I’m a big believer in Sunnyvale. Sunnyvale epitomizes "value" in the local real estate market—not much sizzle but lots of steak. So it's unfortunate that Sunnyvale is unknown territory (or worse, a place to avoid) to most buyers priced out of the Menlo Park-Palo Alto area.
Cities get their spot in local real estate's pecking order by having one or more of the following attributes: a happening downtown; impressive pre-war neighborhoods; big homes on big lots; or highly-regarded schools. Sunnyvale goes 0 for 2 on the first two, usually whiffs on the third, and its schools are a well-kept secret up here.
But if you’re looking for a city that’s got the fundamentals nailed—schools, pleasant neighborhoods, excellent infrastructure and great weather—all at a substantial discount, then take the fifteen-minute drive to Sunnyvale. Definitely go there if your budget limits you to townhomes up here but you really want a single-family home in a nice neighborhood, or if entry-level single-family is all you can afford here but you'd like a house with more size and features. And Sunnyvale is a fantastic place to find an Eichler.
pros and cons
· All three elementary school districts have at least a few high-testing schools and sometimes more. The Cupertino schools in south Sunnyvale near 280 are the gold standard for the South Bay, and most Sunnyvale district schools test well too. Santa Clara Unified elementary schools usually aren't known for their high scores, but two of the three serving Sunnyvale are.
· An well-regarded high school district, Fremont Union, serves most of the city.
· Sunnyvale is slightly newer than Palo Alto and Menlo Park, and significant building was going on here into the early ‘70s. Palo Alto and Menlo Park, both built out since about 1958, rarely offer these newer and larger, more upscale homes. They’re not palaces, but these later homes do offer a few extra bells and whistles (second bath, family room, sometimes a second story) for the same price as the minimalist fifty-year-old ranchers South Palo Alto is known for.
· Neighborhoods west (or more properly, south) of Central Expressway are at least pleasant and often quite nice. Occasionally they’re outstanding, roughly on a par with Menlo Park’s Linfield Oaks or Palo Alto’s Green Acres but somewhat newer and much cheaper. I’ve listed some of the better enclaves below but the best way to find them is just to drive Sunnyvale south of Central—you'll know when you've found them, as long as you're not expecting Los Altos. Or look on the web for Sunnyvale homes priced at about what it would take to buy a decent South Palo Alto rancher.
· Sunnyvale homes are usually the mainstream, conventional ranchers most buyers prefer. Look here if your budget puts you in South Palo Alto but you hate Eichlers.
· But if you like Eichlers you'll find plenty (about 1100), from Joe’s very first ground-breaking efforts to some of his last and best. Sunnyvale is such an outstanding source of Eichlers that I’ve listed all its Eichler neighborhoods in some detail in another part of this site, Eichler City.
· And if you have a real taste for modernism, Bahl Patio Homes feature contemporary architecture you won’t find anywhere else. Built in the ‘70s as an early exercise in the Planned Unit Development, they offer lots of bang for the buck.
· One of the largest single-family markets in the area, which usually means plenty of inventory to choose from.
· Also a good townhouse market, with a variety of prices, sizes and ages.
· Has at least a token downtown, more than some cities can claim.
· Downtown Farmer’s Market.
· Large recreation center and park.
· The range of single-family housing stock is fairly narrow compared to Palo Alto and Menlo Park, with the mid-range market the small ‘50s ranchers you'll also find in South Palo Alto (but about 25% cheaper). However, Sunnyvale also has a far better selection of slightly newer and more upscale homes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. But you won't find any neighborhoods comparable to Old Palo Alto or Allied Arts—the pre-war residential area is small and its homes are usually quite modest.
· Neighborhoods are often generic and uniform in appearance, with little of the marked variation you’ll find in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. For instance, the Multiple Listing Service recognizes thirteen distinct sub-markets in Palo Alto, but puts the entire city of Sunnyvale in just one. I think Sunnyvale deserves a little better but, on the other hand, two or three districts would probably cover it. This uniform appearance can be a plus (at least neighborhood quality is consistent) but it precludes stand-out areas such as, again, Old Palo Alto or Allied Arts.
· Remodeled homes aren’t uncommon, but it’s unusual to find them with top-end finishes. Lots of Home Depot, not much Expo.
· Most lots are relatively small. Generally not an area of quarter-acre lots.
· Downtown, now basically one block of Murphy, used to be a little larger but ill-advised redevelopment took a huge bite out, leaving two “big boxes” more appropriate to a shopping center. A more inviting downtown would give Sunnyvale a focal point and perhaps a stronger identity, much as it's done for Mountain View.
· Neighborhoods north of Central Expressway can be pleasant, particularly just east of Matilda, but are generally humble.
· Although two of the three Santa Clara Unified elementary schools serving Sunnyvale have a good reputation, district test scores tail off sharply in the district’s middle and high schools.
Interested in buying a home in Sunnyvale? Please contact me at email@example.com.
Cherry Chase et al: Perhaps Sunnyvale's best-known area, this huge tract is located between El Camino, Mary, Remington and Mountain View. Excellent affordability plus greatly improved test scores at the nearby schools have made this a hot area of late. Cherry Chase was built as affordable housing in a number of phases during the early 1950s, although the area appeals even to people who don’t remember the ‘50s. Most homes are 3-bedroom/2-bath but there are also many 3/1s and even 2/1s. Even the 3/2s are small, around 1200 sq.ft. unless expanded. A great option if you’re looking for a conventional rancher (there’s just a handful of flattops) in an affordable yet presentable neighborhood, priced at about a 25% discount to entry-level South Palo Alto.
Birdland: Funny name, nice solid area with tree-lined streets near Cupertino and Santa Clara. Built in the mid-’50s, when new homes were often festooned with an oversized decorative birdhouse or two, I suspect the name "Birdland" comes from a builder who made this design cue the theme for his sub-division. Of course, the fact that almost all the streets are named after birds might have something to do with it too. Ranchers have that comforting “Leave It To Beaver” look and a bit more charm than usual, as well as plenty of ‘50s kitsch. Neighborhoods are well maintained and largely consistent in appearance. It’s in the Santa Clara Unified district but the local elementary, Laurelwood, has an excellent reputation that draws buyers to the area. In the same price range as Ponderosa, below.
Ponderosa area: A group of tracts between Wolfe Road and (almost) the Santa Clara border along Lawrence, surrounding Ponderosa Elementary School and Park. (The neighborhood right on the border, Western Terrace, is mostly older flattops like the hundreds found in Santa Clara, and costs the same.) Ponderosa consists mostly of attractive ranchers from the late ‘50s to mid ‘60s, although construction went on into the '70s. Some of the neighborhoods here are more prepossessing than others but most are well-maintained and attractively designed. Ponderosa School has some of the highest test scores in the Santa Clara Unified School District, and was recently awarded a Distinguished School Commendation by the state. One of the most expensive neighborhoods in the Santa Clara District but still cheap, even by Sunnyvale standards, just a bit more than Cherry Chase for a newer and often more attractive area.
Downtown: Largely pleasant but not in the same league as Mountain View’s Castro Street or Palo Alto’s California Avenue, let alone University Avenue. Biggest drawback is that "downtown Sunnyvale" is basically the 100 block of S. Murphy, an old-fashioned business district dating from the 'teens and '20s that's charming but so small and incongruous that it looks almost like a movie set. Downtown was probably never big, but a redevelopment project called Sunnyvale Town Center erased two square blocks of it and most of the charm, leaving behind two anonymous “big boxes” more appropriate to a shopping center. This undoubtedly seemed like a good idea in the 1970s, with shopping centers siphoning off downtown business and before the downtown had been re-invented as adult playground. But neighboring Mountain View's slightly later, more sensitive approach—keep the scale small and intimate—has stood the test of time far better. (In fact, Sunnyvale recently proposed a plan that would try to roll back the clock. But as a client pointed out, you're more likely to find the basic necessities in downtown Sunnyvale than in downtown Mountain View, where you're more likely to find four Thai restaurants.) There’s also a Town & Country Village similar to Palo Alto's that looked distinctly down at the heels a few years ago but has made a nice comeback. Homes in the surrounding neighborhoods are generally pre-war and modest but occasionally you’ll find distinctive architecture, particularly in the small Downtown Historic District south of Olive. Nice '40s ranchers are also part of the eclectic mix, especially east of downtown. An extremely affordable option if you’re looking for a “walk to downtown” location, a good 10-15% cheaper than even the more unassuming parts of downtown Mountain View, let alone downtown Palo Alto.
North Sunnyvale: The conventional wisdom in Sunnyvale is that north Sunnyvale has some of that city's more humble neighborhoods. Cross the railroad tracks north of downtown and the first few blocks are a transition from the individuality of old Sunnyvale to some of its first tract developments, built just before, during and after World War II. The ambience can be pleasant, especially around Murphy Park (Oak Court is interesting). And on some streets, simple pre-1930 homes are not uncommon all the way north to Maude, perhaps built for the workers at nearby Hendy Iron Works (now Westinghouse). But the housing stock from Arques to Maude is mostly the very small one-bath home typical of the 1940s, although here it's remarkably small and plain even for that era of low-aspiration housing. The fact that almost 400 of these utilitarian homes were built during World War II, when building materials were strictly rationed, suggests that they were thrown up as emergency housing for some of the 11,500 workers ramping up wartime production at Hendy. Cross Maude, however, and while the homes are still modest, things get a little more interesting. Between Mathilda and (almost) Fair Oaks are pockets of remarkably pleasant, even interesting neighborhoods. Built in the late 1940s, when the tract ranch-style house was still evolving, these homes sometimes offer an unusual take on affordable post-war housing. That most innovative of merchant builders, Joe Eichler, built two of his first developments here, including the architect-designed contemporaries that ignited his career. There are also a handful of conventional-looking non-Eichlers from the same period that turn out to have two of his signatures, vaulted ceilings and mahogany-veneered paneling. There's even a cluster of rare cinder-block homes that manage surprising charm. This variety is found in a neighborhood that's better maintained, by and large, than the prices (about 25% less than Cherry Chase) would have you expect. On the other hand, you'll also find plenty of the cheap flattops that make the area stretching from just west of Fair Oaks to Lawrence, Lawrence Manor, less appealing. But Lawrence Manor offers the second bath you probably won't find closer to Mathilda. Much depends on your expectations—this isn't "Los Altos on a budget"—but I think the blocks near Mathilda give entry-level homebuyers more neighborhood than they'd expect. There’s also much affordable new construction here on the former site of a trailer park. It’s PUD (smaller homes on small lots) but the architecture is traditional pre-war and surprisingly appealing.
Cherryhill et al.: A variety of tracts west of Hollenbeck and south of Fremont, dating from the early 1960s. These very attractive rancher neighborhoods offer homes and lots a bit larger than the usual Sunnyvale fare. Sought-after Cupertino schools are a big plus. What I’d consider legitimate first-level move-up housing, along the order of Menlo Park’s Linfield Oaks or Palo Alto’s Green Acres, but at entry-level South Palo Alto prices. This and Sunnyvale's other, better neighborhoods may pleasantly surprise you.
Cherrytree: A similar tract but a few years older, just west of the Cupertino District's Nimitz Elementary. High-scoring schools and nice solid ranchers in a manicured neighborhood. A block south are larger, upscale homes from the late '60s. One of Sunnyvale's more expensive areas but still only about what you'd pay for a smaller and older Midtown rancher. Both Cherryhill and Cherrytree can be found on the 500 blocks of Cascade, Clearwater, Cheyenne and Centralia, and the 1400 block of Prince Edward.
Plumtree, Greentree etc.: Streets are named after famous composers and artists, near Sunnyvale’s excellent community center. Attractive, relatively upscale homes built in the mid-to-late ‘60s, somewhat comparable to the newest part of Palo Alto’s Green Acres next to Gunn High School. Surprisingly cheap, even by Sunnyvale standards, about where entry-level South Palo Alto sells. Most of this tract has Cupertino schools.
Old Orchard: Another relatively upscale tract from the same era, next to Las Palmas Park. The kind of neighborhood that’s not uncommon for Sunnyvale but almost nonexistent in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and as usual priced like entry-level Palo Alto. Houses got bigger and more deluxe in the ‘60s and Sunnyvale still had plenty of space to build them.
The Woodlands: Just east of Cherry Chase, across Mary, and another one of those pleasant surprises you run across in Sunnyvale. A small, well-maintained tract of modest but quite attractive 3- and 4-bedroom/2+ bath homes built in the early ‘60s. Design is conventional rancher but the homes I’ve seen borrow two contemporary motifs, extensive floor-to-ceiling windows and courtyard entrance, for a pleasing mainstream synthesis.
Royal Ann Estates: Forty-six decidedly upscale homes built in 1986 on a former school site north of Cumberland Elementary. Virtually all are 4-bedroom/2.5-bath two-story homes of over 3000 sq.ft. in a variety of traditional styles. Definitely the top end of Sunnyvale’s price range but screaming deals by Palo Alto standards. Just one of a number of in-fill developments of large newer homes in Sunnyvale.
Lakewood Village: A huge development north of 101, built in the mid ‘50s and entirely contemporary in design. Drive through here and you might think you'd strayed into the East Bay, since both Lakewood and the Palmaceias that carpet Hayward are the work of the same builder, Brandon. The neighborhood association has its own very interesting web site. Sunnyvale’s most consistently affordable area, the homes range from small to really small but have at least three bedrooms and two baths. Some blocks are better than others, some worse. Always plenty of inventory to chose from, with prices a notch above East Palo Alto's better areas.
Here’s how Sunnyvale’s single-family residences (SFR) and CID (Common Interest Developments, better known as condos and townhouses) have performed over the past two years. 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.
TOP copyright © John Fyten 2004.