Views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are part of the appeal of a home in the East Bay hills. But buyers are increasingly leaning towards the flats and walkability. Photo: Joe Parks

When Elizabeth DeLuca started house hunting in the East Bay, she knew exactly what she wanted: a place where she and her husband could walk or bike to work, cafés and grocery stores, where they wouldn’t have to drive very often.

In short, a home in the flats.

And DeLuca is not alone. For decades, the most desirable neighborhoods in the East Bay were the Berkeley and Oakland hills. However, between five and ten years ago, a major shift began. More and more, homes in the flatlands are in demand, real estate agents and homebuyers said.

“The change is really the urbanization trend. People are more into the walkability factor. This is true all over, in San Francisco and nationally,” said Parisa Samimi of Bay Sotheby’s International Realty. “Everyone wants to be close to BART and Ace Hardware.”

A preference for cycling may also be a factor. “The hills are too crazy for a daily bike ride,” DeLuca said. “That might be fine for people doing leisure and fitness cycling on the weekend, but lugging two kids around in a bike trailer up those hills daily seemed crazy. She and her husband have two sons.

While hills properties might have a higher price point, bidding on those properties is not quite as hot as the bidding on homes in the flats, according to Nancy Duff, a Berkeley real-estate broker with 40 years’ experience.

“Before, it was always the hills, the hills, the hills,” Duff said. “Then people started getting into not using their cars. They realized buildings were being built without parking lots. It got into peoples’ consciousness.”

The change was gradual, Duff said. Agreeing with Samimi, she noted, “The multiple listing service publishes walkability scores now.”

Hill homes are still in demand, said Samimi, who works with the luxury market, which she defined as homes costing more than $1.5 million.

“The buyers are still coming to the hills, and hills properties are still receiving multiple offers,” Samimi said. However, over the last six months, on average, 11% to 12% of luxury hills properties sold for over the asking price, while on average 22% to 25% of flatlands luxury homes sold for over the asking price, the agent said.

It’s also not that unusual to see listing prices being reduced on certain homes in the hills.

As an example of the popularity of the flats, Duff said, within the last two months, 1354 Virginia St. in Berkeley listed for $999,000 and sold for $1.3 million. “Virginia is totally the flats,” she said. The property is two blocks from University Avenue to the south, with Sacramento Street to the east.

“It used to be unheard-of for homes in the flats to go for millions of dollars,” Duff said.

Duff said 1231 Marin Ave. in Albany, “on a busy street, listed for $699,000 and sold recently for $875,000.” The property is just one long block from Solano Avenue with its shops, restaurants and bus lines.

Elizabeth DeLuca, who works at Kaiser Permanente, and her husband Darrow, a pediatrician, could afford a hills home. But they chose the flats of Oakland because in their neighborhood “we are close to everything,” she said. “We can run out and get anything we need. On Saturday, we ran out and got bagels. In 20 minutes we were back home to have breakfast together.”

When their children were younger, “My husband put the kids in the bike trailer and commuted with them to day care,” she said.

A home for sale in Bushrod, named the “number one hottest neighborhood” by Redfin in January. Photo: MLL
A home for sale in Bushrod, named the “number one hottest neighborhood” by Redfin in January. Photo: MLL

In the past, people gravitated toward the hills because “it was prestigious. They liked the views and being away from the madding crowd,” Duff said. “Most of the homes in the hills have yards and are on larger lots, with gardens. In the flats you don’t have views for the most part unless you are on the second story, and the views aren’t hill views where you can see San Francisco and (Mount Tamalpais).

“These young tech kids aren’t concerned about that. They want to be close to transportation,” said Duff, referring to the many technology workers who have flooded into Oakland and the East Bay as rents in San Francisco reached stratospheric levels. “Being close to BART and bus is important,” since the millennials likely work in in San Francisco.

Millennials would rather walk than drive by a substantially wider margin than any other generation, according to a poll by the National Association of Realtors and the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland University.

People between the ages of 18 and 34 prefer walking by 12 percentage points over driving, according to the 2015 National Community and Transportation Preferences Study. Millennials also prefer living within walking distance of shops and restaurants and having a short commute; they are also the most likely age group to make use of public transportation.

“Amenities like a coffee shop mean a lot to the millennials,” said Robin Donovan, an agent with Marvin Gardens. “We run into so many clients who don’t use their cars except for specific trips. They try to go everywhere on BART. It’s a badge of honor for people who live around here, because they feel their carbon footprint is less.”

Donovan said nine out of ten of her clients want to walk or bike to BART. “The further you get from BART, the lower the price of the home, typically.” Like Duff and Samimi, she said “there is still a market for the hills. There’s definitely a whole array of people who want that, but the millennials are wanting that walk-roll lifestyle.”

Oakland’s Rockridge and Temescal neighborhoods are particularly popular because of the proximity to BART, said Sharon Ho, a real-estate agent with Pacific Union.

“I think what’s driving the popularity of those homes is convenience. A lot of people are looking to not be in the hills. It’s more about ease of moving around in these neighborhoods,” Ho said. As Rockridge becomes more unaffordable, she said, “the pushback is to get into neighborhoods such as Idora Park and Bushrod.”

In January, Redfin named Bushrod the Number One hottest neighborhood in the country for 2017. The country’s hottest neighborhoods offer “quick access to public transit, trendy shopping and dining options, plus larger move-in ready homes with charm and price tags that are a little easier to bear,” according to Redfin.

Donovan couldn’t agree more; in fact, she lives in Bushrod herself.

“It has Blue Ribbon schools to walk to,” the agent said. “In the morning all the families are pouring into the streets to walk to Peralta (Elementary). There are two BART stations, Rockridge and Ashby. You can even walk to the Berkeley Bowl.

“Nobody wants to park in the Berkeley Bowl parking lot,” she added. “That’s scary.”

Janis Mara has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based national real estate trade publication, winning California...