Running an impressive 840 miles up the U.S. West Coast, California is full of superlatives, from longest continental coastline to largest population (over 39 million, in case you were wondering). This long and somewhat skinny state is also home to swaths of gorgeous scenery, iconic sports teams, and breathtaking sunsets. And if you hadn’t noticed, most of the people living in California are pretty proud of their home state, even if they’re not originally from there. After all, the West Coast is the best coast (wink wink)!
But what is the downside of living in California — the catch? Be prepared to pay for the privilege. California ranks as one of the most expensive states in the country, with one city even making the list of 2022’s top 10 most expensive cities to live in — in the world. What’s to blame? California has notoriously high tax rates across the board (up to 13.3 percent!), and its desirable locations and lifestyle have given the state a bit of a housing crisis.
So is it worth living in California? Only you can decide what’s best for you. We’re just here to give you a little insight to help you make the decision. We’ve got a rundown of the pros, cons, and truths about what it’s like living in California, along with some zeroed-in stats on a few of its most popular cities.
|Moving to California? Don’t forget to read our blog on the 14 Things to Know Before You Arrive in the Golden State.|
1. The Average Cost of Living in California Is Steep
We might as well get this out of the way right out of the gate. California ain’t cheap. The golden glow of the Golden State may tarnish once the topic turns to cost of living. California is home to some of the most expensive housing markets, rental markets, and overall costs of living in the country. In fact, California is the fourth most expensive state in the U.S., after Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C., according to 2022 data.
Of course, health, food, transportation, and utility costs vary depending on exactly where you live in any given state. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported residents living in California spent an average of $53,082 on personal expenditures in 2021. We suggest using this number as a baseline figure while considering your move, adjusting it as needed depending on the exact city you’re eyeing.
When comparing California’s big-city contenders like the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County’s San Diego, and capital city Sacramento, know that they're all big spenders.
Looking at the Bay Area? This Northern California (NorCal) region — which includes San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley — takes the cake as the most expensive spot in the state, immediately followed by sunny SoCal spots San Diego and Los Angeles. However, there is some good news, according to RentCafe. For folks interested in a Central California hub city, the cost of living in Sacramento is 15 percent below the state average.
2. Housing Is a Huge Expense
A lot of the expense of living in California comes from housing costs. So how much does it cost to buy a house in California? A lot. According to RentCafe, the California housing market is a whopping 102 percent higher than the national average! And as of February 2023, Zillow reports the average home price in California has reached a hefty $728,100 — over twice as much as the national average of $334,269. The popular real estate website has also reported that nearly 30 percent of homes in California sold over listing price in the past year. (Ouch.)
Home values in pricey San Francisco have dropped 10.6 percent in the past year but still ring in at a cool $1.28 million, on average. Down in SoCal, you’ll find an average home value of $893,500 in San Diego and $901,300 in Los Angeles. But of all the bigger cities on our list, Sacramento average home values are the most affordable, coming in at $460,300.
However, don’t be discouraged — around 55 percent of listed houses in California sold for under list price in 2022, including approximately half of the homes in our four key cities. Translation: Don’t be afraid to put in that counter offer, at least for now.
|Moving to L.A.? Take a look at our tips on Living in Los Angeles on a Budget (and at the more affordable neighborhoods in Los Angeles).|
3. Rent Isn’t Cheap
Looking to rent? RentCafe reports that the average national rent is $1,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment just under 900 square feet. Comparatively, it lists the average rent in California at $2,500 for around 850 square feet, or $2.94 per square foot. If you’re looking to rent in San Diego, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, be prepared to pay more money for less space. Again, it depends on exactly where you’re living in these cities, but expect to pay approximately $3.34 per square foot in San Diego, $3.53 per square foot in Los Angeles, and $4.50 per square foot in San Francisco. The only city where you’ll possibly get a break is with apartments in Sacramento, where RentCafe reports the average rental goes for around $2.24 per square foot.
4. What’s It Like Living in California?
California’s bigger cities are big draws, but with a state this big — 155,858 square miles — it’s impossible to use a catch-all when explaining what it’s like to live there. To make it a bit easier, we’ll spill the beans on the vibe and what it’s like to live in our go-to most popular cities.
Living in San Francisco
San Fran is one of California’s iconic cities — the Golden Gate Bridge, streetcar trolleys, Alcatraz, and the Wharf are all incredibly popular places. Life here is a bit more bustling with a dash of east coast city vibes, thanks to the dense layout of the city. Folks here appreciate sunny days in the park and a work-hard-play-hard lifestyle. Public transportation is fantastic, so you likely won’t need a car — just be ready to work your calves around the city’s steep streets. Come here hungry, for culture, food, and work.
Living in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is a sprawl of a city comprising several areas, each with their own distinctive characteristics. As a hub of entertainment, it’s not uncommon to overhear people discussing script ideas or dropping names. It’s a car-heavy city, so make sure to choose where you live wisely, as many people stick to their side of town because of traffic. We love the fact that this city seems to have it all — beautiful beaches, creative culture, mountains, museums, and a good level of kitsch. It’s easy to feel at home here, since you’ve likely seen much of the city’s streets and scenery in movies. Like a lot of Californians, Angelenos are big on outdoor activities and healthy eating.
Living in San Diego
Located in Orange County about two hours south of L.A, San Diego has its own SoCal vibe. The beaches here are beautiful and frequented by locals who have a down-to-earth, go-with-the-flow attitude. We love the city’s historic architecture, beautiful outdoor spaces, and LGBTQ friendliness. San Diego is a military, college, beach, and border town, giving it a unique personality and some great neighborhood pockets.
Living in Sacramento
While those in NorCal and SoCal battle it out for which region is best, the Central Coast’s city of Sacramento is where you’ll find people laid back and just enjoying life. Here, it’s not a competition. SacTown may not have the cache of L.A. or San Fran (yet), but the people here know they’ve got it good. Easy access to beautiful scenery, slopes, an array of delicious eats, and a great economy keep people relaxed and unpretentious. Plus, the cost of living is lower compared to the other cities on our list. It’s also got a decent transportation system — ideal for nights spent out on the town or possibly even tasting trips to the city’s different breweries.
5. Higher Education Is Top Notch
California shines when it comes to higher education, giving residents a healthy dose of top-notch university options across the state. The prestigious law school Stanford University is ranked #3 in the 2023 U.S. News World and Report’s list of the top 10 national universities, but it’s not the only Californita university to make the top 10. Pasadena’s The California Institute of Technology, also referred to as CalTech, is ranked 9th on the list.
The University of California at Berkeley is tied for 20th with the University of California Los Angeles, and just a few spots down is UCLA rival the University of Southern California (also in Los Angeles), which holds position as the 25th best university in the country. Several other California state universities made the top 100 list, too.
6. It Has One of The World’s Largest Economies
The gold rush era has come and gone, but the Golden State is still lucrative. According to Bloomberg, California is on the precipice of overtaking Germany as the fourth-largest economy in the world. Yes, the world. Not an unimpressive feat for a U.S. state coming out of a global pandemic and riding the waves of inflation.
Nearly 80 percent of California’s market capital comes from San Francisco, while cities like Oakland, Long Beach, and Los Angeles are big contributors, thanks to their hometown ports (and, um, this little place called Hollywood, too).
|Searching in San Francisco? We’ve got a rundown on the Best Neighborhoods in San Fran, to make sure you’ve got the skinny on where to live in the city.|
7. The Job Market Is on Fire
The Golden State shines in several different industries, including technology, renewable energy, and agriculture — all growing industries — which may be part of California’s secret sauce when it comes to its superb job market. More than 18 percent of new jobs in the U.S. at the start of 2023 were created in California.
If you’re wondering who’s hiring, the state’s fastest-growing jobs include positions in media, healthcare, software, and research, while the state also had large numbers of job openings in the retail and hospitality industries.
8. There are Top-Ranked Sports Teams
Californians may find fame on the streets of Hollywood, but the state’s sports teams also bring a lot of notoriety to the table — both at the college and professional levels. San Francisco 49’ers, San Francisco Giants, L.A. Lakers, Los Angeles Rams, and L.A. Dodgers are some of the most recognizable names in pro sports, while UCLA’s Bruins and USC’s Trojans are top college football teams. Just be prepared to go hard or not at all when it comes to sports in California. Californians take their sports seriously, and fans have been known to get a little bent out of shape against rival teams.
9. It’s a Four-Season State
California may conjure up visions of year-round sunshine, but the truth is that this is a four-season state. Depending where you relocate in the state, you can experience stunning fall colors, snowy winters, and super-bloom springs. While weather in SoCal is usually sunny and warm, Central California has more of a Mediterranean climate, and Northern California is often foggy and gray.
It’s also worth mentioning that California is also known for a few unofficial seasons: wildfire season, rainy season, and earthquake season (also called earthquake weather). In the summers and early fall, the state battles devastating wildfires, particularly along Interstate 5, so keep this in mind when renting or buying a home. There’s also a rainy season in SoCal that usually shows up in January and February. And, while an earthquake can technically strike at any time (truly), locals often refer to extremely stagnant and hot days as “earthquake weather.”
10. Crime Increased in 2021, But the State Is Safe Overall
California has pockets of crime, but is overall a safe place. However, in 2021, there was an increase in crime, including property crime, violent crime, and car theft. In cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the unhoused population and gang activity increased in tandem with petty theft and crime. Catalytic converter theft was on the rise throughout the country, but it was particularly prevalent in Southern California. Crime rates vary by city, neighborhood, and even blocks, so it’s best to do some digging on specific areas.
11. Mexi-Cali Cuisine Reigns Supreme (But It’s Not the Only Star of the Show)
Speaking of crime, it’s practically punishable to live in Southern California and not love Mexican food. We don’t have an official count, but we reckon there are more Mexican restaurants and taco stands in Southern California than any other type of food. Texas may have Tex-Mex, but California has Mexi-Cali. Get ready for fresh ingredients, lots of lime and avocado, and a particularly good take on fish tacos.
If tacos aren’t your thing, California also has a host of international cuisine — notably great Asian food, thanks to the state’s large Asian population — and has even earned accolades for the best pizza and bagels, much to the chagrin of New Yorkers.
Along with silver-screen celebrities, California also boasts around 650 Michelin-starred restaurants, including six 3-star restaurants: Addison in San Diego, French Laundry in Yountville, SingleThread in Healdsburg, and San Francisco’s Quince, Atelier Crenn, and Benu.
12. There’s Plenty to Do in California
A few things that we love and highly recommend doing in California (whether you live there or not!):
- Summers and ski vacations in Lake Tahoe
- Hikes through Yosemite National Park
- Foraging in San Luis Obispo
- Kayaking in Morro Bay
- Museums in Los Angeles: the Broad, LACMA, MOCA, The Getty Center, and Academy Museum
- Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway
- Sunsets in San Diego
- Escaping the city in the city at Dolores Park in San Francisco
- Eating your way through The Mission in San Fran
- Riding waves in San Diego
Is it Worth Living in California? A Quick Look at The Pros and Cons
So, is moving to California a good idea? Here’s a short recap on a few of the pros and cons of living in California to help you decide.
Variety of outdoor activities
Job growth is climbing
Stellar food scene
High cost of living
Risk of natural disasters
You’ll need a car in most cities
Making the Move to California
Making the decision to move to California is the easy part. Getting there is the trick. You can simplify your move by using PODS. Rent a container and have it delivered to your driveway, ready for you to load at your own pace. Need help with the heavy lifting? PODS can even connect you with local packing and loading services. When you’re ready, your container will be picked up and delivered right to your new California home, or you can keep it in a PODS Storage Center until you’re ready for it. We’ll have you saying “best coast” before you know it!
Alex Keight is a writer who has lived — and moved — all over the country and the world. She is an expert at packing, whether it’s for a long-distance move or short weekend trip. When she’s not writing or on the move, Alex spends her time giving her cat booty pats, cooking up dishes in the kitchen, and buying way more books than she knows she’ll ever actually get to reading.