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What You Need to Know Before Moving to San Francisco

April 27th, 2012 · 6 Comments · san francisco


People have a habit of falling in love with San Francisco. It might be Duboce park that eventually charms visitors, or the view from the top of 22nd Street. They might even hold out until we’re at a vineyard in Sonoma during sunset. As one friend put it, “it’s like a fairy tale.” And they want in.

Before you pack up your sofa and hire the movers, though, there are a few things you need to know. Yes, we do spend Saturdays horse back riding on the beaches of Point Reyes, and we do live just a few blocks away from world renown restaurants.

But, living in San Francisco comes with a unique set of challenges, thanks to its geography, history, and liberal real estate laws. Here’s what I wish someone told us before our own cross country move.


1. You will never feel warm again.


Ok, I’m only slightly joking. If you’ve ever visited San Francisco, chances are you’ve gone home with your very own, brand new San Francisco fleece. Before moving here, I once bought a wool coat during a trip. In August.

Our weather ranges from a clear, brisk Autumn day to a chilly, early Spring day. Technically, our high temperatures range from the mid-40s to the mid-80’s, but we spend most of the year in the 50’s and 60s. Add in that damp, misty Pacific Ocean air, sweeping over the Outer Sunset and Richmond, finally settling into San Francisco’s paved canyons, and you’ve got yourself one cool city.

The good news is that you do get used to it after a while, and you’ll soon forget all about those cute sundresses taking up space in your closet. If a heat wave breaks out in October, with temperatures reaching a whopping 80ºF, you’ll join the rest of the heat-soaked masses begging for the sweet, sweet fog to roll back in.


Subtopic: The microclimates are real

You may have heard people in SF talk about the city’s “micro-climates.” They totally aren’t just making that up! Thanks to SF’s steep hills and climate-affecting Twin Peaks ridge, temperatures, wind conditions, and fog can change drastically depending on which block you’re on.

As you walk from the top of a hill to its base, temperatures can fluctuate by nearly 10 degrees. Fog and mist might inundate the Richmond while it’s a gloriously sunny day in Potrero Hill. If sunlight is important to you, you might want to keep the micro-climates in mind when choosing which neighborhood you want to live in.

And yes, this is why the San Francisco uniform is hoodies and cardigans, with maybe a jacket in our messenger bags just in case. The weather is always changing.


2. You can only call it San Francisco, SF, or the city.


You guys, what you call the city is a touchy subject here. I don’t think any other city in the US has such a vitriolic reaction to people calling their city by the wrong name. After living here a few months, “San Fran” will sound like nails on a chalkboard. If you are trying to irritate the locals, “Frisco” is also a surefire way to go.


3. The Sticker Shock


Have you already been scouring apartments on Craigslist? The apartments and houses here are swoon worthy. All the architectural details and hard wood floors! Original crown moldings and built-ins! Bay windows and sunlight! Oh, the sunlight.

But, it’s expensive. San Francisco is geographically small (one-sixth the size of New York, a little over one-third the size of Portland), the demand is high, and the Silicon Valley workers have cash. San Francisco’s median home price is $799,000. Compare that to to $896,000 in Manhattan; $720,000 in Washington, DC; $635,000 in Orange County; $571,000 in Brooklyn; and $265,000 in Chicago. Yeeps.

The rental market is just as expensive. The Wall Street Journal recently reported average rents for a studio apartment in the gentrifying Divisadero Corridor neighborhood is $1,800/month. People can and do pay $2 to $3,000/month for a small 1 bedroom apartment.

The century-old housing stock (think circa 1906) also has a lot of quirks — plaster and lathe walls, custom molded glass windows that are hard to replace, retrofitted plumbing. Most apartments also don’t come with any type of centralized heating or cooling — no furnace, radiators, or central air. All of our friends make due with gas heater units in only one room, or shuffle an electric heater from room to room. It’s a little 19th century, sure, but you eventually get used to it (see #1 above).


Subtopic: Let’s talk rent control

The good or bad news for you, depending on how you look at it, is that nearly every apartment in the city is under rent control. Yes way.

If your apartment building was built before 1979 (and in a city of Victorians and Edwardians, yours probably was), congratulations: your landlord can’t increase your rent more than inflation. Ever.

(We’ll save the supply-demand/inflated rents discussions for the economists.)


4. Earthquakes, not so much scary as inconvenient

Once you’ve decided to move to San Francisco, all your friends and family will bring out the earthquake jokes. Let’s get the bad news out of the way: San Francisco sits on top of the San Andreas fault line. It is also sandwiched between two other fault lines: the San Gregorio fault line and Hayward fault zone. There are small earthquakes in the Bay Area every day. No, I’m not joking. (Don’t click on that link if you’re scared of earthquakes.) Both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes were along the San Andreas fault.

Seismologists predict that there’s a 63% chance that the Bay Area will experience a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the next 30 years.

With all that out of the way, you’ll soon discover that living in earthquake country is more inconvenient than scary. First, there’s the earthquake insurance you’ll have to get, in addition to your homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance. Second, you can no longer just stand up a bookcase, wardrobe, or armoire and call it a day. No, you’re going to have to secure that to a wall somehow. You get bonus hardship points if you have original plaster walls that you can’t drill into without shattering.

Third, this is a bad place for family heirlooms. You know your great grandmother’s china, which you’ve always proudly displayed? You’ll have to store that away, on a low shelf, packaged safely in cellophane, and maybe brought out once a year for special occasions. Unpacking your things into your new home will be an exercise in risk management — will I care if this lamp is thrown to the floor? If this piece of art falls on top of my bed during an earthquake, will I be injured? It makes for sparse living.

And then there’s the neighborhood shopping component. Some of the city’s neighborhoods are built on bedrock (good) and some are built on fill (bad). Here is a handy map of which of San Francisco’s neighborhood will liquefy in the event of a major earthquake. Yes, “liquefy.” There’s a reason all those apartment buildings in the Marina look brand new…



5. Put on your walking shoes.

Due to the city’s dearth of on-street parking and slow transit service, we end up walking a lot here. Depending on which neighborhood you are headed to, parking can be a 40-minute drill of cycling through the same narrow streets, cresting the same hills, hoping that at some point, the wait will end.

The city’s public transit can also be hit or miss, with only one subway line serving a narrow corridor of the city. I once excitedly texted my husband that it only took MUNI 40 minutes to get me from 20th Street to Market Street! Note, that’s a 1.2 mile trip. Also note, MUNI had exceeded my expectations.

So, when you are debating how to get to a friends’ house 2 miles away, and you weigh your options — driving around in circles for 40 minutes, sitting on a bus for a half hour, or walking — walking starts to look like a highly reasonable option.


6. The Ocean is only for looking at.

It’s a cruel, cruel world out here. You know all those photos of luscious blue California beaches? A total tease. Unless you own a wet suit, strolling on the beach is the only thing you’ll be doing. The water is icy.

Santa Cruz’s beach temperature only goes up to 60ºF in August, which is on par with water temperatures in Bar Harbor, Maine. Even Los Angeles’ beaches only go up to 68ºF in August (think Boston Harbor).

Sure, you’ll see native San Franciscans and their children swimming around like it’s the Bahamas. But they have a thicker skin than the rest of us.


7. San Francisco has a long and fascinating history

Did you know San Francisco was first settled in 1776? True story. Northern California has been claimed by Russia, Spain, Mexico, and finally the United States. San Francisco first saw Chinese immigration in the mid-1850’s, before the Civil War. The early Supreme Court civil rights cases even came out of San Francisco, when Chinese residents challenged discriminatory city ordinances.

If your interests are more in line with the Beat poets or the Summer of Love, the cool thing about San Francisco is those folks are still here and will tell you about it first hand.

So, that’s the key thing to know about our city. Once you move here, you’ll find that San Francisco is so much more than tech start-ups, hipster boutiques, and artisan bakeries. You might just decide to never leave.


Have you just moved to San Francisco? Did you have any rude awakenings? What do you think people need to know before making the plunge? Let us know in the comments!


by Maria/Far Out City.  Maria publishes elaborate San Francisco Bay Area day trip itineraries over at Far Out City.  All photos copyright by 2012 Far Out City.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • On SF Travel: What You Need to Know Before Moving to San Francisco | Far Out City

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  • Branden

    I grew up here, and I’m confused about #6. Is the ocean is supposed to be warmer than that?

  • faroutsf

    I grew up going to the New Jersey beaches, where ocean temperatures track air temperatures. Icy in the winter, cool in the spring, warm in the Summer. It was a complete shock to learn this was not true in California, but helps explain why the East vs West beach cultures are so different.

  • Rose

    Thanks for the advice! I am set to move in two weeks and I am so excited! I will definitely remember your points!

  • jasmyne

    totally true! I loved here from So Cal where I used to wear heels and sun dresses all year long. Needless to say those are all in my closet hidden behind my flats and jackets!

  • Page Larkin

    Yes, living in the City is a trip – and each day is like Halloween – however – there isnt’ a more fun, diverse, exciting city in the West. Love your blog!
    PS Natives can and
    call do it “Frisco” – just to be frisky.

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