How can anyone afford a San Diego house?

Many people in my life are thinking about or have just begun home ownership and I would love to buy a house within the next few years. Back home in Ohio, we could’ve afforded to buy several years ago. But here in California, I knew it would be much more expensive. (The higher cost of living is supposedly compensated by higher salaries here, but neither of us experienced much difference in pay when we moved.) So I set out to calculate the costs and was stunned at the difference between the two cities.

The House

I wanted to do a direct comparison between modestly sized houses in San Diego and Cleveland, in neighborhoods where we would like to live. It was hard to find a perfect comparison, but I found something close enough.


Both are old bungalows with charming craftsman details, hardwood floors, and lots of natural light. Neither requires fixing up. Each is in a quiet neighborhood in the first historic ring of suburbs a 15-minute drive from downtown, with old character homes and an average school system. Both are a short walking distance to an elementary school, a park, and a vibrant, funky commercial district with hipster restaurants and night life.

Feature North Park, SD [listing] Cleveland Heights [listing]
Beds 3 3
Baths 1 2
Size 1,342 sq ft 1,655 sq ft
Lot 5,000 sq ft/0.11 acres 7,405 sq ft/0.17 acres
Built 1917 1941
Price $669k $125k

The Budget

The price difference is astonishing, but what does it look like in a monthly budget? I’ve invented a case study that’s similar to my situation, but with numbers derived from national averages. Let’s say you are a 28-year-old couple who graduated college debt-free, got professional jobs, and spent and saved wisely to accrue a $50k down payment. In 2011, although median family income in the U.S. was $60,974, the median income for families headed by college-educated individuals was $100,096 [source]. So let’s say this couple earns a combined $100k per year.

Cost North Park, SD [listing] Cleveland Heights [listing]
House cost $669k $125k
Down payment* $47k $50k
Percentage 7% 40%
Mortgage 30yr fixed 3.322% 30yr fixed 3.322%
Principal & Interest $2,732 $329
Taxes $351 $195
Homeowners Insurance $78 $44
Mortgage Insurance** $394 $0
Monthly Payment $3,555 $568

* Numbers differ slightly due to limitations of the Zillow online calculator
** Required for down payments under 20%

Standard advice states that your monthly housing payment should not exceed 28 percent of your gross income. For our case study, $100k times 0.28 equals $28k, which divided by 12 means they should not pay more than $2,333 per month. This puts the San Diego couple in way over their heads, while the Cleveland couple is able to save tons of money for other expenses or home improvements (oh, and the heating bill).

Results in a Nutshell

1. In San Diego, the house price is 5.4x more, and the monthly payments cost 6.3x more.

2. I don’t know how anyone can afford to buy a house here in Southern California. I love living here and would absolutely pay more to enjoy this wonderful weather and city. Our rent here, for a slightly smaller but nicer apartment in a similar neighborhood, is about 1.5x more than back home. But 6x more for buying? That seems impossible.

3. Fun fact. For the same $669k from San Diego, that couple could buy a luxury 6-bed, 6-bath, 4800-square-foot historic mansion on an acre of landscaped grounds in Shaker Heights, home of Cleveland’s best public school district [listing].


(Of course they’d need a zillion more dollars to furnish and heat that mansion, but that’s a story for another day.)


13 thoughts on “How can anyone afford a San Diego house?

  1. I pray to the Force that Matt never sees this (he doesn’t need any more ammo to convince me to move lol) but wonderful post! I think since I’ve only ever lived in California, even though the numbers in comparison are shocking, they are quite the norm to me. Yowza!

      • as much as i’d love to say that the obvious answer is to come back to meeee and buy a house in ohio (bring k + m back with you, too, please) my serious question for rills tho is what on earth are you going to DO?

        my brain does not compute the reality of buying a house in sd for anyone who doesn’t make one trillion billion dollars per year. could you rent a neighborhood house such as these for that same 1.5x more or whatever? and is it satisfactory enough to rent a house forever and ever? y’all seem like the homeOWNER type…

        of course these questions can be saved for another place/time, just thinking out loud. very relevant + interesting post today, lady.

      • Well for now I guess we’ll keep saving money and avoid thinking about it… because we have no idea if/when/why/how we’d move back east. You can find small decent rental houses here for not much more than our rent, so I guess it’s an option. But you don’t build equity, and you have to move more often, and answer to a landlord. I want to buy power tools and customize the crap out of my house!

  2. Hi there!

    Great post! I’ve pondered the same thing. I’m from western NY but have lived in San Diego for almost 5 years now and I experience the same sticker shock. I couldn’t help but browse your other posts. I see you’ve moved into a beautiful home in Hillcrest–congrats! Are you still renting there? I’m in a stable job as is my boyfriend and it just seems impossible to reach for a home that’s in a good neighborhood, spacious, and stand-alone. Just curious if your ways/thoughts have changed since this post.


    • Thanks for dropping in, Syp! I bet western NY has similar prices to northeast OH, so we’re in the same boat. We are super happy renting this Hillcrest house. It does cost a bit more than renting the downtown condo, but much less than zillow’s estimated monthly mortgage payment if I were to buy it today. My local friends tell me the best way to afford a house in the popular neighborhoods like Hillcrest is to first buy a starter home east or south of town, build equity, and trade up in 5 years… I don’t know if we’re willing to do that since location is so important to us. Sigh. Good luck to you and your boyfriend!

      • Location is extremely important to us as well, especially my boyfriend who only wants to live close to the water since he grew up on the ocean in the east coast. Looks like we will be renting for a while. Big sigh! Thanks for the tips and quick response!

  3. I am from kansas city,mo currently hiding from the bad weather and generally visit SD area 2 or three times a year for about a month at a time and coud never afford to have the fun that i have here if i lived here

    • That sounds like a great balance! When you visit SD do you rent a place to stay? And is your job portable? Just wondering how to make it work. Stay warm out there :)

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