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What You Need to Know About Owning a Car in San Francisco

April 28, 2015
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What You Need to Know About Owning a Car in San Francisco
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Once you decide to make the big move to San Francisco, it’s time to figure out what you’ll bring with you. A car is one of the biggest and priciest items that might accompany you on your adventure. A set of wheels means freedom and a potentially shorter commute, but it could also mean steeper monthly costs — and the headaches of maneuvering it around a crowded city.

So, do you need a car in San Francisco?

Owning a car in San Francisco is great for:

Getting your weekend warrior on

One of the big draws of living in San Francisco is the number of great local getaways. The breathtaking redwoods of Muir Woods are just 20 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. Stinson Beach, just past the woods on scenic Highway 1, is another easy day trip. Drive an hour farther north and you’re wine tasting in Napa Valley. Or head 90 minutes south of the city to check out the laid-back, beachy college town of Santa Cruz.

There’s plenty to do in San Francisco, but your weekend trip options will multiply if you own a car.


Learn more in our Recent Grad’s Guide to San Francisco.

Living free of transit constraints

San Francisco is full of public transportation options. The MUNI system includes buses, streetcars and San Francisco’s famous cable cars; the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system runs through the city and connects San Francisco with cities east across the bay and south, on the Peninsula. The commuter rail, Caltrain, also runs south to Palo Alto and San Jose.

While public transportation will get you to and from work, it’s not ideal for late nights or weekends. The last trains leave the San Francisco Caltrain and BART stations a little after midnight every day, and most buses stop running between midnight and 1 a.m. That schedule can be especially trying if you live in Oakland or Berkeley, where it’s expensive to take cabs late at night.

Having a car in San Francisco will free you from relying on public transportation — but remember to designate a driver if you’re out partying.

Owning a car in San Francisco isn’t so great for:

Keeping costs down

A car might be useful in San Francisco, but it can also be expensive.

“I personally don’t see that many problems with it, other than the negatives of having a car anywhere — which is just that it costs money,” says Eric Temkin, 20, who grew up in the Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco and is now a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

There’s the cost of the car itself to consider if you don’t already own one, plus gas, repairs, insurance and routine maintenance. It costs an average of $8,876 a year to drive a sedan like a Honda Civic or a Toyota Camry, according to a May 2014 study by travel organization AAA. Car insurance in San Francisco alone ranges from $1,260 a year to $2,856 a year for a 22-year-old, according to NerdWallet’s car insurance comparison tool.

Make sure these potential costs fit your budget, taking into account how much you pay for rent, utility bills and student loan payments. There are also plenty of ways to lower the cost of owning a car.

Take advantage of your warranty to get free repairs and search online for coupons before getting a routine checkup at a repair shop. Do your research and compare car insurance rates before you buy. If you don’t plan on driving all that much, consider pay-as-you-drive or per-mile car insurance, like Metromile.

Avoiding parking nightmares

San Francisco is the third-worst city to find parking behind Chicago and nearby Oakland, NerdWallet found in a 2014 study. Time limits, street sweeping and tow-away zones during commute hours all make parking one of the biggest headaches of owning a car in San Francisco.

Steer clear of tickets by reading up on San Francisco’s parking laws. Apps like BestParking can help you find the cheapest rates for parking lots and garages. If you live in certain neighborhoods, you can get a residential street parking permit for $110 a year, which means you can park in one spot for up to 72 hours no matter what the posted time limit is.

Some apartment complexes also include an optional parking spot as part of residents’ monthly rent, but it can get pricey. A spot check of available options in San Francisco showed prices ranging from $225 to $400 a month for an assigned space.

What’s next?

If you decide to drive your own car in San Francisco, consider saving a certain amount each month for a rainy-day fund, which could help pay for unforeseen auto repairs in the future.

Planning to go car-less? Lyft and Uber are many residents’ go-to for cabs when public transportation won’t cut it. For errands or trips around town, use a car-sharing program like ZipCar, City CarShare or Getaround. Whether you decide to use your own wheels or not, you’ll find plenty of ways to get around San Francisco and make the most of your new city.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer covering education and life after college for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter.

Image via iStock.