Bay Area Living

Very frequently, people ask on BAF about moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. Typically, they want to know about the job market is as good as people say, and if the cost of living is as bad as people say. I plan to put the common comments on the subject here, so that the same old points won't have to be trotted out again and again. These are my own experiences; I hope to add those of others on BAF as well. Please send me anything you'd like to see here. (My email address is at the bottom of this web page.)

In this document, I will mention a lot of numbers. These are rough estimates off the top of my head; they are not any sort of scientifically collected data. Treat them accordingly. Please feel free to contribute your own numbers; I'll add people's input.

In short: It is expensive, the job market is good, you CAN afford to live here if you're willing to make compromises, and you can move here, if you plan ahead.

General Advice

As an individual, don't expect to live in the Bay Area for anything less than $35k/year. At that rate, you will need to live with a couple other people, and you will need to live thriftily.

Despite rumors of gold in California, I do not recommend that you move to the Bay Area unless you can meet at least one of these bare minimum criteria:

Any one of these alone can get you by, but you can mix and match these criteria, if you wish - $10/hr at In-N-Out or any of plenty of other similar jobs to help pay partial rent will go a long way toward making sure that the friends supporting you will stay friends, if it takes you a couple months to find something better.

Many people have tried coming out here homeless, jobless, and penniless, looking for a new start. Most fail, and leave bitter. It's very frustrating to see so many people be so harshly disillusioned, which is what prompts a large flurry of warnings whenever someone posts to BAF asking for advice on moving to the Bay Area.

The (high) Cost of Living

Expect pricing on most anything you buy to be a little higher than elsewhere in the country. It's not drasticly expensive, except for one thing: Housing. Housing in the Bay Area tends to be 2 to 3 times as expensive as the United States median.

There are a number of major factors that will determine how much you'll have to pay for housing:

Smaller places go for less money; prices rise sharply as you try to get anything with 4 or more bedrooms.

Location also is a major factor - The highest prices are by far in San Francisco proper, with a nice long streak of high rents running all the way down through San Jose. In general, the longer your commute time is to either downtown San Francisco or Santa Clara, the cheaper it will get. The outer reaches of San Jose tend to start getting a lot cheaper. The East Bay has traditionally been a much more economical place to live, since it was a much longer commute to the South Bay. Many companies have picked up on this recently, and set up shop in the East Bay, taking advantage of the cheaper real estate. I've not kept close track of it, but I would expect that the prices that way are slowly catching up, though for the time being it's still a lot cheaper. The North Bay follows mostly the same story as the East Bay.

The other major factor in location is how good of a neighborhood you want to live in. Palo Alto is certainly a very nice place to live, and is priced accordingly.

Somewhat smaller factors include things that apply anywhere: access to public transportation, miscellaneous features such as the presence (or lack) of a washer and dryer, available parking, pet policies, etc.

Also keep in mind that pricing is highly dependent on how long you have to look. Places tend to come and go quickly. If you have a long time to shop, you'll probably be able to find a place at a bargain price.

Raw Numbers for the South Bay:

Some Real World Data:

  Hwy 101/Rt 82/Monterey Rd, South SJ **Next to RR tracks
  1365 sq ft condo/townhouse, 2Flr/2+Br/2.5Ba/2 car garage.
  Bought 11/19/1999 - $280k Assessed Value
  Current (11/25/2000) - $380k Assessed Value
  Mortgage - $304k (80%) / $2300/mo + $250 for property tax escrow
  HOA Dues - $195/mo
  Perks - Not many. :-P
  Occupants - 2

  Gas/Elec. - $175/mo (gas stove/dryer/H2Oheat/furnace, full house A/C)
  Trash - $20/mo
  Telco - $120/mo (1 line w/ DSL)
  CableTV - $40/mo (extended basic)
  Water/Sewer - Included in HOA Dues

Generally, expect to pay $700 - $1500 per bedroom. This will vary greatly on how large the bedrooms and other living space are. (Bay Area people - Please feel free to tell me how much you're paying, for what kind of house, and where you live; I'd love to add some real numbers instead of these hack estimates.)

Another big factor in the cost of living is transportation. Public transportation exists in the Bay Area; some people get by with it. It works reasonably well in San Francisco (Muni goes everywhere and is reasonably efficient, though schedules are unpredictable), and is quite often preferable to parking (which, conditions depending, is either hard, impossible, or expensive.) It doesn't work so well in the South Bay (Infrequent but predictable schedules, loose connections). The East Bay is blessed with BART, which also dives under the bay and has a few stops in San Francisco.

If this was Europe, we could take the train everywhere. This isn't Europe, so if you want to live and work in the South Bay, plan to spend a lot of time taking the bus, or do what most people here do, and get a car.

The (hot) Job Market

The job market in the Bay Area is certainly hot. Folding dotcoms and a bitter stock market are probably going to temporarily dent it, but it's still not bad. That doesn't mean you can move out here and have your dream job in a week. You'll have to hunt around to find something well suited to you; you'll probably have to settle for something that isn't quite perfect, and doesn't pay quite as well as you were led to believe.

The single best thing you can do to get a job is to have a friend on the inside to whom you can give a copy of your resume.

If you're qualified, you should be able to easily find a good quality sysadmin job within a month, or possibly two if you're making up for bad karma.

You should be able to get employed instantly in your choice of unskilled labor. Fast food, grocery stores, lifting heavy things... All will pay more than minimum wage, and all are in good demand for people willing to work. The reason for this is documented in the Cost of Living section - They simply don't pay enough to live comfortably here.

Contracting is an easy way to get fast employment. You'll make good money in a fast-paced environment, hopping from contract to contract every few months. You won't get treated as well as a regular employee by either your contract house or the companies they send you to; it's temp work, and this is the price you pay.

Raw Data

Outside of tech jobs, I don't have much data; please send me real world numbers!


Hey, I like the Bay Area. It has great (nonexistant) weather, excellent cultural diversity, and one of the most open, accepting cultures in the world. There's money to be made, just so you can blow it on housing, but still have a fair bit left in the end.

Having read all of this, go back and read my suggestions in the General Advice section; hopefully, their importance has sunk in by now.

Links (to people who know better than me)


Mind Source - A sysadmin contract house
Taos Mountain Software - A contract house
Dice - A resume service for IT jobs
The San Jose Mercury - A good source of classifieds


Bay Area public transportation information


Bay Rentals - Home rental listings
Metro Rent - Home rental listings
The San Jose Mercury - A good source of classifieds

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Last modified: Thu Jan 11 00:45:56 PST 2001