For many, living in California is a dream, and Berkeley rises to the top of many ‘best-of’ lists due to its unique lifestyle options, culture, art, and education. Perfectly situated on the east side of the bay across from San Francisco, residents enjoy a more intimate city vibe but also reap the benefits of living near a large metropolitan area.
Berkeley residents appreciate the idyllic mild weather, the thriving entertainment scene, and an eco-minded population. Home of the University of California Berkeley, the city exudes energetic college-town vibes and a vibrant, eclectic social scene. On the downside, it’s expensive to live in Berkeley, and finding housing can be particularly challenging. If you’re hoping to rent when you move to the area, try to avoid arriving at the start of the school year because you’ll have to compete with tens of thousands of students who are also racing to find housing. If you plan to buy a home, be prepared to join a competitive market and make quick decisions since many homes sell quickly.
Living in Berkeley, CA: What to Know Before Moving to Berkeley
With a population of just over 122,000, about one-fourth of Berkeley residents are enrolled at the University of California Berkeley. ‘The People’s Republic of Berkeley’ is influenced by the university’s widely known reputation for liberal student activism and diverse culture. Environmentally conscious Berkeley embodies a unique California lifestyle.
Pros and Cons of Living in Berkeley
If you’re considering moving to Berkeley, consider these pros and cons.
- Mild year-round weather
- Vibrant arts and music scene.
- Bicycle-friendly streets.
- Books, books, and more books! Independent bookstores feed well-read and educated residents.
- Diverse population and distinct neighborhoods.
- Close proximity to San Francisco and all that the metropolitan city has to offer.
- The high cost of living is 52.9% higher than the national average.
- Homeownership isn’t attainable for those making average incomes.
- Marijuana is legal and popular, so if you don’t approve, this will be a downside for you.
- Some areas are unsafe at night – it’s best to learn where they are and avoid them.
- With the mild weather and hippie vibe, Berkeley has a homeless and transient population.
Not surprisingly, sales and income taxes in California are high compared to many other states. On the contrary, property taxes in Berkeley are low.
- Property Tax: Property taxes in Berkeley are surprisingly low. Alameda County assesses 0.866%, which is a bit above the average California property tax, but lower than the national average.
- Sales Tax: The sales tax in Berkeley is 9.25%, which is much higher than the national average of 7.3%.
- State Income Tax: The average income tax rate in Berkeley is 9.3%, which is much higher than the US average of 4.6%.
Berkeley’s housing market is one of the most competitive in the country. Since it’s such a desirable place to live, competition is fierce, and housing is expensive. Homeowners can expect to pay roughly 20% above list price and have to act quickly – most property isn’t on the market for more than a few weeks. If you’re not used to California prices, hold your breath. As of November 2019, the median home value was $1,238,600.
Largely due to university student demand, it’s not surprising that 54% of people who live in Berkeley are renters. The median monthly rent is $3,500, and the average apartment size is 724 square feet. You might get lucky and find a more affordable space; however, 90% of Berkeley rentals are over $2,000 per month.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Berkeley is high. Bestplaces.net rates US cities’ cost of living on an index of 100; an amount below 100 means a cheaper than average cost, and a number above 100 means a more expensive cost. The Berkeley cost of living index is a whopping 287.5. In terms of specific expenses, Berkeley ranks 110.8 in grocery, 97.6 in health, 694.6 in housing, 91.3 in utilities, and 126.2 in transportation. According to the family budget calculator, a family of four (two adults and two children) must earn $121,922 annually to live in Berkeley.
Weather & Natural Disasters
The weather in Berkeley is mild, and seasonal variations are limited to cool, moist winters and dry warm summers. December and January are the coolest months with highs that average in the high 50s and lows in the low 40s. August and September are the warmest months with average highs in the mid-70s and lows in the mid-50s.
Berkeley averages about 26 inches of rain each year, and most of it falls between late November and March. Snow is extremely rare, so if you long for a winter filled with the flaky white stuff, Berkeley isn’t the city for you.
Berkeley is prone to a variety of natural disaster threats, particularly earthquakes that include side effects of liquefaction, tsunami, and landslide. Wildfires, drought, and flooding are additional threats. As you prepare to move to Berkeley, also prepare yourself and your family for any natural disaster threats by checking out the City of Berkeley emergency plan.
Economy & Job Market
The economy in Berkeley is strong. Compared to the US unemployment rate of 3.9%, the unemployment rate in Berkeley is 2.8%. Future job growth is predicted to outpace the US average over the next ten years. The median household income for a resident is $65,283 per year, which is much higher than the US average of $53,482 per year.
Education; professional, scientific, and technical services; health care and social assistance; retail trade; manufacturing; and accommodation/food services are the top-ranking industries. Not surprisingly, the largest job sector in Berkeley is educational services, which comprise just over 25% of the workforce. The University of California Berkeley is the city’s top employer followed by The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, and City of Berkeley.
If you’re looking for a job in Berkeley, check the options on simplyhired.com, linkedin.com, indeed.com, and other online job boards. It’s common for many Berkeley residents to seek employment in neighboring cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The market is competitive, so securing work before you arrive in the city is a good idea.
Traffic and Transportation
The compact, three-by-four-mile city of Berkeley is easy to navigate. Situated just 23 miles from the San Francisco airport, the city is accessible by rapid transit, train, bus, or car. If traveling by car, keep in mind that traffic is especially challenging during rush hours.
The major north-south thoroughfare is Interstate 580, and east-west I-80, also known as the Bay Bridge, connects Berkeley to San Francisco. During rush hours, you can expect especially bad traffic jams on I-80.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) efficiently provides access to the greater metro Bay Area plus the San Francisco and Oakland Airports. BART’s BikeHub service makes it easy and convenient to park or even repair your bike in certain stations. AMTRAK, with trains that connect to Southern California, has one stop at Jack London Square, 700 University Avenue. AC Transit is the primary bus operator, is accessible, affordable, and makes frequent trips all over the bay area.
The walk score in Berkeley is 81 out of 100, and the bike score is 85 out of 100, so it’s considered a very walkable and bike-friendly city. The transit score is 59, rather surprising for BART’s notoriety and popularity. Traffic is especially congested around downtown and on the UC Berkeley campus during Berkeley Bears football games. Parking in these areas at any time of day can be challenging.
What to Do
If you get bored living in Berkeley, you’re doing it wrong. With mild weather year-round, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy in your free time. If you enjoy exploring urban lifestyles you’ll love the wide variety of ethnic and farm-to-fork restaurants, bookstores, boutiques, independent businesses, and hippie-style kiosks. You can find an amazing variety of entertainment options from museums, theaters, symphonies, music clubs, and more.
If you crave green spaces, numerous beautiful parks dot the city. One of the most special is Tilden Regional Park, a 740-acre nature preserve home to a 100-year-old merry go round, a golf course, sweeping views, and a variety of recreation options. For more recreation, sports aficionados can cheer on the blue and gold UC Berkeley Bears, but if you’re a die-hard pro-sports fan, the Bay Area is full of options.
Schools and Universities
The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) is made up of 20 schools and serves nearly 10,000 students. According to greatschools.net, public school quality ranges from poor to very high. The highest rated schools are Berkeley High School 8/10, Jefferson Elementary School 8/10, Martin Luther King Middle School 8/10, and Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier School 8/10.
The University of California Berkeley is a public research university that serves over 40,000 students each year. Founded in 1868, the university was once known for student activism, particularly in opposition to the Vietnam War. Though more conservative today, the campus continues to favor free thinking. Berkeley City College, formerly known as Vista Community College, is centrally located in downtown Berkeley and serves nearly 7,000 students.
Bestplaces.net ranks Berkeley’s violent crime at 28.5 on a 100-point scale. This crime rate is higher than the national average of 22.7. Property crime is unusually high in the city, ranking 64.6 compared to the US average of 35.4. Crime is the highest in the city center.
When moving to Berkeley, you’ll need to contact several providers to set up your utilities.
- Gas service: Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Call the 24-hour customer service line at 1-800-732-5000. To start service online, click here.
- Electric service: Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Call the 24-hour customer service line at 1-800-732-5000. To start service online, click here.
- Water service: East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD): Call the 24-hour customer service line at 1-866-403-2683. To start your service online, click here.
- Trash pick-up/recycling service: To set up refuse collection, call the City of Berkeley at 1-510-981-7270. You won’t be able to start service online, but you can review the application process here.
- Internet/cable service: You can choose between AT&T and Comcast for internet and cable services. For AT&T, call 1-800-288-2020. For Comcast, call 1-800-COMCAST.
Best Neighborhoods in Berkeley, CA
Berkeley neighborhoods are filled with terrific character and vary from lively urban centers near the bay to suburban and even exclusive woodsy areas in the hills. In this guide, you’ll be able to locate eight of the best Berkeley neighborhoods based on their relationship to the UC Berkeley campus.
The Elmwood District, just south of the UC Berkeley campus, is one of Berkeley’s most desirable neighborhoods to live in, but it’s also one of the most expensive. The neighborhood borders Telegraph Avenue on the west, Claremont Avenue on the east, Dwight Way to the north, and Woolsey Street to the south. Older Craftsman-style and vintage homes in this area date back to the early 1900s. Leading architects of the time, including Julia Morgan, John Hudson Thomas, and Bernard Maybeck, designed many of these homes.
Although Elmwood is mainly a residential neighborhood, there’s lively energy in the compact commercial area. The Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library and Willard Park complement gourmet restaurants, farm-to-fork spots, ethnic cafes, and a variety of locally-owned shops. Getting in and around the Bay Area on public transportation is easy via the Rockridge BART station.
- Population – 4,436
- Home Price – Median sales price $1,630,000
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,231
- Schools – Leconte Elementary School 6/10, Emerson Elementary School 7/10l, Willard Middle School 9/10, Berkeley High School 8/10
Something to try: Visit the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, once a church designed by the famed architect.
Known as the second-best neighborhood in Berkeley, South Berkeley is just under two miles, or a seven-minute drive, from the UC Berkeley campus. Ashby Ave, also known as State Highway 13, runs through this neighborhood and makes getting around Berkeley fairly easy. As a more diverse population has moved into the area, the restaurant, café, and independent business offerings have become more varied and interesting.
South Berkeley is home to several innovative community offerings. The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library features a unique Tool Lending Library if you’re a handyperson or want to get your hands dirty. Spiral Gardens is a nonprofit urban garden center that offers free gardening classes if you want to become ‘greener.’ Weekend flea markets, a Tuesday night Farmers’ Market, and the annual Juneteenth Street Festival are events that set this neighborhood apart.
- Population – 18,053
- Home Price – Median home value $753,754
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,222
- Schools – Malcolm X Elementary School 6/10, Longfellow Arts and Technology Middle School 4/10, Berkeley Technology Academy 2/10
Something to try: Visit the Thai Temple on Russell Street for Sunday brunch.
Known as Berkeley’s Theater District, this historic section of the city is just west of campus. In this area, you’ll find high-rise apartments, some with spectacular bay views, and a lively nightlife. Filled with bars, restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, and boutiques, the downtown area is known for great food, art, and music. Downtown cuisine ranges from French bistros to Tibetan food to vegetarian options, and you’ll find the café culture tends to be taken over by students during finals week.
Downtown Berkeley’s crime rate is higher than in other neighborhoods, so be sure to stay in well-lit areas at night and always be alert. Downtown can be noisy and in some places a little on the dirty side. A BART station and two bike-share stations make commuting easy in downtown.
- Population – 5,427
- Home Price – Median home value $1.2M
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,231
- Schools – Washington Elementary School 6/10, Berkeley High School 8/10
Something to try: Long Life Vegi House – a Chinese restaurant that features soybean entrees rather than duck, pork, chicken, or cow.
The Southside/Telegraph Avenue district is just a half-mile, or four-minute drive, from the UC Berkeley campus. Stuart Baker, executive director of Telegraph Business Improvement District, described the neighborhood as “young, unique, and very Berkeley.”
You’ll find apartments, small vintage rental homes, condos, and single-family homes throughout Southside. As a center for campus and student life, the area is full of bookstores, cafes, restaurants, vintage clothing shops, and street vendors. Once known as a symbol of 1960s counterculture, these days, you’ll find buskers playing music on street corners and perhaps more homeless folks than in other areas of the city.
- Population – 20,744
- Home Price – Median home value $2,120,000
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,392
- Schools – Emerson Elementary School 7/10, Willard Middle School 9/10, Berkeley High School 8/10
Something to try: Grateful Day Festival, a holiday street fair celebration that provides the opportunity to fill yourself with gratitude.
Directly north of campus, North Berkeley is not only inhabited by families and young professionals, but also by many graduate students and professors. North Berkeley is quieter than downtown, and tree-lined streets give way to large, expensive homes.
Known as a great place for families, most residents rent their homes. The public schools in North Berkeley are highly rated, and the majority of residents in this area are liberal. There’s an urban feel to the neighborhood, and you’ll find a great selection of grocery and convenience stores, cafes, wine bars, restaurants, cool artisan coffee houses, and some parks.
- Population – 22,312
- Home Price – Median list price $934,000
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,147
- Schools – Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier School 8/10, Martin Luther King Middle School 8/10, Berkeley High School 8/10.
Something to try: Visit the weekly Thursday farmers’ market.
Central Berkeley was voted the #1 ‘Neighborhood for Young Professionals’ on niche.com. Located about a mile, or seven-minute drive, west of the UC Berkeley campus, this neighborhood is also directly west of downtown Berkeley. Central Berkeley is bordered on the north by University Avenue, on the south by Dwight Way, on the west by Sacramento Street, and the east by Martin Luther King Way. With a fairly small footprint of less than one square mile, Central Berkeley has an urban feel, and 67% of residents in this area are renters.
The diverse groups of people who live in Central Berkeley include retirees, families, young professionals, and students. Homes vary from pricey but small two-bedroom vintage bungalows to lovely two-story homes priced at over a million dollars. Known for lively nightlife, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks, liberal Central Berkeley appeals to those wanting an urban lifestyle and access to great public transportation.
- Population – 13,859
- Home Price – Median sale price $1,050,000
- Rent Prices – Median rent $3,116
- Schools – Washington Elementary School 6/10, Berkeley High School 8/10
Something to try: Catch a comedy show at Stone Soup Improv.
The Claremont neighborhood sits on the southeast side of Berkeley adjacent to the city of Oakland. Two miles and a 10-minute drive south of the UC campus, this neighborhood offers a mix of suburban and urban lifestyles, and most residents are homeowners. Grand, architecturally distinct homes with private and unique gardens line the hills of oak-studded Claremont Canyon. Many homes were built in the early 1900s after the 1906 earthquake shook the Bay Area. Adding to the exclusivity of Claremont, the Claremont Hotel and Resort has been welcoming guests for over a century.
Liberal residents enjoy the wine bars, restaurants, and hip coffee houses along Claremont and Ashby Avenues. With highly-rated public schools, more privacy than other neighborhoods, and exclusivity, Claremont is an extremely beautiful area of Berkeley.
- Population – 1,545
- Home Price – Median home value $2,150,000
- Rent Prices – Median rent $5,000
- Schools – John Muir Elementary School 6/10, Willard Middle School 8/10, Berkeley High School 8/10
Something to try: Enjoy some yummy food at Sidewalk Street Food, a casual Vietnamese cafe.
If you’d love to live in a woodsy neighborhood among winding hilly roads, this might be the perfect neighborhood for you. Situated directly north of the UC Berkeley campus, many homes have beautiful city and bay views. Each home is unique, and styles can include traditional, Tuscan villa, contemporary barn, or mid-century modern. Southampton Blvd features many homes built in amazing period revival architectural styles. Charming stairways and pathways weave throughout the Berkeley Hills and connect residents to amenities in North Berkeley. While you’re out and about, you might even catch glimpses of deer, raccoons, fox, and an occasional coyote.
Housing is expensive in this neighborhood, and you’ll likely need a car to commute and run errands. If you’d prefer to rent in the Berkeley Hills, you may find a room or guest house rental. Berkeley Hills is known to be one of the safer neighborhoods in the area. It’s quiet, dog-friendly, and neighbors share community ethics.
- Population – 15,224
- Home Price – Median home value $1,300,000
- Rent Prices – Rents are well over $3,500
- Schools – Emerson Elementary School 8/10, Willard Middle School 8/10, Berkeley High School 8/10.
Something to try: Visit the Berkeley Bay View Point, one of the best scenic spots in the city.
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