SF homebuyers pay a lot more for walkable neighborhoods
Property descriptions have always been their own genre of creative writing, but in recent years something new has appeared amid this flowering of adjectives and abbreviations. Now, along with Realtorese like “half bath,” “huge upside,” and “junior five,” you’re likely to find some reference to a property’s “walk score,” a number that tells buyers how easy it is to get by without getting in the car. KALW's Nathanael Johnson has found that some buyers look for a good walk score before looking for anything else.
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NATHANAEL JOHNSON: 221 Noe Street is a big yellow building with 12 condominiums and just two parking spots. But it’s in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood, where a short walk or train ride can take you pretty much anywhere. If that weren’t the case, realtor Scott Whelan says the developer would never have remodeled this building. That walkability can make all the difference in the world to buyers.
SCOTT WHELAN: Someone who may be on the edge of being able to afford something, where they may say "I’ll never buy without parking and my budget is $500,000," might look at this at $450,000 and say, you know what, it’s transit friendly, I don’t need the car, I’ll save $50,000, I would do it.
To let people know how easy it is to walk around this neighborhood, Whelan has prominently advertised that the property has a Walk Score of 98. In 2007, the company Front Seat launched Walk Score, and since then the numbers have become more and more common on real estate listings. A Walk Score is a number on a scale of 1 to 100 that tells you the proximity of various cultural and commercial spots.
ELIZABETH MACDONALD: What it’s not going to tell you is anything about the actual physical quality of any of the spaces you are walking though.
Elizabeth MacDonald teaches city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. She says -- despite this limitation -- neighborhoods with high walk scores are often the ones with well designed streets. The 200 block of Noe Street is no exception. She points out the way the sidewalks bulb out at each intersection to create a sort of mini-park.
MACDONALD: I think it combines to make a really pleasant and comfortable environment for pedestrians to walk in. The trees create visual interest -- they are fun to look at -- when the sun is shining they create a wonderful pattern of light that plays on the street and on the buildings. It provides shade if it’s warm and they also serve as buffers between the pedestrian and the vehicles that are moving through.
For years, a group of designers and architects called the New Urbanists have been saying that what people really want are dense neighborhoods, where you can walk down the block to get an ice-cream cone, where children can walk to school, and where the sheer number of people on the streets inhibits crime. And that vision is what drives Front Seat. It's not a non-profit: they call themselves a "social-purpose business," meaning the people there want to be self-sustaining, but their primary goal is making better cities, not making lots of money. And, to them, better cities would look something like San Francisco. Walk Score says that San Francisco is the most walkable city in the the country. And, yes, New York and Chicago do have a lot of neighborhoods that are easier to get around on foot, but San Francisco's compactness, as a whole, stands out: you are rarely far from groceries, a library or a doctor's office.
Realtor Scott Whelan is hoping that lifestyle appeals to at least enough people to buy up his condos.
On a Sunday afternoon, Kate Isenberg is one of a half dozen people wandering through Whelan’s open house. She wants something with lots of light, and a little extra space, but because she doesn’t have a car, walkability is the first thing she looks for.
ISENBERG: I wouldn’t even consider a place in a neighborhood that didn’t have a really good public transit link nearby, preferably more than one, actually that’s why I like this neighborhood.
After looking around, Isenberg says it’s pretty nice, but it’s also pretty small. She’s a musician and she’d love to have an extra room to work in. She recently had to build a sound booth in her living room, where she recorded this song about how expensive it is to live in San Francisco:
MUSIC: "Time's the only home I can afford to own, in this Gold Rush town…"
Prices seem to be associated with walk scores. Hunter's Point, in southeast San Francisco, scores a zero for lack of merchants, while downtown gets a 99. It's not always a perfect correlation: the neighborhood with the highest Walk Score in San Francisco is Chinatown, which tends to be a little more affordable. Isenberg says for her money, if she has to choose between an extra room and a walkable neighborhood, she’s going with the walkable neighborhood.
ISENBERG: It’s not a choice of whether I want to be virtuous and use my car or not, it’s a choice of, I need something from the grocery store, I need to get to work in a short amount of time. So those things are going to affect my life every day. As is what I would use an extra room for, but I’ve been getting by without the extra room all this time. I could probably get by a little bit longer.
There are enough people like Isenberg in San Francisco that each one-point increase in Walk Score adds $3,000 to the price of a home, according to one analysis. The study, by the advocacy group CEOs for Cities, found that, while San Francisco's is the highest, on average there's a premium for walkable neighborhoods in almost every city they looked at -- places like Dallas, Texas; Jacksonville, Mississippi; and Fresno. There were only two cities where walkability hurt real estate prices: Las Vegas and Bakersfield, both inveterate car towns. That correlation makes sense, says Macdonald.
MACDONALD: There haven’t been a lot of studies done to see if walkable neighborhoods are associated with higher real estate values but there’s a lot of empirical evidence. Just think of any city, any neighborhood that has wonderful tree-lined streets.
And in this age of rising gas prices, there’s another reason walk scores are important, Macdonald says: Walking and bicycling are the most energy efficient forms of transportation. Whatever the reason, for the big yellow building on Noe Street, that high walk score seems to have paid off. At last count, ten of the twelve condos had sold since they went on the market five months ago.
In San Francisco, I'm Nathanael Johnson for Crosscurrents.