SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The day after Trey Lance became the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, he arrived at the San Francisco 49ers’ facility for his first in-person meeting with coach Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan had about 15 minutes to chat with Lance and his family, who were about to begin the process of looking for a place for him to live. Given the importance of the quarterback-coach relationship, some discussion of X’s and O’s or other football-related subjects would have been an understandable topic of conversation.
Instead, Shanahan offered a warning.
“We were hanging out and they were going to look for houses and things like that. I told him, ‘Don’t be too depressed. Everyone is very upset after the first couple of days and you realize you’ve got to change what you were looking for,’” said Shanahan of Bay Area housing prices. “And they’re like, ‘No, everyone’s told us.’ I’m like, ‘No, everyone told me, you’ll see, it’s real.’”
For all NFL rookies, there’s a necessary adjustment that goes beyond football. There’s an off the field element that goes with striking out on your own for the first time as an adult.
For 49ers rookies, there’s even more to consider as they arrive in one of the most unique — and expensive — markets in the NFL.
While San Francisco has long ranked among the costliest places to live in the United States, few 49ers actually stay in the city. The team’s Santa Clara headquarters are about 45 miles from the city, and even without traffic (good luck), that would be about a 50-minute commute each way. Alas, it doesn’t get much cheaper closer to Levi’s Stadium.
According to Monica Thomas, an agent at Compass Realty who works closely with the 49ers, the average sales price of a single-family home in Santa Clara County is $1.96 million, which buys a home that is roughly 1,800 square feet. Renting a two-bedroom apartment measuring 900-1,200 square feet averages somewhere between $2,500 and $4,000 per month, depending on amenities and location.
Thomas often advises players to get to know their surroundings and what they’re looking for before jumping into a decision.
“There’s definitely a period of time where it takes a day or two of kind of hitting the pavement and seeing different variations of what’s out there before what I see is guys feeling really comfortable and adjusting and getting used to the sticker shock of what you can get,” Thomas said.
For comparison’s sake, the average price of a single-family home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the NFL’s smallest market, is $230,000 which would buy a 1,909-square-foot home. A 900-1,000-square-foot two-bedroom apartment rents for $800 to $1,200 per month (though those close to Lambeau Field can go for up to $3,000), according to Tiffany Holtz, a Coldwell Banker agent based there.
In Lance’s hometown of Marshall, Minnesota, the average sales price of a single-family home is $198,685, with an average size of about 2,100 square feet (including finished below-ground space). A two-bedroom apartment averages $700 per month for about 600-800 square feet, according to Jana Reilly of Keller Williams Realty in Marshall.
Considering those numbers, it’s easy to understand why rookies such as third-round cornerback Ambry Thomas gasp at the mere mention of the Bay Area’s cost of living.
“Once I got the phone call [I was drafted] I was happy, excited, then I thought about everything and I’m like, ‘California, tax, taxes’ and I started thinking about all that and the cost of living,” said Thomas, who grew up in Detroit before playing at Michigan. “I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s kind of expensive, very expensive.’ But I’m just grateful for the opportunity, honestly. Skip the cost of living and all that right now. I feel like my play will take care of my pockets.”
To that end, the 49ers work to ensure their players take care of their pockets before their play enters the conversation.
Much of that responsibility falls on Austin Moss II, the 49ers’ director of player engagement. It’s his job to “engage, educate and empower” players to “reach their full potential both on and off the field.” A big part of that job is helping players transition into and out of the NFL.
That work begins during the draft process as Moss learns which players are being targeted so he can begin putting plans in place to help them adjust. Soon after players are drafted, Moss introduces himself and lets them know he’s the go-to guy for any help needed making the transition to the league.
When the rookies arrive in Santa Clara, the real work begins. Moss, along with player engagement coordinator Shelby Soltau, provides a structured curriculum that essentially amounts to rookie school.
The group meets for an hour every day from Monday through Thursday for about four weeks.
The first week covers how to be a pro, with discussions on culture, expectations, setting a routine and maximizing available resources. Week 2 focuses on finances, with lessons on budgeting, building credits and expenses. Week 3 is called roadblocks, with talks on stress management, decision-making, relationships, life skills and leadership. The final week covers success beyond the game — helping the community, building a platform and preparing for what comes after football.
There’s even discussions on learning opportunities at notable Silicon Valley companies such as Apple, Tesla and Google that allow for players to take tours, meet executives and pursue offseason job shadows and internships.
Mixed into those conversations are plenty of guest appearances from other players on how to handle things like housing. Tight end George Kittle, a former fifth-round pick who lived with his now-wife and two teammates in an apartment during his rookie season, is always willing to share his experience.
“The one thing that’s really nice about playing football in Santa Clara is football’s the No. 1 priority at all times,” Kittle said. “You got to go out of your way to find something to do or find a way to get into trouble. I think it’s a great place to be able to go play football and just focus on it every single day. So for rookies, you tried your entire life to get to this level. Just because you have a couple dollars in your pocket, there’s no reason to change what you’ve been doing.”
Rentals and roommates are common for most Niners rookies. In fact, for any rookie taken lower than the second round, Moss recommends they do not buy a house until they’ve proved themselves on the field.
The 49ers foot the bill for housing through training camp, and when the roster and practice squad are set, players have options, including corporate housing, hotels and apartments. Beyond roommates, they are offered multiple avenues that can help save money. One method is to sign a shorter-term lease.
Although most buildings charge a premium for shorter or month-to-month leases, the Niners have relationships that can help facilitate such agreements a bit easier. It might cost more on the front end, but that money can be saved by moving and training in more cost-effective locales in the offseason.
Most young players tend to opt for condos or townhouses close to the team’s training facility, which helps them be on time for team activities but provides the added bonus of easy access to team-provided meals and weights.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Monica Thomas took one player to 20 rental properties in a three-day span. Most players will look at five or six places and find themselves having to adjust their criteria because certain things aren’t necessarily attainable in their price range.
“It’s important for them to get established, get comfortable with the areas, and there’s so many little pockets in Santa Clara County that we advise maybe a rental the first year to get really comfortable with the area for a year before jumping into home purchasing, unless they really want to get it done,” Thomas said. “But we just want to make sure, especially in their age group, that they have a full grasp of what they’re getting into because every investment is important.”
In 2021, the rookie minimum base salary of $660,000 is still a lofty number for the average citizen. But California’s 13.3% state income tax rate remains the highest in the country. Although players are paid only in regular-season game checks based on where those games are played, the Niners are certain to have at least nine checks paid at the California rate every season.
So, while Lance will soon sign a fully guaranteed, four-year, $34.1 million contract with a $22.1 million signing bonus, he will ultimately take home something closer to $18.7 million, according to Spotrac. That’s more than enough for a large, comfortable home, but it helps explain why Lance is leaning toward renting for at least his first season and why he was grateful for his coach’s warning.
“I knew it would be kind of crazy, but it definitely helped giving me a little bit of a heads-up,” Lance said.