Best Places to Live in California

Approximately 40 million people live in “The Golden State”.

California ranks first in public health, fourth in higher education, and fourth happiest overall out of the 52 states. The population is constantly growing, the scenery is beautiful, and the amenities are endless. It is without a doubt one of the most attractive places to live in the whole country.

However, there are more people in California than there are in Canada. The state is over 163,000 square miles (third largest) and the quality of life varies depending on where you live. US News ranks Bakersfield (124th) as the second worst large metro area to live in America. Yet, their list also puts San Francisco (7th) and San Jose (14th) as appealing options.

The quality of life that makes California so desirable does come at a cost. The list of the 10 highest cost of living cities in the country includes five places in California—San Francisco (2nd), Oakland (6th), San Jose (7th), San Diego (8th), and Los Angeles (9th). 

If you can afford these areas, where exactly should you move?

California Real Estate Introduction

Before comparing neighborhoods, it is good to learn more about the market. 

The cost of houses here is high and increasing on a year-over-year basis. $549,000 is the median listing price and $502,600 is the median sale price. $2,800 is the median monthly rent. Seven years ago, the median house price was around $300,000 but the state’s growth has brought prices up tremendously. 

California Homes Sell Fast

Oakland and San Jose are experiencing strong growth. Homes come off the market in an average of 36 to 38 days. Vacancy rates and unsold inventory is dropping in most areas. Good deals are drying up with growing demand and constant immigration to the state’s most attractive cities. 

Some areas are seeing a slowdown in sales and an increase in inventory. Los Angeles as a whole is in a “cooling off” phase after many years of substantial growth. Housing prices are mostly flat and inching up incrementally. But, the best places to live in California are still very in-demand and are generally not following the stagnation trend. 

A cooling market in California isn’t like anywhere else…houses are still selling in an average of 32 days vs. 87 days in Chicago which is currently a hot seller’s market. 

Most Desirable Cities to Live in California

The best place to live will depend on your situation. Some areas are better for young adults or entrepreneurs, while others are more beneficial for families or retired people. The state has a lot to offer and it’s hard to rank the top cities. 

The list below contains some of the best places to live in California. Use your own judgment to decide which place best suits your needs and wants. There are many beautiful neighborhoods in each of these cities worthy of calling home.

San Francisco

San Francisco continuously ranks on the top of lists ranking the best places to live in the United States. According to Redfin, sales prices are $1.5 million on average (up 7.1% since last year) and sellers get 9.2% above their asking price. Inventory is moving after being on the market for only 19 days.

Some reasons to live in San Francisco include:

  • Home of the Golden State Warriors (NBA) and Giants (MLB)
  • Ranks 1st in the nation for startups and venture capital
  • Home of Stanford University, a top-3 university nationwide
  • A very accepting LGBT culture

Let’s not forget the beauty of the area:

  • Home of the enfamous Golden Gate Bridge
  • Home of the notorious Alcatraz Island
  • Lively waterfront at PIER 39
  • San Francisco Zoo (100 acres)
  • Golden Gate Park (1,000+ acres)

San Francisco is approximately 49 square miles in size. The population is nearing 1 million. The city’s planning department identifies 36 official neighborhoods. The amenities, cultural vibes, and lifestyle vary dramatically depending on where you live.

Learn more about neighborhoods in San Francisco and figure out which area is best for you to live. The city has a high cost of living but is a tremendous place for young adults, families, and retirees. 

Pasadena

Pasadena ranks on numerous lists as one of the top 100 places to live in the United States. This city is much smaller with less than 150,000 residents. The median home price is $829,200 which makes it more affordable than San Francisco. 

Some reasons to consider moving here:

  • 30 minutes from Los Angeles
  • Home of the Rose Bowl stadium
  • Home to the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  • Near the beautiful Eaton Canyon Falls Trail
  • Ranks as one of the top 30 cities for young professionals
  • Busy nightlife scene that appeals to all crowds

Families will also enjoy living here. The Kidspace Children’s Museum sees 378,000 visitors annually and is located next to the Rose Bowl. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens are also all great places for families to visit with kids young and old.

Manhattan Beach

The median price for a home here is currently $2.4 million. The city is in a buyer’s market with properties listing as much as $400,000 above the median sales price. Back in 2013, the median price was only $1.4 million. The exponential growth and influx of people wanting to live in this small area is responsible for the rise in housing prices. While sales are stagnating, no one is rushing to move and experts forecast more price growth.

Roughly 35,000 people call this city home. The area is less than four square miles. It is a desirable place for retirees to live. The city has a median age of 44 which is much higher than the state average of 36 years old. People in the area take advantage of the beautiful scenery and regularly walk, bike, or play sports on the beach and waterfront. 

Not sure if this is the perfect retirement spot for you? Stay in the area at the Belamar Hotel, Best Western Plus, or Hotel Hermosa. Get a feel for the community and enjoy the area for a few days. Take a stroll down the coast as well. Hermosa Beach is direct to the south and provides a similar living experience.

Another plus: the LAX airport is only a five-mile drive away.

San Diego

San Diego has a median home price of $593,700 which makes it moderately affordable. The better parts of this city will come at a steeper cost. With a population of over 1.4 million people, there is no doubt that housing prices range dramatically from one neighborhood to the next. 

Here are some reasons to live in San Diego:

  • Home of the Padres (MLB)
  • Home to San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, Seaworld
  • Historic sites at USS Midway Museum
  • Cabrillo National Monument
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park
  • Swimming and scuba diving at La Jolla Cove

Check out this guide to San Diego neighborhoods to get an idea of what area is best for you to live. Torrey Hills, La Jolla, Kearny Mesa, and South Oceanside are some of the best places to live in the city. The lifestyle and amenities vary dramatically depending on where you choose. Visit these different neighborhoods in person to get a better feel for them before shopping for real estate.

Conclusion

Finding the perfect place to live in California takes a lot of work. The options are endless and the right choice depends on your lifestyle. You can find the perfect place for families, young entrepreneurs, retirees, LGBT acceptance, etc. 

Your first decision should be how much you wish to spend on a property. The cost of living will vary dramatically depending on the city (and neighborhood) where you buy your home. You will need a fair-sized budget and strong income to afford the nicer parts unless you decide to live further away from the main metro areas. 

Be selective when making your investment. Going for the cheapest areas will put you and your family in a bad situation. Crime and safety is an issue in many of the impoverished areas in this state. The financially stable regions come at a cost but can guarantee a better quality of life and security for you and your loved ones. 

If you want to find a great deal, try for a foreclosure. You can get free trial access to ProspectNow and check for properties in a specific neighborhood. This tool will help you find places that are either in foreclosure or are likely to foreclose in the near future. You will also be able to find places that are likely to sell soon—before the owner lists them.

About the Author

I have a lot of real estates investing knowledge. I am an avid reader on the Bigger Pockets forum and regularly analyze various Canadian markets. I understand the mortgage side and have expert-level experience writing on home loans & personal finance.

Jason S is a freelance writer who writes about business.