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6 Tips for Buying a Home in the San Francisco Bay Area

We bought our first home in the Oakland hills just over a year ago, and as it turns out, we purchased the home for less than it was worth (according to our appraiser). In my mind, that kind of scenario in the San Francisco Bay Area is kind of crazy! I feel like more often than not, people are paying way more than the appraised value. While the market may have shifted somewhat with COVID-19, when we were house hunting a year ago there was a lot of competition! It almost felt like a race to move as fast as possible and pay the most over the asking price!

That’s why we feel so lucky that we ended up in a house that we love within our price range and in an area that’s perfect for us! Looking back on the whole process, it’s clear that there were a few things that we did and paid attention to that worked in our favor. I want to share with you some of these tips so that you, too, can end up in a house that you love!

Keep reading for 6 of my best tips for buying a home in the San Francisco Bay Area!

P.S. I have an entire tour of our home saved on my Instagram story highlights (under “Home”) if you want to check out our place (just click through the moving in photos to get to the tour)! And don’t worry, I love to snoop on other peoples’ homes too, which is why I’m welcoming you in to our home! Come see what we’re workin’ with! 🙂

A bit of our home and yard amidst the fall foliage

Quick disclaimer: I am by no means a real estate expert! Everything included here is from my own experience only! 🙂 So make sure to run these things by your trusted real estate agent/expert! And FYI- We were looking primarily in the Oakland area, but other Bay Area cities may not have as much competition!

1. Search below your budget…like way below your budget!

Maybe this one is obvious, and maybe it’s not. What we quickly found out is that many homeowners list their houses for a much lower price than they anticipate getting. Now why would they do that? To get more people (including you!) in the door, of course! Once you’re there and you fall in love with the place you may want to go outside of your budget to get the place. And more competition for the house could mean bidding wars and driving the price up way higher than the homeowner ever expected!

So even though it may sound crazy, I would suggest searching for homes that are listed at 10-20% less than your budget. (We even looked at some homes that were listed at 30% below our budget.) That way you have lots of room when there’s competition from multiple offers and you’re not shocked when your agent tells you that the home is going to sell for way above listing price.

Some of the houses we looked at ended up selling for 35% over asking price, and we purchased ours for 13% over asking. So in your mind when you’re searching Zillow, or Redfin, or whatever you use, just take 10-20% off of your actual budget and start searching there! You’ll be thankful that you did!

Bonus tip: if you use Zillow you can see the estimated worth of a home (Zestimate), and Redfin also has an estimated price, so it doesn’t hurt to take a quick look at that to see how underpriced the home is and how much it might actually go for! Make sure that number is within your actual budget!

2. Get serious during the off season

There tends to be less demand for houses in the winter or around the holidays (most people probably don’t want to move around this time), so you may get a better deal or find that houses don’t get snatched up immediately during this time. We started getting serious about our home search right after the holidays, even though we had been casually looking before that just to get an idea. I bet you could get even better deals just before or during the holidays!

3. Explore first

Go to all the open houses! Get some experience looking at homes in the areas that you want to live in. Think about what excites you about a house or a location. What do you love and what do you not care so much about? And think about larger things that would be harder to change like layout, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, location, storage space, and things like that.

Not only will this allow you to think about what you really want in a home, but it will also give you an idea of what’s out there on the market and different things that come with each price range. Use this time to explore, but also be realistic. Probably don’t go see a house that’s way out of your price range if you’re the kind of person that falls in love easily and just has to have something!

4. Pay attention to the saves on Zillow

Now, this is not a promotion for Zillow, it’s just what we used in our own home search so I’m quite familiar with it! But we loved the fact that on Zillow you can see how many people viewed a home or saved it to their favorites. You can bet that houses that have a ton of views and saves will have a lot more traffic and likely offers as well, while those that have less saves will have less competition (which is a good thing)! Often these homes just don’t have those shiny finishes (like new paint, professional photos, or staging), but they may still be great homes, it’s just harder for other people to see that when the frills are missing. This brings me to my next tip…

5. Consider homes that aren’t staged or ones that have bad photos

Our house had very little saves on Zillow, likely because it was lacking staging and the photos were poor quality and taken sideways on a cell phone camera. In fact, they barely cleaned up the house on the inside as well! There were a ton of cobwebs, dirty carpet, and the previous owners belongings were actually still in the bathrooms and kitchen cabinets! But you have to see beyond these things; you’re smarter than that! And definitely don’t disregard a house just based on the photos. You have to be there to really get a feel, so make sure to show up in person!

Look at the bones of the house and think back to that list of things you love or want in a home that you came up with during all your open house visits. Does it have that open floor plan? Check! Is it in a great location? Check! Does it have a place for storage? Check! Is there potential for a separate rental space? Double check! (Those were some of the things that we wanted in a house by the way!) Who cares if it needs a little cleaning or a change in paint color? Those things are easy to fix and you would likely be paying way more if the house was staged and had a fresh coat of paint than it would even cost you to hire someone to paint or make minor changes.

6. Look for homes that are taking offers as they come

We didn’t know this when we started our home search, but often in the Bay Area sellers will wait to take all offers for a home on one date only (if I remember correctly, it’s usually a Tuesday after 2 weekends of open houses). This puts the seller at great advantage because they can compare all of the offers at once and take the one with the highest bid.

And that puts you, the buyer, at a disadvantage because you have to come in immediately with your best and final offer because you’ll likely only get one chance to make that offer, and you know it’ll go for more than asking price but there’s no way of knowing how much someone else offered. So you’ll probably end up agonizing over your offer for a long time and potentially offering more than you would have if there wasn’t this kind of strategy in place.

Alternatively, there may be some situations where the seller is taking offers as they come (which is how things are done in many other markets, I believe), which means that they aren’t necessarily looking to compare all offers at once and just go for the highest bid. This means that they may take your offer right away, or may counter back. That’s the situation we were in with our house, so we didn’t necessarily have to go against a handful of other buyers and offers.

Well there you have it! These were a few of the strategies that we used when looking for a house in the Bay Area. I hope they’re helpful to you! Best of luck out there!

If you enjoyed this post you might want to check out some of my other personal blog posts where you can read about everything from planning our wedding to my favorite dog gear and random facts about me!

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i'm sarah (she/her) , your new quirky, color-loving friend!

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My goal with every client is to cultivate a fun, creative, and approachable vibe. All types of people, all types of bodies, and all types of love are welcome here.

Color and creativity fuel my soul, and whimsical details make my heart happy! I believe in finding joy in the everyday, that real emotions are better than perfectly posed, and that building real connections with my clients is what allows me to create honest photos and capture genuine moments.

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