Moving back to the Bay Area from NYC: Berkeley or SF?

Hi there, I lived in the Bay Area between 2003-2009 and loved it but moved back to NYC to be closer to my parents. We’ve all had enough of the winter and I can transfer my job to San Francisco so we’re moving back in the next year. We’re trying to decide between living in Berkeley (something like the hills) or San Francisco (Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, Noe Valley). We have a 2.5 year old daughter and would like to try public school in the hopes it would work out but if necessary could do private. Any advice on the pros and cons? These are my thoughts—

east Bay weather is far better, but maybe the neighborhoods we’re looking at have decent microclimates? And all will be better weather than NYC by far (we absolutely hate the cold)

husband surfs so not bad to be close to Ocean Beach, although he swears the water is too cold (I think he’d do it sometimes)

real estate seems similar (which seems crazy given how different it used to be)

schools - can’t figure out where is better. I understand that SF will move to a zoned system (rather than city-wide lottery) in a couple years, anything more on this would be helpful 

commute - much better from SF but I work off the embarcadero Bart stop and only need to go 2-3 days/week so maybe not the decision maker 

relaxed pace of Berkeley means we don’t feel too overwhelmed / need to get away 

that said, we love Brooklyn because we can walk places and I’d probably miss that, especially because I’m a terrible driver! 

Any insights from parents who know both would be greatly appreciated. 

PS I know prices are high, but they are currently much better than NYC. 

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An East Coast transplant here. I used to live in SF and moved to Oakland, so I may be a bit biased but here are my two cents. 

* Weather -- East Bay is much better but micro-climate is real. Bernal Heights is nice and warm and some parts of Berkeley is foggy and cooler. 

* Surfing -- Water is cold. You need a wet suit. Better surfing is in North Bay (Stinson beach) or a bit more south (Pacifica, San Mateo) or even closer to Santa Cruz and below. Residential areas near Ocean Beach are cold and foggy, if sunny conditions are important to you.

* Real Estate -- prices are high everywhere but I feel that you get more space and nature in East Bay than SF. Many buildings in SF are attached to the neighbors, which we don't like. Although there is only a 5 ft gap between us and our neighbor, not having walls attached with neighbors can be an important consideration. 

* Schools -- hands-down Berkeley public schools are overall better. SF has some great public schools but it's a lottery system and there are handful of schools that underperform. Most of my friends whose kids didn't get into the desired public schools all go to private schools. Because SF is bigger than Berkeley and the school choice isn't based on proximity to home, you could have a great school in your neighborhood but be assigned to a school on the other side of the city with a 45 min. commute to school! Berkeley uses zone systems and it's a smaller city. There really aren't "bad" schools in Berkeley. When SF moves to a zoned system, maybe it'll be better but I imagine that home prices within the desired school zone may be incredibly high. If you end up doing private school, it seems that SF private school prices are a bit higher than East Bay private school prices. 

* Commute -- If you work near Embarcadero Bart station, living in SF does not guarantee a shorter commute. I work near Montgomery Bart station, and my colleagues who live near Ocean Beach have a longer commute than I who live in North Oakland. Bart ride for me is 18 min. My coworker's muni ride is 40 min. 

* Relaxed -- There are parts of SF that offer "relaxed" residential feel / proximity to nature, but overall we feel that East Bay has more parks, forests, and relaxed feel. You don't have to sacrifice walkability. SF and parts of Berkeley are walkable. 

Also consider Alameda which is a short and relaxing 20 min. ferry ride to embarcadero in SF. Public schools are good, and the entire island is walkable/bikable. It has great parks, restaurants, and the water is warm -- you can actually swim in the ocean and the beach is nice.  Piedmont is another great option in East Bay with the best rated public schools out of all the locations mentioned here. 

I assume you're not interested in Oakland for reasons you haven't mentioned. Welcome and good luck!

If you like the walkability of NYC, you won’t like the Berkeley hills. Many of those neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks. The flats are much more walkable. I live in a VERY walkable neighborhood about a mile west from Cal. The weather can suck, especially in the summer. Fog comes directly across the golden gate. Sometimes the window for sunshine is only 1pm-4pm. 

It’s a zoned lottery system here too. Public schools in Berkeley are much better than SF. 

I’m an East Bay native and there is NO WAY I would swim or surf at Ocean Beach. Too cold and the ripe tide can be intense. 

Seems like your best bet would be Berkeley- but not the hills.  In the flats you will have better weather, walkability, easier commute to SF, good schools etc.  You might get less space than the hills but it will likely be more or comparable to SF.  I grew up in NYC. Everyone I know who is used to a walkable city has a hard time with the EB hills. It doesn't feel like a city when you need to drive everywhere.  If you live in the flats near BART or the highway (depending on your planned commute) I think you will meet most of your wants.  

Thank you! That is very helpful. I’m open to Oakland too (lived there for four years). Is there anywhere that is walkable, has a view, and accessible to BART by bike or scooter? That would hit all boxes. I don’t really care about sharing walls, although a yard I enjoy would be nice! 

I don't have a lot to add but I do think Berkeley is very walkable and easy to minimize driving- except if you live in the hills. if you don't like driving and are considering berkeley I would look at north berkeley to be close to bart and for walkability 

Welcome back! 
we love Albany because of what you described, weather is nicer that SF (more days with sun), it’s semi-urban (can run all my errands by foot, Solano Ave has all you need!), schools are highly rated (that’s the main reason we moved to Albany), and it’s just a short walk / bike ride / drive to North Berkeley Bart which takes 25ish minutes to Embarcadero, there is also the SF Transbay bus stopping on Solano which is very convenient (also to Embarcadero). 

Berkeley Hills are really not walkable. I grew up in the hills and now love living in the flats of El Cerrito. I agree with the previous poster that getting to Embarcadero by BART is much faster and more reliable than Muni, I looked into moving to San Francisco when I worked there are decided it was much faster from El Cerrito BART. For East Bay walkability, look into Central Berkeley, Elmwood, Rockridge, Albany, El Cerrito. Public schools in those areas would be fine as well. For surfing, San Mateo or Santa Cruz would be warmer for surfing. If you live along a Cal Train line, you will not be too far from the beautiful San Mateo open spaces and the ocean, and have easy public transportation access to San Francisco. I personally don't know too much about San Mateo County, maybe look into San Carlos or Belmont.

SF public schools are a disaster in multiple ways.  My kids had a number of classmates whose families moved to Albany specifically in order to escape the SF school system, and that was before all the recent political mess with the school board getting recalled.  The people I know with kids in the Berkeley public schools, on the other hand, have been generally satisfied. 

Given the various factors you list, I'd suggest looking at a more walkable neighborhood in the East Bay, rather than in the hills - North Berkeley, Albany, Alameda - or even in Marin where you'd get better surfing access, though a worse commute to Embarcadero.  And I agree with the previous responder about a commute across SF often being worse than a commute across the Bay!

Albany!  Great schools, the whole town is one square mile so everyone can walk everywhere. Your kids will be able to walk to their friends’ houses. We live near Solano Avenue and never need to use our car to get to restaurants because there are so many great options in walking distance. It’s not Brooklyn. Everything closes early, for one thing. But it’s very walkable. 

Chiming in with a vote for East Bay! Consider Berkeley, Kensington, Albany, El Cerrito, Orinda, Rockridge. I think North Berkeley or Temescal might be a good vibe for you. If you are near a BART in the East Bay, you will have a relatively easy commute to Embarcadero BART, which will not necessarily be true of some of the SF neighborhoods you are mentioning. I don’t know if this is something you would consider, but I wonder if renting for a year or so before buying might be a good option. Your daughter is young enough that you would still have time to make a move to the school district you want for her. I also hate to drive and I live in El Cerrito near a BART station, which is relatively central and very easy to navigate by foot or public transit, to get to the city and other fun spots. Lesser known area but worth considering. 

We live in the Berkeley flats (near San Pablo Park) and love it for many reasons (weather, walking/biking, etc.). BUSD is a wonderful lottery-based school system; the curriculum is basically the same at all schools so it's hard to go wrong with any of them. With the lottery system, you may not end up at the school closest to you, but you would qualify for the bus if the school is at least 1.5 miles from your home. If you're considering the Berkeley Hills, you may want to think about potential fire danger and how expensive fire insurance will likely be. 

My favorite Oakland neighborhood (that I think fits all your boxes) is the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood in North Oakland - which is VERY walkable (we were a 1-car family for 8 years there and I could do everything w/ my kids in an Ergo/Stroller, including groceries), does have a bit of a view (especially if you walk up in the Mountain View Cemetery, which is a GEM of a place), and it's accessible to BART - MacArthur station. I used to get dropped off there daily or walk (it's a little less than a mile from the top of Piedmont). I have the fondest memories of living in that neighborhood w/ little kids. Also, the microclimate is excellent - don't underestimate the value of warm sunny Oakland days, when SF and Berkeley are in the fog. "The finger" of fog comes right in from the GGB and sits on North Berkeley... those folks don't know how good it is just a few miles south. And Albany! Whew- the foggiest and coldest. Good luck! 

We live right in between Thousand Oaks and the Berkeley Hills (near Great Stone Face Park) and I love it! We have views of the city and the golden gate bridge, can run to Tilden park, see deer frequently, and overall it's pretty quiet. We can also walk (albeit there's some hill on the way back) to Solano, the shops on Arlington towards Kensington, or to Colusa Circle - there are even nice paths like Indian Rock path and still sidewalks everywhere. 

Adding my two cents: I lived in SF for 20 years and loved it, but we moved to Berkeley 5 years ago for better weather, better housing (more for your money), and better schools (kids were 6 and 8 at the time). The further south you go in the East Bay, the better/warmer the weather. We live in south Berkeley very near border with Oakland and we have better summer weather than north Berkeley, which gets the fog rolling in the Golden Gate. Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond all get it, too (Carl, the fog, that is). We picked the area for that reason and are pretty close to Ashby BART, which is how my husband commutes to work. If you want a view, you could look up toward the Claremont hotel, though the area is mostly large fancy homes. You'd do better looking in upper Rockridge, but then you're looking at schools in OUSD which is a mixed bag, particularly for middle and high school. This being the Bay Area, it is extremely hard to find a place that checks all the boxes, but you're sure to find somewhere that checks most of them! Good luck to you!

Manhattanite, grew up in Hell's Kitchen. It's been 23 years since I've lived here (with breaks in other cities both east and west coast). 

We have ended up in Oakland north of Lake Merritt and find it really walkable. Most Berkeley neighborhoods, and really all Bay Area (E Bay) neighborhoods have pockets of commerce/resources, but then dead zones between neighborhoods. Lakeshore with its farmers' market and other amenity shops (pharmacy, bakery, clothing, coffee, bank) works well for us. Plus, we can take transbay express buses into the city, which usually are more reliable than BART!

Welcome back to California! If you're looking for walkable, good schools, relaxed pace, and easy commute into the Embarcadero, I would consider Alameda. We lived in Berkeley for 10 years before moving to Alameda and really wish we had done it sooner. Kids can walk/bike to school, the whole island is flat with lots of bike paths and there are lots of water activities (lots of opportunities to SUP, row, and kite surf in Alameda). You can easily get to fruitvale bart, transbay bus, or there are multiple stops going to the Embarcadero so the commute can be very reasonable. We still go into Berkeley, Oakland, and SF frequently but Alameda really has most everything we need.

In terms of overall school district health, you are definitely safer with Berkeley or Albany, but if you are considering Oakland, Upper Rockridge is probably the only neighborhood that has what you added in terms of walkability, views, and accessibility to BART. When we moved here, we called it our "Venn Diagram House." We have the space and the view my husband wanted but we're close enough to College Ave and BART for me that I don't feel like we've moved to the suburbs. I can walk to College Ave in 20 minutes or 10 minutes the other direction to Lake Temescal Park in the trees. We're happy to be zoned to Hillcrest Elementary and excited to try Oak Tech for high school.

You haven’t mentioned what your real estate budget is. If you wanted to consider Oakland and have a deep pocket and the lucky stars shining upon you, a section of Rockridge checks all the boxes. You can consult the Oakland catchment map but a portion of Rockridge is zoned for Hilcrest elementary and middle and Oakland Tech for high school and another portion of Rockridge is zoned for Chabot elementary, Claremont middle and Oakland Tech. These are some of the most highly coveted schools in Oakland. This area is mostly walkable, some houses have a beautiful view, close to BART and other Transportstion options, close to or right in a shopping district with cool restaurants, shops, library, and urban amenities as well as parks. Houses in this area are expensive but beautiful and the neighborhood is family friendly and residential with lots of trees while also being so close to the city living. 

Lower Piedmont is walkable and Piedmont schools and police, fire department are excellent. There is a portion of lower Piedmont that borders Oakland near Piedmont Avenue — my personal favorite area with amazing cafes, restaurants and shops. Some have a nice view, it’s about 1.5 miles to Temescal BART (def. Bike or scooter distance) but Transbay bus is an exceptionally easy, fast, and clean option and right at your doorstep. 

If I were a rich man, these are the two neighborhoods that I have always dreamed of buying a house and raising our family. Alas, they are out of reach for us common folks. But, perhaps you can make it. We have friends who are two doctor parents and startup tech people who played the startup lotto right and their houses are in one of the areas mentioned — close to BART, walkable, view of the bay, a big house and best schools in Oakland. Best of luck!