Thinking about living the dream in California? Our guide gives you all the information you need to know about buying in the sought-after state.
The Golden State of California has a climate that is hard to beat and some of the most lavish addresses on earth: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Barbara to name a few.
But of course, that's only one aspect of California. Alongside the Beach Boys and the movie studios, the state is renowned for its alternative lifestyles and liberal attitudes, particularly in San Francisco; for its wonderful unspoilt coastline, its desert hinterland, and alpine Lake Tahoe; for its academic and cultural richness; and for its strong pro-environment stance within the US. It's also hugely diverse, with one of the largest Asian and Hispanic populations in the country.
So what attracts the British? All of the above, plus a desire, perhaps, to be in a state that still feels young, with something of the frontier atmosphere remaining, and which is far enough away from Europe to feel that you have truly escaped. It was to California that the gold prospectors flocked in 1849, and those heading there today still have that adventurous spirit. But with long haul flights becoming more affordable and more comfortable in recent years, it's also somewhere you could realistically own a holiday home these days.
There's no shortage of flights to Los Angeles with slightly fewer to San Francisco. As well as carriers such as BA, Virgin, United and American all flying to LAX from the London airports, look out for less obvious options such as Air New Zealand. You can also fly direct to San Diego. Flight times are around 10 hours to 11 hours.
Visa and residency requirements
The usual restrictions for British citizens apply: you can't live in California or any other part of the US full time, unless you can find a way around the complex visa regulations. The most common method to do so involves investing in a business to obtain an E2 investor visa, which is a non-immigrant visa. To do so, you must be prepared to invest at least $150,000 in a business. The actual amount is not specified, but it must be an active investment, in other words you must be developing and running the business. With $1,000,000 to invest, you may be able to obtain an EB-5 Green Card, which does give permanent residency, again subject to stringent conditions about the nature of the business. However, in certain zones which are Targeted Employment Areas you can invest only $500,000, which still gives you the right to live anywhere in the US.
If you're happy to stay for less than 90 days at a time, you can enter the US without a visa under the Visa Waiver programme; however, you can't extend your stay. And of course there's a wide range of non-immigrant visas available to cater for everybody from students or au pairs to business people and journalists, for those who want to stay and work for longer periods of time.
How to buy in California
The buying process in California is the same as elsewhere in the US. It's best to start off with your own 'buyer's agent' who finds suitable properties to match your brief from all realtors.
Once you've agree a price on the property you want, you pay a reservation down-payment to take the property off the market for a short time, and follow this up with a formal offer in the form of a purchase contract which outlines the terms of the sale. This is a legally binding document, though there may be clauses included allowing either party to pull out.
Once signed, you pay a 10 per cent deposit into an escrow account. A title insurance company is used to check that the property has clean title, and the final stage is closure, when the balance of the purchase price owed is paid.
The main costs are around 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent for title search and insurance; up to 0.5 per cent for registering your ownership; and 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent for legal fees. It makes a total of around 2 per cent of the purchase price. The agents' commissions should all be paid by the vendor.
One thing that is different in California from other states is its sheer size. It has the highest population in the US - 37 million - and covers 770 miles from top to bottom, making it bigger than many European countries. The range of choice for where to live is enormous.
The biggest by a long chalk is Los Angeles with an estimated population of just over four million, and more than 10 million live in Los Angeles County, while the Los Angeles metropolitan areas includes many outlying suburbs classed as cities in their own right such as Long Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Santa Monica.
Los Angeles does have some dodgy neighbourhoods, mainly close to its downtown area, but the vast majority are pretty safe and affluent. Some of the most expensive neighbourhoods are familiar names: Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Malibu, to name but three. Culver City is an upcoming area, while neighbourhoods such as Venice Beach and Santa Monica may not be as expensive as you think.
The San Francisco Bay Area is the second biggest metropolitan area in California; San Jose is a bigger city than San Francisco itself; while Oakland and Sacramento are other important centres there. San Diego is the third biggest urban centre.
The coastal strip of southern California, lined with palm trees and gazing out on the Pacific Ocean, is hugely attractive for anyone contemplating a move to America's west coast. But another option worth considering is the desert. Inland from Los Angeles, Palm Springs offers a wonderful lifestyle with year-round sunshine, stunning landscapes and fabulous modernist architecture.
And finally, there's Lake Tahoe, on the northern border between California and Nevada, which is the largest high altitude lake in North America and is home to a number of ski and other resort centres. The ski season runs from November to May, and there are more than 500 slopes in all.
Types of property
Property in California is significantly more expensive on average than in the US as a whole. That's partly down to the desirability of living in California, but also reflects the fact that, as a prosperous state, people spend a lot on their homes. At the top of the scale are the movie star mansions. For most people, though, especially in southern California, the normal home is a single family house, often with a generous amount of outside space, and with an eclectic range of architectural styles available.
In the San Francisco Bay Area cities, you may well find yourself living in a 100 year old townhouse, or a contemporary apartment. In Los Angeles, most houses are single storey often on a fairly large plot by European standards. And compared to Florida, California has a far smaller proportion of condominium properties, though these do exist, of course.
California was one of the first states to be hit hard by the property slump, and in April 2009, prices were down an average 36.5 per cent from a year earlier, with a median price of $265,700, according to Business Week, although there were some tentative signs of recovery. And although there are many opportunities to buy foreclosed (repossessed) property, the overall level of new property unsold is again much lower than in Florida.
Living in California
California has some of the most exciting and best paid work opportunities of anywhere in the US, from Silicon Valley technology start-ups to Hollywood studios. But it has always been a place that people flock to in the hope of making the big time, and for many that will mean disappointment. The vast majority of employment is in much more mundane activities such as restaurants, retail and healthcare. So the message is simple: don't think that the streets of California are paved with gold. It is far better to work out how you're going to make a living before you get there.
California offers some extremes in temperature. Death Valley, in the Mojave Desert, is the hottest place in the western hemisphere, with temperatures often reaching 49°C at the height of summer. Other desert locations such as Palm Springs are not that far behind. But in Bodie, a ghost town on the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the north of the state, where gold was once discovered, temperatures fall as low as -18°C.
Beyond those extremes, most of the coastal strip of California - where the majority of the population lives - has what is described as a Mediterranean climate. It is predictably warmer in the south, with temperatures typically between 24°C to 29°C in Los Angeles during the summer months, and somewhat cooler at 17°C to 21°C in San Francisco. Despite the image, it's not all sunshine either, as mists and smog frequently roll in from the sea. Inland, temperatures rise quickly, which is why some prefer to live in the desert with its warm, dry air.
HSBC is the main British bank operating in California, with a couple of branches apiece in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The higher average value of property means that California is more highly leveraged than most states in terms of mortgages, and its banks were among the pioneers in offering 50 year mortgages at the height of the property boom.
Generally, availability of mortgages is as good as anywhere in the US, but it also has one of the highest rates of delinquency - ie non payment - so conditions have become much tougher.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities in California are among the best in the world, but as elsewhere in the US, private medical insurance is essential. A Senate bill which would have created a state run system to provide healthcare to every Californian has been scrapped in the wake of the state's extreme fiscal difficulties.
The author, Alexander Garrett, is a freelance property writer.
- Guide to buying property abroad
- Checklist before moving abroad
- Mortgages for international properties
- Use of foreign exchange for your mortgage
- Using property search agents to buy property abroad
- Find an international property to buy in California
Some information contained herein may have changed since it was first published. PrimeLocation strongly advises you to seek current legal and/or financial advice from a qualified professional.