Living in Napa and Sonoma County

Parent Q&A

Ideal places in Sonoma County to move with a toddler Jul 14, 2018 (3 responses below)
Affordable towns for commuting to San Francisco *and* Napa? Oct 5, 2016 (6 responses below)
  • My family is considering a move from Berkeley to Sonoma or Marin County. Some place with land but close enough to town to keep things stimulating. We appreciate the Berkeley lifestyle and how we are a stone’s throw away from numerous children’s parks, schools, libraries, hospitals, etc. We are considering Petaluma, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, etc. Does anyone have any thought on the best place for a family with young kids to move? I hear Sebastopol is a great option with fine schools but I’m curious about other neighborhoods and cities that would be a slightly shorter commute to the east bay. Thank you! 

    That whole area is lovely. I actually grew up in Sebastopol, and can attest to the quality of the schools. My high school (Analy High School) is consistently ranked quite highly in public school lists. While I'll admit that the town felt sort of "boring" when I was a teenager, I've realized since then that it was a really great place to grow up. My parents still live there, and it's a treat every time we get to visit. Close proximity to Santa Rosa for a bigger "city" experience is nice. Petaluma and Healdsburg are also both lovely places. All have thriving food/drink scenes, and are family-friendly. I will say that in Sebastopol, there are indeed places to bring kids like parks, etc., but you might have to drive to get a lot of places, unless you find a place to live within the city limits. Also, traffic in general in that part of Sonoma County can be tough. A few years ago, my apartment flooded and I went to live with my parents for a month, and commuted to and from Berkeley every day while I stayed there, and it wasn't easy. Petaluma would have been a little easier. A commute from Healdsburg to the East Bay would be even more difficult than from Sebastopol. Hope this helps!

    We moved to Petaluma three years ago when my son was starting K. I've been very pleased with the schools and the easy lifestyle compared to Oakland. All the schools in the entire City of Petaluma are great all the way through high school. Plus, housing costs are still low compared to the East Bay and the restaurant scene is amazing. However, I commute to Oakland three days a week and it is torture, especially the 10 miles between Novato and Petaluma. I wish we would have spent a little more money to buy in Novato. In addition, ss someone else commented, there are fewer places to take young kids in Sonoma County compared to the East Bay. Initially, we really missed Fairyland, Chabot, Oakland Zoo, Lawrence Hall of Science, etc., but once we got involved in school activities we didn't have much time for museums and such anyway. Good luck!

    Have you looked at Benicia? Although not Napa or Sonoma, this is a historic town surrounded by the bay with a small-town feel and very family oriented. The cost of housing is "cheaper " compared to some bay area locations. And the school are highly rated.
    It's a great location; pretty much 30-40 mins from Oakland, SF, Napa... And with the "new" bridge, only 20 mins to downtown Walnut Creek.

  • My husband and I are considering moving to the Bay Area and my biggest concern is cost.  I would be working in SF and he would be working in Napa.  Anyone have any thoughts on best towns to buy a house that has good schools, is somewhere commutable for both of us, and is on affordable side?  We love nature - somewhere like Oakland Montclair or Lake Berryessa in Napa would be our dream but is way expensive.  Don't even want to know about cost of childcare there too!

    Wow, i don't even know where to begin with your post. First off, before you commit to the huge cost of moving and uprooting a family, spend the time to actually come here, stay in a place like Petaluma (which is still sort of affordable) or Vallejo (which is affordable but will be a God awful commute for both) and then try to either drive (a must to work in Napa) or drive or take the bus/ferry combo into SF a few days during the morning and evening commutes. As a Mom who until recently worked, I can honestly say that having both parents doing those two crazy opposite drives is completely unsustainable. What happens when a child is sick at school & a parent has to pick them up? When you have to work late? When a car breaks down? At the very least you both would have to stagger your schedules so that 1 parent left the house at 4 or 5 am, and drove back in time to get home by 3 or 4 pm. The other parent would have to start late and work late. At best, you are looking at least at 2 hours commuting to/from SF daily- if there are accidents, mass transit problems, etc. it could be closer to 4 hours per day. Also, your combined transit costs are going to be high- either transit or driving/parking daily. On top of all of this, you have the high cost of housing- plan on spending around $3,000 per month on a 2 bd apt. in the boonies. And, for instance, the public schools are often terrible in the boonies (ahem, Vallejo.) If you both still really want to move to the Bay area, honestly, you need a more well thought out plan. The stress and high cost of living here is very real as the population grows and resources become more scarce and all forms of transportation become more difficult. I wish you luck in your journey, but you need to be realistic, if only for your kids' sake.

    I would say your biggest concern should be your commutes. If I were in your position, one or both spouses should definitely try to get some flex arrangement so you don't have to be on site 5 days/week. The towns I would look at are Vallejo (the SF commuter takes the ferry, Napa drives), Benicia (driving to Napa, not so hot two-bridge commute to SF unless you drive to BART in Walnut Creek and take the train from there, or drive to ferry in Vallejo), or El Cerrito within walking distance of BART for the convenience of the SF commuter, 40ish minute drive for the Napa worker. Schools are hit and miss in Vallejo and Benicia (you can always go private) but you're okay in El Cerrito. Vallejo is the most affordable but does have its issues in parts. I would definitely rent for a while until you try out these commutes. Childcare is way cheaper in Vjo/Benicia than El Cerrito.

    Lake Berryessa would be too far for you to commute to San Francisco. Benicia has good schools and is commutable easily to both San Francisco and Napa. There is a ferry in Vallejo that goes to San Francisco. Homes are relatively affordable for the bay area. If you are interested I can recommend a realtor for you to work with. I have been living in Benicia since 2001 and would be happy to answer any more questions you might have. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Petaluma or Novato?

Feb 2015

We are moving to the north bay and trying to get a sense for the different areas. We know Petaluma better and assumed we would move there, but it may be better to be farther south for my husband's job so we are considering Novato too. I do not feel like I know Novato well at all. What are the differences between the two cities? What is the 'culture' of them? What do you love about either one? What's the outdoor life like (hiking, mtn biking?)? Any info would be helpful. Thank you!
 


I live nearby and visit both frequently.

Novato has a more suburban feel, with a very small 'old town' (which I think is kind of manufactured). Convenient rather than charming. Shopping at the mall is very convenient (Target, Costco, other chain stores). Most of the neighborhoods are pretty nice and some (like Ignacio) can even be rather rustic. Aside from Finnegan's bar, I don't know of much night life. Novato is still part of Marin County with Marin County services (great library system, recreation services, etc.). It is a little more conservative than most of Marin.

Petaluma is larger, has a more vibrant music scene, antique stores, places to eat, a more interesting downtown. It's a town/small city emerging from a farm background (former chicken capital). My friends who live there (alternative artsy types) have said they've found it difficult to make friends and find kindred spirits-they are in the late 50s/early 60s demographic. They also say prices in Sonoma county are often higher than in Marin county, where they used to live. They live on the rustic and charming west side on a former chicken ranch. The east side is more concrete and urban.

Highway 101 northbound into Petaluma is very jammed between 3-6 pm weekday afternoons due to commute traffic. Check 511.org to get a feel for the commute issues in the area throughout the day; that may be the deciding factor.

Once you're outside either town, there are ranches, farms, and open space. Both have back roads that connect you to the Point Reyes area. Spend some time driving the backroads to get a feel, and do a hike at Rush Creek (halfway between the two). North Bay Transplant
 


Where Progressives Should Move in Sonoma County

June 2013

We are looking to move to Sonoma County because we have two small kids and want to escape the crime and can't afford a house in the safer areas of the East Bay. My dream town would be a sleepy, small town version of Berkeley, like Petaluma maybe, or even smaller, but we are just not that familiar with Sonoma County. This has come up before on BPN, but it has been a while & a lot has changed since it was last discussed. Also it seems everyone that talks about SC is very SF-centric & wants to be near the city. We are the opposite. Done with the city life & can't get far enough from the manic pace of SF. Although we would rather not be too far from Berkeley. Can anyone suggest SC towns that are small and sleepy, but progressive, gay-friendly and safe? Does that exist? Does Sonoma (the town) have lefties? What about Cotati or Rohnert Park? Maybe even Novato or other less popular (less expensive) parts of Marin? Also, Santa Rosa is our last resort, but I can't get a sense of the culture there and a lot of the info on it doesn't get specific about where the best areas are, other than to say Roseland is bad. Thanks!


Nicasio is great, fits all of your requirements. But maybe TOO sleepy for some people. Sebastopol almost fits all your requirements. Super liberal, very family friendly, adorable town square, great restaurants. It's not sleepy anymore, but it's still a dramatic change from SF area. Town of Sonoma is great. Glen Ellen is also really great.

Old part of Petaluma is beautiful and charming, but the other half (or maybe 3/4 by now) is poor, has a fair amount of crime. There is a class divide that reminds me of how Palo Alto feels. Really uncomfortable whichever side you live in.

Rohnert Park and Cotati are really unattractive (from my point of view). No town center, no city planning, just sprawl and strip malls. Same for Novato. Santa Rosa, though it has grown a lot in the last 10 years, is still at heart a cow town (conservative, in other words.)

Hope this helps! Former Sonoma County Resident

Moving to North Bay with two teens

Aug 2012

Hi I'm a mom with two teen boys. We're moving to the north bay area in couple of months. My hubby will be working in vallejo. We are very excited. This will be a big change for us. We are from a small city in south florida. Im looking for input on areas that have nice high schools(safe). I want to live where the boys can have a little freedom with stuff to do but not in a big city. We are looking in Novato, Petaluma, Santa Rosa or Fairfield/Vacaville, Concord areas. Not sure which area would be best. Also fairly close to a Macys without having to get on any major highways. I work for Macys and am scared to death to drive out there (foolish I Know) . We will be renting. Our budget is around $2200 a month. I appreciate any info/input you have. A commute of around 45 min from Valejo is ok. Also can you reccomend any good rental agents? Thanks again I really appreciate it.


Petaluma! No offense to folks in Novato, SR, Concord, Napa or Fairfield/Vacaville... but Petaluma is the nicest of all those towns... and definitely the best for teens. Petaluma has charm - nice old houses, cute new developments, a great downtown area, beautiful country areas, good restaurants, farmer's markets... and it's pretty fun. Not a boring suburban town - lots of art, music, and theater.

I would look along the 116 corridor - it's easy for Vallejo and has some great farmhouses and some pretty developments (Adobe Creek if you like golf, near Casa Grande High School). Petaluma Fan

[Editor: Benicia was also recommended


2007 - 2009 Recommendations


Santa Rosa, Windor or Petaluma?

Sept 2009

We may have to relocate to the No. Bay for job reasons. We're looking to downsize and have a ''simpler'' life too... Tired of trying to keep up here in the Bay Area. Which town is a family-friend, open-minded/intelligent minded?, good schools area? Thanks. anon


Petaluma is an amazing town and I would move there in a heartbeat. I call myself a Petaluma ''wanna be''. I live in Novato and part of my job entails Petaluma. I do alot of networking and socializing and its a very welcoming community. Real community. Beautiful old historic downtown. Lots of event. Check out aqus cafe and their website/online newsletter and it will give you a tast of all happenings. The West side of town is older, more historic (built along river) and more expensive. East side is new and more like a typical subdivision. But you will feel embraced. Carol


All the cities you mentioned are great, but different. I might also add to the list Cotati and Sebastopol. (Forestville and Graton are nice too, but much smaller). Being born and raised in Sebastopol, I definitely have a soft spot for Sonoma County, my family may move up there in the next few years as well. I haven't lived there in over 10 years, but my sister and parents still do, so I'm up that way a lot. Here's my experience with your options:

Petaluma- Super cute, on the river, great downtown, very family oriented with annual festivals, farmers markets, etc. I personally prefer West Petaluma (West of hwy 101) as it has older construction, is close to downtown, and less strip malls. Used to be a farming community, but now the Marin vibe has seeped into the culture, so it is kind of Mill Valley meet Hicktown.

Santa Rosa - Much larger of the three, so the city changes dramatically neighborhood to neighborhood. There are some great areas and some not great areas, you really have to find a local to show you the different areas. Our favorite area is near Annadelle the largest park with in city limits in the entire US.

Windsor - This used to be a pretty lame tract home community, but recently it has had a new awakening. The Healdsburg wine country has infiltrated and given Windsor a face lift. My best friend from HS lives there with her husband and son, and they love it. The schools are pretty good, there is now a cute downtown with good restaurants, and it appears a young family vibe.

Good Luck 


Considering a move to Sonoma County

July 2004

Does anyone have any experience (first hand or through friends/family) about living in Sonoma County? We live in Rockridge and are considering a move to that area for several reasons (cost of living, commute, etc) but really know nothing about it. Areas of interest are Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sebastopol. On first glance, I would think that it might be too much of a shock to our systems to move (lack of diversity, services, restaurants??) but I really have no knowledge of the areas at all. All info appreciated.


I am originally from Sonoma County (the outskirts of Santa Rosa up in the country) and love it there! I would move back there but our work situation keeps us here. While it isn't Berkeley/Oakland (nothing is!), the area has a ton to offer. There are many, many liberals and progressives there (especially in parts of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and other smaller communities), some great health food stores and co-op markets, restaurants of every imaginable cuisine, great parks, great schools (my mother taught school out there for 20 years and I went to school there as well), parent groups, outdoor activities, fairs, etc. It really is a wonderful community. My familiy is multi-cultural (Mexian, Italian and American) and we feel right at home when we visit. It has a laid-back feel. I could just go on about the area. If you would like to chat more about the area, feel free to email me. SR native


Okay, the first McDonalds didn't come to Sonoma County until 1976, but they have been doing a pretty good job of keeping up with the Jones since then... :-)

Seriously, if your concerns re: Sonoma county are of diversity, services & restaurants then you don't need to worry too much. I grew up in Sonoma County and even back then, before everyone figured out that it was a great place to escape from the financial pressures of the close-in Bay Area, it had a good amount of diversity (1/4 of my graduating class was from or had family from Mexico/Central or South America...I realize that is not diversity from the world over, but it is a pretty good start). Great wine and great food go together. I know that The Wine Spectator lists at least one restaurant in Sonoma County among its top ten in the Bay Area.

In many parts of Sonoma County, East-Bay politics look VERY CONSERVATIVE (Guerneville, Occidental, Monte Rio...basically, anything out toward the Russian River), so if you like Berkeley politics, then you will find many like-minded individuals. That said, there are many more republicans residing within the SonCo borders than you would find in the Berkeley.

Santa Rosa has good cultural offerings, but San Fran is only an hour away if you need the opera.

That said, while growing up there, I couldn't wait to escape. The hippy/rednecks (they are weird breed and exist within the same person if that can be believed...picture people on their front porches shooting at rabbits while smoking pot and talking about recycling) drove me nuts. Also, there is a large 'love of track homes in gated communities, hang out at the mall' population' ala East of the tunnel.

If I were to move back (which is on a short list of possibilities, even though none of my family still lives there), I would look at the Healdsburg or Sebastopol. Sebastopol is a very hip small town. Healdsburg is becoming that as well. Both towns have lots of 'in town' homes and great food/shopping.

Hope that helps. El Molino class of ;86