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Lifestyle Upgrade: High Demand for Homes in San Francisco Bay Area

How small-town living in and around San Francisco Bay, and a beach lifestyle became a real prospect for buyers when the pandemic changed all the rules

While the pandemic changed everything for metropolitan real estate markets as city centers emptied, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced only a blip, and is now reporting demand that vastly outstrips supply as people make lifestyle changes post-COVID-19.

Credit the phenomenon of Silicon Valley for turning a short-lived sales dip into an incredibly bullish market—this 50-mile (80km) stretch south of and including the city is home to a booming tech industry whose millennial superstars have driven prices to an all-time high.

Working from home opened up a new set of possibilities for those who enjoyed being able to go barefoot all day or catch a wave on their lunch break—Tom Brezsny, Christie’s International Real Estate Sereno

As they were ordered to stop commuting to the office, many looked at their lifestyle and chose to swap city condos for more space in one of the attractive small towns lining the peninsula—or decided to head for the beach.

View of sandy beach and sea with greenery and flowers in the foreground
San Mateo County's Half Moon Bay State Beach is a single state park consisting of four beaches: Francis Beach, Venice Beach, Dunes Beach, and Roosevelt Beach. It's a favorite spot for sunbathing, picnics, surfing, fishing, and camping. Source: Alamy

“Working from home opened up a new set of possibilities for those who enjoyed being able to go barefoot all day or catch a wave on their lunch break—Mark Zuckerberg was seen surfing here the other day,” says Tom Brezsny, coastal counties regional manager for Christie’s International Real Estate Sereno, which has 17 offices in northern California.

More than half of these offices serve the city, close to San Mateo County, the highly desirable small towns of Santa Clara County further south, and Santa Cruz County with its beaches fringing Monterey Bay as well as the United States’ newest national park, Pinnacles National Park, offering redwood forests and natural beauty galore on its doorstep—very appealing for those seeking a lifestyle change.

Plenty of Demand for Homes Here 

No wonder property is thin on the ground in all these areas; Carol Jeans, a founding member of Sereno in Santa Clara County, says she has never seen such a buoyant market. And San Francisco itself, served by Sereno’s Burlingame office, is making a rapid comeback, thanks to verdant, low-density neighborhoods on the western and northern edges of town where those unwilling to move away from the culture and buzz of the U.S.A.’s most beautiful city are building a new, family-oriented lifestyle base.

Row of pastel colored Victorian houses in Santa Cruz, California
There are some lovely Victorian homes throughout Santa Cruz County, many dating back to the 1880s. ‘Victorian’ refers to the years 1840-1900 and incorporate a variety of architectural styles. Source: Getty Images

This does not mean hearts did not briefly stand still for a few weeks in spring 2020, however. “When California went into Shelter in Place, it felt like 2008 all over again,” admits Ryan Iwanaga, co-owner with Chris Trapani of Sereno, founded in 2006.

“Chris and I spent time strategizing and planning for the worst case scenario; we anticipated having no business for 60 to 90 days,” he adds, explaining this actually turned out to be the briefest of lulls before the market exploded, changing possibly forever.

“Lifestyle came to mean something completely different,” he says, which could be anything from searching for a larger home in a smaller community to swapping a long commute from the city for a sand-between-the-toes style of working week. “The priorities of the millennials who started up in Silicon Valley were changing as they started families,” adds Jeans, who sees the excellence of the school districts driving sales in Los Gatos, Saratoga, Palo Alto, and other affluent cities of Santa Clara County.

Main Street in downtown Los Gatos, California
Situated within the largest metropolitan area of northern California and closely tied to Silicon Valley, Los Gatos retains its small-town charm with beautiful countryside, charming neighborhoods, and excellent schools. Source: Alamy

In the Burlingame office from where her colleague Christine Choi serves San Francisco, Choi observed a notable departure from San Francisco to the peninsula for space and lifestyle reasons. “People wanted a lot more space as they started working from home; I had a large client base who were renting just to get out of the city.”

The priorities of the millennials who started up in Silicon Valley were changing as they started families—Carol Jeans, Sereno

Tools such as the virtual showing platform Matterport, which can be controlled by the realtor walking through remotely with a client, also became second nature to Jeans, although she points out that sales in Santa Clara County “started going crazy in 2020 and have not stopped.”

Campus buildings and hallways of the Stanford University, USA.
Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stanford University is a place of learning, discovery, expression, and innovation. Founded in 1885, Standford’s areas of excellence span seven schools, research institutes, the arts, and athletics. Source: Shutterstock

She credits a sense of village lifestyle in communities that cater for sophisticated tastes. “Los Gatos is very walkable, and like Saratoga, is known for its dining, while Palo Alto, home to Stanford University, offers a vibrant cultural scene and excellent shopping, yet also feels like a village.”

In Santa Cruz County, Brezsny remembers only the briefest of blips. “The market more or less shut down for three or four weeks, but as California began to loosen up showing protocols by May 1, it unleashed a pent-up force. As the effects of the pandemic unfolded, our market was driven forward with unseen momentum.”

It didn’t hurt that prices were lower in what Brezsny describes as “a forgotten beach town” than in smarter enclaves like Los Gatos or Saratoga, despite being no further from San Jose International Airport—a major transport hub for Silicon Valley.

“The pandemic redefined what luxury is. The younger buyers looking for property in Santa Cruz see it as being able to live casually and playfully on a daily basis; they don’t need more stuff.” New Yorkers are also moving in as well as former city-dwellers from San Francisco, attracted by lower prices, he reports.

View of Santa Cruz from the water featuring the beach and houses
Seventy miles south of San Francisco, you’ll find surf, sandy beaches, mountains, and plenty of dining opportunities in laid-back Santa Cruz County. Source: Getty Images

If there is one challenge for all realtors in these sought-after counties, it is a lack of properties. Brezsny explains that there is not much hope of liberating homes in Santa Cruz from older homeowners wishing to downsize: “It’s hard, because smaller homes can go for as much as larger ones, with younger buyers not being so concerned about the size of their house.”

And moving up the peninsula, Choi reports: “San Mateo County is doing remarkably well, with median prices now at $2.1 million.” There could be some opportunities in the city itself, where condo prices have dipped as owners discover the joys of the Presidio, and other green areas between Golden Gate Park and its namesake, California’s most iconic bridge.

The only problem is that staying in town may not ensure city-dwellers a reservation at their favourite eatery. “Restaurants are currently packed, and while large retailers have gone, new shops are opening; the scene in San Francisco is extremely vibrant right now,” says Choi.

On the Market

Double height windows in the living area
Built in 1976, this family home boasts four bedrooms and three full bathrooms. It features soaring ceiling heights with floor-to-ceiling windows providing plenty of natural light, and the living areas are open plan, including a recently remodeled kitchen.

Architecturally stunning, this shingle-style home features spectacular panoramic views. It’s privately situated on almost three acres (1.2 ha) of land offering the perfect balance of tranquil living, minutes away from downtown Los Gatos dining, shopping, and sought-after schools, ideally located for an easy commute to work or play.

Banner: Pigeon Point Lighthouse, San Mateo, California. Source: Getty Images