San Carlos

A remarkably attractive community that at first glance might look like “Menlo Park light”: comfortably middle class, with well-regarded K-8 schools and a popular if architecturally undistinguished downtown (see overview of local downtowns), and largely a product of the post-war building boom, all for a little less money than Menlo Park. But San Carlos is more nuanced than “Menlo Park light” suggests. Although not known for its top end, San Carlos offers a number of mid-range neighborhoods that are quite compelling and have a strong identity.

Map of San Carlos and environs, including unincorporated areas with San Carlos address. Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Boundaries and other information on this site should be verified before being relied upon.

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pros and cons

pros
· Large pleasant downtown with a good reputation for dining.
· K-8 schools have high test scores and low teacher/student ratios.
·  Many appealing neighborhoods, especially east of Alameda. Much of flatlands San Carlos was built just before or after World War II, and the result is an engaging mix of ‘20s bungalows and slightly newer homes. The older homes, often in the Tudor or Spanish Revival style common to the mid-Peninsula, lend unexpected charm to many San Carlos neighborhoods.
· Hillside neighborhoods are fairly affordable and may have views.
· West of Alameda is a good place to find relatively large and upscale ranchers.
· Devonshire Canyon is a surprisingly natural setting with an eclectic mix of cabins, ranchers and custom homes.

cons
· Downtown looks like what it is, a small-town downtown that just kept growing, although it’s being renovated.
· Not as expensive as Menlo Park or Palo Alto, but not cheap either.
· Large lots are rare in the flatlands.
· Hillside homes may have a large lot but often lack a usable back yard.
· Neighborhoods east of El Camino are of variable quality. South of Holly they’re quite attractive but surrounded by light industrial. The neighborhood north of Holly is entirely residential but built with modest cinderblock homes.
· Part of San Carlos is in the Redwood City Elementary School District, not as highly regarded as San Carlos schools, although the school serving that area is one of the better-testing Redwood City schools (always verify availability with the district). And it’s K-8 as of this writing.

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

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neighborhoods

Here are the highlights.

White Oaks:  A very pretty and sought-after neighborhood, running from just west of downtown to the Alameda, between Belmont Avenue and Cordilleras Creek. The sprinkling of ‘20s bungalows gives this area much of its charm, but even the post-war homes, most built prior to the early ‘50s, are usually handsome. Homes are often small but a handful are substantial, sometimes over 2000 sq.ft., especially along the creek side of Eaton. Lots are also generally small, with 40-foot frontages not uncommon, but overall this is one of the most consistently attractive areas on the mid-Peninsula. Prices vary but mainstream White Oaks isn’t terribly expensive by Menlo Park standards, about 15% more than Lower Willows near 101 but perhaps 10% less than one of the better Willows neighborhoods, North Palo Alto along Pope and Laurel.

Town of San Carlos: I’ll throw this in for whatever historical interest it has. The first San Carlos tract, between Oak, Olive, El Camino and Cedar. Subdivided before World War I, a handful of buildings from that era survive although most have been replaced by commercial buildings, apartments and condos. The 1906 earthquake drove displaced San Franciscans to the towns of north San Mateo County, but San Carlos was largely ignored until the 1920s when ace real estate agent Fred Drake began selling it in a big way. Some of the prettiest neighborhoods in San Carlos are found at the hilly northern end of this tract, between Magnolia and Oak, with Chestnut being particularly nice.

Lyon & Hoag:  One of San Carlos’ preferred areas, a classic pre-war neighborhood in a great location between Brittan and Arroyo, downtown and Burton Park. Earliest homes go back to San Carlos’ first building boom in the mid-1920s, although most date from the second growth spurt just prior to World War II. They tend to be small but lots are fairly ample by San Carlos standards, with 50×120-feet common. This neighborhood reminds me of Redwood City’s Mount Carmel and, to a certain extent, Palo Alto’s Community Center. Quite affordable by Menlo Park standards, only slightly more expensive than Lower Willows near 101 and cheaper than the midrange Willows neighborhoods.

Oak Park: Running along Howard and its side streets, from just west of downtown to the Alameda, these are mostly small 1-bath homes built during San Carlos’ second building boom from 1938 to 1941 and then during the late-‘40s explosion. Narrow 40-foot frontages are common, and you definitely feel the effect of that many homes that close together. Lots are usually deep enough to provide a standard size (5000 sq.ft. or larger) but sub-standard lots are not uncommon, with yards that are small even by San Carlos standards. But the homes are affordable, the neighborhoods at least pleasant and always convenient to one of the mid-Peninsula’s better downtowns. Has a look typical of the earliest post-war tracts, not as charming as the pre-war stuff but with an attractive simplicity of design. Priced about 10% less than adjacent White Oaks, and about 5% more than where Lower Willows sells.

Howard Park:  Just west of Burton Park, another of San Carlos’ attractive neighborhoods. Built primarily just before World War II but there’s little of the pre-war feel, and homes are indistinguishable from early post-war tracts. They’re usually small, often with just one bath. Lots are mostly 5000 sq.ft., small but standard size. An affordable area, selling in the Lower Willows price range.

Sunset Highlands:  West of Howard Park, built just after World War II and while pleasant lacks the pre-war charm that enhances so many San Carlos neighborhoods. Homes are mostly 3-bedroom/2-baths but a number are 3/1s and 2/1s. Like Howard Park, lots are usually 5000 sq.ft. Here the terrain transitions from flatlands to hills.

Brittan Acres: Between Belle and San Carlos Avenue, an attractive hillside neighborhood with a number of quarter-acre and even one-third acre lots. Houses tend to be substantial, sometimes over 2000 sq.ft. One of San Carlos’ most beautiful streets, Carmelita, lies at the northern end of this tract and features graceful homes from the 1930s. Nearby Knoll has a surprisingly country-like ambience for a neighborhood within easy walking distance of downtown, and some homes offer excellent bay views. Not cheap, but only about what the more ordinary streets along Menlo Park’s stretch of the Alameda sell for.

San Carlos Manor:  Carmelita west of the Alameda and its surrounding streets, this charming neighborhood runs along Pulgas Creek. Very pretty but a bit more funky and country than east of the Alameda. Hilly but not as steeply sloped as most of neighboring Devonshire. Homes are from the 1930s, mostly small and casual and on small lots.

Garden Terraces:  Along Hull and its side streets, another of San Carlos’ remarkably pretty and orderly neighborhoods. Built largely in the late ‘40s to mid-‘50s, the terrain is gently rolling near El Camino, where there are many attractive duplexes, then slopes steeply near the top where it’s just single-family. Has a more consistent, tract-like feel than either old San Carlos to the south or Devonshire to the west. Homes are usually small but some have bay views. Another area that’s only a bit (perhaps 10%) more expensive than Lower Willows, and cheaper than the midrange Willows areas.

Devonshire east of San Carlos Avenue: Centered on Arguello Park, this hillside (or more accurately, cliffside) neighborhood was built primarily in the mid-‘50s, the last part of San Carlos east of the Alameda to be developed. There was a reason for this delay—much of the terrain isn’t hospitable to houses. At its best, usually at the top of the hill, this is a genuinely attractive neighborhood that reminds me somewhat of Portola Valley’s lower Ladera or Redwood City’s Farm Hill Estates. The scenery and views can be beautiful. But on the lower reaches, homes are set so close to the street that there’s room only for a token front yard, if that. Sometimes all you see is a driveway and garage or a retaining wall. If there’s land it’s probably paved since the narrow streets don’t encourage on-street parking. Lots are often deep but sometimes more suited to mountain goats than humans. Homes are usually small 3-bedroom/2-baths that often come with a pleasant canyon view and lots of stairs. Despite some drawbacks, this neighborhood offers relatively affordable hillside living close to town. The better homes sell for midrange Willows prices, while the lesser stuff can be only 5% or so more than lower Willows.

Devonshire west of San Carlos Avenue:  An amazing mix of homes and eras, from newer construction to ’70s and ‘80s trophy homes to ‘50s and ‘60s ranchers to World War II-era cottages to tiny pre-war cabins. The bulk of homebuilding occurred during the mid-‘50s to mid-‘60s. Homes from this period started in the 1500-2000 sq.ft. range and often exceeded 2000 sq.ft toward the end. All the homes of this era have 3 to 4 bedrooms and at least 2 baths. The entrance, Devonshire Boulevard and its side streets, is mostly flat and the neighborhoods quite inviting. Further up the hill, streets become narrow and winding, with homes perched on cliffs. Quarter acres are the rule, with third- and even half-acres not uncommon, although steep slopes make many lots not entirely usable. Much of Devonshire is unincorporated but has largely been spared the “Tuscan villas” of unincorporated Emerald Hills to the south. The funkier homes are quite affordable, but midrange Devonshire sells much like midrange Willows.

San Carlos with Redwood City schools: The southwest corner of San Carlos, between Alameda, Brittan and Eaton. Redwood City schools but the local school is Clifford (always verify school availability with the district), one of the district’s highest-testing. It’s a K-8 school as of this writing so the quality of education may be consistent through middle school. A very pleasant, even beautiful hillside area comprised of a number of small tracts. Most homes were built in the early 1950s and are small, typical of the era, but there was significant construction going on here into the early 1960s and even ‘70s, with the later homes larger and more luxurious. Lending some additional character is a sprinkling of homes from the ‘20s and ‘30s, some of them rather substantial. The ambience along the fringes of this area, away from the tract housing, is surprisingly rural. Here quarter-acres are not uncommon and even half-acres show up occasionally. Prices are all over the map but generally speaking, the range is similar to Willows.

Newer tracts west of the Alameda: The hillside neighborhoods along Melendy and Crestview Drives and Brittan Avenue, and their side streets. The earliest homes are found in a small neighborhood just northwest of the intersection of Alameda and Brittan, with a handful of cottages from the ‘30s and ‘40s lending funky charm. The inconsistency—there’s everything from cabins to new construction—gives this older area an Emerald Hills feel. But homebuilding didn’t begin in earnest in this part of the San Carlos hills until the late ‘50s. While most of the area was built out by the early ‘70s, construction went on well into the ‘80s, mostly at the top of the hill. Earlier homes are invariably 3 or 4 bedrooms and 2 baths under 2000 sq.ft., but as builders worked their way up the hill in the early ’60s, homes often neared or exceeded 2000 sq.ft. and the last homes brush 3000 sq.ft. Lots tend to be fairly sizeable with quarter-acres common, but are often steeply sloped and not entirely usable. These neighborhoods have the prosperous, mainstream ambience many buyers like. But in a sense, San Carlos begins to lose its uniqueness here—except for the hilly terrain, this could be south Los Altos or the better parts of Sunnyvale. Although far from rural you’ll still find deer up here, even in the lower reaches near Alameda. Many homes have views, sometimes spectacular. Crestview has a number of condominium developments, most with spacious, upscale townhouses. Halfway down the hill on Portofino and Torino is another concentration of condos as well as apartment buildings. The upper reaches of the San Carlos hills are surprisingly convenient to Menlo Park and Palo Alto via 280, but unlike other hillside neighborhoods such as Ladera and Sharon Heights there’s no neighborhood shopping. Prices are as varied as the developments, but as a general rule, San Carlos west of the Alameda sells in the same range as unincorporated Menlo Park along the Alameda.

Clearfield Park:  Better know as “the Murphy tract” after its builder, this neighborhood east of El Camino is one aspect of affordable San Carlos. Built in 1948, virtually all these homes are made of cinderblock, a material rarely used on the mid-Peninsula. I’ve heard much speculation as to why Murphy used it, most of it having to do with the post-war shortage of building materials, with a lack of nails the likely culprit. It’s true that building materials were strictly rationed just after World War II, but one problem with this explanation is that affordable home construction had top priority and these homes would certainly have qualified. One long-time owner told me that Murphy was tempted by a ready supply of war surplus cinderblocks intended to build bunkers. Even the builder’s two sons aren’t sure why. The tip-off may lie in the product—2 bedrooms, 1 bath and 820 sq.ft., tiny even by the standards of the day, sited on small 5000 sq.ft. lots—suggesting an emphasis on affordability. Many homes have been expanded. Whatever the reason, it’s interesting that until recently the Murphy family still owned a number of these homes, most along Old County Road. These may have been the hardest to sell but turned out to be great long-term (50-year!) investments. Murphy built two other cinderblock tracts, in Redwood City and Menlo Park, then switched to wood frame construction as one of the developers of the relatively upscale Farm Hill Estates in Redwood City. The Murphy tract is extremely affordable, perhaps just 15% more than Menlo Park’s Belle Haven and comparable to Redwood City’s Friendly Acres.

Harbor Addition: The other aspect of affordable San Carlos, a slightly older and much more conventional neighborhood than neighboring Clearfield Park. Small 2- and 3-bedroom/1-bath homes built just before and after World War II, these homes lend the well-maintained neighborhood remarkable old-fashioned charm for the price. There’s a catch, of course, since charm usually isn’t this cheap: the neighborhood is surrounded by light industry.

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price performance

Here’s how San Carlos SFR (single-family residences) and CID (condos and townhouses) have performed since 1994 (2000 for CID). This graph is based on data from the Multiple Listing Service, corrected to eliminate anomalies at both ends of the price range that skew average sales price. The data has also been adjusted to compensate for the often substantial differences in average property size from year to year that can also skew the average. The data has also been adjusted to compensate for the often substantial differences in average property size from year to year that can also skew averages. In effect, we’re tracking the same condo and SFR through twenty-two (or in the case of CID, fifteen) 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.  2015 prices are as of May 2015.

19942015SanCarlosSFR

20002015SanCarlosCID

Part 2:  The charts below are easier to understand than they look, and they have 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’s SFRs and condos, 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 charts are formatted in six (CID) or eight (SFR) columns covering five (CID) or seven (SFR) time periods to illustrate San Carlos home price appreciation in percent since 1994 (SFR) and 2000 (CID), and the size of its recent real estate peaks and troughs.  In each case, San Carlos 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 six (or eight) columns in each chart:

  1. 1994-2013:  (SFR only) San Carlos 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:  San Carlos 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:  (SFR only) San Carlos 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:  San Carlos 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:  San Carlos home price appreciation from 2002 to 2007, when San Carlos home prices peaked.  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:  San Carlos home price depreciation from when prices peaked (see 5, above) to when they bottomed in 2009 (SFR) or 2011 (CID).  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:  San Carlos home price appreciation from 2009 (SFR) or 2011 (CID) through 2013.
  8. Total depreciation 1994-2013:  Total San Carlos home price depreciation by area 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. Both San Carlos SFR and, remarkable, CID have lower-than-average volatility, at least by this measure.

riseandfallchartSanCarlosSFR

riseandfallchartSanCarlosCID

copyright © John Fyten 2004-2014

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