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A row of Victorian houses in San Francisco.

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Should you move to SF?

Probably not—but maybe

Thinking about making the move to Baghdad by the Bay, the greatest city in the world? The first thing you should know: SF is expensive. Second thing you should know: It’s small. These two factors will play major roles in your decision and life here, should you choose to accept it.

If you’re coming from a small town, San Francisco will feel larger than life, and overwhelming. On the other hand, if you’re coming from a large metropolis such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Philadelphia, SF will seem small. With a conservative amount of space—the city measures 46.87 square miles—you might be surprised to find that, for a city considered the capital of technology, it’s somewhat provincial.

San Francisco is filled with extremes and contradictions, ranging from the microclimates to the economy. Multimillion dollar homes sit next to tents. Residents want to do everything to solve the city’s housing crisis except build more housing. Denizens and politicos recognize the dearth of housing has crippled its population and that something needs to be done, but in the same breath axe affordable-housing plans. It’s easy to see why San Francisco is so strange and misunderstood.

The best way to try to get to know San Francisco is to live here. Before making up your mind about whether or not you want to give it a go, below are 21 things to know about living in SF.

1. Picking a neighborhood you like is important. Before signing a lease, try crashing on a friend’s couch for a week or two. The city is full of microclimates, which help characterize neighborhoods. For example, it could be foggy and 49 degrees at noon in the Inner Sunset, but 65 degrees and sunny in SoMa. This is not unusual, but can shock those not used to jarring changes in weather within short distances.

Staying in your zone, and being able to walk to grocery stores and cafes, can improve your quality of life. So choose where you live carefully—but also keep in mind that you might be priced out of your dream neighborhood. The further west (Outer Sunset) or south (Visitacion Valley) you go, the more affordable. Keep an open mind about where you will live.

A street in San Francisco. There are houses on both sides of the street with rainbow flags attached.

2. Don’t get bogged down in the cachet of certain neighborhoods. Find a neighborhood that works for you, even if that means living well outside of the Mission’s high priced vintage clothing shops and craft coffee bars.

3. Take the time to learn about the history of your new neighborhood and city. The AIDS epidemic wiped out almost an entire generation in the Castro less than 20 years ago. The Mission is home to the city’s Latino population. Redlining redevelopment in the 1950s forced most black families out of the Fillmore.

While it’s tempting to look out for your own economic interest once you sign your lease, get to know the background of your neighborhood. San Francisco’s history is more than just bridges, apps, and sourdough bread; it’s played host to social and racial justice issues that have had an effect the world over.

4. If possible, live in SF without a car. Not everybody can exists without a car. However, if you decide to move here and can get around with relative ease on foot, ditch your automobile. There are a slew of transit options available, both public (Muni, BART, ferry) and private (e-scooters, ride-hailing).

There are also several solid bike-share systems serving many neighborhoods (and dockless bikes), as well as a robust cyclist community. Keep in mind that parking can be a nightmare especially in popular neighborhoods such as Hayes Valley and the Castro. Smash-and-grab crimes are at an all-time high. You’ve been warned.

Here’s a guide detailing how to get around SF without owning a car.

5. Traffic is terrible. Muni and BART are perpetually congested and city streets are saturated with cars. In addition to the influx of residents and workers, ride-hailing apps have turned the pavement into cash opportunities. Be careful while crossing the streets.

6. The weather here is great, if you like it chilly and foggy. While that fiery goblin in the sky seems to appear more and more as global warming takes hold, San Francisco is famous for its fog and overcast sky. The key to conquering the chill and changing weather patterns is layering. Know a) how to layer and b) how to transition sartorially from day to night, or morning to noon, or 1:38 p.m. to 2:16 p.m.

A large white and green building with various trees in front of it. Photo by Patrica Chang

7. And there’s no real summer in the traditional sense. If you’re coming from a place with four seasons, San Francisco summers will be a shock to your system. The foggiest time of the year is when the rest of the country is at its peak summer weather. The biggest adjustment will be those gloomy days in June, July and August, where you’ll need to break out your down jacket to take a walk on Crissy Field or Ocean Beach. As a local, you’ll quickly learn to separate yourself from the tourists who didn’t get the memo—bring layers. Although San Francisco does get a good dose of warm weather during September and October, when the fog lifts and the entire city seems to bask in the sunshine at any of the city’s 220 parks.

8. The median rent for a one-bedroom is around $3,700. The cost of renting in San Francisco is beyond the pale. These stratospheric prices are caused, in part, by a housing shortage that has created competition among renters. The good news is that apartment supply is up. The bad news—so are rent prices.

9. The median asking price of a San Francisco home is $1.38 million. This is more than double what it was less than it was five years ago, and there are no signs of the housing market cooling down. Two reasons prices have been kept so high: Land-use restrictions and NIMBYism. In addition to height restrictions galore, the city’s nascent YIMBY set—those who would like to see taller and denser residential growth at all income levels—face off against long-term residents who would prefer a more idyllic, albeit more head-in-fog, kind of San Francisco.

However, this doesn’t mean homeownership isn’t possible for everyone. Folks who have saved up enough money (nine-plus years worth of salary, to be exact), possess plump trust funds, or are securely rooted in c-level tech jobs have been known to buy. Note: Most houses in San Francisco sell over asking and all cash.

10. There is not a lot of housing stock. Period.

11. SF’s economy is strong, but not for everyone. The unemployment rate has fallen below 1.8 percent as of October 2019, personal income is skyrocketing, and the Bay Area’s GDP is up there with some of the best in the country. But San Francisco ranks third in income inequality in the United States, with an average $492,000 income gap between the city’s rich and middle class. So extreme is San Francisco’s income gap that our city’s first responders (firefighters, police officers, EMT), teachers, service industry workers, and even doctors are pulling up and moving out to Sacramento, Seattle, Washington, and Texas.

12. Living here is expensive—more expensive than New York City. Unless you’re moving from New York City, the sticker shock of San Francisco will take you by surprise. And it’s not just the cost of housing. That cup of coffee poured by the tatted-up barista could cost you $16. Restaurants that don’t cater to neighborhood residents are common. San Francisco’s culinary scene is so diverse and exciting, you’ll be tempted to feast everywhere. But with some of the country’s highest rent and the increasing costs for restaurateurs to provide a better living wage for their staff, this broccoli velouté or uni toast does not come cheap.

In 2017, a survey of urban living expenses figured out that the income an individual needs to live comfortably in SF is $110,357, with 50 percent going to necessities and 30 percent toward discretionary spending, and 20 percent for savings. What’s more, a 2018 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development says that a San Francisco family of four netting$117,400 a year qualifies as “low income.”

A blue and grey Victorian house on a street in San Francisco.

13. Not everyone works in/talks about tech. Being in such close proximity to Silicon Valley, one would think that San Francisco is all about the latest startups, but if you look beyond the shiny new tech skyscrapers illuminating the skyline, there’s much more than that. For a small city, there’s a diverse art scene, including renowned theater companies such as A.C.T; jazz in the Fillmore; drag at Oasis; and a whole spectrum of visual art such as SFMOMA and Minnesota Street Project. If you want to escape the tech world, plenty of cultural and professional opportunities await back in the IRL world.

14. There are homeless people. En route to work or for a night on the town, you’ll see homeless encampments along city sidewalks. Human beings live inside those tents. The problem is one of the city’s pervasive and most deliberated. Like you, people without permanent shelter are human beings and deserve respect. It bears repeating.

15. Political beliefs are really strong. Be prepared to get vilified for your views. Moderate viewpoints are few and far between.

16. You’ll be spoiled with outdoor space. From the wide-open fields of Golden Gate Park to the cliffs of Lands End, the city has plenty of opportunities to get some fresh air. There’s no need to get a fancy gym membership, since there are much more scenic places to sweat. Whenever you feel rundown by city life, going outdoors will be the perfect cure for all. Outdoor spaces also means plenty of noteworthy events, from Outside Lands to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, where you can mingle with your fellow San Franciscans, and forget about how you’re spending more than half your paycheck on rent.

17. You’ll get in shape walking up the city’s many hills/stairs. If you have been meaning to hit the StairMaster, you’re in luck—San Francisco was built on hills, and you’ll feel it when you are walking around town. The upside is that the best views are at places such as the Lyon Street Steps, 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, and Twin Peaks. In this city, the stronger the burn, the better the view. (After all, we have the coolest staircases in the country.) And forget high heels or fancy dress shoes, sneakers will be your best friends on these city streets. The longer you live here, the better you’ll know which major inclines to avoid.

People walk down a street in San Francisco. There are signs outside of the shops on the street. The signs have Chinese characters on them.

18. It’s not an easy place to raise children. San Francisco may be a fine place to live as an adult, but it’s not always an ideal city to have children. San Francisco Unified School District’s complicated lottery system often sends students to schools that are not even in their neighborhood. Private schools are pricey and competitive. Understandably, there is a mass migration to the suburbs of Marin or the East Bay for better public schools and more family-friendly environments in which to raise children. If you’re thinking of having children, but cannot afford to move to the stroller mecca known as Noe Valley and put your child through private school, there are always options just a bridge away—rumor has it there’s better parking too.

19. You’ll experience exhilarating highs and defeating lows. You’ll ride the F-Market down to the Ferry Building. You’ll get your car broken into in Hayes Valley. You’ll hike the Filbert Street Steps. You’ll eat Top Ramen because you spent your entire paycheck on rent. You’ll tear through the Wiggle on your fixie. You’ll cringe at the economic disparity on display at Civic Center. You will fall in and out of love with SF on the same day. It’s an easy city to loathe, but an even easier place to love.

20. Not all of San Francisco looks like opening scene from Full House. The picturesque view of Alamo Park and the Painted Ladies may have secured a dreamy picture of San Francisco in the ’90s, but this is hardly the reality for locals that live in the city. From the grit and economic disparity of the Tenderloin to the fog-shrouded homes of the Sunset and Richmond, the city does not always exude picture-perfect charm.

21. It takes about two or three years to really find your niche. If you can make it through the rough first couple of years, buy a Giants cap and switch your Clipper Card to monthly autopay—you’re a lifer now.