South Palo Alto overview

Look here if you want Palo Alto schools and much of the Palo Alto lifestyle, at a discount—but it’s still not cheap.

“South Palo Alto” is Palo Alto south of Oregon Expressway. That’s a big area so I’ve distilled it, separating out two neighborhoods, Barron Park and Ventura, that don’t quite fit the South Palo Alto mold. I’ve divided what’s left into six neighborhoods: Midtown, East of Midtown, West Charleston, East Charleston, Green Acres and the Monroe tract.

I grew up in South Palo Alto and still think of it as home, but I recognize that it can challenge and polarize buyers. Some of them think South Palo Alto is a tremendous value. Others find it ridiculously overpriced. Both have compelling arguments. Much depends on your priorities.

South Palo Alto is the Costco of Palo Alto, premium goods at discount prices, but it’s a bargain only if you value the qualities that make Palo Alto a premium community. Hundreds of neighborhoods between Millbrae and West San Jose offer larger more upscale homes…or more pre-war charm… or a more charismatic business district…or some combination of the above, frequently with highly-regarded schools, and all for equal or less money than South Palo Alto.

What makes South Palo Alto so pricey? Lifestyle and quality of life. Partly it’s the prestige and peer group recognition that comes with a Palo Alto address. Partly it’s the weather, an ideal blend of the Peninsula’s moderate temperatures and South Bay’s sunshine. It’s the access to an extraordinary range of city services including low-cost municipal utilities. For many it’s the proximity to Stanford and a hip, upscale downtown. Part of the appeal is rubbing shoulders with like-minded people. The civic-minded may be attracted to the “Palo Alto process”, informed citizens helping the city make its decisions. And if commute traffic is any indication, the good jobs are here.

But what I hear mentioned most often is the schools. You don’t usually find schools with these test scores in this price range. Even better, the schools are consistent all the way from K through 12. There’s none of the variation between elementary, middle and high schools that’s common in other cities.

So South Palo Alto gives you a lot, if that’s what you’re looking for, but so does north Palo Alto. Why does South Palo Alto sell for less?

First, South Palo Alto was built to be affordable. The typical home is quite small, often no larger than the average townhouse, and on a relatively small lot.

Second, most of South Palo Alto was thrown up virtually overnight in the haste of the post-World War II building boom. Thousands of small, anonymous homes were built quickly to meet tremendous pent-up demand. So South Palo Alto has little or none of the pre-war charm and individuality of the best north Palo Alto neighborhoods. That’s also true of most of Santa Clara County, and why South Palo Alto looks like Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara etc. In fact, it could be said that Santa Clara County’s de facto northern boundary is Oregon Expressway, not San Francisquito Creek. That’s not to knock South Palo Alto, just to explain why it has a different feel than north Palo Alto. Times and tastes were different, as was the way houses were built.

In addition, much of South Palo Alto’s housing stock is a species of home variously called the “contemporary”, “flattop” or “Eichler”. Buyers looking for a picket fence neighborhood have the deck stacked against them.

Fourth, South Palo Alto doesn’t offer the “walking distance to University Avenue and Community Center” lifestyle that opens buyers’ wallets. South of Oregon there’s an excellent community center and several serviceable shopping districts but they lack the panache of Lucie Stern Center and downtown Palo Alto. Again, that’s not a put-down—north Palo Alto makes most areas look ordinary by comparison.

Last but not least, there’s a perception among buyers, usually based on test scores, that north Palo Alto has the best elementary schools. It’s debatable as to whether test scores accurately reflect quality of education, but buyers concerned about schools often base their decisions on them. In this era of minimal funding, it’s said that school performance is often directly related to the level of affluence surrounding a school, and north Palo Alto’s parents typically have more time and money to give their children’s schools.

So is South Palo Alto bargain-priced or overpriced? If you say “overpriced” you’re not alone. But remember that over the years intelligent, prudent people have propped up South Palo Alto’s “inflated” prices. Maybe they know something.

Typical lot sizes: About 80% of South Palo Alto lots are in the 6000 to 8000 sq.ft. range. Maybe 15% are smaller, around 5000 to 6000 sq.ft. The remaining 5% or so are larger than 8000 sq.ft., so this isn’t your area if you’re looking for a quarter acre. Larger lots are typically found at the end of a cul-de-sac or where a street makes a ninety-degree turn (visualize a pie-shaped lot with the narrow end fronting the street). The other common location for sizeable lots is on the older (and now busier) streets like Ross and Louis, often in the typical pre-1950 configuration, narrow and deep. These lots seem to be survivors of a pre-war south Palo Alto whose handful of residents, often small farmers, dairymen or flower-growers, lived off the land and needed a sizeable parcel to support them.

Interested in buying in South Palo Alto? Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-14

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