Every so often I am asked how the San Jose – Silicon Valley area is different from other parts of the US for home buyers. What did they need to be concerned about here versus in the midwest or east coast? They knew about earthquakes, and having to strap water heaters for earthquake safety, but what about earthquake insurance? Are termites a problem here? What things should home buyers worry about here that perhaps are not issues elsewhere?
Silicon Valley Differences
This is a great question, and the answer to it could fill a book! But here are some of the major differences that most relocating buyers, especially those from out-of-state, should be aware of.
Earthquakes(of course) and everything related: selling requirements, insurance questions, related natural hazard zones (liquifaction zones, landslide areas, etc.), where fault lines are located, etc. People moving to California generally know that they need to be concerned about seismic occurrences, but perhaps not all the related areas.
Termites: in general, there are 2 types of these pests active on the valley floor: drywood termites and subterranean termites. (In the Los Gatos Mountains and closer to the Pacific Ocean you may also encounter dampwood termites.) It may be possible to try to prevent subterranean termites with bait stakes placed underground, but there is no way to prevent drywood termites. You can fumigate your home and within a few days they could be back (but won’t be visible for a year or two at the earliest in most cases). Termites do better here than in many places of the country simply because it’s warmer here. They may swarm twice a year rather than once. Please also read this post for more info: How Often Should You Get A Termite Inspection?
Fire / Water: more destructive fire seasons have brought about new, stronger safety regulations including mapped fire zones, higher insurance premiums, and construction limitations. On the other end of the spectrum, the Bay Area has tsunami hazard zones (you can spot the evacuation signs around the bayfront) in addition to the usual flood and dam inundation hazard zones. And expect drought to impact water prices plus restrictions on water useage. Are Fire Seasons New?
Structural Differences (Houses)
No basements – there are very few homes with basements here (the very old ones and those which are newer and extremely expensive). A very common question is “where do people store all their stuff if they don’t have a basement?” For most households, the storage center tends to be the garage. Built in cabinets and storage shelves are highly appreciated. When people purchase homes with 3 car garages, often that 3rd space is not for a car, but for “stuff” – luggage, holiday decor, momentos, old files, etc.
Foundations – older homes are usually built on a “raised” foundation or perimeter foundation with support beams under the center part of the home. Some types of homes, such as Eichler designed houses (mid-century modern ranch style) were built with slab foundations and actually have radiant heating (heating coils built into the slab). Newer homes now tend to be built on slab also (10-15 years of age or less). Most of our valley has 40-60 year old ranch style homes, though, and these are mostly “raised” foundations with a crawl space.
Houses are built to move in case of an earthquake – most of our homes are built with wood and are intended to move in the case of an earthquake. It is very rare to find a house made out of brick here because they don’t do well in case of severe shaking.
Suburban sprawl – Silicon Valley was built for cars. While BART and VTA are expanding access to some public transit routes, it’s still a very car-dependant area. The median lot size for homes sold in San Jose over the last 2 weeks (as of this writing) was 6,310 SqFt, and the median home size was 1,568 SqFt. Depending on where in the world you are coming from that can sound quite small, but it’s a relatively typical suburban home in this area.
These are perhaps the most salient differences home buyers relocating to Silicon Valley might want to be aware of. Each of these topics could be a blog post of its own, and I have written about all of them! Our blogs offer information on the local market and home buyer, owner, and seller concerns, and we also provide insight into some of the resources and Tools You Can Use When Relocating to the San Jose Area, but an experienced professional Realtor will be your most useful resource for navigating real estate in Silicon Valley. If you’re ready to move to Silicon Valley, we would love to hear from you!
I am frequently contacted by extremely bright, successful engineers or high tech professionals who are in large homes on large lots with great schools in less expensive areas of the country, or ocasionally outsisde of the country. They want to move here because Silicon Valley is the hub of innovation, a center for jobs in high-tech, our weather’s great, crime’s low, and there’s so much to do in this region. The housing costs here are extraordinarily high here, but often these professionals hope that the salaries are commensurately high such that they can replicate the home and lifestyle they are accustom to elsewhere, but in Silicon Valley. It doesn’t work that way.
Unless you’re relocating here from New York, Tokyo, or Paris (or somewhere equally astronomically priced), don’t expect the salary offered in Silicon Valley will to go as far here as it would elsewhere in the world. I’m sorry.
Relocation & Silicon Valley: Downgrade to Upgrade
Downgrade the House, Upgrade the Price…
Most relocating homeowners can expect a home downgrade and a higher price compared to what they are leaving behind. Yes, incomes are a little higher but not nearly enough to match the discrepancy in real estate prices. This is even more true with the astronomical acceleration of the market that we’ve seen in 2021 and in early 2022. Even without a wild seller’s market I tell people, as a rule of thumb, that when you move here you will pay twice as much and get half as much. (While salaries might be a little higher, they are not usually double what you’d make elsewhere.)
Sometimes I get the comment: “I don’t want to move to Silicon Valley and have my family’s lifestyle negatively impacted by having to live in a smaller house. I want the quality of life to go up, not down!”
That is completely understandable. People who move here don’t do it because of the housing. They do it for the location and the style of living that this area offers.
… to Upgrade the Location and Lifestyle!
We have the Pacific Ocean an hour or less away, San Francisco an hour away, dozens of wineries, theatre, museums, professional sports (go Sharks!), and world-reknown parks and trails. Shoveling snow? Never! San Jose enjoys 300 sunny days a year on average. If you love to be outdoors, you can make the most of it all year long here where the weather is subtropical. Our population is highly diverse and highly educated, crime is low, not to mention it’s the center of the global tech industry! There are a thousand reasons why the South Bay is probably a major upgrade… but it’s not an upgrade if you equivocate your house with your lifestyle.
So if you are considering a move to Silicon Valley, expect to pay more, get less home, and move into an amazing community in a beautiful pocket of the world.
If you’re relocating to the San Jose area, there are a few tools you can use for resources as you evaluate different parts of the region. When I started this website, I had books listed that you could purchase. Today, mostly I have websites that you should bookmark – for free!
Natural & Environmental Hazard Information Tools You Can Use
Natural hazards are found throughout the United States, often the major one people consider is the one hundred year flood plain. Here in the Golden State, we have some additional concerns relating to fire and earthquake risks.
California MyHazards can display a map anywhere in the state with information relating to liquefaction zones, earthquake faults, 100 year flood plains, and high fire risk areas.
Flooding from Dam Failure (potentially caused by earthquakes as well as other possibilities) is scary. Learn more about those zones at the link I’m providing here. (As of this writing, the Approved Inundation Maps link is not working.)
A Barclay’s Locaide will outline earthquake faults, flood plains, and other natural hazard zones you might want to know about. This is now out of date, but you may be able to locate a used one online or see if a local real estate association of Realtors bookstore has it available.
Something else to know is that there are state mapped earthquake faults (the more active ones, such as the Hayward or San Andreas Fault) and also the city, town or county mapped fault zones (for example, the Shannon Fault). The latter may have been dormant for 11,000 years or more.
Buying a home? Sellers usually provide a Natural Hazard Report, an Environmental Hazard Report, and a Tax Report from a company such as JCP. This same company / site has a great amount of information on local conditions on its About the Hazards page that newcomers would benefit from.
When buying a home in California, consumers are given a link to download brochures, or one combined document, on a variety of hazards. I’m not sure that most of them take the time to read it, but it’s excellent info and I highly encourage anyone living in CA, whether renting or owning, to read it: Homeowner’s Guide to Earthquake Safety & Environmental Hazards
Environmental Hazard Zones
Local concerns also include environmental ones, such as SuperFund sites. here you can see SuperFund sites in reuse (meaning offices and homes on those sites).
Some sites with spills, leaking underground storage tanks, or other issues can be found at this Cleanups in my community page (nationwide info)
Mercury, or quicksilver, was mined in Almaden (New Almaden and related mines) and east Los Gatos (Guadalupe Mine area) – it is a naturally occurring element in cinnabar. For that reason, creeks in those areas should not be entered or fished in.
Asbestos is another naturally occurring element here. It was prized for being somewhat fire resistant and was mined under Communications Hill. It’s something to investigate if you want to live in that area.
Oil, gold silver, and other elements were mined here as well as granite (we still have quarries active in Santa Clara County today, a couple in the Cupertino area and one in the hills by Lexington Reservoir just outside of Los Gatos). Some old mines are not mapped if they are on private land, so one of the disclosures we have relates to unmapped, abandoned mines., which may be found in more rural pockets of the county.
Other Priorities for the Tools You Can Use list
In addition to natural and environmental hazards, there are big plusses that will attract new residents.
A School District Map of the County with school district boundaries will be a big help to you here, as schools are the #1 thing that drive home values. You can buy one at bookstores or online for about $5
Many relocating families search specifically for neighborhoods with the very best, or at least very good public schools. There are many sites which will give you this information in immense detail, but if you want a “quick answer” on excellent schools in Silicon Valley and San Jose, I can give that to you quickly here.
The finest public schools and districts (with excellent scores at all levels of schooling) tend to be found in the most expensive parts of Santa Clara County, and most of them are along the “west valley” areas, including Almaden Valley (an area of San Jose), Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Palo Alto. Most of these communities are found along the base of the coastal foothills, aka the Santa Cruz Mountains, are are located not too far from Highway 85. The Silver Creek area (of the Evergreen District of San Jose) on the east side also has some fine schools. There are pockets with great elementary schools scattered throughout the valley too.
What do these homes cost? In the best areas, it is not uncommon to spend a million dollars or more for a “turnkey” home of 1800 square feet with no issues (no high voltage lines, no busy road, etc.). In some areas, like Saratoga, that might be closer to $2 million.
In many parts of Santa Clara County the elementary schools are excellent, middle schools are “very good” and the high schools are good. This is true for parts of west San Jose (bordering Cupertino and Saratoga) and Cambrian Park. These areas tend to be much more affordable than those with excellent schools in all levels. For home buyers not so worried about high schools as cost, these can be a great option for getting more home (and school) for your money.
While many home buyers are reluctant to consider private schools, sometimes it is much less expensive in the long run to purchase a comfortable home in an area you like but which doesn’t have fantastic schools and then send your kids to private or parochial schools. In Los Gatos, where the schools run from very good to exceptional, about one-third of students are not in public schools.
If you are planning a relocation to Silicon Valley and want to know more about local schools (public or private) please email me and I’ll be happy to chat with you about them more in person. I can also help you to find areas which are more affordable and offer strong schools.
If you’ve just been hired as a high level executive at Apple, Google, Microsoft or any other high tech or biotech firm in Silicon Valley, you may be coming to the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley from an enormous home (5000+ square feet) on an enormous lot (1 acre +). You are a raging success. You are highly regarded. You are on the top of your game. Your house “back home” displays your accomplishments.
You’ve heard that prices are bad here, but how much worse could they really be? Surely you could downsize a bit to a 3000 to 3500 square foot house on a half acre with a 20 minute commute, right? And you’d still have great schools for “resale value,” right? You are prepared to give up the full basement, the pool and tennis court and the 4 car garage. That is enough of an adjustment, isn’t it?
No, I’m sorry to say, it isn’t.
That house you are leaving behind in the suburbs of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Chicago, Denver, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, or wherever you’re coming from is a super high end luxury home. It’s probably worth $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. But guess what? Here, in a nice area, that’s a 2000 SF house on a 10,000 lot in a good area that’s a tear down. And in traffic, it’s a 40 minute commute. Want an acre in an area with really good public schools at all levels? Think $3 million plus. And that doesn’t mean that the house will be turn-key. You will very likely have to remodel or personalize so that you are happy with it, as most of our houses were built between the 1960s and 1980s. (Here a 25 year old home is considered relatively young.)
Why make the sacrifice to live in Silicon Valley?
Why on earth should you move here to the San Jose area when real estate prices are so insanely high? Santa Clara County is bad, and San Mateo County is worse. Why would anyone make that kind of sacrifice in living space and prestige?
First, because this is a great place to live because of who’s here. Great minds have coalesced here. From the heavy hitters like Google and Intel to the many fresh startups, the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well and imbues much of the culture here. Diversity reigns – fabulous people have converged here from all corners of the earth, bringing with them a richness and vibrancy that is appreciated across the area. Want Ethiopian food? No problem. Thai? Easy. Korean, French, Honduran? Check, check, check. You name it, we seem to have it, whether it’s Middle Eastern, African, Asian, Pacific Islands, or European, there’s something for everyone. (OK I haven’t yet seen an Australian restaurant, but I also don’t know what counts as classic Australian cuisine other than Vegemite sandwiches and barbecues.)
Additionally, there are a number of great universities in the region: Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCSF (for medical), Santa Clara University, San Jose State, UC Santa Cruz (math, marine biology, astronomy and more).
Second, this is a fantastic place to live because the weather encourages a life where you’re not confined to your house and dependent on a big basement. We’re talking 300 sunny days a year. This January we hit 70F one day, which is not unusual. Back in the midwest or northeast, they have beautiful snow. Snow for months and months and months. Yes, it’s lovely, but doesn’t it get old? Here people are golfing, sailing, biking, hiking year round. There are weekend farmers markets open all year! Want snow? No problem, drive to Yosemite, Bear Valley or Tahoe. Enjoy the snow for the weekend – then drive home to the land of palm trees!
Third, this is an exceptional place to live because of what’s nearby. Within an hour or two we have San Francisco, the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel, Napa and Sonoma Valleys (wine country). Within 3-5 hours we enjoy Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Santa Barbara and much of the California Coast. (California has an incredible array of climates and a diversity of agriculture and economy seldom seen anywhere.) Minutes away, take a little trek around the valley’s mountains and hills, which are full of open space preserves, county, and local parks which make for a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor.
Moving might mean giving up the palatial house and garden and realizing that your accomplishments are simply not going to be reflected in a ginormous house and yard. The house and yard are often more reflective of when you bought rather than how you were able to buy.
The good news for those who buy here is that Silicon Valley continues to expand and be in demand. Hiring is strong. Economically, tech is leading the way and this area was one of the first to emerge from the Great Recession. Prices are tough to swallow, now more than ever, but as long as huge companies continue to hire, there’s no reason to think that real estate won’t be a wise investment.
Realtor & Blogger
Christie’s International Real Estate – Sereno
CIPS, CRS, ABR, SRES
214 Los Gatos-Saratoga Rd.
Los Gatos CA 95030
Silicon Valley, California, USA
CA DRE # 01153805
CIPS – Certified International Property Specialist
CRS – Certified Residential Specialist
ABR – Accredited Buyer Representative
SRES – Seniors Real Estate Specialist
Realtor & Blogger
Christie’s International Real Estate – Sereno
214 Los Gatos-Saratoga Rd.
Los Gatos CA 95030
Silicon Valley, California, USA
CA DRE # 02153633
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