Thursday, August 18, 2016

Chapter 5 - No Growth, Shut the Door Behind You

No growth, shut the door – our visit to Mendocino County.

Our next stop on our retirement search was to the opposite coast.  We had seen some information in one of our retirement guide books indicating that Mendocino County was a good place for retirees, with decent home prices.  The information was wrong, but we had to find that out for ourselves.

We decided to try three locations in Mendocino County.  The first was a town called Ukiah, the county seat, but still a pretty small town.  All of Mendocino County, a very large area, contains fewer than 100,000 people.  About 10% or 15% of them live in or near Ukiah.  It was a mill town and an agricultural and manufacturing town. Most of that is gone.  There are vineyards in the valley (Russian River) and some other agriculture survives, and still some mill work but not much. 


Jody had contacted (through Zillow) a realtor in Ukiah.  He called back almost immediately.  His name is Clint Hanks, no relation to Tom, but is really nice, really honest, and very knowledgeable about the area.  He volunteered to show us around, and set us up on an automatic distribution about homes in areas we  might be interested in that were somewhere close to what we were looking for (as if we knew).   

We flew to Sacramento on a Tuesday, on a completely full Boeing 737, and picked up a very warm rental car and headed north on I-5. It intersects California 20, which heads over towards Ukiah.  The ride was pretty interesting, but got difficult as we reached Clear Lake, a huge natural fresh water lake surrounded by lots of vacation type places.  Slow going there. Our hotel in Ukiah was a dump. What can I say, we are seniors and look for bargains.  Our first night we ate at a local restaurant that was a few steps from the hotel.  The steps were warm – Ukiah can get really hot.

The next day (a Wednesday) we were meeting Clint mid-morning, but spent some time driving around the west side of town looking at some of the places he was going to take us to.  We did not attempt to go in, just looked around to get our bearings.  We’re used to seeing newer houses – our neighborhood in Richardson was built in the late 70’s or early 80’s, and most of the communities we’ve looked at have been new construction.  When Clint picked us up, we learned why that isn’t what we would see in Ukiah, or in all of Mendocino County.

The problem is that people who live there would prefer that everything remain more or less the way it is.  Growth is not welcome.  An example would be Lake Mendocino.  This lake was built, by the Army Corps of Engineers, in the 50’s, as a flood control project, and the Army offered the whole thing to Mendocino County for $.01.  They declined, saying they had no plans for any growth that would require that much water.  The lake water rights were purchased by Sonoma County, and Sonoma uses that water to this day.  This no-growth philosophy means that when you look at homes in Mendocino County, you will be looking at a lot of old homes, some of them built before indoor plumbing. more than a hundred years ago  The layouts are all over the place – we saw one home where the master bedroom and bath were in a finished attic, and all the rooms on the ground floor were beautiful but tiny, and the garage had long since been converted to living space.  We saw lots of gun safes, lots of propane tanks, and lots of homes that were on septic systems.  We even saw a couple of homes in Ukiah that did not have air conditioning.

On our first day with Clint, we saw ten houses in Ukiah.  There were a couple that we could have considered.  Prices are insane.  Clint says the first hundred thousand of the price of any house in California is for the weather.  Well, Ukiah is hot.  Not as hot as where we live now (Dallas-Ft Worth) but close.   (By the way, Clint’s phone rings with the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.  He said it was totally appropriate for real estate.)  Most of the homes we saw were on the west side of town, and many of them were homes built for mill workers 60 or 70 years ago, or more.  Most were well maintained and had been expanded, but each was very particular and had its own history. Some of them were in need of TLC.  All were expensive - north of $450,000.

The next day we left our dump of a motel and drove up to Willitts, another mill town without a mill any more, stopping for a cup of coffee on the way. Willitts has a population of only 4,000 or so, down from 6,000 a few years ago.  No jobs.  The drive from Willitts over to our second destination, the coastal town of Fort Bragg, was only thirty miles or so but took us ninety minutes. The road is very, very winding, with a lot of climbs and descents, and huge trees blotting out the sun.  California has 37 million people, but I would guess five trees for every person.  The drive was difficult and exhausting. I guess the locals get used to it.  Clint said it is easier after dark, because the light is consistent and you aren’t dealing with bright sun and near-dark shade every other second.  Makes sense.

When we finally got out of the woods, we headed north along California highway 1.  Fort Bragg is not exactly scenic. It has a quaint downtown, but a lot of chain motels and fast food places.  We were much too early to check in to our next hotel, but we at least made sure to find it, and then, totally by accident, stumbled on the most interesting park in the town. It is officially part of MacKerricher State Park but it is called Glass Beach.  The ‘glass’ is resulting from the old practice of using the ocean as a city dump.  Old bottles and such are worn down by the sea into interesting pieces.  They no longer dump their trash in the sea.  There is a nice walk along the shore, and the day we were there the wind was howling and it was cold, but clear.  We had fabulous views of the Pacific waves crashing on the rocks, and we had no idea that we would not see much of the sun again, at least along the coast. Fog is prominent on the coast in the summer, and this was our day of no fog – we could see the fog bank, but it remained a couple of miles offshore.  We took lots of photos, and found a place to eat lunch in the downtown area.  We found our hotel and it was a lot nicer than our Ukiah hotel, but we had an amusing little hiccup. The room was kind of stuffy, so I tried to put on the air conditioning, and when I did I got heat.  The room had no air conditioning, but it had windows that open, and the outside temperature rarely reached 60. 

Glass Beach Park

Later, we took a ride up the coast to a winery and bought a couple of bottles.  Pacific Star Winery is worth a visit.

The next day Clint came over to show us around.  He also works in Fort Bragg.  We saw ten more houses, with even greater variety in the age and quality.  There are a couple of subdivisions with more recent construction, and we saw some houses in there.  Prices are really high.  Clint noted that Fort Bragg was a soft market and we probably could get some of these houses to come down significantly.  Apparently, back in the Sixties, a lot of Summer of Love flower children moved up the coast from San Francisco looking for cheap places to live, and a lot of them settled in Fort Bragg.  Now as they age, they need to be closer to medical care. Fort Bragg has a small hospital, but for anything significant you have to go to Santa Rosa, and for serious emergency situations they fly you by helicopter to San Francisco.  There’s only three routes out of there going south.  One is the winding road through the forest over to Willits, and then down US 101.  Another is down the coast past Mendocino and across on CA 128 (winding and narrow) to US 101.  The third is down CA 1 all the way, which would take upwards of six hours.  If you want to travel somewhere international, you might try Sacramento and connect in DFW or LAX, or you might drive to San Francisco.  But you might need a hotel near the airport the night before you leave, or the night you come back, or both.

Downtown Fort Bragg
We are only a few years behind the Summer of Love people who are abandoning Fort Bragg because they are feeling too old, and we love international travel, and have an international airport half an hour (depending on traffic) from our current home.  Coastal Mendocino was not looking so good. Mind you, the real estate agent showing us around is the one telling the truth about the area.  When we were through with the ten houses in Fort Bragg, we gave Clint a gift of one of the bottles of wine we bought at Pacific Star.  He was terrific.

The next day we headed to our third destination, the town of Mendocino.  This was really a mistake. There isn’t much there at all.  What we should have done is to plan our trip with Santa Rosa as the third destination, not Mendocino.  There was really no point in our going to Mendocino, but we enjoyed it anyway. It is a quaint, picturesque, touristy town, with lots of great food and interesting shops.  I don’t know if anyone really lives there, and the official population is around 700.  We looked at a few properties that we identified on Zillow as being close to what we wanted, but they all turned out to be three stories.

Mendocino garden

Mendocino headlands park

Our next stop was Sacramento, just to be close to the airport and not to have to drive 200 miles of switchback roads with a deadline.  We elected to drive down to Santa Rosa for a drive-by, since some of our friends have talked about it a lot. We encountered seriously bad traffic problems at several points along the way.  We located one or two properties, but really didn’t know what we were looking for or at so it was a waste.  We split a really good flatbread pizza at BJ’s Brewery. The drive to Sacramento was a miserable experience, heavy traffic and several crash stop near misses. We were so sick of driving, we ate at the hotel.  It was awful but we didn’t care.

Our trip home was on another totally full Boeing 737.  The flight was delayed on account of weather in Dallas, causing the inbound aircraft to be late.  Rain in Dallas in August is unusual, but it’s better than 107, which was the temperature one of the days we missed by being in Mendocino County. We got home after the evening rush hour was over, so it all worked out.

So, the bottom line is that we did not find our retirement place in Mendocino County, but it sure was fun visiting someplace cold in the middle of August.