How Far Are You Willing to Go?

Life beyond Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda.


Roselyn Mena and her husband, Jesus, bought a condo in Richmond after selling their home in Berkeley.

Photo by Carl Posey

Roselyn and Jesus Mena loved Berkeley. They had moved there twice, with stops in East Oakland and the East Coast. They bought their North Berkeley home at the height of the bubble. Big mortgage, big property tax bill, big insurance payment. But it was a sweet house, and their daughter wanted to go to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Berkeley High.

But when their employment situation changed, making those big payments became a struggle, while the recession put their mortgage underwater. Airbnb helped for a while after their daughter went away to college, but when housing prices zoomed, they knew it was time to sell.

Unfortunately, with real estate prices at an all-time high, downsizing doesn’t necessarily downsize your mortgage payment, as they discovered. The Menas ended up buying a condo in Richmond’s Marina Bay, paying cash.

“I’d never heard of it, but our real estate agent lived there,” Roselyn said. Their new condo is as spacious as their old house; all they have to pay is taxes and the HOA. And they’re right off the San Francisco Bay Trail with gorgeous views of the harbor.

Bazillionaires excepted, most people make tradeoffs when buying a home, and distance from Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda is one of the most frequent.

Commute time is a major factor in such location decisions. According to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, the Bay Area has the third-worst traffic in the United States, behind Los Angeles and Honolulu. In addition, the Bay Area has the highest concentration of “mega commuters”—workers who drive over 90 minutes and 50 miles one way to their office.

“I wanted to be able to take the BART and not to have a long commute on the freeway,” Mena said. She said she misses walking to the BART station, but at least she always gets a seat for her commute into San Francisco.

Shopping and walkability are other factors in the decision to widen the home search. The Walk Score seems to go down in synch with home prices. Among the East Bay’s most affordable cities, Oakley and Hercules have Walk Scores of just 25 and 27 out of 100, respectively, versus Berkeley’s 81 and Oakland’s 72.

When Jody Savage wanted to move in with her partner, they looked for a year all over Berkeley and Oakland but could not comfortably buy a house, despite both of them having good incomes. Instead, they found a three-bedroom rental in Benicia for $400 less rent a month than Savage had been paying for her vintage one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley.

Although they originally wanted to live in the East Bay, they’ve definitely settled into their new house. It backs onto a wildlife preserve, and there’s a view of the Benicia Straits from their street. Said Savage, “We love it out here. There are cute little restaurants in town and lots of hiking in the area. And at night it is absolutely quiet. Coming home is like going on a meditation retreat.”


Published online on June 27, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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