What to Know About Moving to California
No other state offers such a variety of places to live and job opportunities, but expect to pay more.
All of California's scenic beauty and wonderful weather comes with a large price tag.(Getty Images)
California offers a wide variety of destinations for people looking to move, from Hollywood to wine country and Silicon Valley to towns surrounded by pristine national forests. If you’re thinking of relocating to California, understand what living in such a large and populated state means. Here’s what you need to know about moving to California, and what to expect when you get there.
Should You Move to California?
You may know you want to live on the West Coast and in California specifically, but there are still many more options than you may expect. Of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. that make up the U.S. News Best Places to Live ranking, 12 are in California, and there are plenty of small towns far from major hubs of industry or tourism.
Many people first think of Los Angeles when they envision life in California, with hot summers, plenty of sun and a beach that’s not too far away. Others picture San Francisco, where job opportunities remain a major pull for young professionals looking to be part of the next major tech revolution, or nearby Santa Rosa and dreamy California wine country. There are also more inland places to consider, like Bakersfield, Stockton and Fresno, which are more connected to agriculture than the larger coastal cities.
Of course, the beach, tech jobs and rolling hills are found in other states as well, if not necessarily all in one. If you’re interested in putting down roots in California, be sure you’re prepared for a higher cost of living than in many other states.
How to Move to California
Your best bet for making a move to California a success is to have a job lined up first, as finding a place to live – whether you’re renting or buying – will be harder without the income to support it. With a population of nearly 40 million as of 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, expect to have competition when you look for your next home.
“We have tight housing inventories, which can make (moving here) more of a challenge than it has been in the past in California,” says Jordan Levine, deputy chief economist for the California Association of Realtors.
Plenty of California transplants relocating for work have the income to support a mortgage, but they don’t always have the cash saved for a down payment, says Vendy Chan, a real estate agent and marketing and education manager for Century 21 MM in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In these cases, Chan stresses that homebuyers should consider all their options. “A lot of buyers don’t know that they can ask for incentives from their lender,” she says. Renting may be your best bet if you aren’t sure you’ll stay in one place for long, or if you can’t afford a mortgage. But Chan stresses that homeowners benefit from the wealth that builds with homeownership, particularly in the pricey Bay Area, which makes it easier to buy a larger house or a home in a more desirable location in the future.
Read:How to Save Enough for a Down Payment ]
Here’s what you need to know about moving to California:
- The cost of living is high.
- The taxes add up.
- The job market is diverse.
- Expect forest fires and earthquakes.
- Getaway options are spectacular, but prepare for traffic.
The Cost of Living Is High
Out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S., the 12 California metro areas are also among the 25 most expensive places to live. To live in any of these places, residents earning the area’s median annual household income have to use a larger share of their money to cover basic housing needs, including rent or mortgage payments, utilities and property taxes. In Los Angeles, for example, the cost of living accounts for over 30% of median income, making it the most expensive out of all the California metro areas to live in.
Given the high demand for housing combined with the high earners in the area who can cover the cost of living, expect a lot of competition as you look for a home. In one instance, Chan recalls that a three-bedroom condo in the southern part of San Francisco received multiple offers before its first official day on the market. It sold for more than its original asking price of $799,000, “which is very affordable,” Chan says.
The Taxes Add Up
California’s state income tax is broken up into 10 brackets that are based on income and range from 1% to 13.3%, which is the highest top rate in the U.S., according to the California Taxpayers Association.
When it comes to buying regular items at the store, expect to pay at least 7.25% in sales tax, which is the rate set by the state, according to tax information company Avalara.
For the best picture of how taxes will affect your finances, look closer than state-set rates. “There’s a lot of things that happen at the municipal level,” Levine says. San Jose and Salinas, for example, have sales tax rates of 9.25% within their city limits, and Santa Barbara's is 8.75%, according Avalara. Property taxes vary widely based on county and city.
The Job Market Is Diverse
California is home to major players in the technology, tourism, health care, defense, renewable energy and manufacturing industries, so there’s no need to fear that your profession isn’t represented. You may find yourself more naturally drawn to San Jose and Silicon Valley if you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor of a new startup, or Los Angeles if you’ve got a career in entertainment in mind.
In places with more of an agricultural focus, however, the job market leaves something to be desired. As of November 2019, both Bakersfield and Modesto had unemployment rates above 7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Expect Forest Fires and Earthquakes
While California doesn’t get hurricanes or excessive amounts of snow in its most populated areas, expect to witness your fair share of natural disasters while living in the Golden State.
In 2019, there were 7,860 wildfires in California, leading to an estimated 259,823 acres burning and 732 structures damaged or destroyed and three fatalities, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Wildfires occur all over the state each year, from San Diego up to Sacramento. Especially during the fall when the weather is warm and wind is high, keep an eye on news reports of fires, and be prepared to evacuate your home if a fire gets close.
Earthquakes are less frequent but a danger you should be prepared for, especially if you live in Southern California, closer to the San Andreas Fault. The California Department of Conservation reports there are generally two or three earthquakes per year of at least 5.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, which is large enough to cause at least moderate damage to buildings and roads.
Getaway Options Are Spectacular, But Prepare for Traffic
If you're going to call California home, be sure to take advantage of the endless options to spend your free time. Residents can enjoy an afternoon or weekend at one of the state's countless beaches, visit Disneyland in Anaheim or check out any of the national parks in the state.
Flying from Southern to Northern California is a short trip, but getting between cities and destinations is often easier with a car. For a scenic trip, take California State Route 1, which runs along the coast for nearly the entire length of the state.
Many Californians would also argue that a car is necessary for your commute or running errands. As a result, prepare to hit traffic not just on the occasional road trip but also on a daily basis. Los Angeles and San Francisco are known for their traffic, due to the sheer number of people who live in the area and the distance they have to travel to get from home to work.
Especially if you’re not a part of that top income tax bracket, you may find yourself having to live farther from your office in order to afford a home. If you’re not a fan of rush hour traffic, Chan doesn’t have alternatives that make living closer more affordable. Her best recommendation: “Get up early.”