Moving from DC to the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

  • Hi Everyone - 

    My family is considering a move to the area and need advice.  Some background on me:  I grew up in Santa Cruz and so I'm familiar with CA, but my knowledge of the area is quite dated (and limited in scope, given that I was teenager/young adult when I moved to DC).  Growing up, I always felt I belonged on the East Coast (I love the seasons, the architecture, the history and, at the time, envisioned a career in international affairs).  Well, my career has taken a new direction and it's now my husband's turn to follow the job of his dreams - at Stanford.  We've talked about moving before, but dreamed of a location that would be lower stress, require less time in the car, and give us more value for our money.  I don't think the Bay Area really fits the bill very well in terms of these factors (I would love dissenting views on this!), so I'm feeling apprehensive about the move and need your advice/perspective.

    Schools:  My kids just changed schools this fall and I worry about adding more transitions to their lives.  They are in private school right now.  In DC, most private schools run from PK-12.  Based on some preliminary internet searching, it looks like there aren't any co-ed private schools in the Bay Area that cover this grade range.  Is that true?  I would love to hear if there are K-12 private schools you could recommend.  In DC (as in the Bay Area, I expect) getting admitted to a private school, even in the early grades, is kind of a big ordeal (testing, interviews, etc.) and I would rather not have to do this again multiple times for elementary, junior high and then high school.  We've been very fortunate here in DC to find a progressive school that develops the whole person and places as much emphasis on art, music, drama, etc. as it does on traditional subjects (with almost no emphasis on testing).  There are a number of different reasons for preferring the private school route, but small class sizes and an emphasis on letting kids try new things without fear of failure are key to us.  Our kids are highly motivated, but we are not interested in pressure-cooker schools.  

    Housing:  I looked at Zillow and my jaw dropped at the price of housing (I thought DC was expensive!)....We are looking for a safe, walkable area with a community feel and prefer 3-4 bedrooms plus some yard space (I love to garden).  My husband plans to bike to work (he currently does that here in DC), so we would need to place ourselves where he could safely bike to Stanford (assuming that exists).  We will have a car, but strongly prefer to avoid long commutes in the car.  Based on what I see online, this is a pipe dream for under $2M, but I would love to hear otherwise!  

    Stress:  How intense of an environment should we expect?  One thing I've noticed is that while DC parents are intense about their own jobs, they are comparatively mellow about their kids.  No one has tutors in elementary school, for instance, and kids can play on a soccer team even if they aren't particularly good.  By contrast, my friends in SoCal say their kids are under intense pressure to succeed at very early ages, academically and otherwise.  Where does the Bay Area sit on the spectrum?

    The communities within a short biking distance to Stanford are very expensive. I don't think you'd find much in terms of housing under $2M that didn't need a lot of work. However, there are some more "affordable" pockets within Redwood City which wouldn't be too far from Stanford. What I'd recommend is looking further south in San Jose. Not an ideal biking commute, but your husband could bike to/from the train station which is close to Stanford. Stanford also has a Commute Club where he could carpool with others in his neighborhood. As far as progressive K-12 private schools, I don't have a lot of information there except that I'd highly recommend the Discovery Charter Schools (both in San Jose -- one in the Moreland SD, the other in SJ Unified). They are K-8 schools with small classroom size, progressive, enrichment courses, and highly encourage kids to take risks and approach problems in different ways. Kids learn at their own pace, and is homework is minimal and doesn't start until the upper grades. One caveat though is it's a parent participation school so can be challenging if both parents work full time. Here's the link for more info: Also, I'd encourage you to look at other public schools. While many on the Peninsula are hyper-focused on grades and have intense pressure, several school districts are starting to adopt no homework policies and some have smaller class sizes. Most of the K-12 private schools I'm familiar with are academically intense and a bit homogenizing as far as ways to approach learning, so I'd love to hear what others say about options there.

    I'm sorry, but this is not going to provide any happy answers. Unless you have a very huge pile of cash somewhere, you won't be able to buy a place within biking distance of Stanford. Traffic is horrible everywhere. Rents are incredibly expensive. Your only option that would allow biking to work might be housing through the university assuming your husband is eligible for that benefit. It is hard to convey to people just how expensive it has gotten to live here and how terrible the traffic can be. And there is a lot of stress here, especially the microclimate around Stanford and Palo Alto, reflected tragically by a number of teen suicides on the train tracks over the past decade in Palo Alto. But hey, the weather is great and there are good restaurants (although they sometimes close because they can't find staff because it is so expensive here: I wish I had better news.

    Congrats on the upcoming move!  

    As you know, CA is generally much more laid back than the East Coast (or so I've heard, I've never lived outside of CA).  If you haven't been back in a while, you should know that the Peninsula is nothing like it used to be - the orchards and cows have been replaced by houses and office parks, people in the South Bay cherish fancy cars (almost like LA), and people actually want to live in Mountain View!  It is still gorgeous though but it is all a bit bizarre for those of us who grew up in the Bay and witnessed the change... 

    A few thoughts...

    Schools: If you live in Palo Alto, certain parts of Menlo Park, or Los Altos, you should really take advantage of the public school system.  The districts are very well funded and have strong academics with dedicated parents.  The curriculum may be a bit more traditional than what you have now but there will be plenty of arts, music, and other extracurriculars (even the less well funded public schools I know include gardening and yoga in the lower school experience).  Plus, saving money on private school can help free up some money for a house.  As for K-12 private schools there are a few in the Bay Area (for example, Head-Royce in Oakland is co-ed, K-12) but I'm not as familiar with the peninsula options.  Yes, the private schools will have testing and interviews and other admissions criteria that obviously don't apply to public school students - the intensity of those will vary by age more than anything.   

    Housing - Yes, its pricey (welcome back!) and the peninsula is particularly insane.  $2M generally buys a 1500sft fixer in Palo Alto (or, in some cases, complete tear down).  I would try to work with the University to see if your family is eligible for any housing subsidies, I know Stanford offers them for certain roles.  If that fails, rent while you dip your toes in the water.  I think it is great that you plan to prioritize a bike commute into your housing decision - it may mean you need to settle for a smaller house, or smaller yard, slightly less "desirable" neighborhood, but commute traffic throughout the entire Bay Area has reached crisis mode and Palo Alto is a wonderful place to bike.  Plus biking to work saves time, money, sanity, the environment, and improves health!  

    Stress: I'd say people here are intense about their jobs but equally intense about their lives outside of their jobs.  So if you like to bike, hike, surf, volunteer, etc., there is a crowd for you!  As for children, there will always be parents who are competitive with their children.  Peninsula students may have a bit more pressure to succeed academically; the Bay Area is a pretty intellectual/academic community and sitting in the shadows of Stanford and other extremely successful one-in-a-million entrepreneurs/startups compounds this.  But you can control for the stress by setting your own expectations with your children and teaching them to filter out the noise (because that's all it really is).      

    Just take a deep breath, get your true priorities in line first to enable you to make the best decisions!  Best of luck!  Everything will be fine.  

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Moving to Bay Area from Washington DC - seeking suburbs

March 2012

My husband, 18 month old son and I are moving to the Bay area this summer from the Washington DC - Northern Virginia area. My husband will be working in downtown San Francisco but we are looking to rent somewhere in the 'suburbs'. Can anyone suggest neighborhoods on the outskirts that are family-friendly, safe and affordable but still commutable downtown? Easy access to grocery and big box stores and parks would be good. Don't need to be close to public transportation. Any great parts of Oakland that we should check out? What areas should we strike off the list that are too far out? Thanks very much! Jennifer

Alameda ! It's a great town -- and an island in San Francisco Bay with a gorgeous beach --family friendly, a few minutes to the city. Nice. Formerly from DC

For family-friendly, safe, and commutable, I'd say look in the Montclair and maybe Rockridge areas of Oakland. Public schools are decent in elementary, okay in middle and high school, depending on what schools you attend. Many people go private after elementary school. You child is only 18 months, so you'd have time to figure that out.

A little further out in the East Bay, Lafayette is great. It has pretty easy freeway access, a BART station, and good shopping/dining. The schools are excellent all the way through. Orinda is pretty and has good schools. It is quite hilly (as is Montclair), so many neighborhoods aren't the best for walking, bike riding, playing in the street, etc.


East Bay neighborhoods like DC Metro

March 2009

Hi, We are moving to East Bay from DC Metro area for my husband's new job. He'll be working in Oakland and Pleasanton. We have a 1 year old boy. We love where we are currently living. We are 1/2 mile to 2 subway stations while only 1 and 1/2 mile to DC. When we have to drive, we can travel to anywhere in the area within 30-60 mins top(we are against the traffic during rush hours). Our neighborhood is diverse (in a mixing bowl, melting pot sense, not pressure cooker kind). Even though we tug away in a very safe/friendly neighborhood w/ very few cars pass by (we are behind a service road), within 1/2 mile, we have great restaurants, bars, shopping, 3 playgrounds, great public schools. We want to find a neighborhood that comparable to where we are. We can afford a home up to around low to mid'900k (but lesser we need to spend the better). Any advice is welcome. Our first thought is Berkeley b/c my husband lived there long long time ago, but any advice on any place is welcome. ! Thanks Moving to East Bay from DC Metro

I used to live in DC (Adam's Morgan area), and we now live in Berkeley with our 22 month old and love it. We live in North Berkeley , in the Westbrae neighborhood, and love the fact that we are a 10 minute drive from the city (with no traffic, 30 with traffic), less than 10 min. walk from BART, have several local bus lines that stop within a block of our house, and plenty of great shopping within walking distance (Monterey/Hopkins shopping district, as well as Solano Ave), and can walk to several really nice playgrounds and parks. We rarely need to use our car. I think this is an ideal neighborhood for someone used to diversity and convenience of urban living, but looking for a bit more quiet, child-friendly living environment with plenty of parking. You should definitely consider Berkeley for your relocation. Hillary

Oakland! My husband and I moved to Oakland 8 years ago from Hoboken (NYC Metro area), and both love Oakland. Many of the attributes you mention about DC we have here: close to transp (BART), parks, shopping, good food, etc., diversity, proximity to SF, Napa/Sonoma, Marin, Tahoe... Since you have a child, I'd recommend looking at the following areas of Oakland: Rockridge (closest to trans), Montclair or Crocker Highlands . I know a terrific realtor, who I can put you in touch with. If you're interested, please email me. Good luck with your move! Missy

We moved from DC to Oakland two years ago and like it SOOOOO much more. We lived in a variety of neighborhoods in and around DC (Adam's Morgan, Capitol Hill, Clarendon, Silver Spring) over the years always still felt cramped. The pace of the area just feels so different to me than here. For example, people here brake for pedestrians! At first, it drove me nuts -- I would get enraged at cars stopping in front of me to let someone cross the street when there wasn't even a light or stop sign. And then I realized, ''Wow, that's really nice. You don't have to risk your life to cross the street here.''

Anyway, on to your topic of interest. I think Oakland is terrific and has a ton to offer. In your price range, you could easily live in more upscale neighborhoods in Oakland and have a nice single-family home (which there are a lot more of in this area compared to cramped, apartment and row-house/townhouse crazy DC). For a neighborhood that has BART within walking distance plus shops and restaurants nearby, I'd look at Rockridge and maybe Temescal . I also really like the Dimond District. Grand Lake/Lake Merritt has some terrific shopsand restaurants and the North side of the lake is considered nicer, but there are mostly apartments right around the lake and then houses a few blocks out. Great houses with terrific walkability. Montclair and Broadway Terrace are really nice too but it's quite hilly and many houses aren't walking distance to the shops and restuarants or BART.

We live in Maxwell Park and really like it but we aren't as close to BART. But, it does have a very neighborhoody feel to it with mostly all single-family homes that have been here since the 1920s.

Working downtown in Oakland would be a quick BART ride away or like a 10 minute drive from most of the neighborhoods I've mentioned.

Depending upon the age of your kids and whether you plan to go public or private for schooling may influence your decision as well. We only have a baby so I can't speak to the quality of the schools from experience. I'm sure others can chime in on that.

Best of luck with your move! I'm sure your family will love your move to the Bay. :) Happy to be out of DC

Sounds like you would really like North Berkeley - specifically the neighborhood near the Monterey Market, because it has a wonderful urban community feel complete with daily farmer's market, deli, cheese shop, fish shop, pizza, wine store. And, a public pool, tennis, parks, library. Plus Bart for public transportation into the city (SF) close by. Also, decent public schools. Especially look into MLK middle school because it is famous for its Edible Schoolyard program started by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Your house budget will serve you well in almost any neighborhood in Berkeley. The nice thing about this one is it is between the hills and the flats and it has great housing stock with lots of character abound, and it's a very walkable part of town. You really don't need a car. Check out specific neighborhoods' walk score on several web sites. Love North Berkeley