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.
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.”
Which spot in the Golden State is best?
Whether it’s because you consider the West Coast the best coast or simply because the right job is calling to you, you may be one of many people considering a move to California. But while your mind might first jump to Los Angeles or San Francisco as the epitome of life in the Golden State, there are many more major metro areas to consider. Out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. that make up the overall Best Places to Live rankings – calculated based on affordability, job market, access to quality health care and desirability, among other factors – 12 of them are in California. Read on for the Best Places to Live in California.
Updated on Sept. 17, 2019: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.12. Bakersfield
Best Places 2019 Rank: 124
Metro Population: 878,744
Median Home Price: $226,908
Median Annual Salary: $47,680
Bakersfield is an inland California metro area and ranks No. 124 on the overall Best Places to Live list. Bakersfield residents spend 25.9% of the median annual household income on living expenses, including mortgage payments, rent, property taxes and utilities. With an unemployment rate of 8% and a median annual salary of $47,680 – $3,000 below the national median – Bakersfield has a job market that ranks fourth-worst out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S., with San Juan, Puerto Rico, and McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, having poorer-performing job markets.
Learn more about Bakersfield.11. Stockton
Best Places 2019 Rank: 123
Metro Population: 724,153
Median Home Price: $352,350
Median Annual Salary: $46,770
In California’s Central Valley, Stockton is surrounded by farms and vineyards characteristic of the northern part of the state, but the metro area is also home to many manufacturing and distribution hubs for companies such as Safeway and Whirlpool Corp. Although Stockton was hit hard by the Great Recession and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2013, the metro area has made positive strides in recent years. However, unemployment in the area remains high at 5.9%, compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.9%.
Learn more about Stockton.10. Modesto
Best Places 2019 Rank: 120
Metro Population: 803,074
Median Home Price: $289,168
Median Annual Salary: $46,176
Located about halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, Modesto is another major California metro area with proximity to farms and a deep connection to agriculture. The job market in the metro area, however, has room for growth. The median annual salary in Modesto is about $4,000 less than the national median of $50,620, and the unemployment rate is 7%. Additionally, residents endure a high cost of living, which requires 27.32% of the area median annual household income, making it the 13th-most expensive place to live out of the 125 metro areas on the list.
Learn more about Modesto.9. Fresno
Best Places 2019 Rank: 119
Metro Population: 971,616
Median Home Price: $260,733
Median Annual Salary: $45,510
Ranking No. 119 on the overall Best Places to Live list, Fresno is located in the San Joaquin Valley – roughly a two-hour drive to the coast. Like many inland California metro areas, Fresno is best known for its connection to agriculture, with fruits like tomatoes and peaches among its most common crops. A largely agricultural focus also keeps many residents from having to travel far for work, as the average morning commute in Fresno is just 22.4 minutes, four minutes less than the national average.
Learn more about Fresno.8. Salinas
Best Places 2019 Rank: 117
Metro Population: 433,168
Median Home Price: $581,342
Median Annual Salary: $48,290
Located along the Pacific coast, Salinas is one of the smaller California metro areas on the list, with less than 500,000 residents calling the area home. While the city of Salinas does not sit directly on the coast, other parts of the metro area, including Monterey, are on the water, which helps them attract many visitors and residents for the ocean access. As a result of its prime location, Salinas is the 24th-most desirable place out of the 125 metro areas on the list, based on the results of a SurveyMonkey analysis that asked 2,000 U.S. residents where they would prefer to live.
Learn more about Salinas.7. Los Angeles
7. Los Angeles
Best Places 2019 Rank: 107
Metro Population: 18,585,594
Median Home Price: $526,214
Median Annual Salary: $53,803
The home of Hollywood, Los Angeles ranks No. 107 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2019. The second-most populous metro area in the U.S. after only New York City, Los Angeles offers a healthy job market and desirable location, but the popularity comes at a price. Los Angeles residents spend 30.28% of the median household income on housing, which makes this metro area too pricey for many people. Los Angeles area residents also spend more time getting to work – the average morning commute is 30.4 minutes.
Learn more about Los Angeles.6. Sacramento
Best Places 2019 Rank: 82
Metro Population: 2,268,005
Median Home Price: $389,858
Median Annual Salary: $55,010
California’s state capital receives its best scores for its job market – the median annual salary, at $55,010, is $5,000 above the national median, while the unemployment rate is 3.7%, just below the national average of 2.9%. As a result, Sacramento’s job market ranks 20th out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Higher income in Sacramento helps reduce the impact of housing costs, though not by much. More than 26.55% of the median household income is required to cover typical housing costs for the area.
Learn more about Sacramento.5. Santa Rosa
5. Santa Rosa
Best Places 2019 Rank: 74
Metro Population: 500,943
Median Home Price: $629,917
Median Annual Salary: $53,890
If you’re looking to live in the middle of California wine country, look no further than Santa Rosa. Ranking No. 74 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2019, Santa Rosa receives its strongest scores for low property crime and murder rates, college preparedness among high school students and an average morning commute of just over 25.2 minutes, a little under the national average of 26.4 minutes. The cost of living in Santa Rosa requires 28.22% of the area median household income.
Learn more about Santa Rosa.4. Santa Barbara
4. Santa Barbara
Best Places 2019 Rank: 73
Metro Population: 442,996
Median Home Price: $463,750
Median Annual Salary: $54,320
The least-populated California metro area on the list, Santa Barbara has just over 442,996 residents – but it appears to keep them happy and healthy. In the annual Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which measures residents’ satisfaction with their hometown, overall health and economic success, Santa Barbara is third out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Combined with high scores for its proximity to quality hospitals, based on U.S. News Best Hospitals data, low rates of property crime and murder and a short average morning commute, Santa Barbara ranks No. 1 for quality of life.
Learn more about Santa Barbara.3. San Diego
3. San Diego
Best Places 2019 Rank: 36
Metro Population: 3,283,665
Median Home Price: $555,325
Median Annual Salary: $56,410
The fifth-most desirable place out of the 125 places on the list, San Diego attracts many residents for its sunny weather, warm climate and proximity to the beach. But sandy shores aren’t the only thing bringing people to San Diego – a median annual salary of $56,410 and an unemployment rate of 3.3% mean the job market is stronger than the average metro area in the U.S. But with a cost of living that requires 29.52% of the area median annual household income, San Diego is also the fifth-most expensive metro area in the U.S.
Learn more about San Diego.2. San Jose
2. San Jose
Best Places 2019 Rank: 14
Metro Population: 1,969,897
Median Home Price: $1,080,017
Median Annual Salary: $77,180
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the capital of Silicon Valley ranks highly on the overall Best Places to Live list at No. 14. San Jose is home to nearly 2 million people, and with a median home price of $1,080,017, it has even higher home prices than San Francisco. But like its Bay Area neighbor, a high income offsets the mile-high prices. With a median annual salary of $77,180, San Jose residents aren’t hurting as much when it comes to buying a house.
Learn more about San Jose.1. San Francisco
1. San Francisco
Best Places 2019 Rank: 7
Metro Population: 4,641,820
Median Home Price: $768,517
Median Annual Salary: $69,700
San Francisco has plenty going for it to attract new residents, from its reputation as a fun city to live in to a strong job market. And while San Francisco’s real estate market is notoriously expensive – with a median home price of $768,517 according to data from real estate information company Zillow – the higher median income offsets those high costs. Tied with Honolulu, Portland, Oregon, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, San Francisco ranks No. 1 for desirability out of the 125 metro areas on the Best Places to Live list.
Learn more about San Francisco.The Best Places to Live in California include:
The Best Places to Live in California include:
- San Francisco.
- San Jose.
- San Diego.
- Santa Barbara.
- Santa Rosa.
- Los Angeles.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.