The (nearly) impossible search for a cheap Bay Area home
Seven years ago, for sale signs dotted suburban lawns and city streets, hot bidding wars were uncommon, and the typical single-family, Bay Area home sold for $425,000.
Those days are long gone.
Since the start of a record-breaking streak in April 2012, the median sale price for a single-family home in the Bay Area has more than doubled to $900,000, filling the nest eggs of homeowners and crushing the dreams of house hunters.
But if you look hard enough, you can still find a $425,000 home in the nine-county Bay Area.
Just not in San Francisco or San Mateo counties. No single-family homes are selling in that discount aisle, according to an analysis of Zillow listings. In Santa Clara County, a single, 600-square foot rural cottage in Morgan Hill needing “thorough” repairs goes for $325,000. Alameda County had just 27 budget listings, while Contra Costa County offered 92 low-cost homes.
When the 83-month-long run of increasing, year-over-year home prices started, nearly 40 percent of Bay Area homes listed for less than $425,000. Today, just 5 percent of the homes for sale on Zillow fit that budget.
“The prices are eye-popping,” said Zillow economist Jeff Tucker. The roaring Bay Area economy means a professional couple each with jobs in tech can afford a $1 million home, he said. Others hunt for bargains at the outer edges of the suburbs or deeper into cities.
Veteran Berkeley agent Eric Wong led a reporter and photographer from this news organization on a search for a $425,000 urban home with a shorter commute — say under an hour to the Financial District in San Francisco on a perfect day. The hunt excluded the counties farthest from the core region, Napa, Sonoma and Solano. Few Napa and Sonoma homes met the criteria, but about one quarter of Solano listings fell in that range.
That meant looking at East Bay homes in neighborhoods pock-marked by crime, deep poverty and decades of neglect. The communities remain home to many working families, sending children to neighborhood schools and keeping tidy, busy houses and yards.
Wong plotted a four-home tour through Richmond and East Oakland where local agents said fixer-uppers could be snagged for under $100,000 a few years ago.
The homes shared a few common features — around 1,000 square feet or less of living space, with security fences and gates, plus lockable and reinforced metal screen doors. Sometimes, a police helicopter hovered overhead. Some of the neighbors would never be in the running for the “best yard” contest.
Wong, 57, has been an agent for 17 years in the East Bay, working primarily in Berkeley, Oakland and El Cerrito. He wore a bow tie and professorial silver-rimmed glasses. The Berkeley literature grad can chat about Faulkner and Melville while pointing out the stylized features of Craftsman built-ins and the geological forces unsettling the foundation of a home.
He started his career selling in Oakland when few agents and buyers ventured there. He recalled another agent’s effort to sell a multifamily home in West Oakland. “A gunfight broke out in front of her,” Wong said. “Of course, the person still wanted to see the duplex.”
The first stop was a three-bedroom in the Belding Woods section of Richmond, a neighborhood packed with small lots and nary a side yard. It’s a 30-minute commute on a perfect day to the Financial District in San Francisco, but a mere five-minute walk from the rougher but now gentrifying Iron Triangle section.