How do you plan a trip to a potential future home? How long should you stay? What should you do? What should you expect? How do you “experience” a place in a limited amount of time? How do you judge somwhere when you are unburdened by the need to find a job first? What if you have no other restrictions than to find the best possible space for your ever-evolving lifestyle plan?
In my last post I talked about the process of developing a more concrete plan for our lifestyle change. The biggest challenge we faced at this stage was to narrow down the list of potential places to live. Our somewhat geeky solution: A mix of identifying places that met all or most of our criteria and full-fledged visual data analysis. And yes, emotional attachment and reaction were involved as well.
The following list emerged:
- Olympic Peninsula: Port Angeles or Port Townsend, WA
- Southwestern Colorado: Durango or Pagosa Springs
- Montana: Missoula or Whitefish
- The South: Chattanooga, TN or Asheville and Waynesville, NC
Now the question was, how to narrow it down even further?
Since we were still sitting comfortably in a coffee shop when we came up with this list, we decided to start with a few case-studies in these regions. We opened up Redfin and because they only covered the Pacific Northwest of the places we were interested in typed “Olympic Peninsula” as a starting point. Our criteria for the case study were these:
- No subdivision
- No county restrictions regarding building types or structures
- Two structures: one main building and a smaller unit (ADU, in-law apartment/house or granny flat) so one can be rented out at all times
- Room for a travel trailer – RV pad
- Privacy and enough land to use for further building and agriculture development
And there it was, we found a perfect place within our set price range! A house perched on a hilltop with amazing views, an ADU and shop, an RV pad and 25 acres to play with – most of it being designated timberland on steep slopes, but it was a good start.
So again being highly analytical about it all, we punched numbers into an excel sheet. What would a monthly mortgage payment be? Taxes? Insurance? Maintenance? If we were to rent out the place(s) on AirBnB, what are our nightly rates, occupancy rates, days rentable etc.? What’s the cash flow at the end of the month, the year?
And, surprisingly, the numbers looked pretty darn good. I mean, for a start.
All these calculations happened in February in Idaho. We were scheduled to drive on towards Seattle two days later to fly back home. So … why not try and actually take a look at the case-study house? You know, just to get an idea of what all of this is like in real life?
And said and done: The house turned out to be amazing, in a cool place with a great vibe to it. We were stoked! And for the first time, it felt as if we were moving forward.
Shit just got real, baby!
Stop! Do more Homework
But of course you cannot grab just any first opportunity that comes along. No way. Too easy. Too quick. So we decided to plan some travel, to see some of the places on the list either both of us or one hadn’t been to. We knew we’d be back in Seattle in April. Plenty of time to hit the road in between and look at properties and places using our established cirteria.
Neither of us had ever been to Chattanooga, so it was first on the list. This little town of 176,000 had initially caught our attention as the winner of Outside Magazine’s “Best town Award 2015”. In addition to having a fantastic name that is a lot of fun saying out loud and as fast as possible, Chattanooga promised a lot of outdoor cred, hipster appeal, and plenty of potential as an entrepreneurial hub with their famed one-gigabit-per-second fiber-optic internet service and very affordable property prices.
I must admit, it felt a little odd taking the first steps around Chattanooga knowing that the objective was to “figure out if we want to live here”. I mean, jeez, talk about no pressure.
We tried to not let expectations get in the way, but that was easier said than done. Basically, we expected a unicorn. And got a donkey. Mind you, the donkey was exceedingly cute, seemed very reliable, and definitely had really fast Internet. But overall, it just didn’t feel quite right.
The properties we looked at were mediocre and the rolling hills of Tennessee were pleasant enough but not spectacular. Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visitied park in the US, but its wonderful rolling misty hills were somewhat overshadowed by crowded parking lots and lack of grandeur.
On top of that, almost everyone we encountered outside the town of Chattanooga were baby boomers living their retirement dream. We doubted we would find the kidn of strong and forward-thinking community we wanted to live here.
Fast-forward a week and we are headed to Ashville, North Carolina. Funky, stylish, hip, and sporting the highest brewery density of any American city, including Wicked Weed. Sounded pretty much perfect!
And it was, I fell in love with the vibe, the people, the place. The town is just weird and peculiar enough to attract a unique group of people and create a microcosm of innovation and alternative lifestyles. It seemed the perfect spot to live if city life with a little edge is what you want.
But again, we realized. This was not it. We already HAD forward-thinking city life in our Chicago neighborhood. We already knew the joys that come with hipster havens attracting artists, brewers, and entrepreneurs. And we wanted something else. We wanted natural beauty and wilderness.
Mostly, we wanted spectacular.
The Rocky Mountains
So our next trip took us there. West into Colorado to visit Durango, Mancos, and Pagosa Springs where high altitude, a National Park, and abundant sunshine create just the kind of beautiful wilderness and recreational opportunity we were looking for. Once again expectations were very high.
In charming Mancos artists and hippies wander down the town’s single paved road and The Absolute Bakery and Café serves the most amazing breakfast I’ve had in a very long time.
Pagosa Springs is magical with its world famous hot springs nestled between towering peaks. It is also currently establishing an ambitious and outright fantastic geothermal experiment and has a delicious brew pub to quench your thirst in the dry mountain air.
In case you haven’t yet noticed. We have a thing for micro-breweries.
And we loved it! Pagosa Springs in particular. We found a spectacular piece of property there with a unique cabin, fantastic views, and lots of space to build additional structures. It could have been a great fit.
But something didn’t quite feel right. We had three main objections:
First, the distance to the nearest major airport in Denver is significant: At least a 5-hour drive through, admittedly very picturesque but also slow-going mountainous terrain.
Second, incredibly strict Colorado water management that just recently allowed its residents to legally collect (some) rainwater and drought make using natural resources for off-grid homes or small-scale agriculture exceedingly difficult if not impossible.
Third, economically, Pagosa Springs almost entirely relies on tourism. Many houses are second homes looking for renters when the owners are not vacationing. We were concerned that our ideas for a business relying on a strong and resilient local economy to support slightly unusual eco tourism, experimental food production and architecture would have a hard time getting off the ground in such an established Rocky Mountain Disneyland.
Montana doesn’t make it
Somewhere along the way while traveling the south and west, we decided to take Montana off the list. The more we thought about it, the more we realized it was a place we desperately wanted to visit but not live in. It was a little too remote and too much subject to extreme weather and geographical conditions. After seeing what life might be like in Colorado we could not imagine Montana leading us to any other conclusions.
So finally, we realized that we kept coming back to the Olympic Peninsula. The PNWonderland had put a spell on us and we decided to follow its calling. It was time. Time to get real.
What we learned along the way
In short: Plenty!
1. Real estate agents are like the properties they sell
We learned that real estate agents’ lives and personalities are directly complementing the areas they serve.
In the southern hills around Waynesville, NC and Chattanooga, TN, baby boomers living the retirement dream in secluded dream houses showed us around old-fashioned unispired homes.
In Pagosa Springs, our agent was younger but told us that VRBO (you don’t know it? Yeah, neither did we…) was the future of vacation rental rather than AirBnB. And it was this old-school vacationing that made us doubt the area’s potential.
In Mancos a down-to-earth lady in hiking boots and a fleece jacket explained everything about water rights and farming options. Life seemed very real and unpretentious here and so were the houses.
In Durango, a suit-wearing middle-aged Denverite exclaimed loudly how “fucking unbelievably great!” the town is and that he loves driving his SUV around the surrounding townships’ dirt roads. And it appears as if much of Durango is trying to do that – be ever so slightly pretentious and a little exaggerated.
2. People Watching is of the essence
To experience the “vibe” of a place in a very short period of time, you need to find a good place to people-watch. The park on a Sunday afternoon, the local theatre, a restaurant, a coffee shop. Who is out and about? What are they doing? Is there a mix of ages, ethnicities, social status?
3. What do people care about?
What events are on in the local library? What’s happening in the city center? Does it have individual flair or is taken over by large chains? What services and events are advertised on notice boards?
4. Ask City Data Forum
We learned that people love talking about their homes and giving advice. Ask any question on City Data Forum and you will be amazed. Most people are genuinely helpful and nice. There are, of course, the occasional haters, but to me they were more amusing than anything else.
5. Read the local paper
Reading the local paper is also incredibly helpful and illuminating. What are the region’s pressing issues? What do people care about? What happens on the weekend? On a Wednesday?
6. In the end follow your gut
Finally we learned that you simply cannot hope to objectively judge a place in just a weekend or two. All you can do is follow your gut and your heart. After all, you should kinda like where you live. And this is what we did in the end. Backed up with lots of data and research, of course, the gut-feeling prevailed.
Follow us to the Pacific Northwest in my next post.