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John Fyten's Blog

By John Fyten | Agent in Palo Alto, CA

Introduction to Cupertino, California

Think of Cupertino as what South Palo Alto would look like if it were ten-to-twenty years newer, and you won’t be too wrong. Cupertino has the same strong, appealing brand identity: the relatively affordable good life. Both areas appeal to the same buyers, both see prices skyrocket when the market is hot, and both are in strong demand whether real estate is hot or not.

Think of Cupertino as an affordable alternative to South Palo Alto or (sometimes) south Los Altos and you’d still be on the right track, or at least close to the trail, but heading for thin ice. You’re not doing justice to the nuances of the Cupertino market.

Think of Cupertino as affordable, period, or as the place to go when you're tired of getting outbid, and you’ve fallen through the ice. It's ironic that Cupertino is often Plan B for buyers frustrated by the intensely competitive mid-Peninsula market, because Cupertino is one of the most sought-after cities in the West Bay. Anyone fleeing the challenging Palo Alto market for Cupertino is jumping from the frying pan into the fire. And anyone trying to move up to Cupertino from the South Bay or East Bay has put themselves squarely in the fast lane of local real estate.

Drive Cupertino and you may not understand its remarkable appeal. Like South Palo Alto, most of Cupertino looks like most of South Bay suburbia. But like South Palo Alto, Cupertino's appeal is more than skin deep, and it's real. In spring 2004 I was one of sixty-seven offers on a beat-up house in a midrange Cupertino neighborhood. I was one of thirty-two offers on a horrible house in entry-level Rancho Rinconada. And I've heard of another Cupertino house that attracted 50-plus offers in 2004. Even South Palo Alto homes aren't getting 50 or 60 offers. So is Cupertino more desirable than Palo Alto? No, but Cupertino's slightly lower prices have more people circling, thinking they can afford it. And, like South Palo Alto, there's always a crowd of optimists waiting for Cupertino real estate to "settle down" and start selling like the less desirable cities they're dying to get out of.

Cupertino is in strong demand mostly because of its high-scoring elementary and high school districts, but also because it has a broader range of neighborhoods than do most South Bay communities. Sure, entry-level and midrange Cupertino are pretty ordinary, but it's the attractive upper-midrange and some pleasantly funky neighborhoods that set this city apart and give it much of its charm. There’s also a small top end, semi-rural market a little like Saratoga or Los Altos Hills.

But always, always, it’s the schools. Cupertino wouldn’t be Cupertino without the schools.

Finally, I have it on the best authority, from a descendant of one of Cupertino’s first settlers, that it’s “Cue-pertino”, not “Coop-ertino”.

View map.  Map boundaries are approximate due to my limitations as a map maker. Neighborhood boundaries may be subjective. Boundaries and other information on this site should be verified before being relied upon.


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pros and cons

pros
· Two sought-after school districts, Cupertino Union elementary and Fremont Union high. Like Palo Alto, every Cupertino school tests well, but some test better than others and the neighborhoods feeding into those schools are in extremely high demand.
· Cupertino has a variety that’s missing from some nearby communities. It's not all housing tracts. Cupertino has micro-neighborhoods, and some of them still have a distinctively casual personality.
· They started building on a large scale in Cupertino only after finishing Menlo Park and Palo Alto in the late ‘50s. Since Cupertino is newer than most surrounding communities, houses tend to be relatively larger and more upscale. Put another way, the small, no-frills starter housing of the late ‘40s to mid-‘50s common to South Palo Alto and Mountain View is just a small part of the market here.
· Cupertino’s low end gives you well-regarded schools for an easy 10% less than entry-level South Palo Alto, depending on the neighborhood, and that’s not counting ultra-affordable Rancho Rinconada.
· Cupertino’s midrange offers conventional ranchers in good neighborhoods with high-scoring schools, also at a slight discount to South Palo Alto. The discount isn’t as much about lower prices as it is about how much more you get for similar prices. Midrange Cupertino prices are comparable to those of entry-level South Palo Alto, but you get a little more house and neighborhood for the money.
· Cupertino has an upper midrange of large homes, often built in the 1970s and 1980s, that’s almost impossible to find in South Palo Alto.
· Good supply of new or newer housing, particularly in Oak Valley, a large and very upscale development.
· Much of the later housing stock was built for a market of relatively affluent buyers with big expectations.
· Beautiful foothills neighborhoods offer privacy, views and sometimes even horse property.
· Some very pleasant and sometimes upscale townhouse developments, particularly along Stevens Creek west of Foothill. This is one of the best areas to find that rarity, the single-story townhouse with attached garage, although most of these units are small.
· The city owns Blackberry Farm and McClellan Ranch, open space and recreational facilities. Blackberry Farm is thirty-three acres of picnic grounds and nine-hole golf course, and the Blue Pheasant Restaurant. McClellan Ranch offers trails and a glimpse of Cupertino’s past.
· De Anza Community College’s Flint Center offers a variety of programs.
· Weekly Farmer’s Market at Vallco Shopping Center.

cons
· There’s no downtown and never was, although De Anza College is a focal point and there’s plenty of strip malls and shopping centers. Stevens Creek Boulevard has been upgraded to serve as the city’s main gateway.
· There wasn’t much to Cupertino before its incorporation in 1955, and most of what there was has been bulldozed for housing tracts. The occasional farmhouse reminds us of the past, but the charming bungalow neighborhoods that give quaint character to some local cities are completely missing here. Cupertino’s pre-war neighborhoods are scarce, modest and rapidly giving way to new construction.
· Like most of Santa Clara County, Cupertino has its share of generic strip malls, expressways and housing tracts.
· Although some areas are relatively affordable, Cupertino isn’t cheap. While entry-level Cupertino can be as much as 15-20% less expensive than similar neighborhoods in South Palo Alto, Cupertino’s large midrange sells at the lower end of South Palo Alto prices. But there's an important difference: you get a bit more house and neighborhood for the same money, especially if you don’t like contemporaries. The upper midrange sells for substantially more than South Palo Alto, although offering the kind of newer, larger housing virtually unavailable in that older city.
· Not a great place for contemporaries, since most of Cupertino was built after the flattop era. What’s available is largely confined to an area bordered by Stevens Creek, Tantau and Bollinger, home to a small Eichler development and an even smaller tract of generic contemporaries along Calle de Barcelona. Beyond that stretches Rancho Rinconada with its Stern & Price flattops, housing that was minimalist even when new in the early ‘50s.

Interested in buying a home in Cupertino? Please contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

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neighborhoods

Affordable Cupertino:  Cupertino’s most consistently affordable neighborhoods are clustered east of Miller. Rancho Rinconada isn’t just as affordable as Cupertino gets, it’s as affordable as well-regarded schools get—in fact, only about 20% more expensive than East Palo Alto’s better neighborhoods. There’s a reason. The original homes are two- and three-bedroom contemporaries of 800 to 1300 sq.ft., and many still have just one bath. Built by the same Stern & Price responsible for much of Midtown Palo Alto, these homes are for minimalists. Over the past few years, Rancho’s cheap lots and sought-after schools have attracted builders, so now imposing new homes sit next to tiny crackerbox houses. Ambience is greatly helped by curving, tree-lined streets. Lots tend to be small, but the old, conventional ranchers of neighboring Loree Estates have larger lots and also sell at budget prices. Next up the ladder is Fairgrove, a small tract of modest Eichlers ranging in size from 1220 to 1516 sq.ft. Fairgrove is about 20% more expensive than Rancho, but the homes are significantly bigger, always with three or four bedrooms and second bath, and they're an improvement even if you don’t like Eichlers. Somewhat comparable to South Palo Alto’s Royal Manor, between Colorado, Louis and 101, but 25-30% cheaper. Neighborhood leaders and the city, hoping to maintain this tract’s contemporary architecture, have put together a remodeling guide that should be standard issue to every Eichler owner. Next to Fairgrove is a small tract of what might be called “closet contemporaries”, conventional-looking homes with beamed and vaulted ceilings. Priced comparably to these are the small, 1048 sq.ft. conventional 3/2 ranchers of Life Village, just west of Miller between Calabazas Creek and Blaney; you’ll get higher-scoring schools here, but check with the district for availability. Spending an additional 10-20% just outside the Life Village tract gets you a slightly larger home in a pleasant neighborhood; they’re a good 10-20% less than South Palo Alto’s cheapest tracts while offering as much or more house.

Midrange Cupertino: One of Cupertino’s strengths. Although it’s true that Cupertino has micro-neighborhoods, it’s equally true that Cupertino’s midrange neighborhoods share a number of similarities. They were built in the very late 1950s or 1960s. Their usual offering is a pleasant, three- or four-bedroom rancher of anywhere from 1300 to 1600 sq.ft., with pitched roof, hardwood floors and central heating, on a 6000 to 7000 sq.ft. lot. That’s a very conventional house yet one not easy to duplicate in South Palo Alto, and about 10% more expensive when you can. Since many of the people I meet think of this part of Cupertino as a less-expensive alternative to South Palo Alto, it might be helpful to compare the two. Midrange Cupertino sells at a slight but significant discount to South Palo Alto, but direct comparisons between the two are greatly complicated by their differences. So much of South Palo Alto’s housing stock is either the small, one-bath economy model characteristic of the late 1940s, so functionally obsolete now that it often sells for little more than land value, or a modestly-sized contemporary from the mid-1950s that's discounted because many buyers don't like the non-traditional architecture. Neither house exists in midrange Cupertino, which has the conventional two-bath ranchers most buyers prefer. And since midrange Cupertino was built a few years after South Palo Alto, you can easily pick up an extra 100 sq.ft. or so for the same money. Also complicating comparisons is the wide range of prices found in both areas; there isn’t just one price for every South Palo Alto neighborhood, or for every midrange Cupertino neighborhood. If this is more information than you need, just remember this: go to midrange Cupertino for the houses, not necessarily the prices. Good-testing schools and a “brand name” address don’t come cheap. Most of this market lies south of Stevens Creek, between Bubb and Blaney.

Town Center:  Like Palo Alto’s Midtown, this area is favored for its walk-to-shopping convenience and has one of the higher-scoring elementary schools, in this case Eaton (always verify school availability). Houses are fairly typical, dating from the early 1960s, but they’re a bit bigger than usual, with a number of two-story homes.

Upper midrange:  Sells at the highest end of South Palo Alto prices, and sometimes well above. There are two elements: newer housing developments scattered throughout the city; and older but sought-after tracts just east and west of Highway 85. The newer stuff dates from the late ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and is big, with three, four or even five bedrooms, and often well over 2000 sq.ft. There are several sizeable neighborhoods like this throughout the city, both east and west of 85, as well as many smaller infill developments. The other element of Cupertino's upper midrange, older homes, generally date from the ‘60s and are smaller but still adequate. They differentiate themselves from Cupertino's midrange by their quarter-acre lots in beautiful natural settings.

Seven Springs:  Want new, with high-testing schools, but can’t quite afford it? Built next to the foothills in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Seven Springs offers a great neighborhood with newer homes and well-regarded schools at relatively affordable prices. Since it’s a Planned Unit Development, lots are small, usually 4000 to 5000 sq.ft., so more of your money goes into the house and location, and less into the land. Homes are ample but not huge, ranging from 1500-2400 sq.ft., with three or four bedrooms and 2.5 to 3 baths. They’re all two stories, so back yards are adequate despite the small lots. Designs are quite nice, with quality finishes, vaulted ceilings and attached two-car (and sometimes three-car) garage. Some floorplans have a bedroom or full bath on the first floor, a convenient feature for older visitors. There’s a full range of amenities on the twenty acres of common area including pool, tennis courts, clubhouse and a small park with playground. Comparisons with South Palo Alto are difficult since there’s nothing like it here. (The idea is similar to Portola Valley Ranch, although the execution is more generic and on a smaller budget.) Many of Seven Springs’ homes and lots are smaller than the typical South Palo Alto house of the same age, yet the Cupertino neighborhood offers more amenities and a more consistent, upscale ambience. There may be a 10% difference between roughly comparable properties.

Funky Cupertino:  “Funky” in a good way, as in Palo-Alto’s-Barron-Park funky. It’s the “un-housing tract” part of Cupertino, sought-after for big lots and semi-rural ambience and slowly filling up with new construction. Monta Vista near the post office was the first part of Cupertino to be subdivided and its small pre-war cottages are still affordable. There’s more funkiness south of Stevens Creek and west of Foothill. Some of these funky neighborhoods are modest older tracts with big lots and no sidewalks, while others are an eclectic mix of old cottages and ranchers and newer homes. Prices vary greatly but the older stuff is generally well within the South Palo Alto range.

Foothills Cupertino: A great place to find acreage, at a discount to neighboring Los Altos Hills. Just as beautiful but not always as palatial, and sometimes as funky as Skyline gets. Homes run the gamut from old cabins to luxurious new construction. Depending on zoning, horses and other livestock may be permitted. Prices start well below those of South Palo Alto and go up, way up. The variables common to this rather esoteric type of market—house age and size, lot size and slope, septic capacity, view and zoning, as well as how far out in the boonies it is—plus the small size of this market make generalizations difficult, but the Cupertino foothills are relatively affordable by mid-Peninsula standards.

Oak Valley:  A large and very expensive new development in the Cupertino foothills just off Foothill Blvd. Homes are big, often well into the 3000 sq.ft. range or beyond, with half-acre lots common. The architecture offers far more interest than the usual new construction. Oak Valley has a few of the formal Tudors that have long signaled affluence in this area, but most of its homes borrow from the more casual styles of turn-of-the-century California: Craftsman, Monterey Colonial, Spanish Revival and Shingle. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie homes are here, a style of the same period and a nice if very unusual touch. Oak Valley is almost what Old Palo Alto would look like if it had been built in the late 1990s, except for the bare rolling hills and out-of-the-way location. Lots are usually at least a quarter-acre and often half an acre. Given the exorbitant cost of land on the mid-Peninsula, you can count the number of large new mega-buck developments like this one on the fingers of one hand: Menlo Park’s Vintage Oaks and Portola Valley’s Blue Oaks. Vintage Oaks is the better comparable, probably because it too was built by The O'Brien Group, although its beautiful homes average about 400 sq.ft. less (3200 versus 3600 sq.ft.) and its lots are almost always quarter-acres.

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price performance

Here's how the Cupertino SFR (single-family residence) and CID (condo and townhouse) markets have performed since 1994. This graph is based on data from the Multiple Listing Service, corrected to eliminate anomalies at both ends of the price range that skew average sales price. The data has also been adjusted to compensate for the often substantial differences in average property size from year to year that can also skew averages. In effect, we're tracking a condo of 1378 sq.ft. and an SFR of 1997 sq.ft. through eighteen (or eleven, in the case of CID) years of boom and bust. The base year, 1994, was the last year of the post-1989 bust (note that there is no 1994 data for CID). 2000 was the dot-com peak, Q4 2001 the bottom of the dot-bust. 2005 is often called the recent market's peak, although the Cupertino market peaked in 2007. Note that the SFR market began to recover quickly, in early 2010.


Part 2:  The charts below are easier to understand than they look, and they have great information. Based on the same data as above, all you really need to know is that "peak" means "peak", "trough" means "bottom of the market for this city's SFRs and condos, whenever that was", and that the more negative the number in the last column, the more volatile this city's home prices have been during the period covered.  I recommend that you scan the chart now, then come back for the more detailed explanations below if you need them.

The charts are formatted in six (Cupertino CID) or eight (Cupertino SFR) columns covering five (CID) or seven (SFR) time periods to illustrate Cupertino home price appreciation in percent since 1994 (SFR) and 2000 (CID), and the size of its recent real estate peaks and troughs.  In each case, Cupertino home appreciation and depreciation is compared to the average of all local submarkets covered by this site.  The last column in each chart is a non-statistician's attempt to quantity volatility by combining home price depreciation over the two most recent downturns and comparing it to the area average.  Here are detailed explanations of the six (or eight) columns:

  1. 1994-2013:  (SFR only) Cupertino home price appreciation from the beginning of the dotcom boom to present, compared to the average of all local submarkets described on this site.
  2. 2000-2013:  Cupertino home price appreciation from the peak of the dotcom boom to present.  I separate this time period from 1994-2013 because the data I have for some local submarkets goes back only to 2000.
  3.  1994-2000:  (SFR only) Cupertino home price appreciation during the first boom with which I had first-hand experience, the dotcom boom, which began as a modest recovery in the mid-1990s, gained considerable momentum in the late 1990s and spiked from late 1999 through the end of 2000, with a sharp but temporary downturn in early 2000.
  4. dotcom peak to dotbust:  Cupertino home price depreciation from the peak of the dotcom boom, 2000, to the bottom of its collapse Q4 2001.  Note that not every local submarket lost value then.  The handful of local submarkets driven not by stock market wealth but by wages and interest rates (like much of California) actually gained value during this period.
  5.  dotbust to previous peak:  Cupertino home price appreciation from 2002 to when Cupertino SFR peaked in 2007 and CID in early 2008.  To facilitate comparison between local submarkets, I say "previous peak" rather than give a date, since our submarkets peaked anywhere from 2005 to early 2008, depending on strength of demand ("brand").
  6.  Previous peak to trough:  Cupertino home price depreciation from 2007 (SFR) or early 2008 (CID) to when it bottomed to 2009 (SFR) or 2010 (CID).  To facilitate comparison, I say "trough" rather than give a date, since local submarkets bottomed anywhere from late 2008 to 2011, depending on strength of demand ("brand").
  7. Previous trough through 2013:  Cupertino home price appreciation from 2009 (SFR) or 2010 (CID) through 2013.
  8. Total depreciation 1994-2013:  Total Cupertino home price depreciation during the two downturns included in the data, compared to the average for all local submarkets covered by this site. Total depreciation greater than average suggests greater-than-average price volatility--in other words, a bumpy ride. It's surprising, given SFR's reputation as a superior investment, to see that, at least by this measure, Cupertino SFR has average volatility while its CID has less-than-average volatility.



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