If you long for the West Coast, but large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles sound too hectic, why not consider Sacramento? Home to around 500,000 full-time residents, this area is becoming increasingly popular with folks leaving the Bay Area in search of more space, easier access to nature, and a more chilled-out lifestyle.
But Sacramento is such a great city for buyers that they might find themselves spoiled for choice. How do you know for sure whether you want to live in Midtown, Pocket, or Folsom? Do you want to live in a Craftsman or a Victorian home? Which park has the best biking paths? And how will you write a competitive offer on your dream home when you do figure it out?
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We talked to experts in Sacramento real estate, scoured over 20 neighborhoods, and did the math to find the best recommendations for your budget and lifestyle, putting them all together in this comprehensive guide to where and when you should be shopping, what to know about sewer lines, and where you need to think about supplemental flood insurance.
OK, you’ve got my attention — but is it expensive?
Property prices span a wide range in Sacramento, which is great for buyers: in 2019, the median cost for a home in Yuba came out to around $305,000 (a little higher than the national median home price of $299,400), while El Dorado is in the $500,000 range. When calculating a mortgage you can afford, you should aim for a 43% or lower debt-to-income ratio, and that includes the monthly mortgage, any student loans, car leases, or credit card bills.
The statewide average cost for a home in California is significantly higher than average Sacramento prices — as of 2019 it was nearly double, $608,000 — so Sacramento could be the perfect place for you to find a good deal in an otherwise very pricey state.
Typical architectural styles in Sacramento
Sacramento is home to a hodgepodge of architectural styles, ranging from Spanish to mid-century modern all the way to Victorian, which you’ll find in Sacramento’s oldest neighborhood of Alkali Flat. The bungalow/Craftsman-style home is extremely prevalent, and is very popular — buyers love the exposed interior wood and large front porches.
Just how eclectic can Sacramento architecture be? Every winter, in an area of East Sacramento known as the “The Fabulous Forties,” Sacred Heart offers a home tour highlighting pre-WWII architectural marvels, ranging from English cottages, Tudor-style homes, Dutch farmhouses, Mediterranean villas, and the aforementioned Craftsman bungalows.
Learning your way around Sacramento
Like any big city, there are a lot of neighborhoods in Sacramento, each with their own flavor and vibe. To help you narrow down the options, we spoke to top Realtor Todd Slack, who has two decades of experience in the area, to get an insider’s list of some of Sacramento’s most desirable neighborhoods. Here are a few to consider:
Life in Midtown is ideal if you don’t want a long commute; the neighborhood is centrally located and easy to get to every part of Sacramento via SacRT. It’s also extremely walkable, always buzzing with new restaurants, bars, and shops. If you’re a fan of lazy Sundays that start with warm cappuccinos, check out Midtown’s much-loved coffee shop The Mill — it’s the perfect place to read the paper, as it’s got a shaded backyard, lined with trees.
In addition, Midtown is adjacent to Downtown, home to the annual Farm-to-Fork Festival, which features a mile of vendors selling and sampling tacos, cheese, and beer as well as live music and cooking demonstrations. If the arts are more your style, it’s also a hop-skip-and-jump to the Crocker Art Museum or the Sacramento Philharmonic.
One downside to Midtown is the cost: Slack says that while the area is noted for its building’s charm and character, “some places go for $350 to $500 per square foot.”
A cute name for a cute enclave, Pocket is the spot for folks who want to be close to the city center, but live somewhere surrounded by nature. The area boasts several outdoor spaces, including Garcia Bend Park, which is right on the waterfront and has areas for sports and Sunday picnics with the family. It’s “only a 10-minute drive into Downtown,” says Slack, “but you still feel like you’re in a suburb, and it’s safe.” Homes in Pocket were mostly built in the mid-century, with some built in the ’70s and ’80s.
You’ve probably heard the hit Johnny Cash song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” which he recorded in 1955. Folsom was recently ranked as Sacramento’s safest region, according to a report by Safewise. Folsom is a great place for nature-lovers: enjoy a jog around the lake, or check out Folsom City Lions Park, home to a zoo sanctuary. Folsom has more to boast about: WalletHub called it the best place in California to raise a family and GreatSchools says its school system is above average — in fact, its public schools are some of the best in the nation.
Slack cites Rosemont as another desirable area, noting it’s “it’s a first-time buyer market there, with homes ranging from the lower $300,000s to the $500,000 mark. It’s close to downtown and easy to get to Highway 50.” Rosemont is near the American River, so locals have easy access to biking along the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail.
This might be a neighborhood to avoid, or at least proceed with caution. Because Sacramento is built right where the Sacramento and American Rivers meet, the area is prone to flooding, and flood insurance is recommended for all home purchases. The Natomas neighborhood is particularly at-risk, and it needs about $1 billion worth of repairs to the dams that surround it — in fact, according to Slack, flood insurance is required there.
Don’t fall in love just yet
Now that you’ve picked your neighborhood, it’s time to start shopping for homes and asking the right questions about those homes so you don’t end up with a lemon. Remember not to judge a book by its cover; just because a house has a fresh coat of paint doesn’t mean it’ll pass inspection or come without problems.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the seller’s summer electric bill and winter gas bill to check on the house’s cooling and heating systems. James Chisholm of Sacramento Home Inspections, who has been in the business for more than twelve years, has a five-star Yelp rating and an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, says that most people don’t realize how hot the area can get in the summertime. “Triple-digit temperatures are quite common in the summer months here in Sacramento. Buyers should pay attention to the heating/cooling system of the home they’re considering purchasing. How old is it? How is the insulation in the attic? Check the ‘R; value, too, which is a measure of the house’s insulation.”
As a buyer, it’s also important to pay attention to the foundation. “Foundation problems will lead to a whole host of other issues, and the remedy is usually expensive. Poor drainage is often the culprit behind foundation problems,” says Chisholm. He suggests you take a close look at the property and ask yourself the following questions while touring the home:
- Are the floors level?
- Is there any cracking on the exterior of the building?
- Is the ground around the home flat?
- Is the home perched well above the street level?
- Does the grade slope toward the home in any area around the house?
In addition, both Chisholm and Slack advise that if you’re considering a home built 25 or more years ago, it’s imperative to get a sewer line inspection and a Branch III pest inspection (termites are a common problem), which should include a check for any dry rot in the wood. Slack notes that one of the city’s most powerful lures — its trees (Sacramento’s nickname is the “City of Trees”!) — can also be a big problem. Sometimes the tree roots grow into the sewer lines, so ask your inspector to double-check that.
The best time to buy a home in Sacramento is in January, when prices can drop as much as 10% below the average. Shopping during this time, however, might mean fewer homes on the market, so if you’re looking for variety, you might want to shop in the summer months or November, when buyers are likely to see higher offers. It generally takes about two months to close on a home, so keep that in mind as you’re scheduling out your search.
Of course, all of this can vary a bit by neighborhood, so we recommend talking to a trusted real estate agent to get the skinny on the best time to buy.
As you’re shopping around and getting your budget in order, here are some final tips to remember:
- You don’t necessarily need a 20% down payment to buy a home. The average down payment is actually 7%. Make sure to talk to your financial advisor or a real estate agent to discuss your options.
- When calculating the total home purchase price, don’t forget to include costs such as HOA fees, maintenance, and taxes.
- HomeLight has a handy home affordability calculator, so you won’t be surprised by the bottom line until it’s too late.
Ready to seal the deal?
Once you find your new home, we know you’ll be eager to sign the papers and move in, but there are some factors you should consider as you’re negotiating the deal. Slack recommends having all of your financials taken care of before you’re ready to make an offer — and because Sacramento’s housing market is competitive, don’t expect to ask for a lot in terms of concessions. Slack notes that the only time you might ask for a concession is if an issue is discovered after inspections have been done (like those pesky termites — yuck!).
“To be in a good position of negotiation, have as few contingencies as possible,” he adds.”
Close the deal with an expert by your side
Sacramento is competitive. It’s a hop, skip, and jump from San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest metro regions. By working with a top agent, you can save $27,595 on a home. That’s money you can spend on new furniture, art for the living room, a swing set for the kids, or that vacation to Mexico you’ve been dreaming of (after you’ve settled in to your house, of course).
Top agents know the local neighborhoods best, and know how to negotiate deals so that everyone walks away happy. Save yourself and your bank account the stress by hiring a top agent — and get ready to settle in to your life in California’s beautiful City of Trees.
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