An Exciting Weekend

Advice from a pillow!
Advice from a pillow!

Last weekend we took a trip to meet the owner of the land we are interested in purchasing in Northern Michigan. During the Think Better, Live Better session at WDS Portland, I’d written down a goal of buying land and building a house. In the words of Charlie Gilkey, now was the time for me to “Ship It” (AKA get it done).

It was an early start for a 6AM LA to Chicago flight then a connection to Grand
Rapids, MI. From there, we rented a car and drove a couple of hours north to reach our destination.

We immediately visited the land and it was the first time we were there together since Christmas 2014. At that time everything was beneath a couple of feet of snow, so this was the first proper look my husband had had beyond photos. Fortunately, he reacted exactly as I had. He loved it, and we again experienced the rarity magic of being totally aligned in our decision.

Soil erosion and drainage to address
Soil erosion and drainage to address

In anticipation of our visit, the owner had clearly done some additional clearing and prepping the land for viewing. The foliage on the large berm was cut, the driveway path had been redone, and we noticed a couple of spots that had been touched to either mask or address drainage. That was a little cause for concern, as there had been some rainfall in the area, and we could clearly see a couple of spots of erosion. Although we loved the land, we kept reminding ourselves to look with our heads over our hearts. As my husband pointed out, we don’t want to build a house and have it slide down the hill at the first sign of wet weather!

After a thorough pacing and much discussion of where to put the actual house, I drove my husband to the place that started this whole thing: the 3 bedroom ranch house on 2.5 acres that I viewed back in June. The price dropped $23K over the summer, and the house is currently pending sale. It is a lovely property but neither one of us particularly liked the surroundings.

A treat to wake up to
A treat to wake up to

Thankfully, there was no feeling of having missed out, so we didn’t look back as we went on to my sister-in-law’s house. She had kindly allowed us to stay, and her beautiful property overlooking the lake was a further tease of this possible future.

We went into town that night and enjoyed a steak followed by too much locally produced ice cream. A very different scene from LA, but one that fit better.

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the bay then a sharp rain shower, which was a heavenly break from hot and drought-stricken Southern California. When the sun returned, I wandered around my sister-in-law’s property, hearing the wind rustle the surrounding trees and watching the sun sparkling on the lush wet leaves. It reminded me of Northern England, and I felt a little pang of home in a place I’d only visited a couple of times.

I want one!
I want one!

We met the owner at 10AM, and he was in full-on sales mode. He had borrowed a golf cart to take us around the property and show us the estate, and it was far from the tiny electric carts that you find on a studio lot in Hollywood. This was a 4×4 diesel Kubota RTV – a serious piece of equipment! We I strapped in, and we were immediately off road, up a steep hill, narrowly fitting between trees. I suddenly appreciated the scale of the land we were looking at. Only 2 acres, but considering our LA rental sits on a 6,500sqft lot, to our eyes it might as well have been 20 acres. The owner was also a would-be handyman and builder, so he gave us a fresh set of eyes on the possibilities of what we could build to maximize the plot and the view. Our tour concluded with a couple of secluded beaches along the lake and we could just imagine bringing our labrador (plus a couple more!) to play in the clear water.

Our heads were spinning with excitement, information overload, and “and are we really going to do this?!?!”. We left it saying we’d work on an offer and respond by the end of the week. What a week it’s been!


Part One: Los Angeles, CA

Our City of Angel$

Last Friday I stopped by my husband’s office between meetings. I found him engrossed in Trulia. He was checking out properties for sale in Portage, WI and marveling at the prices. Single family homes on large lots for $200,000 and less!

In our Los Angeles neighborhood single family homes sitting on postage stamp-sized lots that haven’t been upgraded or decorated since 1953 sell for $750,000+. Realtors in the area say you need to have the full amount ready to put down in cash to even get into a buying discussion. We don’t even live on the phenomenally expensive Westside any more. We moved out into the Valley suburbs to a more affordable and value-based proposition closer to our work. Still, housing is out of control. This is why we rent at $3,200* a month for a 1,400 sqft 2-bedroom home in a safe middle class neighborhood with a swimming pool. The house and this area provided the best value for money of every place we looked at, and the fact it happened to have a pool was a lucky and luxurious bonus rather than a requirement. *Note: although that sounds like a tremendous amount of money, in Los Angeles, it’s a steal. Older homes in critical need of modernization without swimming pools rent for upwards of $5,500 a month in our old Westside neighborhood. You’re lucky to find a decent apartment that rents below $2,500 in many neighborhoods.

Now we don’t not own a home in LA because we can’t “afford” one. We could easily double our monthly housing payment and carry a mortgage on a million dollar home. Why on earth would we do that though?! Put down a huge chunk of our savings and be slaves to a gigantic loan, all for the privilege of “owning” a small fixer-upper? In West LA, tear-downs sell for $1,000,000+. Homes that are beautiful for $250,000 in other cities have $800,000 tags on them here. We just don’t see the value in what your money can buy in LA, and although we like the climate, we’re still not willing to pay that high premium.

Another option-to-own would be moving way out of the city, but doubling and tripling our commute time and cost. Have you seen the traffic LA has to offer these days? All those folks moving here from New York and San Francisco to save money (LMAO!!) like LA isn’t crowded enough? No thank you! I value my life and sanity too much to spend 3-hours in my car every day.

Yet another option would be buying property in the so-called “transition neighborhoods.” A coworker of mine did that recently. She has a small but lovely little home with a pool. She was recently the victim of a home invasion, and doesn’t feel safe taking her dogs out at night. She owns that $600,000 home though!

OK… LA has some pretty nice sunsets (pictured with some multi-million dollar homes!)

Now I know I am ranting about the cost of living in Los Angeles. I should probably answer the question: why on earth do we live here then?! Well, the weather is nice but work is the primary answer. We both have very well paying jobs in the entertainment industry, the center of which is the studio system here in LA. After graduating from college in the late ’80’s, my husband hitchhiked to LA to get into the movie business. My first job was at a media company in the UK (which is where we met), so when I made the move to LA and got my green card (which wasn’t even green) the natural place to look for work was at a studio.

Our current standard of living is as cost-optimized as we are willing to make it. We loved living 10-minutes from the ocean and in a summer climate 20 degrees cooler in West LA vs. the Valley, but prices skyrocketed and when we had to move out of the house we’d rented for 10-years, we weren’t willing to pay more for that privilege. Aside from the change in location, there are plenty more things we could forego to bring our costs down further. Much more would impinge on our desired quality of life though. We are in our late 30’s (me) and early 50’s (my husband), and we do want to live in house with a yard for our dog and an extra bedroom for family and friends to visit, rather than a small apartment or condo with no outdoor space. Our jobs do require travel, and I need to feel safe in a low crime area when I walk my dog or if I have to sleep alone at night.

Wrapping it up with that original point way up there in the first paragraph though… Homes with land for a few hundred thousand in other states. I spend plenty an evening in my comfy chair looking at said homes and longing for a different life. Seeing my husband in that same state last Friday was a miraculous meeting of the minds and the beginning of a path to a change.