Have you always dreamed of buying a hillside home, one close to, or in, the western foothills in Santa Clara County, such as Almaden, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and Saratoga? Some of the prettiest parts of Silicon Valley are snuggled into the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. With views of downtown San Jose and the southern San Francisco Bay Area on one side, and rolling, grassy and redwood & oak filled hills on the other, its certainly scenic. Additionally, these areas all tend to have lower crime and good schools.
Hillside homes may be subject to insurance difficulties if they are deemed to be in a high fire risk zone, and property owners need to plan for how to escape in case of emergency. Trees may fall and block ingress or egress, so many mountain residents carry chainsaws. There can be wildlife living nearby, munching on carefully installed landscaping, or threatening household pets or small children in some cases (mountain lions – never leave your children unattended in hillside areas!). In terms of the structure of the hillside home, or the home near the base of the foothills, water is perhaps the risk that is least appreciated but impacts many more homes than most people realize.
Hillside home and water challenges
As a savvy foothill-area buyer, you will want to understand some of the unique issues that this geography may present. The most important of these hillside issues may well be that of water control and drainage.
The Santa Clara Valley, and most of the neighboring Silicon Valley areas, is composed of mostly expansive clay soil. This is an extremely strong substance – so much so that settlers used it, mixed only with a little straw and water, to form adobe bricks for building.
The caveat with clay soil is that when it becomes wet, it expands, and when dry, it contracts. (Hence “expansive clay soil”.) The amazing thing is that the clay is more powerful than concrete. And that is the problem for houses and other buildings if the ground is expanding, contracting, or alternating between the two.
What can a homeowner do? Its imperative to try to control the amount of water near (or under) the home as much as possible.
Nestled in the rolling foothills of San Jose’s southeastern Evergreen area is a hidden gem known simply as the Villages.
As you drive up to the secured entrance, you’ll spot a sign: The Villages a Country Club Community. They take that claim to heart. A gated, community-oriented neighborhood centered around numerous country club amenities creates an immersive home for its residents. However this is a senior community, so to live at the Villages you have to be 55 or older. Therefore many residents are retirees who are active, love entertaining guests, and don’t want to mow the lawn every week. But you don’t have to be a resident to enjoy the country club side of things.
Only about a 20 minute drive from downtown San Jose, this area was once agricultural land with vineyards. It is still home to the impressive William Wehner historic mansion, constructed in 1888 and designed by architect David Burnham (this estate is currently closed to the public). The mansion is sometimes called the Cribari Mansion for its later owners, a name that was adopted by the first Village development. The original stone columns (circa 1891) for the estate’s original drive still stand as a prominent feature on one of the golf courses.
Today, the community is still surrounded by untouched rolling hills. And that natural beauty is staying put, as the Villages owns 550 acres of open space with community hiking trails. Continue reading
What makes an expensive house in the San Jose area more than just a pricey bit of real estate, but instead a Silicon Valley luxury home? How is high end real estate different from the rest of the market? When is a property not just a home with land, but an estate?
In other parts of the U.S., spending $1,200,000 may fetch a 4000 square foot home, new construction, in an upscale gated community with country club amenities such as a golf course, tennis courts, and more. Here, that same $1,200,000 will procure an entry to mid-level single family home in many parts of Santa Clara County. It won’t necessarily be a Silicon Valley luxury home.
Luxury connotes a combination of qualities, features, and amenities. And it includes pricing (relative to the nearby market), condition, land, design.
Pricing Luxury Homes in Silicon Valley: What Do They Cost?
Expensive Silicon Valley homes are not necessarily luxury homes. Depending on the city or town, the price tag could be higher or lower. For instance, a fabulous house on a large lot in Gilroy’s Eagle Ridge might sell for 1/3 as much as the identical type of home, land and neighborhood found in Saratoga, Monte Sereno, or Los Gatos, or Los Altos, if a similar home happened to be available. Generally, though, luxury homes could cost as little as $1,000,000 or so in some parts of Silicon Valley or in neighboring counties, but in most parts of Silicon Valley, a true estate type property will be valued at $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 or more. In some areas, such as Palo Alto, that $2 million doesn’t go too far and the home you can purchase at that price tag may need major updating – or it could be “land value”. For our purposes today, we’ll use $2 million as the bottom number for estate properties, but it may or may not be the case in some areas.
Often I have clients who are interested in purchasing a 4 bedroom, 2 bath home in a good school district in Silicon Valley, particularly in the South Bay and West Valley areas. Tonight I did a study on the MLS of homes that have sold and closed escrow in the last 4 months with these characteristics:
- single family home (house)
- 4 bedrooms
- 2 bathrooms
- 1800 to 2200 square feet of living space
- 6000 to 10,000 sf lot
Disclaimers aside, here are the numbers for select West Valley Communities in the West/South Bay area with good schools. The first number is the average sales price per square foot, the second number is the average sales price:
And a look at the chart from all back in 2015…
And all the way back in 2011. What’s changed? A lot! The order has shifted some, showing where demand has increased or decreased. Most noticeably, the prices are significantly lower in 2011 than they are now. The 2015 chart shows prices somewhere in-between the 2011 and 2017 levels. Palo Alto and Los Altos remain consistently in the top two positions.
The home prices tend to run with the school district API scores. You can check the 2013, three year average, API scores in Santa Clara County for both the districts and the individual schools online here. Continue reading
In Almaden, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga and anywhere near hills in Silicon Valley, there are homes with cupped hardwood floors. Cupping is when the sides of the plants curl upward a little. If you view cupped floors in lighting at an angle, the “lines” between the pieces of wood are more prominent, as shown in the photo to the right. Should you walk across them barefoot, you will feel the elevated sides. When it is severe, there are very distinct ridges.
What causes cupping? It can be caused by installing hardwood that hasn’t cured or sat in the home for a few days first. But often that’s not the issue. Most of the time, it seems to result from water in the crawl space below. As the moisture evaporates, it moves up through the home and through the hardwood flooring.
This doesn’t happen everywhere, but is most common in hillside locations, places that are flat but have hills nearby (as water can travel underground and then pop up, potentially under your house), locations with high water tables (such as Willow Glen, many areas of Almaden such as Almaden Springs, or Los Gatos), or properties where the grading is wrong and water gets pulled toward the home instead of away from it. Although in many parts of the U.S. the soil is sandy and the water drains through, in most of Santa Clara County, we have expansive clay soils. With clay it’s harder for the water to soak through, but also when the soil gets wet it, it expands and pushes on the foundation and anything else in its way.
Are your floors beginning to cup? If so, it’s a red flag to pay attention and find the cause of the cupping before the damage is permanent, or much harder to fix. Check your crawl space for dampness and efflorescence (this requires going all the way into the crawl space). If you aren’t able or don’t want to go into the crawl, make sure to hire someone competant to evaluate the situation. Having a damp crawl space is not good (and if you find it in summer after a 3 year drought you do have an issue!). I would suggest getting an ASHI or CREIA certified home inspector to check it out and advise you on the cause of the cupping and what to do to remediate it. It may be that a hardwood flooring professional would also address this very well – I cannot speak to that but it may also be worth considering.
If you arrived into Silicon Valley via Highway 101, driving south from San Francisco, you might believe that the Santa Clara Valley, the San Jose area and Silicon Valley as a whole has got to seem to be the ugliest place on earth. Although heavily traveled, that is not the “scenic route”.
So, too, if you are looking for a place to live and are groping to find a place that is reasonably priced, fairly safe and not a terrible commute distance. You might not even have “is nice looking” on your wish list. You might not think it’s possible if all you ever see are the ugly concrete tilt-up buildings in north San Jose, Santa Clara, Alviso, or anywhere along the 237 corridor. That area is an architectural wasteland.
Let me assure you: there are a lot of beautiful places in Silicon Valley where you can rent or buy a home. But how do you find them? It helps a lot to have a local give you a few pointers. I’ll give you some tips today on finding a scenic place to live.
Hills – An easy way to find a scenic location to make your home is to settle near the hills, especially those in the west valley (the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Coastal Range) as they are green year-round. Communities at the base of the west valley foothills include, in Santa Clara County, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Los Gatos, and the Almaden Valley area of San Jose. All of these areas are adjacent to the hills or mountains and offer far better than average schools (many of them qualify as great – compare costs between these areas). Continue reading
According to the San Jose Mercury News, the San Jose area has now had more than a “normal” amount of rainfall.
Is that it? After 14 solid days of the wet stuff and most every day in March bringing those fabled showers, it seems like we should be well over the normal amount of rainfall year to date.
Santa Cruz is 110% of normal for rain year to date, according to the National Weather Service. Mount Hamilton is 129%. The San Francisco Airport is 121% of normal.
The Santa Cruz Mountains and nearby western foothill areas of Silicon Valley ike Almaden Valley (San Jose), Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga, Cupertino, Los Altos Hills and on up the Peninsula all got walloped over these last 2 weeks especially. It’s hard to believe that we are at “just normal”.
But the good news is that this week is supposed to be dry and by late this week temps are supposed to hit the high 70s. Bring it on!