The Road to Montara

On May 5, 2014, we closed on a lot in Montara, CA, where we will build a property that will serve as investment income and a secondary residence before becoming our permanent place of residence when we retire at some unknown point in the future. It is a couple of blocks from the Pacific Ocean and some of it will have that ocean view, along with a view of the Montara mountains. This will fulfill a longtime dream Dan has had of building a house from the ground up; that it’s a coastal property makes it that much sweeter. We left for an amazing 17 day trip to Europe the next day (Paris, Edinburgh, London). A life beyond my wildest dreams? Pretty much.

Getting to this point has been quite a journey. Dan said recently that the idea to build a coastal property first really struck and held when he watched the movie “A Single Man” the first time. (It’s one of his favorite movies, he’s watched it several times since.) Let’s call it January, 2010. Had he accepted a different New Year’s Eve party invitation for 12/31/09, we would have met that night. But that’s a different story. Let’s just say we were both in a period of transition during that time. He went to SF that evening instead and later that weekend saw this movie. The seed was planted.

Fast forward to December, 2011. We had been dating for about 6 months. We’d decided in September to commit to building a relationship, but I asked that we put off any discussion about living together until January. Life had moved very fast for me in 2010 and 2011 and I just needed some time to catch up. We spent a few days and nights before Christmas in Santa Barbara, spending Christmas Eve day in LA, in particular Venice Beach. It was the first time either of us had explored the canals. We were completely charmed. We were lodging at a Santa Barbara B&B; Dan stayed up that night doing the math on what it would take to buy something in Venice Beach and live there at some point in the future, checking out things that were for sale and doing the investigatory stuff he does so quickly and thoroughly. It was the first time I’d seen him in this mode – what was to be the first of many times – and frankly it terrified me. When he first pronounced “we could do this – a $1.2 million house isn’t out of reach” – I was floored. Not 18 months before I had bought a $180k house by myself and thought that was a big deal. This was mind boggling. We started talking weather, neighborhoods, investment property vs. living there, what it would be like to live in LA, how would I feel about leaving all my friends?, what would he do for work since I could work anywhere in my present job, etc. Whoa, whoa, whoa. My head was spinning. I could barely process it all. I had known since I met Dan that my life was going to be different if this relationship worked out, but this frankly had never crossed my mind. This was a whole different scale for me that – in my wildest dreams, maybe – I’d never given any serious thought to because it never occurred to me that there was any realistic possibility of it.

I’d asked Dan in September to give me until New Year’s to make a decision about moving in with him. We’d already decided that if we did combine houses it would be in Davis; since I worked from home and he worked in Davis it made no sense for him to pick up a 25 mile commute. Plus his house was bigger, nicer. So on January 2 he’s like “OK, when’s it going to be?” My head had just barely calmed down from the Venice Beach panic. Not panic about Venice per se, more in a “this will now be your life” sort of panic. Was I ready for that much change? I was still adjusting to the realization that life with Dan was going to be way bigger than I’d imagined would ever be possible. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it. So I moved in MLK weekend.

Sometime that Spring Dan started looking at potential investment properties in Midtown Sacramento. I could make all of the next 2 years or so a really long story but the details really are not that important, so let’s see if I can frame it this way.

  1. Dan was itching to do another remodel. He loved the process he deployed in the Burlingame and Davis houses and was ready to play again. He loves the creativity, exploring the possibilities, and the execution. And if you’ve seen either of those houses, you know he’s excellent at it. His ultimate dream was to build something from scratch.
  2. Dan was also trying to diversify his investment portfolio by adding a real estate element. His focus was on multi-unit; duplex a minimum, but we’d looked at a 6 unit apartment building once, too. 
  3. Dan is also much better at having an eye on the future than I am. After years of practicing one day at at time, where future tripping used to be debilitating for me, I had to learn to keep up and do what he does so effortlessly: plan without attachment.
  4. All of the above put together resulted in an endless number of possibilities based on whatever property we were looking at at the time. Is the potential pure investment income, IE rentals? Would we ever want to live/retire there? That would impact the way we approached remodel of at least one unit. Was the area good for potential vacation rental instead of long-term? Was it just a lot we could built a rental on now but retire to later? What was the rate of return for rentals in the market? If we couldn’t get more than 7% overall (and Dan has a snazzy spreadsheet he built to figure all that out each time), it didn’t make sense. Here are the various neighborhoods we looked at applying these questions based on each specific opportunity:
    • Midtown Sacramento 
    • Land Park in Sacramento 
    • Orinda 
    • Rockridge in Oakland 
    • Lake Merritt area in Oakland 
    • Various spots in San Francisco (ruled out pretty early because the rental return wasn’t there – could never figure out how to get more than 2%) 
    • Bodega Bay

In December, 2013, he came across a property in El Granada, an area we’d never heard of, just south of Pacifica. Again making a long story short, the importance of that property is that it got us to investigate an area we’d never considered but eventually fell in love with – these little towns between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay: El Granada, Moss Beach, and Montara.

We’d put in a bid on a very narrow lot in Montara that we didn’t get, but we loved the neighborhood, how close it was to Montara State Beach (a couple of blocks), and the sound of the waves from the street. There was a twice-the-size vacant lot next door and we’d said “too bad THAT’S not for sale” because it would give us so many more building options. A month later, Redfin sent Dan a notification: it was on the market.

It was a lengthy closing process because we were waiting for San Mateo county to issue compliance certificates that would confirm the building process would not require review by the Coastal Commission, a whole different layer of review on top of the county process we wanted to avoid if possible. We had interviewed architects the first weekend in March thinking we were closing any time; it didn’t close until May 5, 2014. We left for Europe the next day.

We returned from vacation with busy work and travel schedules, and didn’t make it back down there to meet with the architect we’d decided on, Chris Ridgway, until June 28. He lives in Half Moon Bay, knows the San Mateo planning process well, designed a house on the same street we bought on, and has the skills and personality to be the collaborative partner we were looking for. We spent 2.5 hours with him at Gherkins, the little sandwich shop in Montara where we’d had lunch once before. It’s quirky and we like it.

We had dinner that evening at La Costanera, a Peruvian place right there on Highway 1 across from 2nd Street, where you turn to get to our place. Beautiful views, which is probably what you’re paying for. We thought the food was good but a bit over priced.

Here are the first pictures of the lot.

The orange mesh is the “storypoling” going on with the lot next door – the one we didn’t get. The new owners are going through design review now, and this process shows the neighbors where the boundaries of the house will be. Notice the roof line will block the ocean view from the street. But the lot directly in front of you is where we will build. Those trees are in the property behind us and will stay there, thankfully. We will not only have an ocean view from the 2nd floor, which will be our unit when we retire, but those trees help shield the direct sun. We came back this evening and noticed at this time of year, the sun is setting right in the middle of this view. Pretty stunning.

All this brush will eventually go. The first floor unit will be about 700 square feet, and our intent is that it will always be a vacation rental; perhaps a secondary if we want to be here and the upper unit is occupied. The 2nd floor will be about 1000 square feet of living area once you back out what you lose with the stairs. It’s where we will eventually retire, and will be our “primary secondary” if you will. And if at some point the stairs are too much for us, we can simply switch. It’s a pretty good plan. 

That peak left of center on the end is Devil’s Slide. Landside used to close this section of Highway 1 several times a year, but they’ve built a tunnel through the mountains so that’s no longer an issue. Here’s more on that:

Montara Mountain. This will be the view from my office!

And so it begins. We’ve got a long way to go.

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