When Jerry and Marilyn McCloskey moved into their El Niguel Heights home in 1978, cows came up to the back fence and sheep grazed in the nearby hills.
"It was very bucolic, quiet," McCloskey recalled recently.
The Laguna Niguel couple and their two daughters, now college age, don't count Heidi of the Alps among their current neighbors, but they're still happy to be in this community, which in December became Orange County's newest--and 29th--city.
The McCloskeys came to Laguna Niguel from the San Francisco Bay area on a job transfer with Broadmoor Homes and purchased their two-story single-family Broadmoor model for $200,000. That was at a time when the average home price in Laguna Niguel was between $95,000 and $150,000.
Even with their children grown, the McCloskeys feel no urge to move on at this stage in their lives.
"This is such a great area. For less than $600,000 or $700,000, you can't buy a comparable house in a comparable area," McCloskey said. "We're 2 miles from the coast. We get the sea breezes and the Santa Anas. . . . It's very temperate, very moderate. "
While McCloskey rhapsodizes about his own location, his is a balanced view of Laguna Niguel, the larger picture.
"If ever there was a mistake here, it is that it should have developed a downtown more," he said. "There is a lot of county government there, but it would have been nice if there were more of a city center. There's more of an emphasis on neighborhoods than on the city. Now (that) it is a city, I think there will be more attention to local issues."
McCloskey is president of the homeowners' association in El Niguel Heights, which is trying to obtain private status.
The original intent was for all of Laguna Niguel to be a master-planned community when the Laguna Niguel Corp. was formed in 1959.
Subsequent changes of ownership and random sales of portions of the area to a number of developers have led to a series of smaller master-planned communities, but less of an overall dedication to the original master plan set forth by Avco Community Developers, a subsidiary of Avco Corp., which acquired the area of Laguna Niguel in 1971.
What saves Laguna Niguel from being more of a hodgepodge today, according to J. Kelly McDermott, until recently vice president of the Costa Mesa development consulting firm of Market Profiles, is that it is "a collection of smaller planned communities held together by the Crown Valley Parkway.
"It's a good thing some of the very, very good builders bought land there, and it's a good thing it's near the beach, because the resale value will always be there," McDermott said.
"The builders really did know what they were doing, so it did not end up being a lot of tract subdivisions strung together. It has the pastiche of a master-plan community because of the quality of the builders."
Among those who agree with McDermott are Ken and Carlene Long, who moved into their Amarante I model in Marina Hills just before Christmas.
First-time buyers, the Longs paid $395,000 for their two-story, four-bedroom home. Married seven years, the couple has two preschool children. They expect to be in their home six or seven years or "until we grow out of it," Carlene Long said.
Most people in Southern California move every five to seven years, "but I can't think of what would be next right now," said Ken Long, a mortgage banker with Pacific Sunbelt Mortgage in Tustin.
He acknowledges that he is "a first-time home buyer in an elite fashion. It's tier financing that worked for us, putting together a first and second (mortgage).
"We passed on opportunities to just get in (to the home buying market) for over a year with the thought that we didn't want to just settle for second best. We looked and looked and looked at resales, townhouses, condos. Patience is not necessarily a virtue of ours but we stuck to our guns and got what we wanted.
"Certainly, there are large sacrifices. We don't take the vacations we used to take and we probably don't drive the big cars we'd like to, but it's a place for a family."
The Longs fell into the deal when the individual who bought it on a pre-construction contract was unable to obtain a mortgage in the 11th hour.
"The house fell out of escrow on a Saturday. We bought it on Sunday and we slammed (the mortgage) through in 15 days. It normally takes 45 to 60 days," Long said.
Proximity to the beach and Ken Long's favorite golf course at Monarch Beach helped sell them on Marina Hills, a Taylor-Woodrow development.
"The schools here (all part of the Capistrano Unified School District) are excellent. They have diversified classes even at the preschool level, with computers, piano and dance," Carlene Long said.
Currently, there are 13 developments of attached homes actively selling in the Laguna Niguel market, with a price range from $120,000 to a high of $519,000, real estate consultant McDermott said.
Among the 23 projects selling detached, single-family dwellings, the price range is between $234,000 and $850,000.