The hottest real estate neighborhood in the Bay Area is a small waterfront community. This is what it’s like to live there

A historic brochure for Bel Marin Keys features the slogan: “Where fun and play come home to stay.”

The brochure, created in the late 1950s or early 1960s when the community was being built, presented the southeastern Novato development as offering a permanent vacation lifestyle in “sunny county de Marin, pleasantly free from fog or smog”.

Today, the community of approximately 700 homes just off the San Pablo Bay waterfront retains a homebuyer appeal similar to what was promised then: a relaxed atmosphere that can feel much further south in Florida than in the Bay Area.

In a recent analysis of Zillow’s home values ​​by neighborhood, the waterfront community has seen the strongest home value growth of any Bay Area neighborhood since the pandemic began. According to the data, home values ​​increased nearly 50% from December 2019 to December 2021, rising from an average value of around $1 million in 2019 to $1.5 million in 2021.

The growth in house prices there reflects a typical migration trend seen in the pandemic: a growing interest in suburban localities where houses offer more space and access to the outdoors.

In Bel Marin Keys, the outdoors comes in the form of two lagoons and Novato Creek. Instead of typical grassy or tree-lined yards, backyards feature decks and boat docks that overlook private man-made lagoons. Hiking and biking trails are nearby, but the community is only minutes from restaurants and shops along Bel Marin Keys Boulevard and Highway 101.

Keys of Bel Marin

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Andrea Kraemer, 48, is a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker and has resided in Bel Marin Keys for 13 years.

“I was one of the many people who didn’t know the community existed,” she says. “We came on a random Sunday and saw an open house, looked at the property and made an offer that night.”

Kraemer said she’s seen two main groups looking at Bel Marin Keys homes recently: families with young children who are looking for an active lifestyle, and couples who work from home and want an office with a view. She said her last sale in Bel Marin Keys was an active couple who were able to work from home and whose children had grown up.

Kraemer said there was an “exceptional lack of inventory,” with homes costing between $850 and $1,110 a square foot. As of last week on Zillow, only one house in Bel Marin Keys was listed. The home, priced at $1.95 million, last sold for $1.2 million in June 2019. But by Tuesday morning, even that listing was gone.

This combination of factors – a low supply of homes in a unique, more affordable area – is likely the main reason the area has seen outsized growth in home values, even compared to other Bay Area neighborhoods whose popularity exploded during the pandemic.

Longtime residents say the low inventory is partly because Bel Marin Keys residents tend to buy and stay put. But it’s also cyclical, and the process of turnover has accelerated during the pandemic.

Kraemer said the record sale in Bel Marin Keys was $2.8 million in July 2021, an off-market sale for a fully remodeled home with blown walls and bay windows. She recently sold a fixer-upper for $1.25 million.

Longtime Novato real estate agent Sylvia Barry said that before the pandemic, San Francisco residents generally looked to the area for development. But more recently, more and more people in South Bay have spotted it.

She said Novato is generally less expensive than other parts of Marin County and you get more open space with big lots and yards. And due to widespread remote work, commuting from Marin County is no longer an issue.

“When you have a bigger pool of buyers, it pushes the price up,” she said. “People want more space.”

Madalienne Peters, 75, has lived in Bel Marin Keys since 2004. She and her husband didn’t even know they could swim in the lagoon until they moved in, and now they also kayak and use paddleboards . She said she’s not surprised people are turning to Bel Marin Keys, especially if they’re working from home and no longer need to stay near offices in downtown San Francisco or the Silicon Valley.

“What’s surprising is that property values ​​have remained so modest for so long,” she said. “We are not like the other districts of Le Marin, which are definitely unknown. But I think people understand that living in Bel Marin Keys is a good choice.

Construction of Bel Marin Keys began in the late 1950s and progressed in phases. At the time, homes were advertised for an “unusually modest cost” starting at $26,000, with a choice of 80 exteriors and 10 floor plans. Man-made lagoons were added in the 1960s and houses continued to be built until the late 1980s.

Kraemer said a fifth phase of Bel Marin Keys was never built, and now it’s a wetland that residents call the levees, with “a nice open space.” This has made the community a sanctuary for wildlife, brimming with waterfowl, fish, and occasionally river otters.

The old 13-page brochure for Bel Marin Keys offered planned amenities including a yacht club, shopping mall, golf and country club, riding academy, and proposed fishing and hunting club. Only the yacht club saw the light of day.

Residents say it’s a more laid-back, family-friendly club than one might imagine, hosting parties and events year-round, including a public Fourth of July fireworks display.

Jeffrey Martino, 61, has lived with his family in Bel Marin Keys for 25 years. He and his wife, Diane, love boating and raised their daughters to enjoy being on the water too. He said most homes are traditional compared to newer properties around Novato, but it’s the water and access to nature that are the main draw.

“I’m trying to imagine someone looking for a house and why they would want to spend $1 million in another part of Novato when they can get a house in Bel Marin Keys for relatively the same price and be on the water,” he said. “I always thought Bel Marin Keys was undervalued for many years. I don’t think you can really put a price tag on the aquatic lifestyle.

Jeffrey Martino takes his boat out to Bel Marin Keys.

Jeffrey Martino takes his boat out to Bel Marin Keys.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

According to the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, census tract for Bel Marin Keys shows a population of just over 1,600 people. It is a small community, and one that is, in some ways, an exaggerated microcosm of Marin County demographics.

Marin is known to be populated by wealthy, mostly white, and elderly families. Bel Marin Keys’ population is 83% non-Hispanic white, compared to 63% for all of Novato and 71% for Marin County.

The median household income is just over $133,000. In 2019, the median home value was $988,500, about 25% higher than the Novato average.

The median age in Bel Marin Keys is 55, with 37% of residents in the 50-69 age bracket. That compares to a median age of 47 for Marin County and 29% in the 50-69 age group.

Martino’s daughter, Lindsey, 21, said growing up in the area, she and her friends would joke that Bel Marin Keys was like a retirement community.

She remembers kayaking in the wetlands where she filled a 5 gallon bucket with lost golf balls and kept them as keepsakes.

Jeffrey Martino in his garden in Bel Marin Keys.

Jeffrey Martino in his garden in Bel Marin Keys.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Amy Khan, 40, has lived in San Francisco for most of her adult life. When she and her husband had their two boys, they needed more space. The couple enjoy riding Wine Country and have always noticed an outing to Bel Marin Keys.

“I thought there was probably water involved,” she said, saying that one day they decided to check. “It was different from anywhere in the Bay Area. We considered many neighborhoods…but we kept coming back to the idea that we could just walk into our backyard and it would be right on the water.

She said there wasn’t much availability at the time, but it was “definitely more inventory than what I’ve seen in the last two years.”

They got lucky and got the first house they ever bid on: a modern three-bedroom, two-bathroom home built in the 1960s. They had to do a lot of renovations and moved in in July 2013. The drive to San Francisco was the biggest challenge, and Khan took the Golden Gate Transit or, occasionally, the ferry.

“The biggest game-changer has been giving up that ride for the past two years,” she said. “The pandemic was a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but, honestly, quarantining with a lagoon in your backyard and hiking trails all around has made it much more bearable.”

Khan said when they first moved to Bel Marin Keys she was a bit disappointed that there weren’t more children of the same age as her children, but now she sees that changing. And even though she misses living in the city from time to time, she sees the benefits that living there has had on her family.

“We’re here for the long haul,” she said. “With prices rising all over the bay, there simply isn’t a better deal. I feel like my kids have benefited so much from living in this community, and we’ll probably lose our chance to go somewhere else.

Kellie Hwang is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @KellieHwang

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