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How to Buy a House in San Diego, Where the Living’s Easy (But Expensive)

At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.

When you buy a house in San Diego, you’ll live where most people vacation. Here locals enjoy 266 sunny days per year, 70 miles of coastline, views of the scenic Cuyamaca Mountains, marinas lined with luxury boats, and 210+ craft breweries. But all of these amazing lifestyle perks make San Diego an expensive and coveted place to buy real estate.

The Greater San Diego Association of Realtors reports the median home sales price in the area in November 2019 was $665,000 (compared to the national average of $380,300). Meanwhile inventory remains tight in one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. In December 2018, there were 6,260 homes for sale in San Diego and by November 2019, that number dropped to 5,049. You’ll be lucky to find a home at a price that feels comfortable in a neighborhood you love.

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Lofty price tags and fierce competition will intimidate even the most seasoned homebuyers in America’s “Finest” City (as they say), so follow this comprehensive guide on how to buy a house in San Diego. We’ll cover hidden costs of homeownership, what different pockets of the city have to offer, and how to navigate some of the common issues you’ll find with San Diego’s housing stock.

A computer used to buy a house in San Diego.
Source: (Stefen Tan/ Unsplash)

Budget for taxes and the high cost of San Diego living 

“People buy payments, not houses,” says Tony Elias, a top-performing real estate agent in San Diego. Keep that in mind as you start to fall in love with the many beautiful homes in San Diego.

San Diego is the 13th most expensive U.S. city to live in, according to an analysis by Kiplinger. Numbeo estimates that the monthly cost of living for a family of four in San Diego (without rent) is $3,362. This isn’t a city where you want to be house-poor, but setting your budget will take a little legwork.

You can start with HomeLight’s Simple Home Affordability Calculator, type in “San Diego, CA” into the location box, and the tool will estimate how much house you can afford in the area based on key inputs like your current savings, down payment, existing debts, and credit score, among other factors.

In San Diego, you’ll also need to factor in some “hidden” costs to homeownership, including:

  • Mello-Roos tax
    Mello-Roos is a special tax levied on homeowners to pay for infrastructure improvements to services and facilities. The funds go toward improving streets or water systems or to support local schools. The exact amount of the Mello-Roos tax depends on whether you live in a Communities Facilities District (CFD), but it averages $1,826 per year.
  • Measure YY
    In 2018, voters approved bond Measure YY in San Diego County, increasing property taxes by $60 per $100,000 assessed value. This means that if your house is worth $600,000, you’ll pay $360 more per year in taxes.

Get the lay of the land in San Diego

San Diego is a diverse city with bustling communities along the Pacific Ocean to urban enclaves nestled inland. When buying a home in San Diego, understanding the vibe and culture of each neighborhood helps you get the lay of the land.

In the coastal regions of Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla along the I5 corridor, you’ll have quick access to beach volleyball and seaside tacos.

For those who enjoy a vibrant nightlife and ComicCon, the Gaslamp District offers urban living at its finest. Close by is pedestrian-friendly Little Italy, filled with Italian fare and a quick stroll to Waterford Park. Further inland are the trendy neighborhoods of Hillcrest and North Park. Both areas border Balboa Park and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

For a more down-to-earth feel, Clairemont Mesa fits the ticket. First developed as a planned community for military and aerospace workers in the 1950s, Clairemont Mesa is quieter with a suburban vibe, despite its central location and close proximity to Pacific Beach.

If you love shopping, then Mission Valley has everything from IKEA to Dolce Gabbana. Another bonus of Mission Valley is Civita Park. The new park boasts a splash pad for kids and easy access to I-8, I-805, and I-163. If you’re looking for a brand-new home with more space, Carmel Valley and Spring Valley both have lots of new construction.

Target your search based on your budget

When it comes to finding a house you can afford in San Diego “it’s all about location of different areas around the city and their price,” according to Elias.

Most homes in the beach communities start at around $800,000 in Pacific and Ocean Beach. In La Jolla, you’re looking at over $1 million. Clairmont Mesa, Linda Vista, Serra Mesa, La Mesa, and Mira Mesa are more affordable, with the median house in the $600,000 range.

Further inland, in east country, Spring Valley and Santee tend to be more affordable as well.

If you need to be in central San Diego or 10 minutes to La Jolla Shores and a good school district, housing prices will be higher. But if your budget’s capped at $530,000, then San Diego East County in places like Lakeside, Santee and El Cajon area may fit better. East County is more affordable than central San Diego because of its inland and more rural location.

Living in East County means you have easy access to great hiking trails, but you are further away from the main San Diego attractions like the beach or downtown. The average price for a house in El Cajon is $521,700 while most other areas are well over $600,000.

San Diego, where you can buy a house.
Source: (Daniel Guerra/ Unsplash)

Best San Diego neighborhoods for manageable commutes

San Diego is developing its transportation system and investing in bike lanes; however, most people drive to work each day. It’s not uncommon for a few miles to take 30 minutes or so, depending on traffic.

If you work in the technology or engineering sectors, most jobs are in the Sorrento Valley I805 corridor. During rush hour, it can take 15 minutes to get on the freeway. Another bottleneck is the I-805 and I-5 interchange, close to Sorrento Valley and University of California San Diego.

So, living in University City or Mira Mesa would be ideal for tech and engineering workers. But to buy a home in an area with a manageable commute, you may need to expand your budget or shop for smaller homes.

Get familiar with the housing in San Diego

Before you buy a house in San Diego, it’s essential to know some common problems with the local housing.

Watch out for termites

ABC 10 News in San Diego reported that San Diego was one of the U.S. worst cities for termites. According to a report by Orkin, a leading pest control provider, termites infest in homes because urbanization leads to fewer dead trees around.

The cost to remove termites depends on the level of infestation. Typically, you can expect to pay between $94 and $964 in San Diego. The signs of termite infestation include cracked or peeling paint, wood sounding hard, and discarded wings.

Check out the foundation

Another common problem with San Diego housing is foundation issues. Some of the reasons for weak foundations are clay soil that expands with moisture and older houses built before the induction of proper soil standards. Home Advisor estimates the cost to fix foundation issues is between $1,840 and $6,585.

Don’t skip any inspections

According to Elias, “it’s cheaper to pay for the inspection now and do all your due diligence versus just closing escrow and finding out about big issues and then dealing with it later.”

If you do discover problems with termites or foundation issues, you can use this to lower the cost while negotiating and consider other ways to make the home cheaper over the long haul.

Keep your housing expenses down with no-fuss landscaping

One way to save on monthly expenses is through a low-maintenance yard. Oscar Lopez, a highly rated landscaper in San Diego with Down Under Services recommends a yard with no grass, rock gardens, and plenty of exotic succulents to cut down on maintenance costs and water. The easiest and best succulents to grow are the sedum Autumn Joy. At Home Depot, Autumn Joy succulents go for $11.99 per package.

A clock used to represent the right time to buy a house in San Diego.
Source: (insung yoon/ Unsplash)

Pinpoint the best time to buy a house in San Diego

Choosing when to buy a home in San Diego depends on your situation, but according to data from HomeLight, the worst month to sell a house in San Diego is February, making this month the best time for buyers to pounce. Homes tend to sell for 5.78% less than average asking price during February. This could mean a $37,281 savings on median-priced home of $645,000.

However, Elias says that the best time to invest in San Diego real estate is in the spring. More inventory hits the market because sellers want to sell before the new school year starts. It may be wise to begin your search in late February when more housing options trickle in, but the market is still less competitive.

Find a top buyer’s agent in San Diego

As you set out to buy a house in San Diego, you’ll need an agent to help you navigate this competitive market spanning 372 square miles. And not just any agent will do. You’ll want to work with someone who knows where the more affordable homes are and how to negotiate a good deal. According to data from HomeLight, top buyer’s agents in San Diego help you save around $55,227 compared to average agents in the area. With that cash savings, you can invest in home improvements, new furniture, and making your new San Diego house feel like home.

If you’re ready to buy a home, it’s time to find a top real estate agent in San Diego who will help you find your dream home at a price you can afford.  “I would look at how long they’ve been in the business. If you’ve been in the business for a while, that means you brokered the ups and downs,” says Elias.

Header Image Source: (Experience Above/ Death to the Stock Photo)