I am glad you are considering Berkeley / East Bay as the property price is more reasonable than most of the other areas in the Bay Area. My experience with clients' first impression about an area is usually right and I think you are probably right too. You don't want to live in an area which you don't feel good about. You can easily get crime, demographic, etc., information from http://www.propertyshark.com. Just put in an address and you will get some idea about it. Use it to compare to other areas you are considering.
I would suggest considering South Berkeley (close to Ashby) as there are some single family house priced around $450,000 worth taking a look as they offer front and rear yard, close to transportation, and usually they are fully detached. Most important is you don't have to worry about HOA with the lofts and condos.
I could give you more information if you would like. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org