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

A Bel Marin Keys history pamphlet includes a motto: “Where Fun Comes Home Stays In.”

The brochure, created sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s as the community was first being built, promoted the Southeast Novato Development Project as offering a permanent vacation lifestyle in “sunny, fog- and fog-free Marin County.” Smoky”.

Today, the community of about 700 homes off the San Pablo Bay waterfront retains an appeal to homebuyers similar to what it promised at the time: a relaxed atmosphere that can feel much more South Florida than the Bay Area.

In a recent analysis of Zillow’s home values ​​by neighborhood, the waterfront community has had the largest home value growth of any neighborhood in the Bay Area since the start of the pandemic. According to the data, home values ​​increased nearly 50% from December 2019 to December 2021, from a median home value of about $1 million in 2019 to $1.5 million in 2021.

The growth in home prices there reflects a typical migration trend observed in the pandemic: a growing interest in suburban locations where homes offer more space and access to the outdoors.

In the Bel Marin Keys, the outdoors comes in the form of Two Lakes and Novato Creek. Instead of the typical grassy or tree-lined yards, backyards feature decks and boat docks overlooking private man-made lagoons. Hiking and biking trails are nearby, yet the community is only minutes from dining and shopping along Belle Marine Keys Boulevard and Highway 101.

Bell Marine Keys

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Andrea Cramer, 48, is a realtor with Coldwell Banker and a resident of the Bell Marine Keys for 13 years.

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

Kramer said she’s seen two major groups researching Bel Marin Keys homes recently: families with young children looking for an active lifestyle, and couples who work from home and want an office with a view. She said her recent sale at the Bel Marin Keys was an energetic couple able to work from home and their kids growing up.

There is an “exceptional shortfall in inventory,” Kramer said, with home prices ranging from $850 to $1,110 per square foot. As of last week in Zillow, only one home is listed in the Bel Marin Keys. The home, which has a price tag of $1.95 million, sold for $1.2 million in June 2019. But as of Tuesday morning, that listing was gone.

This combination of factors – a low supply of homes in a unique and affordable area – is likely the main reason that the area has seen an exponential growth in home values, even over other Bay Area neighborhoods whose popularity has spread in the pandemic.

Older residents say the low stock is in part because Bell Marine Keys residents tend to buy and stay put. But it’s also cyclical, and staff turnover has accelerated during the pandemic.

Cramer said the highest-ever sale of the Bel Marin Keys was $2.8 million in July 2021, an off-market sale of a completely renovated home with broken walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. She recently sold an upper stabilizer for $1.25 million.

Sylvia Barry, longtime Novato Realtor, said that before the pandemic, people in San Francisco were usually looking to the area for expansion. But more recently, more people from the South Bay have been exploring it.

Novato is generally less expensive than other parts of Marin County, and you can take advantage of more open space with lots of large yards, she said. Because of the prevalence of remote work, commuting from Marin County is no longer an issue.

“When you have a larger group of buyers, that raises the price,” she said. “People want to have more space.”

Madeline Peters, 75, has lived in the Bell Marine Keys since 2004. She and her husband didn’t even know they could swim in the lake until they moved in, and now they also kayak and paddle boards. She said she wasn’t surprised that people looked to the Bel Marin Keys, especially if they were working from home and no longer needed to stay near downtown San Francisco or Silicon Valley offices.

“What is surprising is that property values ​​have been very modest for a long time,” she said. “We’re not like other areas in Marin, certainly not as popular. But I think people understand that living in the Bell Marine Keys is a good option.”

Construction of the Bel Marin Keys began in the late 1950s and progressed in stages. At the time, the homes were advertised for an “unusually modest cost” starting at $26,000, with 80 exterior and 10 floor plans selected. Man-made lakes were added sometime in the 1960s, and home construction continued into the late 1980s.

Cramer said the fifth phase of the Bel Marin Keys was never built, and now it’s a swampy area that residents call dams, with a “beautiful open space.” This has made the community a haven for wildlife, filled with waterfowl, fish and the occasional otters.

The old 13-page brochure of the Bel Marin Keys features planned amenities including a yacht club, shopping mall, golf, country club, riding academy, rod club, and a proposed hunting and hunting pistol. Only the yacht club paid off.

Residents say it’s a more casual and family-oriented club than one might imagine, hosting parties and events throughout the year, including a public 4th of July fireworks display.

Jeffrey Martino, 61, has lived with his family in the Bell Marine Keys for 25 years. He and his wife, Diane, love boating, and they have raised their daughters to love being on the water, too. Most of the homes are traditional compared to the newer properties around Novato, he said, but the water and access to nature is the main attraction.

“I try to imagine someone is looking for a home and why would they want to spend a million dollars in another part of Novato when they can get a home in the Bell Marine Keys for relatively the same price and be on the water,” he said. “I’ve always thought the Bel Marin Keys are undervalued for many years. I don’t think you can really put a price on the aquatic lifestyle.”

Jeffrey Martino takes his boat in the Bell Marine Keys.
Jeffrey Martino takes his boat in the Bell Marine Keys.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

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

Marin is known to be inhabited by wealthy people, mostly white and elderly people. The population of the Bell Marine Keys is 83% of non-Hispanic whites, compared to 63% for all Novato residents and 71% in Marin County.

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

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

Martino’s daughter, Lindsey, 21, said she grew up in the area, and she and her friends joked that the Bell Marine Keys were like a retirement community.

She remembers kayaking to the wetlands where she would fill a 5-gallon bucket with missing golf balls and keep them as souvenirs.

Jeffrey Martino in the backyard of his home in the Bell Marine Keys.
Jeffrey Martino in the backyard of his home in the Bell Marine 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 children, they needed more space. The couple enjoy going to Wine Country and always notice a way out for Bel Marin Keys.

“I thought there was probably a problem with the water,” she said, saying that one day they decided to check it out. “It was different than anywhere else in the Bay Area. We thought about a lot of neighborhoods…but we kept coming back to the idea that we could just walk in our own backyard, and it would be right on the water.”

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

They got lucky and got their first home: a modern three-bedroom, two-bath mid-century home built in the 1960s. They had to do some remodeling, and they moved in July 2013. Moving to San Francisco was the biggest challenge, and Khan took the Golden Gate Transit or, from time to time, the ferry.

“The biggest change in the rules of the game has been the abandonment of those transportation in the past two years,” she said. “The pandemic has been a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but, frankly, the quarantine of a lake in your backyard and hiking trails everywhere made it more bearable.”

Khan said that when they first moved to the Bel Marin Keys, she was very disappointed that there weren’t more kids the same age as hers, but now she’s seeing that changing. And while she misses living in the city from time to time, she sees the benefit to her family of living there.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said. “With prices so high everywhere in the Gulf, there is no better deal out there. I feel like my kids got so many benefits from living in this community, we might lose out on going elsewhere.”

Kelly Huang is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Tweet embed

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