The shock of Silicon Valley housing costs: how little you can buy on a huge income
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.