Moving from Australia to the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi there, I am a mother of 3 kids (7, 4, and 2) from Sydney Australia and this week my husband accepted a job in the financial district in SF.  I have been searching and searching online to try and work out where to live. Best case scenario would be an area with a reasonable commute to SF, safe, walkable, friendly with some vibrancy and 'action'.  I would like my kids to go to a good school and also I would like to easily meet other people as I won't be working (at least at first).  Right now we live in an inner city suburb which is safe, walkable and full of families. I think I would like something similar but at the same time wonder if we should try something different like 'Marin county'.  Right now I've narrowed it down to either Albany, North Berkeley, parts of Marin County, Palo Alto or Noe Valley?? As you can see, I am a little lost - any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanking you all so much in advance. 

    All are nice communities that you mention. Question would be what can you afford? Albany and Alameda are popular with families for their good public schools, tight knit community feel, also nice weather and good walk ability. Both are within an easy BART commute to downtown SF. Traffic can be horrendous so choosing an area along the BART (local subway) line would be beneficial. Also you should know the housing market is very competitive here and it can be hard to find housing, especially in N Berkeley and Albany. Good luck and welcome!

  • Hi there, our family of 4 (husband, myself and 2 kids aged 5 and 7) will be relocating from Sydney - Australia to San Francisco in February 2017 for my husband's work (located in the financial district). We are desperately seeking some advice on suitable places to live (rent) which will be paid (or subsidised by work). Our key considerations (not in order) are (1) family friendly and also friendly people (2) outdoor space for both school and living (3) commute to work (4) good schooling.  I have seen that Orinda and Lafayette seem very appealing but also housing seems sparse (and expensive). We aussies are a friendly lot and while education is important to us for our children (we are both professional in the legal and financial fields) - I am also concerned about instilling holistic values of kindness, friendship, fun and gaining new life experiences (for me as well!). I hope you may be able to offer some guidance. Liesa 

    Our family just moved to Alameda from Boston, and found it all of the things you are looking for! Fun, old-fashioned in the right kinds of ways and very progressive, great schools, more spacious and greener than other places in the East Bay. We chose it for: schools, commutability (I work in Berkeley, my husband in San Francisco--he takes a very relaxing ferry to work), close to all the fun stuff but safer/lower crime and very sweet and friendly. 

    We relocated to Berkeley from Beverly Hills, which was sterile and ritzy, and could not be happier. There is a real sense of community here (albeit with liberal values -- if that's not your thing, never mind). Indoor/outdoor space is more utilized because the weather is warmer, but it is not as flavorless as the further-out suburbs, the food is better, and the commute to SF wouldn't be so bad. We know and socialize with our neighbors, enjoy the gorgeous hiking trails in Tilden Park, and find it very easy to go to SF once you know the traffic patterns.

    Housing is expensive here, but not as expensive as SF. There isn't a lot of housing inventory, but it would be well worth a look.

    Welcome to the Bay Area! Please consider relocating to Alameda. It's a relaxing and picturesque ferry commute to the financial district, with great neighborhood and charter school options, plenty of open space, and a small community feel. Housing prices are still high, but perhaps lower than Orinda and Lafayette, with a much better commute. Good luck with your move!

    Welcome in advance! Your last sentence caught my eye and made me think of my son's old private school Berkwood Hedge in downtown Berkeley. The school embodies kindness, friendship and fun. We had some Aussies in our community that have moved on and the most wonderful thing is that I found a very welcoming adult community there for myself as well. The parent community is warm, helpful and genuinely friendly. I just relocated to Vancouver for my husband's job and we all miss Berkwood terribly. The academics are top notch too but the emphasis is to graduate a wonderfully kind, critical thinker.  If you go there your kids and your family will be welcomed and held with kindness. I really can't think of a better community to be in as newcomers. 

    Another community place was my old gym Ice Chamber in Richmond, CA near the Costco. It was full of friendly supportive people who love to put their health first and are kind to everyone. There is a room for kids and my kids pretty much grew up their with everyone knowing each other. 

    I lived in Berkeley and Albany for over 20 years and found people to be ok, but not super friendly. It might be the cautious urban chip on the shoulder many people have... I don't know if you will find friendly neighborhoods per say versus small sectors of community that will fulfill your sense of community. The Berkeley Albany area is family oriented and there are parks and places to go and the Bay Trail is nice to run. The grocery shopping for organics and produce are top notch. 

    Orinda and Lafayette are driving communities. My kids' doctor is in Lafayette and it seems very quiet there and not very ethnically diverse. 

    Good luck!

    Hi Liesa and welcome soon to the Bay Area,

    You will undoubtedly receive many variations of opinions and suggestions, so take it all with a grain of salt.  We lived abroad for several years, and I know how valuable any advice from a local can be, so I will hop in.  Marin county and all of the towns there will offer you outdoor living, friendly people, great schools and lots of hiking, beach going, etc.  commuting into SF by ferry might be the best choice.  Lafayette, Orinda, Moraga -- or Lamoraga as it's known, will be easily commutable to SF by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), and is a very homogeneous community rather disconnected from neighboring cities closer to the bay.  Berkeley (where we live), and Albany are easily commutable and offer classes, sports, family activities. -- and good schools.  Oakland has a vibrant feel, too and lots to do.  There is a great food scene, too, so get ready to try some wonderful restaurants.  Generally speaking the Bay Area has a young, friendly family vibe that I'm sure will make you feel at ease.  Volunteer at school, join a sports club and you will make fast friends.

    best of luck in your new home,


    Welcome to California!  Aussies have quite a history in the history of the Bay Area.

    You are looking at some of the most expensive rentals and sales in the world.  Be prepared.  I recommend North Berkeley.  Some very sweet neighborhoods there.  There are traps to be aware of:  If you rent a house for a specified period of time, there is no guarantee it will be available to continue to rent after the time period is over.  My rent is going up at a rate of $200 a month.  Orinda and Lafayette have their charms, but not neighborhood focused.  Marin County has some good places.  Very, very expensive here.  Mill Valley is very neighborly with houses from basic to glamorous.  Good Schools.  If you are both working, but aware of the traffic out here.  It can take over an hour and one-half to get from Berkeley to SF.  There is BART.  This is a very crowded area with a lot of traffic congested areas, little parking, and major frustrations.  I would go for Mills Valley or Corte Madera (essentially same area) or North Berkeley.  VERY, VERY, VERY tight rental market.  There is ferry boat commuting that could be fun for you.

    If I were you I'd only be considering locations with easy BART access. Consider how you'll get to the station and whether there's anywhere to park your car. If you're planning on walking to BART, try the walk at night and see how it feels. I used to walk to the El Cerrito BART stations at night all the time but I wouldn't be comfortable doing the same thing at the Ashby station. Check out the cities with stops along the Richmond line like Berkeley, El Cerrito and Kensington. Schools are great, it's safe, and people are pretty nice. We live in Kensington and couldn't be happier. We're in nature yet less than 10 minutes from the El Cerrito Plaza BART station. During the morning on weekends I can drive to the financial district in 20 minutes if I have to go in.


    Welcome to the Bay Area!

    I lived in Berkeley and Oakland 30 years ago, moved away, then moved to northern Marin County about 10 years ago. The East Bay is more hip, more urban, better transit, but also WAY more crowded and noisy.  Marin has a reputation for people being rich and entitled but that's not my experience.  I personally find Marin is more relaxed, quieter, a little more insular, more suburban, less diverse, fewer things to do at night, less intellectual and political than the East Bay, but with a lot of interest in the outdoors and animals. People here are pretty down to earth (but we've been in the less affluent areas of  Terra Linda, Santa Venetia, and Novato).  Our neighbors are working class and mid-level professionals, and their social lives may revolve around church groups, school, neighborhood events, etc.  There are lots of great outdoor areas here, better IMHO than the East Bay.  Schools here have a great reputation and get a lot of community support. That means not just parental involvement but taxes to fund arts programs, outdoor experiences, buildings, etc.  My nephew is in Boy Scouts, takes martial arts and swims at a local pool (walking distance) and his parents are very happy.  Your social network is most likely going to be other parents you meet through school.

    Housing prices are very high in Marin, but we couldn't find anything comparable in the East Bay (spent last year looking) - many expensive houses were tiny, noisy, or unsafe.  The commute to SF from the East Bay can be great if you are near a bus or BART line.  Driving is horrid. There's less transit in Marin but there are also direct commute buses to SF, and many people enjoy taking the ferry at Larkspur landing. Driving is generally a little better in Marin, but the entire Bay Area has traffic congestion.

    If I were you, I'd make use of the following to learn a little more about neighborhoods, traffic, outdoor areas, etc.:

    Google maps (use Google Earth and the traffic options) -- has lots of traffic and transit information so you can look for commute options (like direct buses and BART trains)

    and this article lists some of the most useful websites to help you narrow down your list:

    Also, contact police stations near the areas you are thinking of to get some idea about crime.

    Of course, everyone will have a different opinion and I've made some very broad generalizations.  I'll also say, having moved a lot, that you may feel homesick and lonely for quite a while no matter how lovely the new place is.  It always takes times to make friends and adjust.  So welcome and good luck!

    Welcome Liesa! I'm also from Sydney and have been living in the Bay Area for 6 years. We live in Berkeley and actually have a little Aussie mums in Berkeley group - there are plenty of us. :) 

    Berkeley is a great area but definitely not cheap so it would depend on your budget as to how affordable it would be. Feel free to contact me directly if you have further questions!

    I'd recommend Berkeley or Albany. They are walkable, fairly friendly, and close to Bart for commuting to San Francisco. The other thing is that arriving in February, you won't be able to choose a public school, your children will have to go wherever there is space available. All the schools in Berkeley and Albany are pretty much equal. If you move to San Francisco, Oakland or El Cerrito/West Contra Costa, the schools are not as equal and the kids may be placed at a school far from home.


    Please email me as my family did exactly what your family will be doing! We moved to Sydney in 2010 and just moved back in June! We lived in Maroubra and Malabar. I am happy to help you out and answer any questions that you will have now, and during your move. We live in Berkeley. Although, expensive, the weather is great, plenty of playgrounds and outdoor space, close to the bay, good public/private schools, easy access to the city via Bart and bus and very diverse and multi-cultural community. Please do not hesitate to contact me. Good luck and I look forward to reading all of your responses.


    I am a Kiwi who lived in Sydney for 5  years before I came to live in the SF Bay area. Orinda and Lafayette are very similar to Linfield, Gordon, Turramurra (the upper north shore) in socio-economic populations. The public schools in Lamorinda are for the most part very good academically, and most offer a good selection of electives as well as after school sports programs. People are generally friendly and travelled. Although the area is not without crime, it may be considered an overall a safe area. Lamorinda offers a lot of family events, shopping and although it can be quite one dimensional in terms of cultural experiences it is close enough (just a BART ride away) to diverse San Francisco and of course Berkeley. Although Lamorinda is more conservative than SF or Berkeley, if you are  family of color and/or LBGTQ you will enjoy the tolerance of the SF Bay area. Other areas you may wish to consider

    Cities in Marin such as Mill Valley, Ross, Fairfax, Sn Anselmo and Sausalito are also lovely areas though there is no BART into SF.

    Other cities to consider are : Piedmont (think lower North Shore without the water), Claremont, Rockridge & Kensington (think trendy Eastern suburbs). Albany next to Berkeley is close to SF and cute.

    Wishing you all the best with your move.

    Hi Leisa, We are a family of 4 that have relocated from New Zealand recently. We have based ourselves in Danville that has good schools although I have two preschoolers. We chose the area due to the school, community feel, out door space and friendliness. So far so good. My husband commutes into the city and finds it fine. Hope that helps, Emma 

    Albany is another place to consider. The schools have a good API rating and the city is family-friendly. There are apartments if you need to rent rather than buy. Its next to Berkeley.There is Solano Avenue and nearby El Cerrito Plaza. Its close to the freeway and buses and BART. There are three public elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. There is a park with tennis courts and a swimming pool. Tilden Park is less than a half hour drive up the hill.

    El Cerrito is nice and family friendly and the schools are decent. El Cerrito is by Albany, but a different county. I would check out Albany, El Cerrito and North Berkeley (good schools, nice people, etc).

    I wish you the best of luck!


    Look into Albany, it's got a great small town feel with a really good school district. Housing may be sparse there as well, that's the unfortunate norm here. Welcome to the bay area!

    Have you considered North Oakland (Piedmont Ave) Berkeley,  and Oakland neighborhoods (rockridge, Claremont, Montclair, trestle glen, redwood heights, upper diamond)?

    I'd recommend checking out Walnut Creek.  I work in the SF and think the commute from Walnut Creek is about the same as from Lafayette/Orinda. I live on the western side of Walnut Creek (Parkmead area) and drive to Lafayette Bart.  I timed the drive and its about the same as from Burton Valley in Lafayette (about 10 minutes). Walnut Creek is more urban compared to Lafayette/Orinda so there are tons of restaurants and shopping.  However, there is also a ton of open space for hiking, biking, etc. There is a great sense of community and good schools.  My 3 kids go to a small K-8 public school that Walnut Creek recently opened that focuses on project-based learning and STEM (Tice Creek School). We've been thrilled with it so far. I can walk downtown from my house and the kids can walk to school through 12th grade. My commute is about 1 hour door to door (about 30 minutes of that is on the train where I usually get a seat and can read, check email, etc).  Its a very family friendly place with a nice sense of community. Its also more affordable compared to Lafayette and Orinda. 

    A previous poster gave incorrect information as it regards the West Contra Costa school district serving El Cerrito, Richmond, and beyond. The poster said the kids "may be placed in a school far from home". This is wrong. The schools are neighborhood schools, meaning you have a "home school" serving your neighborhood. There is a map online to look up your home school. When you arrive, even if midyear, go to your home school to register your children. If there is space at your home school. If there is not space midyear, they will work with you to pick the next closest school with space for your child/ren, within what they call the "family of schools" within the district. There is an "EC family of schools", so you will end up somewhere nearby if not within walking distance. Whenever space opens up at your home school (midyear, or at the start of the new school year), you will be notified, and you will have the option of changing to your home school or remaining at your new school as a transfer student.

    If you are looking at the greater Berkeley area, you will end up considering places in El Cerrito/Richmond, and as a local public school parent, I would not agree with the previous poster's position that the schools are a reason not to consider this area. (And, there is at least one other Australian mom at our public school serving EC/Richmond Annex!)