Bay Area House-Hunting, Round ??

January 28, 2013 in Catnip

No matter where I live, I'll always love the homes in Alameda - check out my Instagram account, @themenacingkitten, for more pics of Alameda homes

So, First things first – there have been many rounds of Bay Area house-hunting I didn’t report on, because I was beginning to believe we were cursed.  One of the first things you recognize when looking for a house in the Bay Area is the region is in a little bubble where national economic standards and ways of living do not apply.  It’s kind of like those acropolises in Sim City that would sprout up before you got completely bored and unleashed every disaster upon your unsuspecting residents who already went for 5 years without water because playing God is hard. And kind of boring after a few days.

Anyway, there are two trends going on in the area right now: 1) There is nothing on the market and 2) The few houses that are on the market either go for tens of thousands of dollars over asking or stay on the market forever because they are really just one giant 80 year-old termite tube that will collapse into a heap of masticated wood dust when the next quake hits.

When we first started looking for a house, we really wanted to live on Alameda; it’s an old-fashioned mom-and-pop kind of place with independent book stores, great eateries, and the best shoreline in the East Bay. We love Alameda. Chris has been living in an apartment on the island since he started his new job, and has enjoyed 20-minute ferry rides for his commute.  He’s replaced the clogged, dusty streets of Phoenix metro with a relaxing boat ride offering views of pink and purple sunsets falling behind the hills of San Francisco. It’s not a bad life.

Before we could get pre-approval for a home loan up in Alameda, it seemed as if there were many houses we could choose from that met our needs.  Once we got approval and actually could put down an offer? Everything disappeared and got expensive. If you removed all filters on your house search, you’d find there were less than 25 homes for sale on the entire island at any given time.  Clearly, people love living there and have no intention of ever leaving. We literally could not find a house in fair condition for even 1200 square feet that was under $600,000.  In fact, one house we looked at was only about 1100 square feet and they asked for over $600k (it sold within a week or two). Most recently, we looked at a house that was 1900 square feet and asking $425,000.  Based on the area the house was in, it was clear this would be a fixer. If it was mostly cosmetic, why not? A similar sized house in better condition would go for 700-800 in that area. Sounds like a good investment, right? Upon viewing the house in person, we discovered:

  • The retaining wall sheared
  • Almost every step leading to the front door was wobbly and suffered from dry rot
  • The house still had the original electrical, complete with old-style fuses
  • There were huge holes/rips in the walls
  • Parts of the roof were bowed from water damage
  • Parts of the roof were missing from water damage, with a cute little kiddie pool to catch all the rain.
  • A minor point compared to all that, but they actually partially painted over the hardwood floors.

It seriously felt like the thing would collapse if you had 20 people in there at any given time.  We didn’t even bother to view the entire house. The house sold in about a week.

Needless to say, as much as we love Alameda and as much as we were willing to give up to live there, it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t a realistic option for us. We looked in a few other areas. The Oakland Hills were beautiful, but the hills would be a nightmare to drive everyday, and it is certainly not a walker-friendly area.  Orinda and Lafayette were far our of our price range. Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill briefly had homes in our price range, but the bidding went insane and it felt too far away from San Francisco. Castro Valley was a decent option, but we couldn’t compete with the bidding.

Enter San Leandro.  It’s an interesting city – parts of it are pretty rough, but parts are very charming in an Alameda kind of way.  The Estudillo Estates neighborhood really caught our eye – unique, historic homes in a very walker-friendly area.  For those in the Phoenix area, I’d liken the neighborhood to the Willo District, except it’s much larger. We were severely outbid on our first attempt at getting a house in the area, but I’m happy to say that we had an offer accepted on a different house.  We went a bit higher than we originally planned, however it’s a beautiful late 1930s-era home with lots of space and a nice backyard complete with two redwoods and balconies galore.  The walls and ceiling have plaster rather than drywall, making for gorgeous textured detailing throughout the house. There’s a little work that remains to be done in the way of earthquake retrofitting and the electrical, but we love it.  We’re less than a mile from the hiking trails for Lake Chabot, and only a third of a mile from a butcher, an organic grocery store (that sells raw milk!), and a few cute mom-and-pop restaurants. In addition to the old standby of Starbucks, there are two independent coffee shops within a mile – both have free wi-fi, one sells their coffee for a dollar after 10 a.m. How can you beat that? We’re a mile from the BART station, which is a 20 minute ride into the city. While we’d much rather go over the Bay via ferry versus going under the Bay via BART (yikes), it still beats driving.

We won’t close until late February (and I won’t make it out there until end of March due to my job), however all indications are pretty good so far. With all of the stress and drama I’ve experienced over the past year, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to closing this chapter and starting fresh in my new home.