My weekend neighbor invited five of her alpha-female friends up from Santa Barbara for a few days of extreme horseback riding and caloric self-indulgence. Because I know the mountain trails pretty well, I was asked to ride along and play scout for everyone.
Every time I get the feeling I’ve isolated myself from humanity for too long and that I should maybe think about moving somewhere within 35 miles of a gas station, I simply spend a few days hanging out with a group of people from “The Big City,” and it completely disabuses me of the whole notion. It’s not so much that I find these folks lacking in some aspect, as much as that all their zingy energy scares me—akin to the feeling of dread I get when I confront a brass doorknob after shuffling my feet over a wool carpet. I know I’ve got to touch the knob to get the door open, but I also know it’s going to hurt.
We rode and cooked and drank wine and sniped, and generally had a grand old time before the weather hit and the cold winds sent everyone scattering back to the coast. The culmination of the weekend’s events was a gala dinner thrown in our honor by our local default real estate broker; a youngish widower who knows how to cook amazing Santa Maria-style BBQ, is legitimately rich, multi-multi-faceted, and who looks like the studly Three-Fingers Tequila dude in those old print ads. Exhausted as we were by the day’s ride up the mountain and back, there was no way we were going to miss this party, even if it was being hosted by a default real estate salesman.
I say “default,” because the man is by trade an internationally known breeder of Arabian horses— which even in this lousy economy sell in the $30-50K range. Most of his buyers are in Europe and Saudi Arabia, although his customers are scattered around the United States as well.
I personally find it unsettling that in an era when you literally cannot give away fine horses, and in which the knackers’ auctions are booming, people are still buying bloodlines and colors—pretty little horses for the same show circuit once run by “Heckuva Job Brownie.” The common wisdom says there is no market these days, but this guy is genius at creating and maintaining demand. When times get tough, there is money to be made catering to the needs of the monied and/or the untutored— and he’s become an expert in telling people what they want to hear.
He’s set things up so he lives on site of his business and he markets his products online. There he creates a mystique— a romance if you will— then sits back and lets his horses sell his real estate, and his real estate sell his horses.
Every spring he puts his beautiful new babies and their mom mares out in the big pasture that fronts the main road. People driving through to admire the wildflowers invariably stop to ohh and ahhh over them, and like spiders, the broker’s minions descend. “Oh, you’re a horse lover, too?” they’ll say. “ Why, we’re having a BBQ this very afternoon! Why don’t you come on in for some tri-tip and let us show you around some of our wonderful ranch properties?” It’s a brilliant marketing ploy, and one that’s been put to good use here over the last 30 years. It’s also made for some great impromptu parties and brought me some wonderful new neighbors like my riding buddy.
Now, what they don’t tell all the folks they draw in, is that at the county auctions or in private, un-brokered sales, (which are rife up here,) land in the “neighborhood” goes for anywhere from $600-$2,000 an acre— tops. A livable house on decent acreage can be had for well under a hundred thousand dollars. That is to say, a house in the real market. The last house on acreage that traded hands up here without a broker sold a couple of months ago for its 1984 sales price of $138K.
But in the Real Estate market where the brokers live, there exists a parallel economy. In this fantasyland-come-to-life, raw acreage goes for $10-30K per acre, and a livable mobile, er, manufactured house costs $280K. Most recently in this world, an older one bedroom, one bathroom home with outbuildings (on an admittedly gorgeous piece of property) sold for 550K.
For a while, the FSBO land-flippers took advantage of this price discrepancy and threw up some truly dreadful houses that despoiled some of our most splendid vistas. Never lived in, unvisited and forlorn, they are already beginning to disintegrate; someone’s dreams blowing away in the arid winds along with the asphalt shingles and pressboard siding.
But for those savvy enough to list their spec houses with the real estate broker, there are always (or so it would seem,) people for whom a place in the country is an affordable alternative to the high rents and truly insane prices of the city. Just boarding a horse in LA can cost enough to pay for a mortgage up here. “If you compare what your $1500 a month in rent will get you in LA with what your $1500 mortgage will get you in… (East Nowhere,”) says our broker in one of his sales videos, “it’s not even close.” For those who don’t mind the long drive through the canyon to get anywhere to work, or who are retired on a pension and love the lifestyle, it’s quite possibly a good choice.
But more often than not, people tire of the isolation, the lack of shopping malls, and the hard physical work that maintaining a rural property entails. Splitting firewood, getting up at dawn to feed your stock, and having to repair your perimeter fencing every time a longhorn crashes through it in pursuit of your apple orchard tends to lose its glamour pretty quickly. After four or five years, a good number of would-be “ranchers” pack it in and take off for some place less challenging. That turnover is precisely what the brokers count on. Having already sold the same property three or four times, they know its selling points and what sort of client will find it attractive. Then it’s just a matter of listing it, filling out the paperwork, and collecting the commissions over and over again.
I had rather expected our dinner party to be a thinly-veiled pitch to the well-heeled urban women the broker had invited to dine with him. An appeal to their inner-cowgirl sort of affair designed to sell them the ranchette of their horse-boarding dreams. Or at least a pretty palomino gelding for arena work. But this time his motives were entirely different; our perfectly prepared and artfully served dinner turned out to be a good-bye party. For himself.
You see, after all the laborious years of building the business into a multi-million dollar enterprise, and maintaining his beautiful property as the premier showplace of the whole basin, our broker had sold his ranch to a new dreamer, and is planning his move away—for good.
He says can’t stand the people he’s sold property to.
Here’s a guy who has such an affinity for his horses (and they for him,) that he can singlehandedly breed a stallion to a fractious mare; a bona fide outlaw who rode for years with a notorious motorcycle gang and still bears the scars of countless sacrificial bar fights. A man so har-dass he once came back and shot a horse dead after it kicked him in the teeth while he was shoeing it; done in after all this time by the fussy dentists, and beauticians-gone-HOA , and newby real-tress ex-clients who now have taken over the area and “just don’t get it.”
How karmic is that?
His extraordinary wife, a dear friend of mine despite being both a real estate lady AND a horse seller, was actually the business maven behind this empire. When she died last year after (and yes, this is true,) her new Hummer was rear-ended by a big rig alfalfa truck, the broker was shattered. I’d never taken him to be a sentimental person, let alone a man in love.
But now, he tells me, he is getting over it, happily dating a VP of an international entertainment conglomerate who lives in the Big City, and has made arrangements to rent a breeding barn from a veterinarian who lives down in LA. He plans to take the proceeds from his ranch, his four best stallions, his client list, and what’s left of his small respect for humankind, and set up shop.
I am going to miss him terribly—this place grows short on authentic characters, let alone good farriers. And land pirates who also give good BBQ are so hard to come by these days.
Temecula. He say’s it’s a great time to buy real estate there….