Plumas County: Hidden (Cheaper) California

by Maggie Wells on 2 March 2008 29 comments
Photo: Epodunk

I’m going to let you in on my biggest secret to living large on a tiny budget. Five years ago last month my husband and I –lifelong coastal Californians made the big literal move to a part of California we never heard of –the northeastern corner and Plumas County. You know, that place on the map of the state that’s square up in the corner? Nearly three hours north of Lake Tahoe? Way, way, way up there? Yup, that’s still California.

We were prompted by many things: the impending birth of our first child, the lack of space in our tiny studio apartment, me wanting to stay home with our kids, and a need for slightly less competition in our fields so we could focus and concentrate on making the family thing work, rather than killing ourselves trying to be corporate. While friends and family members were snagging up half a million dollar fixer uppers without yards in L.A., we found a great house under 200K on an acre of land with a view of a valley spotted with cows and teaming with migratory birds and awe inspiring mountains.

While rural living is probably not for everyone, there are certain frugal and lifestyle advantages to it. In 2002, while pregnant with my son I realized that none of the things I moved to San Francisco for I was still doing. I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t going out on the town. I couldn’t afford to do anything but pay rent, basically. My husband was feeling a similar pinch in Los Angeles and though we’d been lobbying for each other to move to the other’s city, my son’s birth was around the corner and we still hadn’t come to a decision on where to live as a family.

Enter my mothers. What about trying the mountains? My moms had moved to Plumas the year before and bought a nice house that sat in a quiet, upscale neighborhood with a meadow on one side and national forest on the other for under 150K. A whole house rented for $500 a month, there was (and still is) a shortage of professionals for a variety of necessary jobs, and our kids could start life breathing fresh air. We were broke, had nothing to lose, packed the U-haul and headed north. I mean way north. A brisk 11-hour drive up the I-5 from Los Angeles—and that’s if you are starting from Santa Monica.

First the positives in the pocketbook. Plumas County—one of those tiny little northern California counties started in the Gold Rush—needs you. The industries of yester year: mining, logging, milling, are long since gone and there are a number of towns that were built around these industries still standing and looking for revitalization. Most of the areas original inhabitants leave the area upon graduation for Chico, Reno, the military. Rentals are hard to come by these days but they still exist—and where else in the state could you rent a whole house for under $1000 without it being a ghetto crack head neighborhood? This is probably the only place in the state where a mortgage won’t be two-thirds of your budget. Utilities other than oil are about the same as anywhere else in the state and lots of properties are zoned commercial as well as residential so if you are wanting to start that business venture…

If you are a recreational shopper and you need your hands spanked, this is also a great place to live. There's not that many places to shop and unless hardware and general stores are a big turn on for you, you'll save money just by virtue of there being much less to spend it on (though I've dropped plenty at an antique store in Greenville, Bookstore in Chester, the Co-op in Quincy).

But the biggest positives are what I call the social and lifestyle improvements. Picture no waiting. For anything. Ever. I still recall with horror not having health insurance and having to go to an ER in Los Angeles and having to wait a month with insurance to get seen in San Francisco. Here it’s ‘can you make it in this afternoon?’ Have you wanted to be actively involved on a committee to oversee something in your town but couldn’t ever find a vacancy on a board? We need you. And not just for volunteer positions. Virtually all federal, state, and county jobs will be opening up in the next five years as most if not all are now held by baby boomers reaching retirement. Ever wonder what it would be like to leave your house and not have to factor in traffic as part of how long it will take to get somewhere or how long it will take to find parking? Ever wonder about not locking your doors?

Add in the kid factor and there is a considerable advantage: no traffic for them to accidentally run into, everyone in town will know that your baby belongs to you—parents here still run into the post office while baby is asleep 10 feet away in the car. Sending your kids to a good private school won’t cost an arm and a leg. And the average daycare cost per child is the county is about $3.00 an hour. Add to this being able to raise them around horses, wild turkeys, and having a national forest as their backyard and suddenly being able to walk three blocks to the city park that’s fenced in on all sides like prison and urban childrearing starts to sound silly.

But you are a life long urbanite---not unlike my husband and I and this is probably sounding way too cute and quaint. Not so. The biggest seller for me when I moved up here was the chance to live somewhere slightly economically depressed while not having my income tied to such a local economy. Enter the age of the telecommuter. Thanks to a zippy fast DSL connection, I’m doing the same work I was in the city and still getting paid my city wage. And with Internet Radio and iTunes I get to listen to KCRW and NPR in the afternoon (complete with traffic reports about people stuck on the 405) instead of some AM honky tonk station I would have gotten a decade ago out of Reno, NV. My husband, an IT guy without a degree was faced with the dotcom crash on the coast but here he’s never out of work and usually has a backlog. And while it’s true that this corner of California votes like it’s Alabama at times, that’s changing too. Morally bankrupt Rep. Doolittle (®) who never faced serious challenges to his seat is now holding on to it for dear life and is expected to lose the next election. (Yay!)

And you won’t be alone in your move here. One out of three families I encounter here aren’t from here. They are usually ex-Bay Area residents with at least one telecommuter in the family with a smattering of southern Californians. My neighbor is from Burbank. Another neighbor is from Tustin.

Still, I can hear the skeptic in you—not unlike the skeptic in me—screaming, yes but what about culture?! Team sports? The stuff of Little Leagues and Friday nights of our suburban youth? To this I add we have two thriving art organizations and apparently our girls’ basketball team is kicking ass all over the northern part of the state¬––Go Greenville! There are the same mommy and me-ish things, same crappy California public education, a local community college, etc. But there’s lots of cool hidden stuff too. I work out with a couple of women in a cool private gym I never knew existed. Mountain Maidu culture (the original inhabitants of this area are the Maidu) still prevails and helps distinguish the area and give it its diversity. There’s lots of camping and fishing stuff up here that apparently people come from all over to experience.

My dealings with getting the kids some culture was making a commitment to bring them to San Francisco on a quarterly basis and Los Angeles twice a year. We pack in those short weeks with museums, movies, family, and the big one---Asian cuisines. And since we save so much by not eating out (not that many restaurants up here worth eating at), we finally get to splurge on food in the big city—something we couldn’t afford to do anymore when we lived there.

Now as we look back and also hear the struggles of other parents of preschoolers in urban areas, we are still happy with our decision. Though there have been some hidden costs we did not anticipate well enough. The biggest one is the horrible combination of the high price of oil combined with a long winter. In 2006—a short winter—we spent $500 for the year on oil to heat the house and water heater. In 2007 winter started sooner, lasted longer and the price went up—we’ll be lucky if we get out of this winter for under $3,000. But this is kind of a freaky year for that sort of thing so we try not to take it personal. I only fill my car up once a month since I telecommute and my husband is in a carpool in a Prius.

Still the benefits are overwhelming for the telecommuting worker or family. You get a home office that overlooks snow-capped mountains and air so clean that visitors from the city feel like their lungs are collapsing from the freshness. Your kids get to experience seasons and self-sufficiency of gardening and making things that go with the seasons, and they learn first hand what farm and wild animals look like instead of learning these things from picture books. At Christmas time you get to chop down your own tree with a $10 permit. And my goodness, if you are having children, don’t you want to afford to spend more time and less money being with them?

So, show of hands. Who's up for the move?

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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I loved this article.  I really want to move out of San Mateo to some quaint little town where we can pay cash for a house and raise kids. I know people who packed up and moved to Oregon, Idaho, and Texas, but really there are many great places like Plumas in California.  Now only if i could convince the hubby that the  Bay Area is not the greatest place on earth...

Guest's picture

Hi Xin Lu,

I don't mean to advertise, I just thought it would be helpful to let you know of a few small towns that have that feel good nature to them. I reside in and around Eugene, Oregon and there are many small towns near here. I'm unsure of how large of a town you live in now to compare to the size you are looking for, but here are a few I like. Veneta, Cottage Grove, Florence, Coburg and if you are from a big city, like I am from Seattle originally; Eugene or Springfield will be small enough. If you visit my website you will find links to many of these cities through my site map. Coming from California you will find Oregon a lot less expensive also. Dream big!

Sincerely,
Jennifer Buchanan

Guest's picture
Guest

I like your comments on the benefits of rural living for the frugal. It is true that less shopping opportunities will save you big buck$, not to mention lower mortgage prices.
We left the big city (Richmond, VA) when it got to be too violent and we had two young children 10 years ago. We moved to one rural area in SE Virginia, but it was TOO far out, hence our move to Scottsville, VA five years ago. It is a cute town 20 minutes from Charlottesville, VA but with homes half to a third the cost of Charlottesvilles' and one hour from other bigger towns such as Richmond, Lyncburg, Staunton, and less than three hours from the "Culture" of Washington DC. (Very important to us as homeschoolers and ex-urbanites).
This figures in well, too, if we decide to sell products from our farm, or grow bored of Charlottesville, which we don't normally, because Charlottesville has plenty to do in terms of recreation and great restaurants. In Scottsville, the main recreation options are river sports (the James) and a small amount of shopping choices- there is a current opportunity for someone wanting to start a business, as there has been a recent re-do of the town, lots of vacant storefronts waiting to be reborn as cool health food stores, local food restaurants, art studios, and a bakery also would be divine.....
Local bus service to Charlottesville is in the works, and there are established carpool groups, so check it out if you are looking for something on the east coast.
Plumas sounds great for your proxmity to the National Parks, you will have to travel almost an hour west from here to reach Shenandoah Nat'l Park from Scottsville, but not quite as far to reach one of Virginia's many great county, regional and state parks. Cheers!

Guest's picture
Sarah

Even living an hour away from a national park sounds heavenly. Remember, I'm coming from L.A., where it takes an hour to get anywhere in the city!

Julie Rains's picture

You make me (almost) want to move to your area -- though you are 3,000 miles away. I would go rural given the housing situation in urban areas of CA; I even run into people in NC who have moved to my town to escape high (unaffordable?) housing prices.

Having lived in a small town right out of college, I'll mention that not all rural areas have the employment opportunities you describe. The ones that do often are limited by one major or just a few employers, which is okay but may be difficult for 2-earner families; and if the employer restructures and/or has a layoff, the town economy changes nearly overnight. Also, long-time residents may or may not welcome newcomers.

The tradeoffs would have been easier for me had the Internet been available (it wasn't commercially available in the 1980s), expanding job prospects, widening my circle of friends, and letting me shop somewhere besides mass merchants.  

 

Guest's picture
Lynnie

In 1994, my (now late) husband and I came for a visit to his daughter's home just north of Roseburg, Oregon over Presidents Day weekend. We were living in Seattle where I had lived over 35 years and he a transplant from Arizona. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back decades. Those 3 days we spent were eye-opening and life changing.

When we went home, I stewed and fussed over those seeds of change and finally made the decision a week after returning home. I was moving to Oregon. The story is long and involved but suffice it to say, I told the family we were moving to Oregon. I gave notice to my boss and after many tears and struggles, 5 weeks to the day after the visit, we settled into our new home in Oakland, Oregon. Population 870. A place where 3 cars at a stop sign are a traffic jam. We both found work making a fraction of what we made in Seattle in our corporate positions, but our cost of living was fractional so it all balanced nicely.

That was 14 years ago and while life does what it does by throwing curve balls occasionally, we now think of this as home. Seattle is a very fond memory but I will never return. The rats can have it with my blessing.

Guest's picture
Angela

This sounds lovely, but for minorities, those out-of-the way places are not always so welcoming. Also, I have to consider having my children grow up in an environment where no one else looks anything like them. This can be very alienating.

Maggie Wells's picture

You may or may not have caught from my name that we too are minorities. There is an increasing African-American presence in and around Quincy and Feather River College, a very large Native American population, and a growing Latino presence. The only 'grouping' of people not well represented are Asians though there are a few Chinese Americans

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Guest

Based on the 2000 Census data, there were 14 Asians in Quincy, CA.

Maggie Wells's picture

I read the 2000 census when I moved up here but the demographics really changed in the last five years--primarily with so many Bay Area people moving in from all backgrounds. I'll be anxious to see the differences in the 2010 one.

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Nanna A.

...or rather, are in the process. We are also Bay Area folks that just bought 5 acres for $11,000 in Yreka (Siskiyou County). We love it! All we need to do at this point is have our home built (at a FRACTION of the cost of our rent in the Bay Area) and we are on our way to early retirement. We too appreciate the concept of not doing in mid to late life what we once did on our young life (clubbing, roaming about town partying, and needing excitement on every block). Three cheers to you for this great blog!

Guest's picture

Los Angeles native here, moved to Humboldt County for college in 2002 and never left. Property value is somewhat higher, but hey, ocean! My folks back in LA have half the house I have for twice the price.

rstlne's picture
rstlne

People thought I was crazy for considering a move to Central Pennsylvania but houses there are only $25K! Real estate transaction formalities aside, I could write a check for one of those.

 

If you have broadband internet, getting what you need while living in a rural area is not a big problem. Amazon sells almost everything these days and super saver shipping is free even to out-of-the-way places. 

Guest's picture
Guest

Lived there for 18 years before retiring and moving to sw Idaho. My main reason for relocating? The older one gets, the less you appreciate having to shovel snow! Before a southern Californian or even someone from the SF Bay Area makes a move to Plumas County, I would suggest you consider buying a snow blower on your arrival or keep a good chiropractor on retainer from November through March. Other than that, you could not find a more peaceful place to live. And I must admit a 5 1/2' snowfall overnight is an awesome sight as long as you don't have to get out in it!
Plus in Quincy, California, at least you will find those of Hispanic, African-American and Chinese - all of whom have been there for years and many of whom are regarded as pillars of the community. For me, it's a lovely place to live from April through September. The rest of the year, I'll take sw Idaho.

Maggie Wells's picture

We moved here in the middle of winter! I've seen the snow so long I no longer notice it LOL. It's fun though. Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Jana

Great article! It's always nice to see someone point out the benefits of rural living. It't not for everyone, but it is a wonderful life! We are just down the highway in Susanville and love it. We are transplants from Sacramento and would never dream of moving back for anything!

Guest's picture
Bip

I already knew Plumas County was right for me, and reading this just helps confirm that moving 2,700 miles is the right thing to do. Hurray for Plumas County! The gold rush is back on!

Maggie Wells's picture

See you soon!

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

Dr. Wife is finishing her residency and is considering a position in Portola. I'm a systems analyst in IT and hoping that I can leap to telecommuting - at least until I figure out how to make money writing. Both of us love California but don't want to live in a place where we feel like we will never have enough money to live well - like Southern California or the Bay Area. We're both middle aged with a soon-to-be teen, and are looking for a quiet place where Nature is a neighbor that we can greet every morning.

Sounds to me like Plumas County is worth exploring.

Guest's picture
Susan

Hubby and I have been taking trips up to Plumas County from Los Angeles every so often for the last twenty years. We fly into Reno and drive over to Portola/Quincy. As soon as we get out of Reno heading towards Hwy 70 it's like a breath of fresh air (literally)! We love Plumas County. It's beautiful pastureland and mountains, pine trees and babbling brooks. We'll be up there again next month for Portola Rail Days and hey, who knows we may even do a little house hunting.

Guest's picture
Guest

OK, perhaps this is an old gripe, but nontheless.....

Those of us who have always lived in a rural environment would really appreciate it if, when you upscale urban professionals decide to "rough it", you wouldn't jack up the real estate prices to the point where old-school locals are forced into rural ghettos.

In my rural county (Humboldt) only 15% of the population can now afford to buy a home, thanks largely to the influx of Bay Area retirees, 2nd home owners, and transplants. I know, I know, you are just THRILLED at what you can get for the money you used to spend in (fill in the blank overpriced urban setting). But when you spend $300k for a home (that 5 years ago went for $150k) where the average income is $30k can you see where average folk might have a hard time?

So hey, love your good intentions, but think about how your very presence might be impacting those who have lived rurally for generations.

Maggie Wells's picture

I can't live in my hometown either for precisely this reason. But the town I' moved to in Plumas County was completely dying. There was nothing left. I don't feel too guilty about revitalizing this town as without us it was literally dying out. (More deaths than births reported in the local paper).

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Mike D

I grew up in Plumas County and can agree with many of the romantic, bucolic descriptions of the landscape - it is just a wonderful place!
However, in the interest of full disclosure, people should also know about the higher-than-average poverty levels and rampant child abuse which blights the area. In honesty, I don't know what the current statistics are, but historically compared to the state, the county has had higher percentages of the population living under the poverty level, and much higher incidence rates of child abuse.
Also, regarding this quest of exurbanites to come and 'revitalize the local economy':
As it was earlier mentioned, this influx of people from urban areas to parts of the rural west has by in large made the housing unaffordable for people earning 'local wages.' Prior to this huge exurbanite influx, a typical local job was sufficient to buy a house because the relatively low wages could still buy a relatively low-priced house. Now with this demand for housing caused by the influx of transplants, housing prices are driven up (and I might add, are now equal or higher than areas like Sacramento, Chico and Redding). Now all of the people working remotely and bringing home 70-150k a year (or more) can afford houses, but what about the people working locally and actually supporting the local economy base? These people can't even afford to live in their community anymore. Driving up the housing prices without creating a demand for new, higher paying jobs does NOT revitalize an economy, it does the opposite. The local economy needs local jobs to replace the dead and dying resource-extraction (timber) industry. Now, if people coming into the area were doing that, than I would applaud them and say that they are trying to revitalize a dying economy (and community).
Also, it really is my hope that folks coming into the area realize the onus they have to contribute to the local economy and create more permanent and sustainable jobs (not just construction jobs to build more expensive 2nd homes or retirement homes on golf courses). I'd sure hate to see a beautiful and special place like Plumas County turn into something like Tahoe . I’m sure that most of the citizens in Plumas County would cite the closeness to nature, clean air, uncrowdedness, quietness, and safety as major reasons for choosing to live in the area. These intangible amenities are under threat as rural areas are face with increasing growth and housing demands. It’s not really in the interest of the county to control growth because more homes = more tax revenue, which means a lot to a county that is always in the red. So, rural citizens, whether transplants or generational, you need to make sure that places like Plumas County protect these intangible amenities in the face of forces such as development and growth. I know all of us want a beautiful place to live it, but please, please don’t let these beautiful areas go the way of the suburbs, exurbs, or bedroom communities that many of you fled from.
-Mike

Maggie Wells's picture

But, much of your worries aren't really what's happening now. Almost all the businesses that open here are opened by those who have come from somewhere else and  brought capital with them. The majority of the rental housing is still owned by the old rancher families that have been holding on to them for decades. Indian Valley could be a thriving spa resort town if it wanted to given the hot springs. 

Plumas County has done well for itself ---while neighboring Lassen county went for the Wal-Mart and the state prison.

 There's a huge sense of community and involvement here--a mixture of those that came recently and those that have been here a bit longer. We just had our Harvest Festival in Taylorsville! 

 

 

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Cliff

Enjoyed the article --- spend a number of weekends at Lake Almanor this summer. Loved the area and looking forward to seeing it throughout the year. We are in escrow on a house . . . . we will be part time residents. We will be able to telecommute about 30% of the time --- a nice start.

Guest's picture
Guest

Awww Maggie! Why are you telling everyone!?!
But very well said!

Guest's picture

Thank you for this article. My children were born here, I came here when I was 6 weeks old, my husband is 5th generation to live, work, play here. I am trying to convince my daughter to move back here with her husband and our grand daughter..who would be the 7th generation of my husbands family to live here. Having lived in the bay area during college ( Berekely)...I love it there as well...but each time I return so much is gone that made it great-there is so much congestion and the crime rate is climbing. Many of the locals are in the process of recalling the sup of schools...we are trying to bring the local schools back to what they were in the 50's and 60's...it is difficult, but with honesty (lacking at this point) and much volunteering it is happening...That is what is so unique here...that each can make a difference and in largley populated areas this has gone. My husband and I are ranchers and as we are riding through our cows..I do feel each and everyday that I am experiencing a bit of heaven. Thank you again and I am forwarding this onto my darling daughter. Heather

Guest's picture
jacob

i really liked what you have to say about Quincy. Right now i'm in the marine corps and thinking about going to school at feather river, so i'm trying to get as much info as possible. do you know of any places where a brand new college student could live, or find a job out there for that matter. Thanks for all the input. Good luck in the future with what ever life brings you.

Guest's picture

Jacob, In regards to college living, I do know of several students going there now and they seem to have found housing quite easily. The rents in neighboring towns are also quite reasonable if you have transportation. The winters do get interesting with snow and ice..so some are nervous about communting far. FRC is a great little college. The horse/rodeo unit is great, the sports, the outdoor ed and it is very friendly and you can't beat the setting...and to you as well -good luck with all.