Moving back to the Bay Area - this time with children!

My husband and I relocated to Nashville in 2014 after over a decade in Berkeley. We now have two sons, ages 6 and 4, and are soon listing our house for sell with the intention of moving back to the Bay Area. But to where? I'm hoping you can help!

We are lucky to live in a wonderfully progressive community in East Nashville where we know our neighbors and all of our children know each other. We bike to school and trick or treat together, have playground meetups and porch cocktails while the children play in the yard. It's truly wonderful, except: there is really no outdoor activity here, the weather stinks, and we're very stuck on this tiny blue island with nowhere interesting to explore. 

We want public schools that are both racially and socioeconomically diverse. Some walkability is preferred. Community vibe. 

So far in consideration are North Berkeley or the hills, Forest Knolls / Lagunitas, other communities along Sir Francis Drake (Fairfax?)... 

Any place we should be looking? 

Thank you!

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Where did you live in the bay area before? El cerrito will likely have more diversity then Berkeley.  If some walkability is preferred I probably wouldn't recommend the Berkeley hills as it's not particularly close to restaurants/shops.  Pretty much anywhere else in berkeley is walkable.  Albany could be an option as well.  My understanding is the weather will be slightly warmer in Marin(fairfax, san anselmo, lagunitas) but the farther out you go from the water, the more scenic it becomes.  Are you looking to buy or rent a home?  I'd encourage you to tour a few homes/apartments before making your decision.  My wife and I looked at places in south berkeley, temescal neighborhood of Oakland, emeryville, Lafayette, Orinda, and Walnut Creek.  We ultimately decided on south berkeley because it was the best house available for our needs at the time.

Piedmont -  Outstanding community, fire and police (rarely more than 4-minute response time).,_California

Be sure to check out the real estate (rental and buyer) prices. It's insane!

Nowhere in the hills will you find racial and socioeconomic diversity. If you truly mean to find this, then the flatlands in Oakland.

None of the communities you mention will have diverse schools except Berkeley, and even then I find Berkeley schools to be pretty segregated (my kids go to BHS). The hills are definitely not walkable. I would look in Oakland, maybe San Rafael or Novato if you want Marin County. 

I will just say, I recommend you think long and hard about this decision. Spend more time here and talk to people with kids. We left the Bay Area 25 years ago and lived for 12 super fun years in Washington DC. Then we had kids and decided to move back to be near friends, family, and to raise children in the cool place that we'd loved for so many years. We did that, and slowly realized over time that it may not have been the best decision. First, even moving from one major urban area to another, our expenses here almost doubled. Those cost comparison widgets online are all wrong. It's insanely expensive here, and not just housing - but that is crazy. We moved from a huge, historic house in an amazing area to a tiny bungalow in the Oakland Hills. We enjoy our house and hood, but it was a big step down. Second, nothing was the same ... WE were not the same. Everything we valued in the Bay Area as young professionals in our 20s and 30s, we experienced very differently as parents of young children. We love the nature - the ocean, the sierras, all of it. But the Bay Area of our youth - all the cool stuff we took advantage of - wasn't as important to us anymore in this new life phase. Third, the Bay Area has itself has changed a TON. The traffic and stress is insane. Moms flip you off in traffic. Fires, drought, insurance issues - people are stressed. It's WAY worse than DC, for example, and we really were not prepared for this at all. It's not just the expense, this area attracts very high intensity people - overachieving, ambitious parents and just a huge added layer of competitiveness and stress for our children and our family. You can choose your own path and refuse to get drawn into it - but your kids will notice what their friends are doing and what is "lacking" for them. We have found a lovely community of friends, but you cannot avoid the Bay Area stress. Close pals of ours have left and landed in mutiple places around the US - Wisconsin, Colorado, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and even France and Canada - and ALL are living a way more balanced life in communities that are better for raising children. The skiing here is awesome, the camping, every ocean sport, and much more - but in my opinion it is not worth the lack of balance, the commutes, the millions of extracurricular activities and wierd values that intense parents have, the lifestyle compromises that you will make just to afford a house, the weak school systems, etc etc.  I have told my siblings (who live elsewhere) not to move back, much as I'd love to have them near. It is no longer the Bay Area of our childhood and youth.

My suggestion would be to edit your post to include your budget, whether you are renting or buying, house/yard requirements, and any commuting/job locations. I would also think more about whether proximity to nature or walking proximity to services is most important to you. There are a lot of great places to live in the Bay Area, but your budget, your location needs, and your desire for space vs convenience will dictate how much of a fit any suggestions would be. For example, Berkeley schools will be somewhat racially and socieconomically diverse, however, if you want to be somewhere flat and bikeable/walkable, with proximity to bart, and are hoping for a 3/2 with a yard in good shape, you would likely need to be in the 1.5-2 million budget range. Lagunitas is great if you want land and a more rural feel, but I would definitely not describe it as walkable in the sense of walkable to services. I also imagine the commute would be hard on someone needing to go into the city a few times a week. 

Try the Grand Lake area in Oakland. The Lakeshore commercial district is lovely, you are close to the lake and parks. Crocker Highlands Elementary, Cleveland Elementary, and Edna Brewer Middle School are all good. None of Oakland's high schools are all that great, though I think Grand-Lake is mostly zoned for Oakland Tech was rated highest when we were choosing for my daughter 4 years ago (my daughter goes to Oakland High, which has not been terrible but has presented some frustrations on the academic front).

Marin is much more suburban than Berkeley, either flats or hills. North Berkeley is walkable, and communities form around the schools. In the hills most of your neighbors would be older people (as in Marin.) You might want to rent for six months when you return to the Bay Area so you can get a better sense of the communities.

Depends on your budget but we love West Contra Costa: we live in Hercules. The Hercules/Pinole area is super friendly, diverse and beautiful. Prices have gone up in the last 5 years but it is still one of the most affordable areas in the Bay Area. 
Martinez also seems very cute but a lot less diverse. 

Budget will dictate where you can live. Housing cost and cost for everything in the Bay Area are astronomical compared to TN. When we go to Nashville where we have family, we are always reminded that everything costs almost 50% less except Avocado and wine. Gas is insanely expensive in CA. TN has better public schools than CA — sad but true. We still love the Bay Area and can’t imagine moving back to TN although we would be close to family. Being a political and racial minority in TN is no fun. Ocean and skiing are so far away.

We live in Grand Lake neighborhood which is diverse but feels a bit transient. We keep seeing people moving in and out. It feels unstable and poor kids keep losing friends but gain new friends, so maybe it’s good for social skills. Luckily we have made a small group of friends who are deeply rooted in the Bay Area.  We are zoned for a great and diverse elementary school (CLeveland) and the best high school in Oakland (Oakland Tech). We plan to do private, magnet or charter school for middle school. We bought a house here partially due to schools and proximity to urban amenities (shops, restaurant, lake Merritt, theater, parks, etc.) Also, we liked the neighbors as the hood seemed kid friendly but all of those families with kids moved away, and we now have a bunch of childless young couples in the hood, but I think it’s our block and not the general neighborhood. (New neighbors who don’t have kids never come outside and don’t seem friendly. But maybe it’s the pandemic. I see people gathering and being more friendly on other blocks in the hood.) 

If money is not an issue, Piedmont is amazing but not diverse. I think Alameda is really great — diverse, friendly, small town feel with urban amenities, flat, beach, good schools, mild weather. I wish we had bought in Alameda instead of Grand Lake which is walkable on the map but quite hilly in many parts. Berkeley schools are also great and diverse. I am not too fond of weather in most parts of Berkeley as it gets fog from the Pacific Ocean. Lamorinda or Marin for great schools and lovely homes but both lack diversity. If you will rent, we are seeing our friends pay $4000 - $5500 per month to rent a house with a yard and 3 br or more in a desirable neighborhoods. Zillow estimates our 3 bedroom (1600 sq ft) 100 yr old house to be about $1.7 -$1.8 mil. We refinanced a few weeks ago and received $1.58 mil valuation. Just sharing a data point to aid your search. Good luck! (Oh, one minor thing. We can’t find self rising cornmeal easily here in the Bay Area. We make apple butter and share with friends who think it’s so exotic. Hah!)

We have kids a few years older than yours and live in Berkeley. I wouldn’t recommend it. I would love to have a community like you describe in East Nashville, but that really doesn’t exist here - at least not for us. And it’s a real bummer.

Regarding socioeconomic diversity - I would say the way it plays out here is not great - there’s super rich and super poor. The families in the “middle” work their butts off just to scrape by. Meanwhile we have a homelessness crisis and people paying $2 million for a tiny bungalow. It’s crazy.

People say the schools here are great and diverse, but that hasn’t been our experience at all. Yeah, there’s a lot of diversity, but the achievement gap is embarrassing - just terrible. And the schools aren’t really great either. One of our kids does fine in the public school (not excelling, but fine), but our other kid was doing poorly and having mental health issues and the district wouldn’t do anything at all to help. We ended up moving that child to private school ($$$) to get the needed support - and found out in the process that a lot of families end up doing this for their kids rather than fight with the school district.

In any event, I agree with the earlier poster that you should think long and hard about the move. It is very expensive here, and I don’t think you’ll find a community like the one you have here. At least not in Berkeley. The outdoor activities are great, but I don’t think they’re worth the trade off for the other quality of life issues out here.

Thank you to everyone for your thoughtful responses. I'm sorry to see them only now...I guess I'm not quite sure how to use this message board!

I agree that it is definitely easy to idealize the appeal of a place where you lived while childless! 

To answer some of your questions: we lived in Berkeley together and my husband spent several years in Alameda, we would likely buy with a budget of ~1.5 million but renting for a bit is not a bad idea, we don't need a huge space, and we both work remotely from home so access to BART isn't necessary.

And, yes, we have so many people moving to our neighborhood from California and New York! 

Sorry to seem a downer, but I would agree with some of the other posters about thinking long and hard about moving to the Bay Area with kids. We moved back to the Bay Area when our kids were small, from a very manageable expat life in Paris, because our family is here. My two kids are now finishing high school and in college and I often wish I hadn't raised them here. It is crushingly expensive, from housing to childcare to camps to groceries, and we would have saved literally hundreds of thousands of dollars if we hadn't lived here. We lived in SF for a long time, fought it out until middle school, but now live in Marin. It's not diverse, but it's beautiful with the trees and walks, but our house (which took us six soul-crushing overbids to find) is old and has many issues that will cost $$$ to fix, IF we can even find people to do the work. (Think calling 25 contractors and getting mabye two to call back to give bids of $10K to tile a small backsplash.) And the end result? One of my kids goes to UC Berkeley and we stayed partly for the UC system. But Cal is crowded, underfunded, and had the craziest pandemic response you could ever imagine (think locking kids in dorms with cops outside and outlawing outdoor solo exercise), just like the public K-12 schools. Our friends who raised kids in less expensive places now send their kids to great private colleges because a) it's much easier to get into said colleges when you aren't form the hyper-competitive Bay Area, and b.) they have saved by not living here. Both of my kids want no part of living here as grownups..they are burnt on the odd self-congratulatory smugness, constant grinding competition (think peers who do "medical research" in 10th grade and play two travel sports in hopes of getting into Stanford), traffic, wildfires, power outages, and just general stress of this area. They're considering settling in cheaper cities with more cultural life such when they're older such as London, DC, Boston, or NYC.

If home prices are not an issue, then Piedmont has a great community vibe.  The small population makes it possible to know and be known by others.  Neighborhoods within a 1/2 mile of schools will have kids hanging out of the trees, block parties, and walking groups.  Join any youth group or team, go to school, or join in a community event and your photo will probably make it into the local news within a few months of your arrival.  It's nice to see familiar faces at school, in scouting at soccer practice, and at community events.  Piedmont could be more diverse racially, but if you take a look at the current school board members, you can see that the city as a whole desires to move in a positive direction and we have some strong leaders who might make it happen.  We used to be at a public school elsewhere that was incredibly diverse (Jewish, Japanese, Korean, Hispanic, Caucasian, other Asian) but there was a lot of self-segregation among the student population that school leadership was either unable or uninterested in overcoming.  Based on what I've seen this balkanization is less along cultural lines and more along socioeconomic lines.  Schools generally seem unable to break down socioeconomic barriers and the inequities in student progress by subgroups is further evidence.  Piedmont is also intensely progressive these days.  Very high voter turnout.  Very high census returns.  93% of kids ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated and 95% of school teachers/staff are vaccinated.

In San Francisco, the Glen Park neighborhood has that close knit and progressive vibe especially the closer you are to Chenery. Walkable. Mission Terrace nbrhd too. (Of the two nbrhds, Glen Park is less diverse but probably still more diverse than the areas you mentioned.) SF has public schools that are racially and socioeconomically diverse, you can rank those schools at the top of your list. (Not all schools are equally diverse but it’s easy to check.) 

I'm going to echo others who say to get a realistic idea of cost of living before taking the leap to move. I'm also going to add to consider commute time, for both work and activities, before making your decision. As a parent who left the Bay Area 2 years ago with an 11 year old, it is absolutely astonishing the difference between the Bay Area and everywhere else. Going from a 1-1.5 hour commute (one way) to 6 minutes is life changing, as would be the reverse. The cost of housing and cost of living in general is much higher than you'd expect and online estimators aren't accurate. When we moved, our family income dropped to 1/3 of what it was before, but our standard of living and economic security, not to mention access to great schools, home ownership, safe communities, and kid activities we could only dream about in CA, is SO much higher. We do miss the diversity and food, but that's about it. Honestly, we wouldn't even entertain a thought of moving to the Bay area unless our income was at least 5x higher there and we were able to find good jobs in a safe community with decent schools within a few miles of home. And that's tricky.

Like someone else said, if you can update with a price range (either monthly housing budget for rental or ownership, or your salary range), you can get a better idea of what is reasonable for your situation. Also, job locations will make a difference, so if you have that info, it can provide more direction.

Responding to the original poster’s second post, which included the house budget of $1.5 million. I hate to say it, but you are priced out of Berkeley with that budget. You might consider communities North of Berkeley like Hercules, Pinole, Martinez, or South like Castro Valley or San Leandro. I’m not as familiar with the housing markets in those cities but $1.5 million is unfortunately not going to get you anything for a four-person family in Berkeley. You might see listings for less than that but they are under-priced to drive bids. Houses sell for so much over asking it’s absurd - cash only. 

There are many pockets that are neighborly. Some streets /blocks have regular or even weekly happy hours. Kids come out and play all the time in some parts. But, it’s hard to know what your neighbors are like until you start living there. Pleasant Hill is less expensive with decent schools and really family friendly. It’s getting more diverse. I think Alameda is lovely for families. We live in Oakland but end up driving to Alameda a lot for family amenities. We were focused on good public schools when we were house shopping. After spending 3 years in Oakland public schools, we realized that even the best public school here is still a CA public school. We were at one of the highly coveted Oakland public schools and were disappointed with the experience. Kids had no play equipment for 2 years and finally I ended up buying and donating hundreds of hula hoops and balls because it was such a low priority that PTA had no budget for it. This was a school where PTA raises a lot of money and we donated $2000-$3000/year. We ended up switching to a private school ($30k/year). Good schools help with the property value but I would not count on your child thriving in public school. If public school works for your kid, fantastic! If not, you want to have the resources to switch to private. We have friends who moved to Albany, Piedmont, San Ramon, parts of Oakland (hills, rockridge) and ended up in private schools. 

Piedmont has a community vibe but 1.5 mil will get you a small 2 or 3 bedroom house with a tiny yard. Our friends live in such a house in the lower Piedmont and often joke that they are the paupers of Piedmont. (They are not poor and are both lawyers who make 6 figure salaries). 

San Leandro is also popular with families these days. We looked at a few lovely houses there. Estudllo area has a good public elementary school. We couldn’t stomach the commute but with remote working possible, we would consider SL. 

Hi! We’ve moved to Albany on the Berkeley border 6 months ago, from London. 
Let me say, it’s just ok. I miss too many things a big city offers but at the same time family life here (with a toddler) is fine. We have walkability near Solano Ave and it is practical for day to day needs. 
We rented a 3/2 with mini backyard for 4200/month and if you want to buy we’ve discovered that hitting the 2mln mark, quite unfortunately, is needed. Be ready for a bidding war. 
In terms of community, I honestly don’t know if there’s such a thing or if folks are still quite respectful of covid and thus keep away (which shows in a way respect to the community and is appreciated). 
Everything here is ridiculously expensive and not easy, for example getting a veterinarian appointment takes a month’s lead time. 
Think long and hard if you have a good community with good schools. Romanticizing memories might not help when making life changing decisions.