Geographically, San Francisco is tiny, roughly 49 miles wedged onto the end of a peninsula. But in cultural terms, San Francisco contains multitudes, with a difference of even a single block at times meaning different neighborhood character, history, aesthetic—and, more importantly, a different set of price brackets.
In an August 2018 survey released by real estate site Trulia, 42 percent of San Franciscans wish they had moved to a different neighborhood than the one they now call home.
How to avoid the same fate? Consider a few potential guidelines.
1. First things first, consider your bottom line. Living in San Francisco is more expensive than it’s ever been, except for during the Gold Rush in 1851 when a single chicken egg cost the equivalent of $104 in present-day currency.
Still, these days nearly 40 percent of San Franciscans end up rent burdened; the figure is only that low because many of those who can’t afford the city have moved away. So the first and last variable most of us consider is how much we can afford to spend.
Rental sites like Zumper and Rent Cafe break down the median rent in different SF neighborhoods. Note that these are only partial guides, since what those maps actually show is the median rent on their respective sites. For would-be homebuyers, real estate group Paragon has an exhaustive map of home prices in different SF neighborhoods.
While these tools may or may not necessarily reflect what you’ll end up paying in a given neighborhood in dollar terms, they do reflect which areas are more likely to carry a premium and which ares are likely to be on the lower end of the pay scale.
2. Get to know your neighborhood’s reputation. This is tricky, because San Franciscans are in constant disagreement about exactly how many neighborhoods the city has, where the hoods begin and end, what their reputations are, and who has the right to decide such things in the first place.
But most neighborhoods are more or less mainstays, many famous for their distinct history and culture: The Castro’s role as an LGBTQ mecca; Noe Valley’s high concentration of families; the historic architecture (and historically pricey real estate) of Pacific Heights; and neighborhoods like the Sunset, Outer Richmond, and Chinatown’s history as immigration hubs have endured for decades.
Check out Curbed SF’s guide to San Francisco neighborhoods to get a feel for the flavor of each area, but remember that there’s more to a neighborhood than just the surface, and that reputations are complex things.
For example, Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote about the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood’s reputation as a seedy skid row in his book Lonesome Traveler. But for decades, SoMa has also been the city’s center for Filipino culture. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s leather bar scene, once seen as seedy itself in Kerouac’s day, now gets City Hall recognition as an important cultural asset. There’s always more to a neighborhood than meets the eye.
3. Consider your transit needs. The good news is that, as a quick glance at a Muni map will tell you, there’s hardly a square yard of San Francisco that’s not within hopping distance of a bus stop. The San Francisco Planning Department determined that 96 percent of parcels in the city are within half a mile of a major transit line.
The bad news is that Muni has such a lousy reputation that famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the term “Munierable” decades ago—a moniker that sticks today.
You can check how often—or not often, as the case usually is—Muni bus and light rail lines arrive via an online tool operated by the city to see how well serviced your would-be neighborhood is in practice.
San Francisco is a regional economy and commuting between to different cities is standard but also tricky; no single transit system connects to every common destination.
BART is the primary lifeline in and out of the city—reaching into Daly City and parts of the East Bay—but won’t extend to Silicon Valley for years to come. The transit system is also remote from most of SF in geographic terms. Nevertheless, living within walking distance of any BART station is an asset worth pursuing.
Caltrain connects the city straight to (and through) Silicon Valley, but these days the system struggles to modernize itself.
The city’s ease of access to mass transit turns out to be something of a white elephant and may bear additional research for the ramifications on your commute. Unless, of course, you commute by car, in which case the answer is simple: Traffic will be an endurance test no matter where you live.
4. Be it your job or a popular park, consider where you want to live near. San Francisco is full of beautiful places, but sometimes that’s a game of give and take.
Commute times in the Bay Area are some of the nation’s highest. Thanks to the tightly compacted design of our streets, even a commute of just a few miles can take a deceptively long time. (The N Judah, for example, is famous for its hour-plus-long rides from the Sunset District to downtown during rush hour.)
This means that finding a place to live near your job—or at least near one of the city’s relatively efficient transit lines that serves the area around your place of business—isn’t just a convenience but could be a necessity.
But if you want to live near a park, you’re in luck: San Francisco is the only major city in America where every home is within at least half a mile of a public park, according to the Trust For Public Land.
The city is also teeming with museums, historical markers, privately-owned public parks, public art, oddities, and, of course, some of the most famous landmarks and tourist sights recognizable the world over.
Some people relish the idea of living next to one of the most oft-photographed places in the world. Others, like the neighbors near the Full House home will attest, consider it an enormous pain.
Even a seemingly small lure like a popular dog park can impact quality of life—particularly if you need find regular street parking—for those who live nearby. Consider whether you like the idea of being at the center of the action and always take a look around the surrounding blocks to see if you notice anything remarkable—if you do, other people are certainly going to notice it too.
5. How do you like your waterfront views? San Francisco is a strange case study in that, being at the business end of a peninsula, the city is surrounded by waterfront views and oceanic access. Yet proximity to our city’s shore is rarely prized.
Most of the entire west side of the city is one long stretch of beach. Though popular with surfers and dog walkers, Ocean Beach is almost perpetually gray and foggy, and the neighborhoods it borders have historically been considered far-flung and branded with names like Outer Sunset and Outer Richmond.
Much of the access to the San Francisco bay is taken up by the old piers, many of which are disused and in decrepit condition.
Of course, this is all good news for those who do want to live near waterways, as these spots are, ironically, some of the few remaining affordable (by SF standard) options.
6. Consider places off the beaten path. Have we mentioned that San Francisco is expensive? No matter how many times you hear it, it bears repeating. So it’s worth considering some of San Francisco’s traditionally overlooked hoods.
Historically, SF housing demand has concentrated in the north and the east sections of the city. Delving west or south brings you to places that, by and large, are more residential and considered remote (despite San Francisco’s small geographical area meaning that nothing is ever really that far away from anything else).
Which, of course, means this is where lower rents and home prices cluster in neighborhoods like Ingleside and Lakeside. One of the city’s southernmost neighborhoods, the Excelsior, is even noted specifically for being more affordable than similar residential neighborhoods.
Even high-end home hunters should look around a bit. Take, for example, a neighborhood like Monterey Heights, considered obscure but also the site of some of the city’s largest homes with the least San Francisco-like proportions.
Or India Basin, hands down one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the entire city, but also one of the least developed.
7. Can you climb every mountain? San Francisco’s hills should be taken seriously, particularly for those with accessibility concerns or health issues about exertion. While a lot of apps and online tools rank SF neighborhoods for walkability, few of them take the topography into consideration.
The city has a highly detailed topographical map that records every change in elevation of greater than five feet. It’s a little intimidating at first, but after a little practice it can be a useful tool for planning a pedestrian route or deciding when it’s better to attempt catching a ride or public transit.
Of course, hills are also good for your views, and in SF even relatively modest apartments can end up being sterling lookouts just by a happy accident, provided you’re willing to put in a daily hike.
8. Consider the weather. While the city is small, it does come with many microclimates. The further west you go, the chillier and foggier it will be. The Mission and SoMa seem to stay the sunniest.
9. Take a look at what’s to eat. In 2012, San Francisco became the single most restaurant-dense city in America, with more than 39 dining establishments per 10,000 residents. Second-place Fairfield County had fewer than 28, so it wasn’t exactly a close contest.
On the other hand, the city also has an infamous paucity of grocery stores in some neighborhoods. So the question of what and where to eat can become pressing in the city, especially for newcomers. Generally speaking, the more well-known a neighborhood is, the closer you probably are to a hub of foodie options—but also the higher the cost of living in that particular burgh.
Eater SF is a great place to start for those new to the food scene.