn out to be a starter home — “the bottom of the barrel in some of the most attractive markets.” Yet a house and a yard and a picket fence may still be yours if you opt for far-flung suburban living and plenty of driving.
In terms of pure house, the $635,000 Brentwood listing “was probably the best buy” of the bunch: five bedrooms, 3 ?1/2 baths and 3,161 square feet on an ample lot. Built in 2012, it has slab granite counters in the kitchen — and anyone who buys the place will probably leave before the crack of dawn in order to get to the office on time.
The $635,000 median reflects the region’s complex market. Just as priced-out San Franciscans have migrated to the East Bay, driving up prices there, increasing numbers of buyers from around the region have moved to outlying counties — Solano, Sonoma, Napa — where more affordable housing, surprisingly, can sometimes still be found. The $635,000 median reflects this broad geographic diversity, though the core Bay Area tends to be much more expensive.
Working with newcomers and the companies that hire them, Hake and her staff try to “educate” and “coach” the initiates to understand the situation: the competitive market, the fast turnarounds. Despite the sticker shock, the newbies learn, this home could be the stepping home to the next, assuming the market continues to appreciate.
It’s all about trade-offs: What do you really want, and what can you let go of? Do you want restaurants and beaches or tree-lined streets? Access to BART or old-fashioned family living?
“You’re probably making the biggest investment you’ve ever made, and you don’t want to feel like you’re only settling,” Hake said. So she urges newcomers to refine their goals and feel good about it.
If that means buying a 906-square-foot condo in Palo Alto for the good schools, so be it. Or maybe it means buying “that cute little vintage house in Oakland” — built in 1922, it’s on her list — “because you think, I can remodel it and it’s got character. It’s got the bull-nosed archways and all the things that are really intriguing. If you love it, you love it.”