Looking at retirement, boomers eye weekend getaway homes

By Carl Larsen
January 26, 2003

It's the next Palm Springs -- they've been saying that for the past 50 years," said Anthony deDomenico as he surveyed the sweeping expanse of the beautiful, and desolate, Borrego Valley.

And that suits him just fine.

Stretching beyond the back yard of the new custom home that deDomenico, his wife, Pam, and their business partners -- Craig and Janet Jones -- own as a weekend getaway is the solitude of the desert rimmed by mountains, a welcome relief from the hassles of urban living in San Diego.

It's a lure that keeps the house well used, too, in a unique arrangement that the Joneses and deDomenicos have as co-owners.

On alternating weekends, you can find the deDomenicos ensconced in the 2,700-square-foot home in the gated Rams Hill resort, just about an hour and a half away from their other house in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

The lack of night life in nearby Borrego Springs suits the couple. In fact, the community is the kind of place, the deDomenicos say, where "midnight comes at 9 p.m." Still, there's plenty to keep them occupied: golf, off-roading and catching up with neighbors, who include baseball great and former Padres manager Roger Craig and his wife, Carolyn. On the other weekends, the home is available for use by the Joneses.

Finished last summer, the single-story custom house comes complete with dual master bedrooms, so each of the owners can stay at the same time if they choose, a swim-up bar in the pool, stained-concrete floors, a wine cellar, three-car garage, and plumbing contractor deDomenico proudly points out the Grohe shower heads in the master bath and the Mico faucets.

From cozy lake-front cottages in Wisconsin to deluxe pied-a-terres in Manhattan, second homes have been a part of the American fabric for well over a century. And they're expected to be a growing lifestyle choice for many more households as the baby boomer generation moves into its senior years.

"This is a 'me' generation," said Clark Thompson, CEO of EscapeHomes.com, a Web site based in Orinda that connects resort-area real estate agents across the country with potential buyers. "They love to spend money. And if they can afford it, they will own two properties," said Thompson.

"There are 80 million baby boomers about to retire in the next five to 15 years who have no place to go except places that are warm or recreation-minded." said Thompson. "It'll be like buying California real estate in the '70s. I guarantee they will find a good investment."

EscapeHomes has rated areas it believes are the best resort area choices to invest in.

Late last year, the National Association of Realtors issued a lengthy report on the second-home market in an effort to get a handle on owners and what motivated their purchases.

It found the typical second-home owner is 61 years old, has a household income with two wage earners of $76,900, is married with no children living at home and has owned the property for nine years. Median time spent annually in vacation homes was eight weeks.

Seventy-eight percent of second-home owners said they purchased their homes for recreational use, but a growing number of owners are buying second homes as investment properties and are leaving the volatile stock market behind.

Surprisingly, few vacation-home owners ever rent out their homes, the report found, and most investment-home owners never use their second homes as a place of residence.

Citing census data, the report said there were 3.6 million so-called seasonal homes in the nation in the third quarter of 2002, an increase from 3.1 million in 1990 and 1.7 million in 1980. The second-home market comprises nearly 6 percent of all homes purchased in the United States in 2001.

"Whether used as a vacation home, an investment vehicle, or both, second homes have become increasingly popular and have helped fuel the growth in the housing market," the report concluded.

With an overwhelming preference, however, toward leisure use, the first hurdle for second-home buyers is to decide how far away they want their getaway home to be from their primary residence.

"It has to be far enough away so if you forget the toothbrush, you aren't tempted to go back and get it," said second-home owner Donna Struthers.

On just about any Friday evening in Scripps Ranch, a few miles south from the deDomenicos' primary home, you can find Struthers and her husband, Carson, packing up their pickup for the 100-mile drive to the mountain resort of Idyllwild in Riverside County.

After visiting the community several times, the couple decided four years ago on a whim to drop by a real estate office to see what was available.

"We're not spur-of-the-moment people," said Donna. Still, they had become intrigued with the small town where they had become engaged.

"Carson is used to having a cabin -- he's Canadian," said Donna.

They told an agent what they'd like and a few weeks later were the new owners of a two-bedroom, rustic cabin built in the '20s on 1 1/4 acres.

For the couple, whose children are grown, the cabin is an opportunity to share time together, and perhaps do things that are hard to envision doing in San Diego, such as playing board games.

The secret? Their mountain retreat has no TV.

Carson said he spends much of his time at the cabin "choring around," working on projects such as new electrical wiring, a propane system and chopping wood. Donna keeps herself busy tending to the yard and working inside.

"We work and love to have friends up and relax and go out to dinner. Our deck overlooks the creek."

"I don't like to ski. I don't like boats. I don't like athletic activities. There's nothing I have to try to get out of," said Donna, in marked contrast to the deDomenicos' lifestyle in Borrego Springs of golfing and off-road driving.

Still, owning a cabin is not for everyone.

"You can't really hire someone to take care of your place," she said. "There's a lot of maintenance," including making sure the water pipes don't freeze in the winter.

Maintenance problems or not, many second-home owners appear more sentimentally attached to their retreats than they are to their primary residences.

"My house in San Diego is boring," said Anthony deDomenico.

That's a sentiment shared by Donna Struthers. "Our house is a tract house -- just like the one next door. It's not unique like the cabin."

"I could leave Scripps Ranch and never miss it for a minute. We're more attached to Idyllwild," she said. "There's more time to relax and in a small community, people seem to be friendlier.

"There are strong ties to resort areas," said EscapeHomes' Thompson. "People are more connected, and it makes sense. The place you work in and the home where you set the alarm to get up in the morning -- those are not always pleasant memories.

"You get to a resort property and your philosophy is completely different. You go to relax and have recreation. That has a different mindset."

While houses can come and go, happy and poignant times spent at the summer cabin can be an enduring memory, similar to one family's rapprochement depicted in the movie and the play "On Golden Pond."

Carson Struthers finds himself tuned in to the daily life of Idyllwild, as well. He regularly checks the local paper's Web site, and has become well grounded in water politics and the threat posed by insects to the area's trees.

For the deDomenicos, the preoccupation is keeping up with the fortunes of their community -- Rams Hill. Opened in the 1980s, and once heavily promoted as a resort to San Diegans and throughout Southern California, the development is now in receivership under the San Diego County Superior Court. Its day-to-day affairs are run by the Douglas Wilson Cos. of San Diego.

That has had little impact on homeowners, said deDomenico. Infrastructure such as roads and water are good, and the golf course and restaurant operate as normal. He's hoping that a long-planned hotel will be built on a nearby site to boost the community's identity. And he'd like a few more 50-somethings like himself in the community.

Another believer in Rams Hill is baseball legend Roger Craig, who divides his time between a comfortable house in Rams Hill and an oceanfront home in South Carolina.

Craig is an early morning fixture on the golf course and seemingly has a story on any player worth his salt who has ventured onto a Major League field in the last 45 years.

With interesting friends and neighbors, why not just make the move to the second home?

"Are you kidding?" asked Donna Struthers.

"Why would we do that? That would mean bringing all the icky parts of our life up to Idyllwild -- bills and all.

"And what would we do with all our stuff?"

Top resorts for investors

Top 10 towns for investing in a second home
(Based on five-year equity appreciation)

1. Asheville, N.C.
2. Park City, Utah
3. Ashland, Ore.
4. Port Townsend, Wash.
5. Beaufort, S.C.
6. South Lake Tahoe
7. Daytona Beach, Fla.
8. Sunriver, Ore.
9. Myrtle Beach, S.C.
10. Charlevoix, Mich.

Compiled by cross-referencing consumer interest in vacation towns recorded on the firm's Web site with the percentage of equity growth in each area over five years.