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Housing strategy #3: the great escape.

Blood pressure high and mortgage payments higher, harried urbanites snub the city to find health and happiness in an idyllic rural retreat. As fantasies go, this one has always ranked in America's top 10. And today, the daydream is technologically turbo-charged. Some people would have you believe that anybody with a fax and a 486 PC can wrest big-city bucks out of any backwoods town--sort of Little House With a Modem.

In fact, for most Westerners, the fantasy remains just that. Those who move out of the big coastal cities tend to move to midsize cities in the interior West--places like Boise or Albuquerque. That's especially true for first-time home buyers--people like Sandy and Paul Koestner. Apartment dwellers in the San Jose suburb of Campbell, they uprooted themselves to Sparks, Nevada--and a new, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home. "It's a much more pleasant domicile than we could have afforded in the Bay Area," says Paul.

Yet it's also true that a select number of Westerners have sparked a genuine renaissance in a select number of small Western towns. These new small-town dwellers tend not to be first-time home buyers but rather "equity refugees," cashing out high-value property in the city for more land and a more relaxed rural lifestyle. And the towns they choose to settle in aren't your average feedbag-and-general-store backwaters but hamlets with extra cachet--proximity to major resorts or simply stunning scenery.

But the move to even the most picturesque small town is a big one--not just a move but a bungee jump into a whole new life. Where will you work? Where will your kids go to school? Who will be your friends? These are the questions would-be equity refugees ask themselves--or should ask themselves--before they make the leap.

When Frankie and John De Vivo decided to move from Riverside, California, they first looked at Sedona, Arizona. Though they loved the surrounding red rock scenery, the town itself didn't fit their particular needs. "To us, Sedona seemed to discriminate against people with children," says Frankie. "There was no public high school for our 14-year-old son. It was all artists or retirees." Instead the De Vivos have settled happily into St. George, Utah. When Lynne and Bill Trowbridge decided to leave Santa Rosa, California, they auditioned three or four California towns before settling on Bend, Oregon. They then proceeded carefully, visiting Bend eight times in one year and having the local newspaper sent to them in California. Even so, there have been some surprises. The community is politically more conservative than they expected, they say, and while Bill has been able to transfer his insurance business, Lynne is undergoing what she calls "a midlife career search."

For their part, the small towns view the newcomers with both appreciation and apprehension. The appreciation comes because new people bring in money and frequently growth in service-sector employment. The apprehension comes because the newcomers' sheer numbers can threaten the very small-town flavor they hope to share. "If we lose our open spaces, we've lost one of the main reasons people move here," says Gary S. Esplin, city manager for St. George.

Bend, Oregon, has grown from 17,263 in 1980 to 20,469 in 1990. And, says Bend city manager Larry Patterson, "There's a definite mix of opinions about the growth." On the plus side, where Bend's fortunes once rose and fell on the forest products industry, it's now a tourist center, a retail center, and a medical center for all of central and eastern Oregon. On the minus side, housing costs have risen, and traffic has increased so much that a new $120-million parkway is planned for the center of town. "A lot of people remember our past economic downturns," explains Patterson, "and see the growth as a positive thing. But a lot of other people worry about maintaining our small-town values. As a result, Bend is a town with a lot of different political factions. Put it this way--it's a real dynamic process."

Andy Parnes can member the day he changed his life. He was driving back to California after an Idaho vacation. "By the time I got to Reno, the traffic was getting heavier. By the time I got to the Bay Area, it was impossible. I said to myself, I don't want to live here anymore."

Which is why Andy, his wife, Kate, and the three Parnes children no longer live in Palo Alto, California, but within sight of the Sawtooth Range in the Idaho resort town of Ketchum.

Like most of the West's new small-town residents, the Parneses weren't seeking increased square footage so much as improved quality of life. "We didn't move here because we could financially cash in," says Andy. "We didn't sell at the crest of the California real estate boom, and housing in Ketchum isn't as inexpensive as it is in the rest of Idaho. But we do get to live on a couple of acres down by a river in an aspen grove."

And like most of the West's reviving small towns, Ketchum is by no means a remote rural crossroads. Sun Valley ski resort lies just down the road, providing attractions--sophisticated restaurants, cultural activities--your average Rocky Mountain ranch town can't match. That's one reason so many newcomers have chosen it: Blaine County, home to Ketchum, grew 38 percent between 1980 and 1990.

Ketchum wasn't terra incognita for the Parneses--Kate had lived there before their marriage, and the family had vacationed there. But the move was still a big one, and they plotted it for a year. Andy had to leave behind his partnership in a California law firm and hang out a shingle in Idaho. And with kids ages 6, 3 1/2, and 1, there was the question of schools.

"That was a concern," says Andy. Public schools in their old hometown, Palo Alto, are considered among the best in the country, while Idaho's per-pupil spending ranks among the nation's lowest. "But Blaine County is unusual," he says. "There's a lot of support for the schools here; they've passed bond overrides to provide more funds than the state does. And there's also a good private school."

"We liked Palo Alto," says Kate. "But after school, if your kids weren't in something organized like ballet or Little League, what was there for them to do? Go to the mall? Here they can ride bikes, they can hike, they can fish.

"I've met only one person who didn't like it here," she adds. "A woman from L.A. She fell in love with a local guy, moved up, and got married. She hated it. She couldn't go out dancing every night. She got divorced and left. But she's the only one."

Tips for choosing a small town

* Determine whether you can transfer your current job to your new rural town. If not, will your new town be able to support you in a satisfying job? Not everybody's going to be able to start a frozen yogurt shop.

* Ask yourself honestly how remote you want to be. For many people, reasonable proximity to an interstate or a commuter airport is essential.

* Test the waters. This is a big step--dunk your big toe in before you make the plunge. Visit, often, in different seasons if possible.

* Find out as much as you can about the town. Subscribe to the local newspaper. Ask your family and friends if they know anybody who lives there.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: The Endangered Western Home
Author:Fish, Peter; Gregory, Daniel
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:1238
Previous Article:Housing strategy #2: staying in the city.
Next Article:To buy or not to buy: that is the question.
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