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affordable modern in the Bay Area?

by Dan Forzano last modified Aug 07, 2007 10:27 PM
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affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Dan Forzano at May 31. 2005

With housing prices in the Bay Area what they are (insane) how does one go about finding something other than a stucco monstrosity that's under a million $? I'm looking for a first home and my heart begins palpitating whenever I look at the prices. To add injury to insult is the plain fact that most of the homes are just plain ugly to my modernist sensibility.

I work in Cupertino, my wife in Mountain View so we considering this the center of our our search radius, but we're open if the home is right.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to start, areas to look, or search stratagies?


Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Greg Klosowski at July 14. 2005

Well, there is no doubt that prices in the bay area are high - and construction costs are reflective of that too - making building new almost as prohibitive.

I am an architect in the east bay and my wife and I took a different approach. We found a home in an up and coming neighborhood and have been gradually transforming our little post-war non-descript into an interesting modern home.

The point being - instead of looking for the perfect modern home, it might be to your advantage to find a non-descript home - and more importantly, in an area that may have compatible design-review standards...then work with someone to bring your vision to fruition.

There have been several projects published in the Bay Area over the last few years that show small or weird homes that are transformed into beautiful modern masterpieces.....and the owners took advantage of the non-descript starting points to get in at a lower price point....

I hope that helps a little

Greg Klosowski AIA (

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Judy Worth at September 14. 2005

Land is out there to be just takes a bit of time....especially if you want the right location. I was just fortunate enough to secure 1.28 acres along the sonoma coastline for $180k so be patient......working with a good realtor, is helpful. If you need the name of one, let me know........

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Renee Adelmann at January 12. 2006

There are many Eichler homes in the Bay Are which go for under $1,000,000. There are tracts in Marin County, Walnut Creek,Concord, and all along the Peninsula. You can look at all modern homes for sale in Marin County at

Please contact me if you need assistance in Marin County finding a modern home.
Renee Adelmann


Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by mjfree at January 13. 2006


Of course, your situation is not unique. My wife and I went through the same process, and we ended up building our house. In the bay area, we saw this as our only angle. If we just searched for a home like everybody else, we would have been going to open-houses with 50 other couples and fighting to overbid the most. Building custom can be more expensive, or less expensive depending on your approach and analysis of the situation.

Building new costs X and you are done. Youve just finished all your remodeling. So, if you can build new for what you can buy old, then you are way ahead of the person across the street who has to remodel everything (insulation, windows, drywall, cottage cheese, bathrooms, kitchen, floors, etc..)

Being your own GC, modern pre-fab, phased construction, sweat equity, bargain shopping, and many others can help control the cost of building. Being your own GC means that you dont pay percentages on expensive fixtures. Rather, you buy the fixture at wholesale or clearance and install it yourself.

My wife and I GC'd our house while both holding down 50 hr/wk jobs. We finished our construction in 8-months flat. We have many ideas for building affordable, and we are currently working on implementing some of them in spec-building projects. The reason I lean towards building new is that it opens up an opportunity for savings.

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Jennifer McKenzie at February 02. 2006

Affordablity is my biggest question in this endevor.

Please respond if you live in Sonoma County and have had success or frustration looking for land. I am pretty sure that we'd have to stay under 300,000 to make this project work financially.

I also wonder if co-developing land with like minded people would be a successful venture.

Basically, I don't know where to start--do you talk to realtors who specialize in land and lots? Is there anyone who speciallizes in helping people who have an interest these modern homes?? I have been deheartened in the past when realtors do not feel that prefab is a good investment. However, I am now beginning to not care--if I build this home, I won't be looking to sell it anytime soon anyhow. This would be a dream come true.

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by mjfree at February 06. 2006

It is difficult to find a good realator....or any professional in the whole process of building a house. One principle reason - at every step, each professional stands to benefit from you spending MORE $ and not less $. Thus, realators show you the high-priced lots, loan brokers work to convince you to take out more $ than you can afford, general contractors make a percentage on all materials (hello high-priced faucets), etc. It isnt always that grim, but should always have your guard up.

Buying land:
Dont wait for land to hit the MLS. Drive around a desired area with buildable lots (probably infill lots), and record the APNs. Then, go to your tax assessor and get contact info for those lots. Contact the owners directly, and try to arrange a purchase. If the owners are interested, pay a real-estate lawyer to write up the docs and review the transaction. Of course, before committing to a project, you must do your due dillegence at the local county planning/building department. The thing most RE agents dont tell you, their % on raw land is upwards of 10%. Money that the seller will save by selling directly to you.

The best case, you buy the land and have the current owners hold back a note until you get construction financing. That keeps you from paying closing costs twice since most construction loans are construction to permanent, not land to permanent. If these terms are ringing a bell, google construction to permanent financing, or spend some time on Indymac bank or Wells Fargo websites.

Be your own GC, period. Leverage your energy to seek the best deal and save 10-20%.

One final note; perhaps you hire a building consultant on an hourly basis. A true fiduciary that doesnt benefit from your spending more $. Somebody that can get your back and knows what things really cost. This is typically a function performed by a GC. An example - my wife and I built a house a half year ago. We got 3 stucco quotes from people out of the phone book for 40k. We then got a quote through a recommendation from a framer friend, 20k. There are two prices in the custom field. The contractor or contractor's contact, and the ignorant owner-builder extra profit price.

Finally, my wife and I have plans for building affordable. We hope to implement them soon. If you find two lots on very steep sites, feel free to contact us. We may be itnerested in a project.

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Roger Mercer at February 17. 2006


We have had success in buying land in Sonoma County. Our mechanism was to buy land that was unbuildable at the time of purchase, but that had a reasonable chance of being buildable within 5 years. In particular, we bought a half acre in Penngrove just east of Rohnert Park M-section (immediately south of SSU) for $180K.

The lot was unbuildable when we bought it because there was no sewer or water and the county would not issue new septic permits due to failing leach beds on surrounding properties. However, the property owners in the area had approved a special assessment to pay for sewer and water along with improved roads, so we took the risk that the assessment district would survive CEQA and court challenges to allow the project to go forward. It has taken nearly five years due to legal obstruction by a group of no-growth ***holes in Marin, but construction of the improvements should finally begin in May with building permits to be issued in late summer/early fall.

Buying unbuildable land does require patience, and a willingness to have a pretty good chunk of change be dead money for several years, but it is one of the few ways to get a decent piece of land in Sonoma county at a price that mortals can afford.

If you are willing to take a similar risk, there is an opportunity that still exists in the subdivision where our lot is located. Most of the lots are one acre, and are offered on MLS for $425-475K. The county has indicated a willingness to rezone the land to allow lot splits into half acres; this rezoning must be included in the new general plan in order to take place and is not a sure thing by any means. However, if the splits are allowed, the newly created half acre lots will likely sell for $325-375K. If you are willing to take the risk, you could end up with a buildable half acre lot for $100-150K after selling one half.

I can think of a few places where I have seen relatively reasonably priced land in the Santa Rosa plain over the past couple of years. Southwest Santa Rosa has quite a few undeveloped lots that come up for sale in the $100-150K range for a half acre (there is one on Primrose right now for $125K); the problem is I think many of them get some flooding from the Laguna in winter. There have been buildable lots for sale on Petaluma Hill Rd between Kawana Springs and Aston Ave for less than $200K; this area has been somewhat seedy in the past, but is improving rapidly. I have seen lots in Northwest Santa Rosa west of Coffey Ln and south of Hopper that have gone fairly cheap because sewer was still a few hundred feet away.

I don't know if co-development is very feasible. Most larger lots outside of the cities' urban growth boundries cannot be subdivided. Within the UGBs, much of the vacant land is controlled by Hugh Codding, Clem Carinelli and their ilk.

When we bought our lot, we worked with Gene Berman. Gene is a one man show at [url href=]For Buyers Only Realty[/url]. He doesn't specialize in land, but he does work only with buyers (obviously :grin: ) and is very dedicated to his clients. Ideally, you would like to find a seller who will take back a mortgage; it is much harder to find a bank to lend on land than it is to find a mortgage for a house. That being said, we did manage to refinance our original VTB loan into a land loan with Bank of Marin, so it can be done.

Best of luck,

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Jim Meehan at February 20. 2006

I think the high prices of existing homes have actually opened up a lot of opportunities to build new. There are quite a few lots and locations out there that haven't been built on previously because the site, slope, lack of utilities, or some other situation made it financially infeasible.

With the prices of existing homes up so much, it's now possible to overcome engineering or access challenges at some of those sites, and still end up spending less than what existing homes are going for. And you'll end up with a home that's brand new and needs no remodeling or seismic retrofitting.

In Oakland, there are quite a few lots in the 1992 fire area that were never rebuilt. Some still with foundations even. I see them on on MLS from time to time, but as previously suggested, driving around and doing some record searches might also be a good approach.

We found our lot on MLS just a month or two after we started looking. We had expected to be looking for a long time, and were surprised to have found something so quickly.

Schools are the one compromise we've made in choosing Oakland. We don't have any children yet, but I think we'll be considering private schools when it comes time for that. Or else relocating. But I think that would break our hearts after all the effort we're putting into this house :(

Jim Meehan
Oakland, CA

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by mjfree at February 21. 2006

A thought on co-development.

In my mind, co-development does not have to occur on the same piece of land, just in the general vicinity. Ideally, as Ive seen in my neighborhood multiple times, 2 or more adjacent lots will hit the market at the same time. This situation would present an opportunity to design 1 site-specific home and mirror image it on the next lot. There are several benefits to co-developing cost wise. There would be less cost in the professional stages (arch, eng, civil) and quantity discounts potentially for other finishes/materials. In addition, there may be an even greater benefit. After my wife and I just built a house, it is apparent that the time and management factor may be of greater importance. 2 owner-builders could share the tasks of finding subs, meeting subs on site, inspecting, accepting deliveries, etc. For two couples, each person could be responsible for 1 day as sight supervisor. I cant tell you how many trips I made to my construction site to meet inspectors, accept deliveries, drop-off supplies...the list is endless.

A second thought:

Co-develop through a barter system. In this case, you would need multiple sets of people willing to develop multiple side-by-side lots. The main concept is that each investor must bring a trade to the table. In this utopian approach, you have people in charge of the following:

1. Arch/Eng, PM
2. Dirt/Found
3. Rough Framing
4. Mechanical Systems
5. Finish

In this example, everybody is essentially responsible for building their own house, but you barter your work on other houses. This way, the profit becomes the final product and the cost becomes the material costs. Just think, for every 25/hr framer you have on a project, you're getting billed at least 75/hr, if not more. If you have a GC, the GC charges 100/hr. All of a sudden, you are paying 4x the guy who is actually getting the work done's hourly rate in order to cover profit, risk, insurance, overhead, etc. In CA, a GC will spend roughly 50 cents per every dollar paid to a construction worker making less than 23/hr for Workman's Comp alone!!!!!!!!!! = Build your own matter how long it takes, and for god-sakes, dont insure yourself!

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Jennifer McKenzie at March 10. 2006

Okay, so I've spent some time looking around out there, I am limited to how far I want to commute--with two small children and working outside home I have a pretty busy lifestyle. I'm limited to Santa Rosa, Forestville, Sebastopol, Graton, Healdsburg and Windsor. So far the stuff I've seen all falls into three catagories, all bringing interesting challenges:

--affordable because the site requires an investment ~$200,000-300,000
--pricey because the site is ready to go ~$400,000+
--pricey because they aren't motivated to sell (or so I'd assume, given the nature of them)

Still nothing that makes me really enthusiastic. Actually, that's not true there is MLS#20602847 which is great but it looks like it will be a probate property and it may have some rather intense site constrution costs.

Someone mentioned finding property on your own--contacting owners privately. This sound very creative and I am curious to know more. I understand you can go to the tax assessors office and get in contact with the owners. But the part about getting an attorney to help with an offer I didn't quite get. If that means keep realtors out of the deal it may be a win-win for everyone. Love to hear more about that!

Then of course there is always looking for defunct properties but that seems to be a whole territory for the wise and experienced. But I'm into this for whatever it takes and I appreciate the dialogue.

Jennifer at

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by mjfree at March 16. 2006

It seems as if land prices are up everywhere. In my area on the SF peninsula coast, decent lots used to go for 200-250k a year ago. Talking with my RE agent, she said that the prices went up overnight to 325-400. She also indicated that land prices lag home prices, so it could be that land is finally catching up to the overheated housing market? At any rate, 300k for a lot with some kind of challenge doesnt exactly sound affordable. With a construction cost of 225/sqft(simple)+ challenge project + land + cost of loan = building is rapidly becoming just as unaffordable as buying an existing house, especially with the cost of matl's increasing daily :(.

We bought a piece of land off the previous owner for ~250k - that person bought the land for 8k or something. So, unfortunately, there are a lot of land owners with no mortgage or large tax bills forcing a quick sale. Perhaps buying in bulk would alleviate the high cost of a single lot?

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Jason at March 09. 2007

San Jose has some redevelopment opportunities.

Re: affordable modern in the Bay Area?

Posted by Jason at August 07. 2007

$250,000 for a lot in the Bay area seems cheap. There are lots all over Dallas that are $250,000 for a 50x150.

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