Living in Napa and Sonoma County

Parent Q&A

  • Affordable towns for commuting to Napa *and* SF?

    (6 replies)

    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!

    I work in Napa and live in Berkeley.  Lake Beryessa is a real trek   Staying East of University is a big help with the commute (it's about an hour door to door-mostly against traffic).  I would look in Albany, El Cerrito and Berkeley.  You can bart in to SF and it keeps his commute doable. Nature is close by and the schools are good.  Good Luck!

    My thought is with a child, one parent needs to be close enough to home, as to avoid a 3 hour commute home, which is what it will be from SF during rush hour.  And on Fridays in the summer, Ive seen it take 4 hours.  So my recommendation is not to cause both parents to risk a congested commute.  Someone needs to get home to the child in a reasonable time.  

    Lake Berryessa is very affordable, but you can still find something small and affordable closer to town that is a short distance to the Vallefo Ferry.  Any safe neighborhood in Oakland will cost more anyway.  For SF, you can use BART but your husband will be in traffic getting out of the east bay and into Napa.  The drive from Napa to the Vallejo ferry is quick via a back way.  So do not consider driving to SF.  Ferry ride is only 1 hour and relaxing.  You can arrive home to your family in a sane condition.  Vallejo is also affordable and makes huge sense for commuting to both Napa and SF...but it is consistently rated an undesirable city due to crime.  Id actually consider Vallejo for myself, but not with a child.  

    If youre set on having one take BART west and one drive east, Id recommend El Cerrito or Pinole for a smaller town feel and potential affordability.  El Cerrito has a great BART station with parking.  

    Raising my hand to recommend Richmond in the East Bay, specifically my neighborhood, East Richmond Heights. We have a Bart stop (El Cerrito del Norte) into the city and a bridge (the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge) that goes straight up to Napa. In the nabe are loads of great elementary schools: Mira Vista is the public school, there is a cooperative elementary school called Crestmont, there is a Jewish day school called Tehiyah. And we are right on top of Wildcat Canyon. Technically, you could hike from there to Tilden Park in Oakland, though I've never done it; regardless, there are tons of great trails right here. Childcare is ... not cheap. When we finally got both kids into public school we wanted to take a bath in the money we suddenly were saving. Ah, bay area, you kooky place. 

    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. 

    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.

    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.

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