Moving Away from the Peninsula: Take the Money and Run?

in Community/Headline

By Scott Dailey

Local residents are crashing out their million-dollar-plus home while others couldn’t possibly leave.

From his home in the Belmont hills, Jim Bigelow had a panoramic view of the Peninsula – and one of its drawbacks.  Not only could he see from San Francisco to Santa Clara County, he had a front-row seat for watching clogged traffic on Highway 101 and the San Mateo Bridge.  His wife, Barbara, avoided the freeway but still encountered traffic taking city streets to her job in downtown Redwood City.

Now 76 years old, Bigelow had lived on the Peninsula since 1947.  He worked for nearly two decades at Quantic Industries in San Carlos, and later as an executive for Bay View Bank before joining the San Mateo County Economic Development Association and eventually becoming a local transportation and housing consultant.  He had served as president of the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce and was active in the Oak Grove Lions Club in Menlo Park.  Barbara Bigelow worked for the Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce.  Jim Bigelow’s 92-year-old mother still lived in Burlingame.

In short, it’s hard to imagine a couple with personal and professional roots dug more deeply into the Peninsula.  But they took a hard look at the traffic and the swelling population and in 2014, cashed in their house for more than $1.3 million and a year later moved into a new custom-built, 2,400-square-foot home in a senior-citizen-oriented development on the west side of Reno, Nev.  There, they enjoy views of the eastern slope of the Sierra, along with no mortgage, no state income tax, lower utility bills, clean air, four distinct seasons and minimal traffic.

The Bigelows are hardly alone.  According to U.S. Census data, nearly 2,700 more people left the county in 2016 than moved in.  Still, it’s a big decision to leave behind a place that has been home “forever,” let alone an area that remains one of the most desirable places to live in the world.

Those departing may be retirees for whom the lure of a more relaxed pace beyond the Bay Area suddenly has a new appeal. The abundant educational and cultural amenities that come with living so close to San Francisco and two top universities may no longer be important now that the kids are grown and out of the house, and getting to The City to visit the museum has a been-there, done-that quality.

At the same time, the well-documented failure of the region to produce housing commensurate with demand means that as a result of external forces, homeowners may find themselves sitting on a seven-figure equity.  The housing shortfall first started in the 1970s, before the current employment boom, with subsequent decades seeing lower levels of housing construction. A report produced last year by two regional planning bodies to address  housing, transportation and infrastructure deficiencies by the year 2040 says the Bay Area today may have the most severe housing crisis of any of the nation’s large metro areas.

The 2040 plan describes situations all too familiar: The underproduction of housing of all kinds causing prices to skyrocket. Kids unable to afford buy where they grew up, forced to leave the area to raise their families. Lower- and middle-wage workers being pushed out. At the same time, regulatory and tax changes have reduced the supply of affordable housing. All of those factors and more play into the decisions local residents ponder when they mull whether to take a chance and call a new place “home.”

John and Toni Sieling and their friends Scott and Nancy Vitangeli are among those who have relocated.  Both couples are from San Carlos, and a year-and-a-half ago they converted their modest yet million-dollar properties into a 20-acre compound with two large houses and a new barn east of Portland, Ore. – all for $920,000.  Located near Troutdale, between Portland and Mount Hood, the acreage includes a large vegetable garden, apple and pear orchards and easy access to an adjoining regional park and fishing on Oregon’s Sandy River.

Sieling, a Realtor for Keller-Williams in San Carlos who kept his California practice even while opening shop in the Portland metro area, notes that the flow out of the Bay Area is scarcely new.

“The clear fact is that this has been going on for decades,” Sieling says, sparking memories of the popular 1970’s Northwest slogan, “Don’t Californicate Oregon.”  Sieling observes that the migration from the Bay Area includes both homeowners unexpectedly made rich by appreciation, and others priced out of the local market.

“People come because there’s an economic benefit to them,” Sieling continues.  “And then, of course,” he adds, “there’s a lifestyle enhancement.”

Well, only if one considers nearby hiking, camping, skiing, river-rafting, restaurants, theater and music – and, as Sieling says, “all supported by a lower cost structure.”

Sieling and his wife selected Portland after considering Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Spokane, Wash.  The couple loved the physical environment in the lakeside town of Coeur d’Alene, but found the politics too conservative.  Famously progressive Portland, even with its rain and infrastructural shortcomings – one decades-long resident calls it “Pothole City” – was more their style, and they haven’t regretted the move.

“I’d do it again, absolutely,” Sieling says.  “I like being on the West Coast and I like being where we are.  There’s a friendly vibe.”

Warm relations with townspeople were also an attraction for former Redwood City resident Cathey Trumbull, who relocated to the Sierra foothills town of Pine Grove in 2010 and then moved to the north Georgia burg of Gainesville, population 39,000, last April.

“The pace in Pine Grove was very slow, and it was a very friendly town,” Trumbull says.  “It was a place where you got to know the postman by his first name, you got to know the person at the doughnut shop first-name, at the pharmacy and at the little gas stations.”

Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Trumbull says, the reputation for Southern hospitality has turned out to be true.

“All the children are taught, ‘yes, ma’am, no, ma’am,’ and there’s a lot of respect and a lot of friendliness and a lot of outgoing people,” she says.  Friends worried that in relocating to Georgia, she’d be headed for a backwoods – and backwards – existence.  To the contrary, she has found the southeastern hub of Atlanta a center of culture, commerce and excellent medical care.  And whereas she harbors regrets about leaving her old neighborhood and lifelong friends in Redwood City, she decidedly doesn’t miss what she calls the growing “me-first attitude” that she first detected in the 1980s as high-tech began to dominate the Peninsula’s economy.

Trumbull’s friends, Jimmy and Corky Valencia, also opted for small-town life.  Ten years ago, they left their condominium in Redwood Shores for the tiny community of Copperopolis, around 15 miles from Sonora.  Their home is across the road from Lake Tulloch, and they enjoy a sliver of lake view through the trees.

Like Sieling in Portland, Jimmy Valencia has maintained his business ties on the Peninsula.  He’s a detective who works principally for San Mateo County’s private defender program, in which the county assigns private attorneys to represent indigent defendants.  Also like Sieling, he’s delighted with his choice of a different place to live.

“We’re totally enthralled with the area,” Valencia says.  “We’ve made some great, great friends.”  In contrast to Sieling, he welcomes the region’s political conservatism.  He also enjoys local restaurants, which include two pizza parlors, two Mexican eateries, one formal dining establishment and a redoubtable hamburger joint.  There’s also a tavern that Valencia says functions as almost a second town hall.

Valencia lived in and around Redwood City for decades, ran his own detective agency, served as a deacon at the San Carlos First Baptist Church and was deeply involved in local civic organizations including the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce and the San Carlos Kiwanis Club.  Also a professional jazz drummer, he played in nightspots throughout the Bay Area and anchored the bands for the San Carlos Chickens’ Ball and Kiwanis Variety Show.  With all of those Peninsula connections, did he find it difficult to move to California’s historic gold country?

“Yes and no,” he says.  He and his wife joined a local church, although they still stay in close touch with their old one in San Carlos.  He has also latched onto the local Lions Club, and enjoys the typical civic activities of a small town – Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day parades, crab feed fundraisers and the like.  On the other hand, the lack of local jazz has created his biggest void.

“Up here, there are two kinds of music – rock and roll, and country and western,” he says.  “They’re just not my cup of tea.”  Valencia continues to drive two-and-a-half hours to the Bay Area to play jazz, investigate cases and visit family and friends.  Nonetheless, he confides, “I don’t like going down there because of the massive population and the difficulty of getting through traffic.”

Back up in Portland, graphic designer and former ad-agency owner and magazine publisher Michael Kavish also keeps one foot in Northern California while experiencing a more relaxed lifestyle and considerably fewer worries about money and retirement.  His home-based graphic design business in leafy southeast Portland serves all California-based clients.  The neighborhood, meanwhile, reminds him of his former surroundings in Palo Alto, which he and his wife, Lynne, left in 2006 after selling for a then-astonishing $1.8 million.

He admits the Pacific Northwest took a bit of acclimation, especially with a rainy season that extends from October to July.  Still, the year-round greenery makes him think he’s on a permanent mountain vacation, and he can walk two-and-a-half blocks to a creek that feels remote even in the heart of the city.

That said, the biggest change may be relief from the financial pressure and resultant need for striving that he constantly felt in Silicon Valley.

“We looked at things, and asked ourselves, ‘Is this sustainable – the cost of housing and how leveraged we felt we were?’” Kavish says.  “It just seemed like this never-ending juggle factor.  And property taxes, even though they were under Prop. 13, were still quite expensive.  That pressure of having to make that much money to support a house, and have a life and go on vacations and do all the rest of it – the thing that wasn’t happening was we weren’t saving enough money.  It didn’t make financial sense to continue to do that.

“We felt like we were doing extremely well, but at the end of the day, when you looked and said okay, how much do we still owe on this house, and how big of an equity line do we have, and how much are we saving, it was clear it was all going into the house.  I have to say the financial pressure of maintaining that for years and years took a toll.  And now that we’ve got the contrast, we say, ‘Boy, that was nuts.’”

For Nancy Vitangeli, who moved from San Carlos to Troutdale, the issues were both financial and generational.  She and husband Scott were doing well with a family-owned business in Belmont, but feared their adult children, even with college degrees and good jobs, could never afford a home in the Bay Area.

“Our kids ended up sharing a condo or a house with another person, just to alleviate the astronomical expense of either a mortgage or rental payments,” Vitangeli says.  Now, one of their daughters currently owns a house on the 20 acres that the Vitangelis purchased with the Sielings, and a longtime friend and her daughter plan to move there soon.  The goal, Vitangeli says, is to establish what she calls an “intentional community” similar to what she experienced in the sports world with her previous husband, the late Olympic wrestler and 1984 gold medalist Dave Schultz.

Like Sieling, she says Portland aligns well with her liberal politics.  And, like Kavish, she feels less stress. “The people here are extremely friendly and laid back,” she adds. “There’s a very casual atmosphere.”

Affordability and an attendant change in family life represented primary objectives for Candice and Norman Bún, who recently left Redwood City for the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C.  Since September, they’ve been renting a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Rock Hill, S.C., just across the state line, for $1,050.  Candice Bún says comparable units in their Redwood City neighborhood typically rented for around $2,800.

Reduced housing expenses have helped the couple live on one-and-a-half salaries (Candice Bún works full-time as an executive assistant at a real-estate firm, and Norman Bún is employed part-time at the Rock Hill city library).  That allows them more time with their young son, Peri.  Meanwhile, Candice Bún says that she and her husband, both devout Christians, also feel more comfortable in Rock Hill than in Redwood City.

“Where before my circle of faith was predominantly located within my church members and people I associated with in my congregation, I find that here faith is much more pervasive and much more openly talked about, even in professional and work settings,” she says.  “That’s something that some people would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I would not want to be in a place like that.’  But, for me, it’s something that is quite welcome and a breath of fresh air, and it works for me.”

As content as she feels in the Southeast, Candice Bún says she misses her family and friends, and especially Philz coffee – so much so that she’s had it shipped in.  What she doesn’t miss is the frenetic pace that made it hard for her and her husband to spend time with their son. “It was more important for us to be able to feel like we could put our roots down in a place where we felt like our family would thrive,” she says.

For many, moving from the Peninsula is a choice, even if sometimes accompanied by mixed emotions.  But for others, such as Rose Lloyd, it’s a necessity.

Lloyd, who earns an hourly wage as a cashier at the Lucky supermarket in San Carlos, moved with three family members to a three-bedroom apartment in Fremont last year. Even with federally funded housing assistance, her rent was eating up a substantial portion of her pay.

“Over there (in San Carlos), I was really living paycheck-to-paycheck, to where I was broke every time I got paid, because I’ve got to pay that rent, or I’ve got to pay this or I’ve got to pay that,” she says.  “Over here, I can breathe a little bit.  Every paycheck is not going to my rent.”

In making her move, Lloyd was assisted by Samaritan House, a San Mateo-based non-profit that helped with the security deposit, often a barrier when people seek housing.

Bart Charlow, the organization’s chief executive officer, says the number of people coming to Samaritan House for rental assistance has increased by at least 50 percent in the past year.  Typically, he says, their household incomes are between $25,000 and $40,000 a year – far below the annual $75,000 that studies suggest as a minimum threshold for sustainability on the Peninsula.

The math, he says, is pretty straightforward.  An average rent of $3,000 a month comes to $36,000 a year – more or less an entire salary for a Samaritan House client – and that’s before taxes, utilities, food, transportation costs and other expenses.

“It’s a big problem for our basic services economy,” Charlow says.  “The people we deal with are who you would call the working poor.  They’re people who hold one to two jobs per adult in a family – often teenagers have to work, as well – and they’re the folks who are servicing your car, they’re probably cleaning your house, they’re mowing your lawn, they’re working in construction or building additions on your house or doing repairs to it, they’re taking care of hospitality needs at restaurants and hotels.  If you think of all of those lower-paying jobs, these are the people we serve, and these are the people we’re pushing out of our community.”

Even with people leaving, either because they’re cashing out or priced out, the continuing tech boom has others still streaming in.  Lindsey and Rob Daniel arrived in Redwood City in 2011 after living in New York City and Philadelphia. Coming from high-priced real-estate markets, they avoided the sticker shock that greets many from other locales.  They chose Redwood City because they found it offered more for their money than Menlo Park, Palo Alto or San Carlos.

“We love Redwood City,” Lindsey Daniel says.  “The schools have been really good to us (the Daniels have three children).  “We’re at Clifford Elementary, and we’ve met a wonderful community over there.  We love to go out to downtown Redwood City.  We’re at the Bay Club in Redwood Shores a lot.  We do a lot over here socially, as well.”

Daniel adds that her cul-de-sac off Edgewood Road has attracted numerous young families.  “The kids are able to go outside and play in a treehouse without so much worry,” she says.  “It’s just been wonderful.”

When it comes to the Peninsula’s high housing costs, real-estate agents Liz Rhodes and Michele Harkov of Alain Pinel Realtors in Palo Alto work with clients beforehand to soften the blow.  As relocation specialists, Rhodes and Harkov deal almost exclusively with people moving to the Peninsula for work.

“We spend a lot of time educating them just so they’re very clear,” Rhodes says.  “Our goal is to do that even before we get in the car and go out and look at homes.  So they’re very clear about here’s what an average, three-bedroom, two-bath house costs in a good school district.”

Rhodes says a recent client from Nebraska was taken aback by the prices, “but quickly bought into the better climate.”  Adds Harkov, “One of the things we usually emphasize to our relocation clients is that they’re not just buying a home.  They’re buying into a community and a whole experience, in a sense.  Because in the Midwest, on the East Coast, you need your basements because you’re hibernating in the winter.  And here, on the West Coast, the environment is almost an extension of your home.”

The Peninsula’s temperate weather was a prime factor in motivating one Menlo Park couple to stay after nearly moving to Portland to be near their grown children.  Clem Molony and his wife, Jane, found Portland’s climate too cold and rainy.  The Molonys also like to walk, and considered Portland too hilly.  Finally, they looked at their many longtime personal and professional connections on the Peninsula, as well as the region’s physical environment, and decided they couldn’t leave.

“The Mid-Peninsula is magical,” Molony says.  “It’s the coolest place, really, in the United States, probably in the world, to live.  And that’s why the housing costs are so high here – because everybody wants to live here.”

For those still in the mood to move, various transplants offer advice.  Sieling urges people to do research, spend time renting in the new location before buying, and, if possible, hold onto the house back on the Peninsula (it can act as a safety valve in case the move backfires, and may also continue to appreciate).

Sieling says he has seen many buyers take their windfall from their Peninsula home and treat it as “candy money.”  Often, he says, they purchase a much bigger house than they need, only to trade it later for something more suitable.  By renting for a year, Sieling says newcomers can come to know a region’s neighborhoods and suburbs, and gain an insider’s knowledge of the housing market.

For Trumbull, who ultimately settled in small-town Georgia, cultural considerations are as important as any financial outcome.

“One of the first things people should ask is, are they sure they want to move to a different cultural area?” she says.  “Are they sure they are going to happy with a move to a different pace?  I think I would just make sure they were willing to come to a place and try to fit in and not try to make people fit into your routine … You have to be able to see the culture as it is, and to fit in with it.”

Beyond discovering the house of their dreams, many find that slower pace exactly the appeal.  As Candice Bún observes, the decision is often about more than money.  Shorter commutes and working hours translate into more time for family and recreational pursuits.  Friendly folks and palatable politics – on both right and left – can ease long-felt tensions.  Colorful autumns and crisp winters hold a certain allure.

And with the Peninsula’s housing prices rising still, the temptation to uproot will have its appeal  —  and with it the necessity to look before taking the big leap.