As hard as it might be to believe, in the 1980s you could buy property in Bernal Heights for next to nothing. A long period of decline and neglect had left the proud, working-class neighborhood in such a state that businesses and homeowners alike had fled, leaving boarded-up storefronts and empty Victorians in their wake. Even the Bank of America, which had kept a presence on Bernal’s Cortland Avenue for decades, considered moving out.
Today, such an exodus seems absurd, especially in a neighborhood recently called the country’s “hottest” by Redfin. Buyers now target Bernal Heights so often that neighborhood homes routinely sell for well over their asking price, sometimes after fierce bidding wars. Bernal Heights is well past its “low” point.
Despite the furor, part of Bernal’s allure remains its relatively affordable market. In a city whose median single-family home price recently soared past $1 million, Bernal is still a middle-class neighborhood offering plenty of options above and below that mark. A recent check of Bernal homes on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) showed single-family homes available for as little as $525,000 ranging all the way to $2 million, with a median asking price of $995,000.
Buyers are drawn to Bernal for a number of reasons, and not all of them are economic. For example, there are few San Francisco districts offering so many historic homes, thanks to a pair of factors. Because of Bernal’s history of neighborhood activism, it’s been free of large-scale redevelopment. The first settlers came to Bernal Heights 150 years ago; many of the existing homes in the neighborhood are almost that old. The second reason is somewhat ironic: Bernal’s long period of decline meant many of its oldest homes escaped being snapped up by ambitious remodelers or flippers during San Francisco’s early renaissance periods, leaving them authentic and intact for 21st-century buyers.
They’re the type of historic homes – Victorians – that traditionally capture the imaginations of San Francisco buyers. In Bernal Heights, you can purchase a 19th-century farmhouse with a view, a garden and all of the period details you can handle, and you can do this in the middle of the second-most densely populated city in America. Some buyers find this opportunity – to restore a classic Victorian or Edwardian home to its former grandeur – irresistible.
This is not to say that there is only one kind of house for sale in Bernal Heights or even one kind of historic home in one type of condition; far from it. This is a large neighborhood with multiple personalities and multiple types of living. North slope homes feature a breathtaking downtown view; south slope domiciles boast walking access to Cortland Avenue. Homes on the east slope are often more rural than their neighbors to the west (and often have views of San Francisco Bay) and property in St. Mary’s Park, at Bernal’s southern border, are of the same vintage and style as the fully-detached pre-war “streetcar suburbia” homes you’d find in neighborhoods like West Portal.
Bernal homes can run from the challenging to the spectacular. Some of the city’s most impressive contemporary construction is on Bernal’s north slope (as well as some of its most creative; a few north slope lots are extremely steep and narrow), and don’t forget that Bernal has San Francisco’s largest collection of existing earthquake refugee shacks from 1906, adapted into permanent dwellings. Some stand alone or are connected in twos and are easily identified; others have been integrated into other construction and are harder to spot.
The district has classic “full five” and “junior five” homes from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and new condominium complexes (small ones; Bernal’s homegrown activists have successfully blocked major development from encroaching on their neighborhood). It’s large enough to offer very different micro-neighborhood experiences within its borders; life near Precita Park is very different from life near Holly Park, for example.
All of this is what makes Bernal so attractive and what is driving its present-day popularity. It is, in many ways, unlike any other San Francisco neighborhood. No other offers such housing diversity, so many options at so many price points and the opportunity to “live in the country” while living in the city.