Atherton

The address on the Peninsula east of 280.  And, arguably, anywhere on the Peninsula.

Click “view larger map” (below map) to identify the featured areas. Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Neighborhood boundaries may be subjective. Boundaries and other information on this website should be verified before being relied upon.

The Town of Atherton’s mission statement sets the tone: a “scenic, rural, thickly-wooded residential area with streets designed primarily as scenic routes rather than for speed of travel”. The quaint “speed of travel”, redolent of chauffeured Pierce-Arrows, hints at a remarkably beautiful island of gentility in a sea of hoi polloi and housing tracts, and at the aspirations of many to live here. Yet despite Atherton’s carefully honed image of exclusiveness, you’ll find a surprisingly broad range of homes, neighborhoods and prices. Perhaps you too can live in Atherton.

The town began with the introduction of rail service to the mid-Peninsula in the 1860s as the preserve of ultra-wealthy San Franciscans looking for relief from that city’s summer fog. “Summer home” may call to mind images of a casual, modest dwelling but the survivors of the Gilded Age of great wealth and no income tax clearly reflect the affluence of their original owners. They’re enormous, often 6000 sq.ft. or more. Briefly part of Menlo Park in the 1870s, incorporation lapsed until 1923 when plebian Menlo Park’s proposed re-incorporation threatened to swallow the adjacent estates of Fair Oaks. Faced with the indignity of being lumped together with Menlo Park’s tradesmen and farmers, the Fair Oaks delegation beat Menlo Park’s to the county courthouse by minutes, but had to incorporate under the last name of an early landowner, Faxon Atherton, since a small town in the Central Valley already claimed “Fair Oaks”.

The ’20s saw the first sub-division of the large estates. Homes from this period are sometimes as imposing as the earlier summer homes of the San Franciscans, but are usually more modest. Tudor and Early California-style architecture is common to this period. Development stopped during the Great Depression, but resumed in the late ’30s and accelerated after World War II. While the post-war boom created large formal homes, the more casual rancher was also popular and today makes up a substantial portion of Atherton’s older housing stock. The town has been virtually built out for years but is still very much in transition, as relatively modest old homes make way for elaborate new construction often as large as the early estate homes.

A word about Atherton real estate’s recent performance. Like other local top-end towns (except Hillsborough), Atherton real estate marches largely in lockstep with the NASDAQ. Prices went way up during the boom and way down during the bust, and they kept going down even after the lower price ranges began to recover. The chart below shows Atherton’s extreme volatility. But lately it appears that the irrational exuberance has finally been extracted from Atherton prices.

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pros and cons

pros
· Prestigious address, sure to impress.
· Only city east of 280 where acre or near-acre lots are the norm and acre-plus lots can be found.
· Many large, distinguished homes, some designed by famous architects. One of the very few areas east of 280 where 5000-plus sq.ft. homes are readily available.
· New homes are very large and luxurious.
· Town has a reputation for not interfering with homebuilding or remodeling projects, although that image was recently challenged.
· A few of the grand old estate homes from the late 1800s or very early 1900s are still around, although their extensive grounds have long been subdivided. Today you can see evidence of the old estates in the outlines of parcel maps or in the numerous cul-de-sacs off main streets.
· Still has a few modest farmhouses and cabins, reminders of a time when Atherton was more rural.
· Has the highest ratio of police officers to residents of any local community, with special services for the high-net worth resident.
· Large, beautiful park.

cons
· No shopping district, but the town’s fathers considered that a plus, and downtown Menlo Park and Redwood City are just a short drive away.
· Some neighborhoods are next to marginal areas.
· A large part of the city is in the Redwood City School District, an elementary district with generally low test scores.
· Not every neighborhood lives up to the Atherton image. Some resemble Central Menlo tracts, while a few are genuinely humble.
· Not every house lives up to the Atherton image. Many small ranchers and cottages still stand, although the more sought-after areas have far fewer of these anomalies.
· Not every lot lives up to the Atherton image. The Atherton acre is sometimes a polite fiction that extends to the middle of the public street, with a right-of-way allowing the town to lay their street over part of your acre. According to the Planning Department, about half of Atherton lots are “legal non-conforming” and net to less than an acre, sometimes substantially less.

Interested in buying a home in Atherton? Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

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neighborhoods

“Affordable” Atherton:

Fair Oaks: The blocks east of Middlefield and north of Marsh, the relaxed semi-rural setting of this small Atherton neighborhood probably isn’t what you were expecting. Heading east off Middlefield, you run out of Atherton quickly and the transition to low-rent unincorporated Fair Oaks is abrupt on some streets, while on others the genteel ambience continues. Even in Atherton Fair Oaks, you’ll find a few of the extremely modest old cottages or ranchers that characterize unincorporated Fair Oaks. But what makes this area genuine Atherton and gives it considerable charm are the substantial and handsome pre-World War II homes. Built largely in two waves, the first in the mid-1920s and then in the late 1930s, these Craftsman, Tudor or Dutch Colonial homes are usually well over 2000 sq.ft. and occasionally over 4000 sq.ft. The Spanish street names are redolent of an earlier era that romanticized old California (in large part due to the imaginative novels of Faxon Atherton’s daughter Gertrude). Homes in this neighborhood are nothing if eclectic. There’s even a Prairie-style home a la Frank Lloyd Wright, quite unusual for the Peninsula. A third wave of building around 1960 produced large contemporary homes, another style of architecture you don’t expect in Atherton.  This group even includes what looks like a gallery-style Eichler, the ne plus ultra of contemporaries. Lot sizes vary widely, but most are one-third to one-half acre, with only a few full acres. Even though this is an old neighborhood, the lots are usually wide, not narrow and deep as in the typical pre-World War II configuration. While the neighborhoods of unincorporated Fair Oaks to the east and north vary from modest to marginal, Atherton Fair Oaks is an oasis of apparent tranquility comparable to Menlo Oaks. Just as important, it’s blessed with high-scoring Menlo Park City schools.

Menlo Park Villas: Atherton’s most consistently “affordable” neighborhood, located east of El Camino between Fair Oaks Lane and Menlo Park. Menlo Park Villas isn’t the Atherton of “everyone gets an acre and a big house”, but it’s typical of entry-level Atherton and even of old Menlo Park and Redwood City. Lots tend to be small, often 6550 sq.ft. with narrow 50-foot frontages. Homes, especially those from the south side of Maple to the Menlo Park boundary, are usually well under 2000 sq.ft. and indistinguishable from the early post-war ranchers found in more affordable cities. This being Atherton, there’s a sprinkling of newer homes, as well as a few cottages and modest Tudors from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Things get a bit more upscale from the north side of Maple to Fair Oaks Lane. Here lots are at least a quarter-acre and often one third, and wider at 75 feet. Houses are more substantial too, usually at least 2000 sq.ft and sometimes well over. Architecture is more distinguished and typical of the 1930s, with fewer of the post-war ranchers common to the southern section. The oldest and most substantial houses—one is almost 5000 sq.ft.—of Menlo Park Villas date from 1906 to 1907, and their various placements suggest that each once sat on a small farm or estate. Not the sort of area you’d think Atherton’s founders would have gobbled up in their race to protect their estates back in 1923, but the train station is here and perhaps it looked like a likely place to put the small city hall complex, built in 1928. Highly-regarded Menlo Park City schools.

Lindenwood: This large neighborhood between Middlefield and Bay Roads is an unexpected study in contrasts. You enter through imposing gates, remnants of the grandiose 1875 James C. Flood estate called Linden Towers by its owner and “the wedding cake” by the locals. But once through these imposing gates, Lindenwood’s ambience is rural and surprisingly democratic. Nearly all the original homes, built from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, are single-story designs of a genre once called “sprawling rancher”. They’re custom-built but often resemble the informal tract homes of Central Menlo or even South Palo Alto, just on a larger scale. The contemporary-style “flattop” home usually associated with affordable Palo Alto is fairly common here, including one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Joe Eichler, whose last name is synonymous with “flattop” on the mid-Peninsula, built his Wright-influenced personal home here. Even the conventional ranchers are usually restrained, even plain, in appearance, often with a faintly rustic board-and-batten siding. An unpretentious adobe rancher of the sort briefly popular in this area from the late ‘30s to the late ‘40s adds to the eclectic mix. But this isn’t South Palo Alto. Lindenwood is casual but decidedly affluent, a beautiful neighborhood of lush landscaping and narrow winding streets with no sidewalks. The unassuming homes are more than ample, virtually always over 2000 sq.ft. and often in the 3000 and even 4000 sq.ft. range. Some are in original condition but many have been expensively updated. The few new homes leave no doubt that this is a sought-after neighborhood, their design imposing and their size almost always 5000 sq.ft. or more. Lots are generally just under an acre. The many cul-de-sacs and short streets add to the relaxed, even serene ambience. The Lindenwood tract ends at Catalpa and Acorn, but the neighborhoods from there south to Ringwood are included in the Lindenwood Homeowners Association and their ambience and large ranch-style homes are similar, although lots are more likely to be a full acre. This area may also have been part of the Flood estate, although the age of the earliest houses—one goes back to 1870, five years before Linden Towers was completed, and a handful date from the 1920s—casts doubt. (Perhaps the 1870 house was the first on the property, and the latter were built on land sold by James C.’s son James L. when he lived at Linden Towers. The estate was so expensive to maintain that James C.’s heirs tried unsuccessfully to palm it off on the University of California.) Just off Ringwood are three grand homes of note built by Timothy Hopkins, one of the founders of Palo Alto, for his daughters in the very early 20th century. Two were built just after his own estate was ravaged by the 1906 earthquake, and their considerable expense may be why he chose to live in his gatehouse (now on Ravenswood) rather than rebuild his home. Well-regarded Menlo Park City schools.

Lloyden Park: Not Atherton’s most exclusive neighborhood but one of its prettiest and most visually accessible, at least to those of us with middle-class sensibilities. Almost all its 87 homes are relatively modest, conservative ranchers. A surprising number are small, well under 2000 sq.ft., and some have just two bedrooms or only one bath. And while many are over 2000 sq.ft., and sometimes well over, on paper Lloyden Park looks like a small-scale version of Lindenwood: Lloyden Park homes were built about the same time but are noticeably smaller, often modest 3/2s, and on smaller one-third acre lots. These specs suggest that Lloyden Park should resemble Central Menlo’s rancher neighborhoods. But up close and personal, Lloyden Park has its own identity: very traditional, the only Atherton neighborhood with sidewalks, graced with old-fashioned street lamps not found in Central Menlo, and without Lindenwood’s lush landscape. Instead you’ll find Felton Gables’ vaguely East Coast character. Lloyden Park is dominated by the what were intended to be the stables(!) for an estate house but were converted into living quarters. Built in 1915, this dramatic Moorish Revival structure looks bigger than it is (a neat trick) and reminds me of an old movie theatre. When the estate was subdivided in 1927, the earliest homebuilding seems to have radiated north from this house, with the large Spanish Revival home across the street the earliest attempt in 1929. The timing was unfortunate, however, since the stock market crash of that year put a stop to homebuilding in this area throughout the early 1930s. Building hesitantly resumed in Lloyden Park in 1936, as it did throughout the mid-Peninsula, and in 1937 produced two large and interesting Streamline Moderne homes, a simplified art deco style not often found in this area. The story goes that these were built as “Homes of the Future” for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (often called “the San Francisco World’s Fair”) held on Treasure Island in San Francisco. I suspect that in reality these were “spec” houses that had refused to sell by 1939 and needed some extra promotional help through a tie-in with the Exposition. (One, the George C. Davis House, has had its downstairs level lovingly restored, while its upstairs was generically remodeled, probably in the 1960s. The other house apparently lost its characteristic “speed lines” during a recent, extensive and generic remodel.) Development ramped up in the early ‘40s, stopped for the war, then resumed in earnest in 1947 and continued into the early 1950s. Aside from the relatively modest homes and lots, the Redwood City school district’s low test scores also keep Lloyden Park prices affordable by Atherton standards. According to the school district, only one Atherton resident attends its nearby Selby Lane elementary, so apparently buyers deduct the cost of private school from what they’re willing to pay for this beautiful neighborhood.

Unaffordable Atherton:

Central Atherton with Redwood City schools:  Some of Atherton’s most beautiful streets are found in this area, but unlike Lloyden Park (above) the low-scoring neighborhood elementary school isn’t a tremendous drawback. According to the Redwood City district, only one Atherton child attends Selby Lane, but buyers in this price range seem willing (and able) to send their kids to private school. Ranchers are a big part of the housing stock here, especially on some side streets with sub-standard lots of one-third or one-half acre, but they’re also common on acre lots. “Rancher” usually connotes “small and cheap” but Atherton’s ranchers were upscale for their time and can exceed 3000 sq.ft. This part of Atherton also has plenty of the large, traditional homes more in keeping with the town’s posh image. A few date from before World War I, often huge estate homes built by the super-wealthy who first populated Atherton. Because a good number of homes here date from the 1920s, the Spanish Revival style is well represented, as is the more traditional Tudor. Most of this area was developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, typical of Atherton, and these homes are relatively modest by today’s standards, sometimes under 2000 sq.ft. but usually from 3000 to 4000 sq.ft. There’s a fair amount of new construction here but not as much as in other parts of Central Atherton, although this is changing. Selby and the east-west streets usually offer more of the estate look, especially the blocks well away from El Camino, and often have the largest (or most consistently large) lots, particularly Tuscaloosa, Atherton and Almendral. Flag lots are common, as developers carved up the huge early lots. Worthy of note is the Atherton Oaks subdivision of the old Selby estate, a neighborhood that resembles Lindenwood with its winding streets. Atherton Oaks and Lindenwood homes date largely from the same era but the former are typically larger and more formal. Even unaffordable Central Atherton has pockets of relative affordability, and the area with Redwood City schools is no exception. Most of these pockets consist of ‘50s rancher neighborhoods on sub-standard lots, but the “-gate” streets off Almendral are almost as funky and eclectic as old cabin communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Amador is another older neighborhood of relatively small homes, but with a far more traditional look. Homes are quite affordable west of Selby between Stockbridge and Selby but they’re no bargain: this isn’t Atherton, it’s unincorporated Redwood City favored with an Atherton mailing address.

Central Atherton with Las Lomitas schools: About one-fifth of Central Atherton lies within the highly-regarded Las Lomitas elementary school district. This section of Central Atherton has a slightly different look, in part because the terrain here transitions from flat to rolling, but also because of the housing stock. You’ll find a handful of sizeable estate homes from the 1920s and earlier, but surprisingly, many homes are extremely modest ranchers from the late ‘40s and ‘50s, often of less than 2000 sq.ft. More typical of Atherton are the small number of ‘50s and ‘60s homes of 3000 sq.ft. or more. New construction, always a ringing endorsement of a neighborhood’s desirability, is relatively common in this area, and like virtually all new homes in Atherton, it’s imposing and usually 5000 sq.ft. or more. This isn’t an area of huge lots, with many an acre or just under.  The pocket of affordability here is on Parker, which resembles unincorporated Redwood City on the other size of Stockbridge with its very small early ‘50s ranchers on 7800 sq.ft. lots.

Central Atherton with Menlo Park City schools: Although the ambience of this part of Atherton varies, Central Atherton with Menlo Park schools may be closest to the Atherton ideal of grand homes on large lots. The western part is surprisingly rural, its narrow streets winding through heavily wooded neighborhoods. You’ll also catch glimpses of a creek called the Atherton Channel. Lots are consistently large, many well over an acre, some over two acres and a few even larger. A handful of old cabins fight a losing battle against the mansion-ization of Atherton, and at the other end of the spectrum are a few large old estates from the very early 1900s or 1920s, typically of 4000 to 7000 sq.ft. Ranchers are not uncommon, but most of the housing stock is formal in design. House size is usually modest by today’s standards, ranging from just over 2000 sq.ft. to just under 4000 sq.ft., with most homes in the 3s. New construction is fairly common, usually of 5000 or 6000-plus sq.ft. Heading east gets you into the highly desirable Circus Club area with its more manicured estate look. Lots tend to be even larger here, and the homes, often new or heavily facelifted, are quite impressive, often in the 5000-7000 sq.ft. range. East of the Circus Club the ambience becomes a bit less manicured and more natural but stays impressive. Close to El Camino there’s a pocket of affordability on Victoria, with lots well under an acre and modest ranchers sometimes under 2000 sq.ft.

West of Alameda: With its rolling hills and rural setting, this area looks much like nearby Woodside. You’ll see deer here, yet you’re perhaps five minutes from El Camino and Woodside Road. The creek running through it, the Atherton Channel, shows discrete signs of engineering but remains largely in its natural state, unlike almost every other creek in this area east of 280. Architecture runs the gamut here. Not always easy to spot are the handful of huge estate homes, sometimes over 6000 sq.ft., dating from just after the turn of the last century to the late 1930s; often they’re hidden from view, or they’ve been so extensively updated that they look like modern renditions of themselves. At the other end of the spectrum is the equally-huge new construction. In between are a number of fairly unassuming ranchers from the 1950s, usually from just over 2000 sq.ft. to well over 3000 sq.ft. Some homes make at least passing reference to the natural ambience, with contemporary or faintly rustic designs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. More formal architecture has also been popular here, especially over the past twenty years or so. Although most homes range from 3000 to 4500 sq.ft., a number exceed 4000 sq.ft. and a few top 8000 sq.ft. Lots are almost always 1 to 1.25 acres, with 2-acre plus lots not uncommon. You may even run across one of the few very large parcels that allows horses (check with the town).

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price performance

Part 1:  Here’s how Atherton has performed since 1994. This chart is based on data from the Multiple Listing Service that’s been corrected to eliminate the extremes at both ends of the price range that skew average price. In effect, we’re tracking the same home through twenty-two years of boom and bust. The base year, 1994, was the last year of the post-1989 bust. 2000 was the dot-com peak, Q4 2001 the bottom of the dot-bust. 2005 is often called the recent market’s peak, although the more sought-after areas peaked in early 2008.  Note that, like other local ultra-top-end communities, but unlike the rest of Silicon Valley, Atherton took years to recover from the dot-com bust.  2015 prices are as of May 2015.

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Part 2:  The chart below is easier to understand than it looks, and it has great information. Based on the same data as above, all you really need to know is that “peak” means “peak”, “trough” means “bottom of the market for this city, whenever that was”, and that the more negative the number in the last column, the more volatile this city’s home prices have been during the period covered.  I recommend that you scan the chart now, then come back for the more detailed explanations below if you need them.

The chart is formatted in eight columns covering seven time periods to illustrate Atherton home price appreciation in percent since 1994, and the size of its recent real estate peaks and troughs.  In each case, Atherton home appreciation and depreciation is compared to the average of all local submarkets covered by this site.  The last column in each chart is a non-statistician’s attempt to quantity volatility by combining home price depreciation over the two most recent downturns and comparing it to the area average.  Here are detailed explanations of the eight columns in each chart:

  1. 1994-2013:  Atherton home price appreciation from the beginning of the dotcom boom to present, compared to the average of all local submarkets described on this site.
  2. 2000-2013:  Atherton home price appreciation from the peak of the dotcom boom to present.  I separate this time period from 1994-2013 because the data I have for some local submarkets goes back only to 2000.
  3.  1994-2000:  Atherton home price appreciation during the first boom with which I had first-hand experience, the dotcom boom, which began as a modest recovery in the mid-1990s, gained considerable momentum in the late 1990s and spiked from late 1999 through the end of 2000, with a sharp but temporary downturn in early 2000.
  4. dotcom peak to dotbust:  Atherton home price depreciation from the peak of the dotcom boom, 2000, to the bottom of its collapse Q4 2001.  Note that not every local submarket lost value then.  The handful of local submarkets driven not by stock market wealth but by wages and interest rates (like much of California) actually gained value during this period.
  5.  dotbust to previous peak:  Atherton home price appreciation from 2002 to early 2008.  To facilitate comparison between local submarkets, I say “previous peak” rather than give a date, since our submarkets peaked anywhere from 2005 to early 2008, depending on strength of demand (“brand”).
  6.  Previous peak to trough:  Atherton home price depreciation from peak (see 5, above) to bottom in 2009.  To facilitate comparison, I say “trough” rather than give a date, since local submarkets bottomed anywhere from late 2008 to 2011, depending on strength of demand (“brand”).
  7. Previous trough through 2013:  Atherton home price appreciation from 2009 through 2013.
  8. Total depreciation 1994-2013:  Total Atherton home price depreciation during the two downturns included in the data, compared to the average for all local submarkets covered by this site. Total depreciation greater than average suggests greater-than-average price volatility–in other words, a bumpy ride. Atherton was a poster child for dot-com excess, and property values are only now approaching their 2000 peak.  Relatively modest appreciation during the current boom reinforces my perception that buyers in this price range are shifting their focus from splendid isolation to convenience, although Atherton has fared better than the hills communities. Builders, with their ability to add value, have done well recently, at least west of El Camino.

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copyright © John Fyten 2004-2014

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