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31 Best Places to Live in San Diego

Five local homeowners share their advice, tips, and tricks on how they sealed the deal


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La Mesa | Photo: Becca Batista

Buying a house is more than a transaction; it’s a milestone. But that major life event comes with tedious tasks that can be a real drag on the momentousness—saving for a down payment, figuring out the monthly mortgage, picking out drywall for the inevitable renovation. And one size does not fit all. Here’s how locals at every stage of the game, from first-time buyers to a downsizer, made their home purchase happen.

 

CHOOSE YOUR STAGE:

First Home | Moving Up | Downsizing | Granny Flat | Investing


Four-bed, two-bath house in Allied Gardens for $630,000 in 2017

Ryan Beal, 33, works in marketing for a tech company, and wife Siera Beal, 31, works in commercial real estate

The Beals always knew they wanted to buy—they just weren’t convinced they could do it. “Quite honestly, we weren’t sure how we could buy a house, because it’s so friggin’ expensive,” Siera says. So they bided their time and saved what they could while living in a two-bedroom rental in North Park. That was until their daughter, Nyla, was born. By the time she was 16 months old, it was clear they needed more space.

They scoped out a slew of neighborhoods, including La Mesa, Tierrasanta, and Lake Murray. The goal was to find a home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms located close to their jobs and to Siera’s mother, who helps take care of Nyla. Fortunately, they had socked away as much as $80,000 for a down payment.

The couple realized they’d found “the one” when they walked into a 1,700-square-foot house on a canyon in Allied Gardens, seven miles from their North Park stomping grounds. It met all of their space and location needs, and at $630,000, “it was somewhat affordable.” Siera says she liked that it was turnkey, with a great view, near good schools and parks. While they were both sad to say goodbye to North Park last fall, Ryan calls Allied Gardens a hidden gem. “I knew we were going to have to get out of the urban North Park feel and that we were going to the suburbs, but I don’t feel like it’s too far away.”

 

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San Carlos

Median Home Price: $497,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: -9.8%

Often considered an Allied Gardens doppelgänger, San Carlos sits just to the northwest and offers the same vibe, safety, and good schools, albeit with slightly newer, tract-style homes. The community’s crown jewel is Cowles Mountain.

 

Photo by Sam Wells

San Marcos

Median Home Price: $573,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +4.2%

This North County community offers more square footage for your money, with a mostly newer housing stock. While it’s suburban in look and feel, the North City development has cool food and drink spots, including Stella Public House and Urge Gastropub, plus parks and equestrian trails.

 

Spring Valley

Median Home Price: $458,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +7.8%

Quiet but conveniently located to highways and downtown, Spring Valley is an up-and-coming neighborhood known for diversity and varied housing options. Good schools and plenty of parks make it ideal for families starting out.

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Four-bed, three-bath house in Normal Heights for $899,000 in 2014

Lynda Higgs, 58, director of customer support for a tech company, and wife Donna Olenick, 54, product analyst for that same company

When Donna and Lynda moved to San Diego from New York City in 2003, they gravitated to the familiar, buying a condo downtown. After a few years, they wanted to increase their square-footage in a location with a more neighborhood feel. They chose a slightly larger condo in Bankers Hill. While the couple loved the view and the location, they still desired more than what condo life had to give. “I wanted to get up on a Saturday and plant in my yard,” Lynda says. “We wanted to have barbecues.”

They started looking for places in Bankers Hill, North Park, South Park, Kensington, and University Heights with a $750,000 budget in mind, but quickly raised it to $820,000 after seeing the market. That’s when their real estate agent showed them a house on the canyon in Normal Heights—one of the homes rebuilt after a fire tore through the neighborhood in 1985. It had space galore: 2,662 square feet with several patios and an open kitchen. Lynda fell in love with it, but Donna was less enthralled. “It was very ’80s.” The biggest problem was the price. The sellers wanted between $929,000 and $999,000—way beyond their budget. After several offers and counteroffers spanning months, the couple agreed to buy the home for $899,000 in October 2014. “We had a mental block of not going over $900,000,” Donna says.

Although the final sale price was far higher than their first budget, the couple says they still spent extra money to make the home more to their liking; they knew it was a home they would “retire into.” The main goal was to “de-’80s-ify” the space, replacing the bulky bannister with cable railings and ditching the half-moon windows. Now they both love the home as well as their new neighborhood. “Everyone is very diverse, which we like,” Lynda says.

 

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El Cerrito

Median Home Price: $344,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: -4.7%

Located near San Diego State, this up-and-coming neighborhood with lower-priced homes is similar to Normal Heights (plenty of older homes, many located on canyon lots), and has easy walks to shops and nearly a dozen Asian eateries.

 

University Heights

Median Home Price: $565,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +14.6%

Located just west of Normal Heights, University Heights has a mix, from cottages to million-dollar homes all walking distance to Park Boulevard’s hip restaurants and retail. Highlights include Madison and Soltan Banoo, and shopping at La Loupe Vintage.

 

Photo by Sam Wells

Bay Park

Median Home Price: $741,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +9.8%

West of Clairemont and Linda Vista, Bay Park has a varied housing stock, many with bay views. While not as walkable as other areas, Bay Park is home to beloved restaurants, including Bay Park Fish Co. Another bonus? It’s central and near different transit options.

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Three-bedroom, two-bath home in Tierrasanta for $449,000 in 2015

Arlene Jarvis, 79, retired

Arlene had wanted to downsize and move out of her 2,500-square-foot Tierrasanta home for a while. “I like the idea of not taking up more space than you really need,” she explains. Her husband wanted to keep the house, because his granddaughters loved to play in the pool and hot tub during their annual visits. After his death in 2015, Arlene knew her family home of 30 years was too much to handle on her own.

She didn’t waste any time putting the house on the market and purging items she’d no longer need. “It was hard both physically and emotionally, but it was also cleansing,” she says. Within four months of her husband’s death, she sold the home for $700,000. At first, Arlene rented an apartment so she could have the flexibility to find the right place. She was clear on what she wanted, which was to stay in Tierrasanta and find a detached home with a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor because she had seen her husband struggle to climb stairs during his illness. Within a few months, she found a 1,185-square-foot home in the Portofino development that suited her needs.

Despite the extra effort of moving twice, Arlene says she’s glad she rented first, as it helped her realize that she “didn’t want to share a wall with anyone.” She says her new home fits her lifestyle because she’s still close to all her friends and she can walk to the grocery store. “As they say, it was all about location, location, location.”

 

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Rancho Bernardo

Median Home Price: $520,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +3.0%

With its quiet streets, low crime, and relatively affordable homes, this suburban community is a great fit for retirees. There are activities tailor-made for seniors, like volunteering, tennis, and golf, and community amenities like the Ed Brown Center for Active Adults, which runs gentle yoga and Zumba classes.

 

La Mesa

Median Home Price: $494,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +5.4%

This quiet East County enclave is walkable and near transit, and 14.5 percent of its population is 65 or older. Restaurant-lined La Mesa Boulevard is a great place to stroll, with new finds like City Tacos Village Taqueria. Also, La Mesa is a more affordable option for retirees on a budget.

 

Photo by Paul Body

Carlsbad

Median Home Price: $800,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +11.9%

This coastal city boasts a temperate climate, a variety of housing options from condos to single-story homes, and plenty of activities for seniors. That might be why more than 14.6 percent of its population is age 65 and over. Plus, there are plenty of options for hitting the links. Nearby beaches offer an ideal setting for leisurely walks during the golden years.

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A two-bedroom, one-bath house in Mount Helix for $340,000 (plus $200,000 in renovations) in 2015

Kate Meyer, 37, financial manager at a law firm, and husband Marc Meyer, 41, works for a nonprofit specializing in conflict management

Before moving to Mount Helix, the Meyers were living in Normal Heights, which Marc deems “the best neighborhood in San Diego.” But despite its walkability and other charms, Normal Heights and their 1,300-square-foot house could not provide the space needed for their family, which included not just two children, now ages 6 and 3, but also frequent and extended visits from four different grandparents. “All of our parents are divorced, and so six to seven months out of the year, one of the grandparents is here,” Marc says. The solution? Buy a house where they could build a granny flat for both privacy and convenience.

In an effort to decrease their mortgage and create a not-so-suburban mood, the couple went for a completely different vibe from their Normal Heights home. In June 2015, they bought an 800-square-foot house on a large lot adjacent to a little stream in Mount Helix. With its rock-bottom price, they figured they could turn the place into their dream home.

That transformation took almost eight months and $200,000, but now the couple has a 2,300-square-foot home that includes an attached 535-square-foot granny flat. To cut costs, Marc served as general contractor for about five months of the project, with his father assisting. Despite the headaches of construction, Kate and Marc say their new home fits their needs. “We decided it was important for our children to have a relationship with their grandparents but keep our privacy,” says Kate. Marc adds: “Her mom is here right now, and there are days where I don’t see her. The privacy and the sanity it has created are really good.”

 

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Bonita

Median Home Price: $610,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +29.5%

Bonita is known for its large lots and spacious homes at a relatively reasonable price point, making it a great place to build a granny flat. It’s also a perfect community for nature lovers, with its variety of trails, parks, and horseback riding at Sweetwater Farms.

 

Del Cerro

Median Home Price: $703,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +4.2%

Like Mount Helix, Del Cerro near San Diego State University touts some eye-popping hillside views as well as quiet streets and good schools. It has easy access to highways and is close to the trolley stops, making it a breeze to get from there to anywhere.

 

Lake Murray

Median Home Price: $585,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: -1.3%

Another quiet suburban community with mostly ranch and contemporary-style houses on ample lots, plus good schools. The biggest selling point is its proximity to Mission Trails Regional Park and Lake Murray, a 198-acre artificial reservoir.

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A four-unit property in National City for $912,000 in 2018

Becky Crittenton, 54, works in accounting, and husband Kevin Crittenton, 54, works in sales for a multinational diagnostic company

In 2008, Becky and Kevin decided they wanted to find a way to augment their income without adding any extra work to their already busy careers. They decided to buy an investment property because, as Kevin says, “real estate is one of those things that can provide passive income.” At first they thought they would buy a condo, but they realized the HOA fees would eat into their profit. They began looking for a single-family home in a number of neighborhoods. When their real estate agent convinced them to check out a rundown foreclosure in National City, Becky was not impressed with the property’s condition.

“When I walked in, I said, ‘Let’s turn around, because we are not buying this,’” Becky recalls. “We are not going to be slumlords.” Her husband and their agent convinced her that the home could be fixed up to make it more rentable. Fast forward to 2017, the couple sold the house for $412,000 after buying it for $178,000 in 2010.

The Crittentons scoured National City to find a new investment home with even more upside. “It took almost a year to find the right property,” Kevin says. What they found was a four-unit building—two 2-bed, 2-bath, and two 3-bed, 1-bath—that garners rents between $1,300 and $1,400. They closed on the property in the new year.

Because they rolled all of the profits from their previous property into the purchase, the new investment will be cash flow positive from the get-go, adding $500 a month to their bottom line. Kevin says they plan to reinvest the money to upgrade the units and even add another unit on the property’s large lot within a year.

“National City provides some really good investment opportunities because it’s an older neighborhood going through a revitalization. There’s also access to highways for quick commutes and to major employers, like the 32nd Street Naval Base.”

 

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El Cajon

Median Home Price: $478,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +6.2%

This East County city is known for its demographic diversity and housing affordability. A variety of dense neighborhoods near industrial areas employ many of the city’s residents. The majority are renters; only about 38 percent of the population owns the home they live in, so investors have a wide range of options.

 

Photo by Becca Batista

Oceanside

Median Home Price: $490,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +4.9%

This beach city caters to the military crowd and serves up some of the most affordable housing along the county’s scenic coastline. The somewhat transient nature of the residents means investment property options abound, with almost 41 percent of housing occupied by renters.

 

Escondido

Median Home Price: $469,000
Year Over Year Sale Price Change: +7.7%

As one of the oldest cities in the county, Escondido has plenty to offer a would-be investor, including neighborhoods with multi-unit housing at various price points. According to the 2010 US Census, almost 48 percent of all units were occupied by renters, making it a target-rich environment for landlords.  

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Source for home prices: Redfin, November 2017

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