Every year, when the Pacific Sun is putting together the Best of Marin issue, I take stock of how fortunate I am to live here.
World-class photographers, best-selling authors and award-winning filmmakers capture a corner of the county here and there. But those of us experiencing her unrivaled beauty every day are blessed.
And yet, not everyone who calls Marin home shares in one of the county’s bounties—actually owning a home. In fact, Marin is one of the most unaffordable real estate markets in America.
Marin ranks third in the nation for the highest income needed to buy a home, barely edged out of first place by New York and San Mateo counties, according to a report for the second quarter of 2023 by ATTOM, a real estate data firm.
To buy a median-priced home in Marin, a person needs an annual income of $352,153, the report revealed. New York County residents need to earn $383,062 a year, and in San Mateo County, the necessary salary is $361,004.
In June, the median price for all homes sold—including single-family detached houses, condominiums and townhomes—was $1,467,000, based on data from the Marin County Assessor’s Office. The median price is the midpoint, with half of the homes selling for less and half selling for more.
For a detached house, the median price comes in at $1,707,500, with condos and townhouses at $775,000. Unless one has been following the market, the figures seem astonishing, but the median home price dropped by more than 10% year-over-year.
Still, Marin’s real estate market is considered strong. A total of 337 homes sold last month, the assessor’s office reports.
Realtor.com called June a “seller’s market” in the county, with more buyers than available homes. Of course, the strength of the housing market is based on supply and demand. Marin simply doesn’t have enough supply, which keeps demand and prices high.
While we have NIMBYs today protesting new housing planned for their neighborhoods, Marin’s current housing crisis actually began many decades ago.
After the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1936, interest grew in developing Marin. Owners of large estates and agricultural land began dividing their properties into smaller lots for new housing.
Although the term activist hadn’t yet been coined, small groups of Marin residents fought off real estate developers to preserve the county’s magnificent open space.
Members of garden clubs and conservation leagues stopped the development of some parcels of land, such as the Kittle Estate in Ross, which is now the Marin Art and Garden Center.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, concerned citizens worked to thwart Marincello, a planned self-sustaining city of industry and housing for 30,000 people in the Marin Headlands. Today, the land is owned by the federal government, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for everyone to enjoy.
West Marin was the site for other battles between early environmentalists and developers. The Bolinas Lagoon and Point Reyes National Seashore would look much different today if the developers had won.
The result is that almost 85% of the county’s land is protected from development, making it one of the most alluring destinations in America. Federal parkland, county open space, miles of beaches, the majority of Mount Tam, watershed land and city parks—all off limits to developers.
The unintended consequence is a severe housing shortage with inflated home prices. Children who grew up in Marin can’t afford to live here. Low- and moderate-income workers, including teachers, firefighters and police personnel, commute from surrounding counties.
Even with a dual-income household, grossing more than $350,000 a year, the amount needed to buy a median-priced home, is a tough nut to crack.
In Marin, the annual median income for a family of four is $175,000, and $122,500 for a single person.
Sure, Marin’s housing market seems tailor-made for wealthy people, but it’s not all doom and gloom. There are several little-known, yet extremely innovative programs that could put homeownership within the reach of low- to moderate-earners. Some are for Marin County residents and others can be applied to home buying elsewhere in California.
First-time buyers and people with lower incomes can apply to various programs and work with local professionals to guide them through the complexities of buying a home.
The Below Market Rate (BMR) Home Ownership program, operated by the Marin Housing Authority, keeps prices low on a small stock of homes throughout Marin, mostly condos. Currently, about 340 homes are in the BRM program, ranging in price from $150,000 to $500,000—a bargain compared to the county’s median prices.
With a BMR unit, the amount of appreciation is limited, which preserves the home’s affordability for the next purchaser. But the homeowner enjoys pride of ownership, the tax benefit of writing off mortgage interest and living in a neighborhood they might not otherwise be able to afford.
“There are certain units that are priced so low, anybody earning 65% of the area median income or lower could qualify,” Ceena Ford, the housing authority’s homeownership programs specialist, said.
Quick math shows that a person earning $79,625 annually, or even less, could become the proud owner of a BMR unit. Larger units, appropriate for families, come with a higher price tag, but folks making up to 120% of the area median income are eligible.
People interested in the BMR program apply with the housing authority and are entered into a lottery. And they’ll certainly need a bit of luck. Each year, about five to eight properties become available for 100 to 200 applicants.
Other homeownership programs offered by the Marin Housing Authority help prospective buyers jump a big hurdle—coming up with the typical 20% down payment. For example, residents or workers in Marin City could take advantage of the Marin City down payment assistance program, which requires the buyer to contribute $5,000, with the remainder paid by the fund. The home can be located anywhere in the county.
The housing choice voucher homeownership program is beneficial for low-income earners. Also known as Section 8, most people are familiar with these vouchers paying for rent. But Ford said another aspect of the program is like gold for a person wanting to buy a home.
“You can take that voucher and apply it to a mortgage payment instead,” Ford explained. “The funds from the voucher can be used to build equity in a home, as opposed to going into your landlord’s pocket.”
Ford recommends that people interested in these programs contact the housing authority to apply. The next steps include talking to a mortgage professional to see how much they can afford and working with a real estate agent knowledgeable about the lower end of Marin’s housing market.
Pierre Masquelier, a mortgage banker at CrossCountry Mortgage in Larkspur, has spent 20 years assisting buyers navigate Marin’s real estate market. His secret weapon is getting creative.
“Buying a home in Marin is challenging,” Masquelier said. “The demand is unrelenting, and Marin is immune to the ups and downs of the economy. We’re at a point with high interest rates, hovering around 7%, but there are still buyers wanting to get into the market, no matter what the interest rates.”
In Masquelier’s experience, most first-time buyers get help from family members for the down payment. If that’s not possible, he suggests becoming familiar with the California Housing Finance Agency (CalHFA), which offers down payment assistance programs and mortgages for people with low- to moderate-incomes.
A popular CalHFA program that Masquelier has been keeping his eye on is the California Dream for All Shared Appreciation Loan.
“We call the loan a ‘silent second,’ because it doesn’t have to be repaid unless you sell or refinance your home,” Masquelier said.
Earlier this year, Dream for All ran out of funding within days of being introduced. But last month, the legislature approved another $200 million for the program. Updates and timelines will be issued soon.
Masquelier maintains that the Marin market will always be exceptionally competitive. The best advice, he said, is to make the decision to buy and move ahead.
“You just gotta get in,” Masquelier said. “If you keep thinking about it and wait for prices to come down, you’ll miss out.”
Amy Diller, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in Marin, represents many first-time buyers and folks with lower incomes. With 20 years of experience as an agent, she’s usually able to help her client find the right home.
“There are condos as low as $350,000 in Marin County, mostly in Novato,” Diller said. “There are homes in West Marin starting at $600,000. Sometimes they’re fixer uppers or sometimes there’s deferred maintenance, but there are opportunities to buy properties.”
While Diller loves Marin, she believes there are options if someone is feeling challenged by the county’s median housing price of almost $1.5 million.
“There are affordable opportunities in Petaluma, Cotati and Rohnert Park,” Diller said. “Point Richmond has some beautiful complexes on the water. So, you’re still close to Marin, but you can get more house for your money. People have to find where they’re comfortable and where they can afford.”