Plumas County: Hidden (Cheaper) California
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?