Buying Tips

How is home buying in Silicon Valley different from other places?

Home buying in Silicon ValleyIf you want to buy a Silicon Valley home and you’re coming from outside of the area, a few things are done differently here. Rather than give a lengthy explanation, I’ll just provide a quick list of things which are different from other parts of California, the U.S. or perhaps the world.

1.) The escrow account, where money is held and disbursed by a neutral third party, is ordinarily with a title company in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area generally. In CA it’s legal for real estate brokers to have the escrow account, but that is not the custom here. By contrast, in southern Calif., there are separate companies which often do the escrow work or a real estate broker may handle the funds, called trust funds.

2.) Santa Clara County is a “seller pay county” by tradition when it comes to the escrow fee and who pays the owner’s policy of title insurance.  (Most of California is either buyer pay or split 50/50. Also, SCC is where San Jose and much of Silicon Valley is located.)

3.) Because it’s a “seller pay” county, the seller or the listing agent (the seller’s real estate agent) normally chooses the title company. Most of the time, the home owners do not have a preference and don’t  know anyone working at the nearby title companies, so usually the listing agent suggests which one to utilize. If you purchase the property with a loan, you will need to buy lender’s insurance, too – and that’s a buyer cost.

4.) While in many east coast states an attorney is involved with the home buying and selling process, here lawyers are seldom involved with real estate sales – unless there is a big problem.

5.) Surveys are not usually part of the transaction here, with exceptions if there are serious doubts about the property boundaries.

6.) Buyers are provided information on natural hazards, and usually also known environmental hazards and area tax liabilities, in most cases via a professional disclosure company such as JCP Disclosures. Things such as 100 year flood plains, liquifaction zones, earthquake fault lines, underground water contamination will be revealed, if known, in most cases.

7.) In some parts of the world, buyers do not have their own real estate professionals for guidance and advocacy, but here they do. Most of the time, in the San Jose and Peninsula area buyers have their own real estate agent working on their behalf. Usually the buyers’ agents are paid by the sellers – but they do not represent the sellers. Dual agency is legal in California as long as it is disclosed (and dual agency can mean either the same person or brokerage).

8.) In recent years, it has become the norm to get pre-approved with a lender or bank prior to writing a purchase offer on a house, condo or other home. (If you meet with a Realtor, getting you set up with a reputable lender will be one of the first things he or she asks you to do.) Also it’s pretty normal to have to provide “proof of funds” to demonstrate that you have the down payment available. Sometimes our international clients are surprised at the documentation required here, so it’s good if you are aware of it upfront.

9.) It usually takes 30-45 days to close escrow on a property here (from the time the sellers accept your contract to the time you actually own it).


Finally, it should be noted that the cost of housing in Silicon Valley is truly exorbitant. Most people know that Silicon Valley houses are very expensive, but until they get out and see what things cost, they really don’t understand how extreme it is. Often I tell people to expect to pay twice as much and to get half as much. Unless you are coming from a pricey locale, such as London, Tokyo, Paris, Manhattan or Boston, you may still find yourself in “sticker shock.” A half million dollars buys a fairly small, modest home here, in an average area. A million dollars is better – you can get into a better area and better house.  The “luxury market” starts somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million, depending on which area you’re considering.

More affordable homes to buy or rent in Silicon Valley with better schools

Edit: I originally wrote this post on August 12, 2013, but it is still accurate today, January 25, 2018, and probably will be for years to come. 

This morning I received an email from folks wanting to find a good area in which to move where they’ll have good schools but not pay the kind of prices they see in Palo Alto.  Below is my response to them.  I focus on Santa Clara County, and in particular the west valley areas from Los Altos to Almaden Valley or Blossom Valley areas of Willow Glen to Downtown San Jose, Santa Clara, Campbell, and back toward Los Gatos and its nearest parts.  Below is my response – hope it is helpful to many of my readers!   (The list is not exhaustive.)


The easiest way to check school scores is to use the site  It’s good for showing what house has which schools.  The home search feature is not very good, though, so don’t use that.  Best for home searching is, as it is the public branch of our agent MLS and it is updated continuously.   Something to consider, though, is that the school scores do not tell the entire story.  There are many factors to include in your evaluation of a school, such as the variety of coursework offered (some schools may not have art or music, for instance), the availability of sports (for a balanced upbringing) and the overall feeling of a school (are the kids happy or are they overly pressured into excellence at a very young age?).  For many of these things, the best approach is to visit the schools personally and request a tour.  See if you can chat with the parents who are waiting to pick their kids up after school to hear about their experiences.  And of course read reviews online.


In terms of general areas to consider for schools near Mountain View, Palo Alto or Sunnyvale, in general, the better the schools, the more expensive the housing (whether to buy or to rent).  Hence Palo Alto is extremely pricey because the schools are absolutely top. Here are some communities that have great schools or good to very good schools:
  1. Palo Alto (very costly)
  2. Cupertino (less expensive for the school scores compared to other areas up to #5 on this list)
  3. Saratoga (very expensive)
  4. Los Altos & Los Altos Hills
  5. Los Gatos & Monte Sereno (95030 & 95032)
  6. Parts of San Jose in Cambrian 95124 and Almaden 95120 (very good value)
  7. The Los Gatos Mountains (zip code 95033)
  8. Parts of Fremont (Mission San Jose area)
Also it should be noted that in many cases, it makes more economic sense to utilize private schools and to live in an area which is a little less costly, such as Santa Clara (part of SC has Cupertino schools, so that will be expensive) or parts of San Jose (part of west San Jose 95129 has Cupertino schools, and part does not).  Many of my global clients initially do not see private schools as an option, for fear that all the kids in them will be from wealthy families and spoiled.  But often that is not the case at all – the kids are from families who like the curriculum, the teachers, the overall approach of the school and literally make sacrifices to send their kids there.  So I would advise that you at least have a look at that option since homes in the areas with the very best schools can be extremely costly.

Should you find your Realtor first or your lender first? Should they know each other?

A bad lenderIt’s an old question – should you find your Realtor first or your lender first? I would like to suggest that you find your Realtor first, and then ask your real estate agent for a list of reputable, trusted loan agents or lenders.


Because as with all professionals, lenders (and Realtors) are not created equally.

You will probably spend a LOT more time with your Realtor in viewing homes, reviewing disclosures, writing the contract, meeting inspectors, and so on – so I do suggest that you begin by very carefully choosing the right real estate licensee or broker for yourself. A good Realtor can probably give you between 3 and 10 names of trusted, reputable, reliable, knowledgeable lenders. From there you can interview and choose someone.

It is extremely important that your lender be good at what he or she does. A bad lender – and there are many of them – could cost you the sale, but definitely will create undue stress, will waste your time and ultimately cost you money. This is no exaggeration.

In our hot Silicon Valley real estate market, when there are multiple offers, many listing agents will phone the buyer’s lender to see how solid the buyers are and how decent the lender seems to be. The better loan agents will answer the phone when called – because they are anticipating the call. The lesser ones are not paying attention and don’t pick up. That small decision, one way or the other, can be critical! A few years back, I spoke with a high powered agent out of Saratoga who told me of this very scenario. She concluded “the lender who didn’t take my call cost the buyer the sale.” Yes, it matters that much.

A poorly organized loan agent may misplace documentation, causing you to miss work so that you can get it to him or her again in a rush (under pressure of the loan contingency removal date). I have known buyers to lose time from work due to the ineptitude of a loan agent (but not one that I suggested).

All deadlines must be agreed to by buyers and sellers in writing, no exceptions. Can you imagine what it’s like to ask your lender how many days will be needed for the loan contingency, only to have to extend it not once, but a few times, because it’s just not done yet? A lousy lender will make this happen. Sometimes they are submitting loan packages based on old guidelines rather than current ones. You and I won’t be involved at that microscopic level – but if the lender messes up, we’ll hear about it later.

In the worst case scenarios, a really terrible mortgage banker or broker will cause so many delays that you close escrow late, causing you, the buyer, to pay some of the seller’s coverage costs. If the rates go up during all of the delays, you may pay a  higher interest rate too.

That’s the gloom and doom of it.

In my real estate practice, often about half of my clients come to me with their own lender. Although this is not ideal (it’s better if the Realtor and lender go into it with a good working relationship), often it works out OK. But sometimes it’s a train wreck. This doesn’t happen, at least not in my experience, if you get a lender I’ve already vetted. Or if you’re working with another great Silicon Valley Realtor, one that he or she has screened. I would not suggest someone incompetent or who will screw up the transaction – of that you can be sure! I want you to buy your home as much as you do, and I want it to be as smooth and hassle free as possible. A bad lender can put all of that in jeopardy, though.

San Jose Mercury News Headlines April 15 – 16 2014: home prices to buy or rent are rising steeply

Flashback Friday!

As I was going through old blog posts, I found this brief installment from April 17th, 2014. Often I write that the current hot sellers market in the Bay is “prolonged,” “steady,” or “persistent,” but seeing these two headlines from over 3 years ago really shows just how unyielding it has been. It is highly unusual to be in such a strong, drawn-out market, but there’s no clear indicator that things will change anytime soon, either. Buyers and renters might find some relief now that autumn is here in hopes that it brings the usual seasonal cooling.

Find the original post immediately below. – Update October 22nd, 2017


Here are the headlines from the San Jose Mercury News in mid April 2014:

Home Prices to buy or rent going up April 15-16 2014

Rental article: Bay Area apartment rents set record 4/16/14

Excerpt:  Bay Area apartment rents are rising at nearly double-digit annual rates and have reached record levels, according to a report released Tuesday, prompting some analysts to warn that the region’s economic boom could be choked off by the relentless rise…..  Among the Bay Area’s three largest cities, San Jose had an average asking rent of $2,066 during this year’s January-March quarter, up 10.3 percent from the same period last year, RealFacts reported. Oakland had an average rental rate of $2,187, up 12.3 percent, while San Francisco posted an average of $3,057, up 9.5 percent.

Home buying article:   Bay Area home prices jump year over year

Excerpt:  March marked more than 20 consecutive months of year-over-year price gains for single-family homes in the East Bay, South Bay and Peninsula, according to real estate information service DataQuick, which released a report on March sales Wednesday…. The San Diego-based company said that prices were up 29.2 percent from the previous March in Alameda County to $575,000. In Contra Costa County, prices rose 22.8 percent to $425,000. Santa Clara County gained 20.3 percent to $800,000, and San Mateo County was up 13.2 percent to $860,000.

Whether you buy or rent, prices have been rising dramatically.  When factoring in what housing will cost, include the trajectory of appreciation per month.

Silicon Valley neighborhoods

This website,, provides an overview for people thinking of or planning to move to Silicon Valley. If you want to dig deeper and learn about individual Silicon Valley neighborhoods, I want to suggest that you visit some of my other websites and blogs for Silicon Valley real estate resources.  Please have a look: is my flagship site for Silicon Valley real estate – it includes area or neighborhood profiles for all the Silicon Valley communities (in all 4 counties) as well as information for Silicon Valley home sellers and more. Visit and click on “Communities” for a drop down menu listing the 4 counties and learn about the cities, towns, and areas that comprise the Silicon Valley area. (I run several sites and have many articles on them, and this is the one which covers the broadest territory.) Silicon Valley neighborhoods is where I showcase my listings, and it’s the site for general real estate info in Santa Clara County and Santa Clara Valley, once known as the Valley Of Heart’s Delight. Most of Silicon Valley is in this area. covers real estate in the town of Los Gatos and the nearby areas of San Jose, Campbell, Saratoga and more. I think it’s the best part of the Santa Clara Valley or Santa Clara County, but perhaps I’m biased. There are MANY posts with local market trends & statistics, updated monthly, for these areas plus Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Almaden Valley, Blossom Valley, Willow Glen, and so on – areas within Santa Clara County. (Google “real estate market” plus the city or area you’re interested in, and you likely will find an article on this site for your desired corner of the region.) Additionally, there are special research postings on the absorption rate in Los Gatos and Saratoga. Also you’ll find Silicon Valley neighborhoods described in depth, often at the subdivision level for areas such as Cambrian and Almaden. Check it out, it is a wealth of information! focuses on the town of Los Gatos, its neighborhoods, areas, districts, as well as events, parks, real estate for sale, the arts, schools, businesses, restaurants, and much more.  A little more community and a little less real estate, but the BEST site for Los Gatos neighborhoods you’ll find anywhere. Los Gatos was once known as the “gem city” and is still a very beloved corner of Silicon Valley today, with historic neighborhoods and homes, gorgeous architecture, and a vibrant downtown. Before deciding where to live, be sure to investigate this scenic town snuggled at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains – the gateway to the valley. is all about the statistics for Silicon Valley, including San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, and Santa Cruz County. Overall, it is very comprehensive. It features a way for you to track listings and sales near your own home, or one of interest, too.

Silicon Valley neighborhoods where I focus my real estate sales:

Obviously, 4 counties is a lot of ground to cover, and most Realtors don’t work that huge of an area in urban communities like ours. I have sold in all 4 counties, but the vast majority of my business is in Santa Clara County, where I live and where my office is located.

In general, I avoid taking on buyers in counties outside of Santa Clara County as it’s far with today’s traffic and with buyer clients it’s important to be super responsive and see new listings as soon as they are available. For that reason, I’d be happy to introduce you to a great buyer’s agent in those areas if that’s where you’d like to purchase a home. With listings it’s far fewer trips and I have more control of my time, so I’m happy to assist sellers in all of these counties.

What are the usual open house times in Silicon Valley?

Open House signs when to whenIMG 1507 3b 212x300 - What are the usual open house times in Silicon Valley?If you are house hunting in Silicon Valley and new to the area, you may wonder when the usual open house times are. Unfortunately, open house times are not perfectly predictable as there is variation both from one brokerage or agent to the next and one region of the counties that comprise Silicon Valley to the next as well. As an example, in the Blossom Valley area of San Jose, condos or houses are frequently available for viewing between 1:30 and 4:30, but it’s not a rule – some listings may have a totally different schedule!

In general, most open houses will be available between 2 and 4 on weekend days if advertised as open (sometimes Saturday, sometimes Sunday, sometimes both. Open houses can run from 12-5, 2-4, 1-4, 1:30 – 4:30, 2-5 etc. If you arrive between 2 and 4 (not “at” 4), you are likely to find it open if it’s advertised as such.  Some real estate agents may hold it open sooner or later, though. If a Realtor has a couple of properties that need to be held open for the public, one could be from 11-1 and the other from 3-5 or some such schedule.

The broker open house is usually not intended for the public, but for agents to show listings to other agents who are looking for their clients. Occasionally (more frequently now than before), the home is open to the public to view. Broker open home tours take place on weekday mornings, typically Wednesday, between approximately 9:30am and 12:30pm.  If non real estate professionals (the public) are welcome, it will be advertised on our MLS, so check online or with your agent.

It is always best to check online at for the most accurate schedule for open houses, which may be during weekday mornings, twilight tours, or weekend afternoons or mornings.

Finally, do not count on all properties listed for sale in Santa Clara or San Mateo Counties to necessarily be available for viewing at an open house. Some listing agents and some sellers prefer NO open houses, believing that any qualified buyer who’s serious will be working with a buyer’s agent and can make an appointment to see it privately. (This is yet another reason why every buyer should have his or her own real estate agent rather than planning to work with the listing agent when buying their next home.)

Get weekly market reports by zip code

One of the tools I use in my Silicon Valley real estate practice is Altos Research. My subscription, which generates reports on mls data of homes for sale weekly, covers all the zip codes of Santa Clara County. The market reports by zip code can be a real wealth of information for home buyers trying to figure out how much home they can get for their money as the report breaks down each zip code area listings by price quartiles and provides the average home and lot size, among other items, in each bracket.

Here’s one part of this week’s report for single family homes in 95032

Profile of homes for sale by price quartile inLos Gatos CA 95032

Profile of homes for sale by price quartile in 95032 (Los Gatos CA)

This is a really helpful way to grasp qucikly how much it will likely cost to get you into a certain sized home.  It also provides a sense whether your particular price point is near the bottom or top of the market – or if it’s possible at all.  Want to buy a home here but the budget is $1 million or less? The data above reveals that this is unlikely in a house.  But perhaps a condo or townhouse might work.

Next, please notice the days on market by pricing tier.  It’s a lot hotter of a market in the lowest priced houses than it is in the highest.

It also helps home sellers to understand what part of their local market is hot or cold (if any).

There are many other elements included in the report.  The main summary of “how’s the market?” is found in the upper right corner.  Below is the example from the same Los Gatos 95032 report cited above:


Altos Research Report for Los Gatos 95032

Altos Research Report for Los Gatos 95032

The Altos data is strictly by town or zip code, so school districts won’t be covered – and here they are a major driver on home values. Even so, this is a great starting point and a way to get the big picture painlessly.

Please sign up and get the monthly newsletter, too!

The report is free to you – please sign up below to get the market reports by zip code emailed to you automatically each week.  I’ll also add you (unless you request not to be added) to my monthly newsletter, which is based primarily on the RE Report and sold data as opposed to listing data.  You can check out a sample here: Mary Pope-Handy’s monthly RE Report Newsletter  As always, please feel free to email me to set up a time to chat about the market and your buying or selling here.  I’d love to hear from you.


Moving to Silicon Valley in fall or winter? A few things to know.

Winter Arrival Graphic - says "Winter Arrival"If you are moving to Silicon Valley, whether San Mateo or Santa Clara County, you should know that things are a little different in fall and winter than they are in spring and summer.  Here are just a few areas that might not be intuitively obvious to the newcomers.

First, a word on appearance.  In Santa Clara County, we have two primary sets of hills – one closer to the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay (west side), and one closer to central California (east side).  Because our local weather is dominated in very large part by the Pacific Ocean, much of the weather blows in from the coast.  A lot of the rain gets dumped in the coastal range, also known as the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Less makes it all the way to Los Gatos, less still to downtown San Jose, and a much smaller amount to the east foothills and places such as Alum Rock Park.  The coastal range (also called just “the hill” by locals) is green year round as it is full of redwoods and other trees which love the moisture. The east side, though, is more grassy, fewer trees, and gets far less rain.  In winter the grasses are a lovely green.  With drought or in summer, however, the grass turns brown or pale yellow.

For people coming from the east coast, the hills there are more likely green in summer and brown in winter.  Here, though, it is the opposite.  We don’t usually get rain in summer, so the grasses die and the hills go brown.

Rain, when we get normal patterns, usually begins in November and comes and goes between then and late April.  In a typical year, San Jose gets 15-20″ of rain (Los Gatos more, the Los Gatos Mountains much much more).  If we get an El Nino pattern year, temps will be warmer than usual and rain will be much more common than typical.  It’s not much fun to have an El Nino year, but right now we desperately need the rain, so folks here are all hoping for it.

Second, a word on roads and travel.  Silicon Valley enjoys a sub-tropical climate with mild temperatures and not too much rain, even in a normal year.  With very little rain most of the time, our streets and highways can develop a dusty, oily film.  Whenever we get rain after a dry spell, those highways and roads can be slicker than you might expect.  It’s not that we need a ton of rain for the surfaces to become more slippery, either.  A very small amount of precipitation can do the trick, so be careful!

If your destination requires going over “the hill”, be triply careful!  Too many people, whether regular commuters or first time adventurers, either tailgate or drive too fast, and it can make it too easy for accidents to happen when a little weather is added into the mix. Continue reading

What does it cost to buy a 3-5 bedroom house in an area with good schools in Silicon Valley?

School District MapIt’s a hot seller’s market in Silicon Valley, but it’s also a time of great job growth here! Each week I get calls or emails from people considering job offers in Cupertino, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, San Jose and nearby. Many of these recruits are interested in areas with superior public schools.

What’s the cost of buying a house of about 2,000 square feet with 3-5 bedrooms and great schools?  A few communities with better education are these: Los Gatos, Saratoga, Cupertino, Palo Alto. We’ll consider these to provide a sense of prices in similar areas.

Here’s a quick look at what single family homes have been selling for over the last three months:

  • Los Gatos: mostly $1,200,000 to $2,200,000 depending on the school district, averaging about $1,700,000
  • Saratoga: mostly $1,400,000 to $2,300,000 depending on the school district, averaging about $1,900,000
  • Cupertino: mostly $1,700,000 to $2,100,000 depending on the school district, averaging about $1,950,000
  • Palo Alto: mostly $2,000,000 to $3,300,000 depending on the school district, averaging about $2,650,000

If you are new to Santa Clara County, you may be wondering if this is correct. It is…

Please continue reading here:
How do prices compare between Los Gatos, Saratoga, Cupertino and Palo Alto?

Air conditioning & homes

Air conditioning condenser unit newerBack in the 1960’s, when I was growing up in Santa Clara, air conditioning was considered a luxury. I didn’t know anyone who had it in their homes in the immediate San  Jose area.  Hot days often weren’t too terrible, and if they were, we’d find our way to a pool, the beach, or an eatery with A/C.  Besides, locals would insist, “it’s a dry heat“.

Over the last few decades, though, central forced air conditioning has become mainstream.  I do believe that Silicon Valley has grown hotter in recent years and it’s less and less of a reasonable option to go without it for most home buyers.

How common is air conditioning in Silicon Valley?

Today I looked on the multiple listing service to get a sense of how common central air conditioning is in Silicon Valley homes. Here’s what I found:

Single family homes or houses for sale in Santa Clara County (home to about 1.9 million people) = 1408
Of these, houses with central forced air conditioning = 891 (63%)
Houses with central forced air – gas (could be overlapping with the group above but if combined it’s 1010) = 119
With ceiling fans = 254
With wall or window units = 4
With whole house fan = 33
No cooling of any kind = 298

Interesting to see that 21% had no fans or other type of cooling at all and that at least 63% but possibly as much as 72% do have central forced air.  If you are house hunting in the San Jose area, it’s important to realize that at least 25% of the homes on the market will not have A/C. 

How necessary is air conditioning in the San Francisco Bay Area?

This has always been the old debate: do we really need air conditioning?  In places like San Francisco and Santa Cruz, which are right on the ocean or bay, often the cool breezes make A/C absolutely unnecessary.

The further inland you go, the more important having it becomes. This is true both for the coast and the areas closest to the San Francisco Bay.  Morgan Hill and Gilroy, in “south county” are far from the SF Bay and from the Monterey Bay.  They get very hot in summer, and having a cooling system is an absolute must.

If you live in Redwood Shores or Foster City, which jut into the San Francisco Bay, it’s quite a bit cooler. Perhaps it would be a waste of money there to make that home improvement. Los Altos can be 5 or more degrees cooler than Los Gatos because it’s closer to the water. Even in Los Gatos, though, there are many micro-climates.  Downtown may get strong coastal winds bringing fog from the coast, while little valleys or areas tucked behind hills can be warmer and completely calm.

How hard is it, and how expensive, to add air conditioning?

Most of the houses here are served by central forced air heat, and they have ducts for this already.  If the furnace is younger, and if it is pre-plumbed for cooling, it may be simple and not too expensive (possibly around $5000 – $6000 but it depends on many factors, including home size).

It can be more expensive if:
-The furnace is older and needs replacing
-The electric panel is not sufficient – it may be necessary to add a sub-panel
-The condenser is a slim-line unit rather than a standard one
-If your house has radiant heating, electric baseboard or otherwise does not have central heating with ducts, the cost goes up very substantially.

It is always wise to take a few bids and to insist that your A/C contractor make sure that you get both permits and finals when adding it.

Many people with air conditioning find that they can run it much less by using a whole house fan and / or attic fans.  These are substantially less costly to operate, so having both can keep the power bills more reasonable. (That’s what we do at our house.)

Mary Pope-Handy
Sereno Group
214 Los Gatos-Saratoga Rd.
Los Gatos CA 95030
[Silicon Valley, California, USA]
mary (at)
CA BRE # 01153805

CIPS - Certified International Property Specialist
CRS - Certified Residential Specialist
ABR - Accredited Buyer Representative
SRES - Seniors Real Estate Specialist

Helping nice folks to buy and sell homes in Silicon Valley since 1993. Mary Pope-Handy, Realtor, Silicon Valley
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Real Estate Market Statistics and Trends for Santa Clara County

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