San Francisco really is the shining city on a hill. Make that many hills, 43 in fact. With its cool temperatures and cool vibes, sea lions sunning themselves on the piers, and a confluence of bay and bridges, it always feels like something special is about to happen. This effervescent mix is why so many people want to live and visit there — to have some of that northern California magic rub off on them.

What is it known for?
There are so many things that make San Francisco special, from the red behemoth of the Golden Gate Bridge to the city’s tolerant attitude toward almost everything. Haight–Ashbury’s Summer of Love may be long over, but liberal San Francisco keeps the flame alive. Forget poetry readings at the City Lights bookstore, the city has legislated itself bluer than blue. The city has free public health care; it hosts the country’s largest gay pride parade; its ban on Happy Meals comes into effect this December; and voters will get to decide on a ballot proposal making circumcision illegal this November.

You can go for a cable car ride or tour Alcatraz (at night is extra special) or climb Coit Tower for the amazing views, but every visitor finds what they love in San Francisco. Whether it’s the shopping in Union Square, burritos and  murals in the Mission or drinking with ghosts of Beat past in North Beach, the city has a neighbourhood that fits.

Where do you want to live?
In general, the housing market in San Francisco has not been hit as hard as many other areas of the United States. “The market is rising now, due to low inventory,” explained Paige Gienger, a realtor with Coldwell Banker. “A few pockets were affected by short sales and foreclosures, but those tend to be near the outer rim of the city border or neighbourhoods with windy and foggy weather patterns.”

Hilltop real estate in San Francisco gets more expensive and desirable the higher you go: Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights. Noe Valley is one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in San Francisco right now. It is close by the Castro and the Mission, but it filled with yummy mummies and the stroller set, sidewalk cafes and lovely old Victorians. Midtown Terrace on the edge of Twin Peaks is also very popular, as is Miraloma Park, which is near Glen Canyon Park, very green and filled with single family homes.

All of the Sunset district, both Inner and Outer, remains popular (and counter intuitively foggy) with its proximity to Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach and with a mix of commercial and residential streets. According to Gienger, the area to look for good value for money in the Sunset is Inner Parkside, with its single-family homes and more suburban feel. Other neighbourhoods for a good deal include Glen Park bordering Noe Valley, with its village-y atmosphere and top transport links to downtown. Portola near McClaren Park is also up-and-coming district, but it lies outside the Southern Freeway (Interstate 280) belt. And one of the newer and more unique opportunities is leasing inside the decommissioned military base, the Presidio.

Side trips
Part of the attraction of living in San Francisco is that there are so many natural, cultural and culinary attractions just across the Bay or down the Peninsula. Northern Marin County and Point Reyes are less than an hour from downtown San Francisco, and it is about an hour to the wineries of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais are just across the Golden Gate Bridge and Redwood National Park, Lake Tahoe  and Yosemite are each under a five-hour drive away.

For city breaks, Los Angeles is a short flight away, and if the California High-Speed Rail is actually built, it will make the trip in two-and-a-half hours. Seattle and Vancouver are both about a two-hour flight away.

Practical info
Rental rates vary widely by neighbourhood, and the closer to Downtown, the higher the rent. A single family home rents for around $4,000 to $5,000, and a two-bed apartment for $2,200 to $2,700. And good inventory is hard to find. “There is a lot of competition at the moment for quality rentals below $3,000 a month,” said Gienger. “People are better off buying if they plan to stay for more than three years, and the cost to borrow money is very low right now, provided they can get a loan.” Average house prices range from $600,000 to $750,000.

Because escrows are closing several weeks late, due to delays caused by the banks, underwriters and appraisers (which then prolongs a seller’s mortgage payments, HOA fees and so on), currently sellers are accepting a lower price on their properties, especially for cash buyers. “There a lot of cash buyers, both international and domestic,” said Gienger. “Foreign buyers are very prevalent, especially from Hong Kong and France.”

Further information
SF Weekly: events, music reviews and local news
San Francisco Magazine: covers lifestyle, culture, food, drink
Noe Valley SF: local neighbourhood blog