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Getting Out: The Great California Exodus : Remember us? We left Southern California looking for cheaper housing, employment opportunities and a better way of life. Well ... We're Ba-aack!

March 30, 1997|LISA TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Lisa Taylor is a Laguna Niguel freelance writer

Getting Out: The Great California Exodus

--Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1991

California, Here I Go

--The Times, Feb. 21, 1993

Record Number Leaves State as Economy Drags

--The Times, Sept. 2, 1993


The headlines heralded what we already knew:

Southern Californians had been leaving since the late 1980s in search of safer, cheaper, bigger or greener pastures.

They went, they saw . . . and now they are coming home. They're not stampeding back; it's more like an intermittent trickle. The official term for it is "return migration."

And it's a fairly predictable phenomenon, according to Peter A. Morrison, a demographer for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. Some of the reasons people may have left--the high home prices of the late '80s, the recession in the early '90s and the resulting downsizing, layoffs--have started to turn around as the state's economy continues to recover.

"They no longer need to be living somewhere else," said Morrison. "And if it isn't a place they want to live, then California now looks like a place they can."

Driver's license data show a net inflow into California for 1996--the first such influx since 1991, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a Palo Alto-based think tank.

The center estimates that the net inflow from other states exceeded 25,000 in 1996, a sharp reversal of the outflow of 127,000 licensed drivers in 1993-94.

Southern California is "undoubtedly drawing back some of the significant numbers of people who have left in the past few years," Morrison said.

Here are the stories of five families who followed their dreams and then came back. They're not tales of defeat. They're about people who, for their own reasons, decided that Southern California isn't such a bad place to live after all.

The Weiszes: Looking for Mayberry in Kentucky

Southern California natives Jim and Teri Weisz figure they've moved nearly 10 times during their 10-year marriage.

"We've never been ones to sit on an idea," said Teri Weisz, 36. "Every time we decided [our rental] was too expensive or too noisy, we'd move." But with three children and societal pressure to pitch a permanent tent, the Weiszes lived with Teri's parents in Mission Viejo for a year to save for their first home.

Although Jim's salary as an attorney in Costa Mesa would have gotten them something in the area eventually, the couple started looking around out of state. "We were tired of the crowds and the fact that we really couldn't afford a house," he said.

"Looking at our kids growing up in this area--seeing how much kids had changed even from when we were young--we thought, gee, the conservative South would be a different place to live," Teri said.

"It was more just the perception that we could find Mayberry," said Jim, 35, "find a place where there's no gangs and where people are more friendly toward one another."

With the help of the Places Rated Almanac, the Weiszes targeted Bowling Green, Ky. Several visits to the city and a plum opportunity to take over for a retiring attorney at a local firm assured them that this was the right move.

Home shopping was a first-time buyer's candy store. Their prize: a new 3,000-square-foot brick Colonial on three acres for $145,000. And a 20-minute commute.

The Weiszes moved in February 1992 and dived into their new life, joining an affordable country club, teaching classes at their church. And Jim was "a hot commodity" in town, Teri said.

"I actually had clients hire me because I was from California," he said. "They thought if I was from California, I must know what I'm doing." At the mall, at restaurants or after church, Jim would get cornered by clients asking for free advice or just to chew the fat. "The flip side is that there wasn't any privacy," he said.

The Weiszes' turning point was a family vacation to Chicago at Christmas in 1994. "We went to museums and F.A.O. Schwartz," Teri Weisz recalled. "The people were dressed nicely and there were intelligent conversations going on. It was so exciting to us. We thought, we miss this!"

Driving back to Bowling Green, said Teri, "we felt we were on this unfamiliar road. It was like, oh yeah, we live in this house in Bowling Green, Ky. It was really creepy."

So they bought the Places Rated Almanac again, and Jim started calling firms in Colorado and Utah. Finally, they decided, why not go back to familiar territory? An opening at Jim's former law firm in Costa Mesa clinched it, and about a month and a half after the Chicago trip, they moved back in with Teri's parents in Mission Viejo.

The house in Bowling Green sold in about six weeks for $180,000, and with their profit and help from Jim's parents, they purchased a 3,600-square-foot home in Laguna Niguel for $422,000.

"I'm probably making twice as much here as I was in Kentucky," Jim said. "The only thing cheaper [there] is the actual cost of the house."

And the crime, drugs and gangs that they were hoping to move away from are everywhere, they concluded. In the teen outreach classes they taught at church, pupils revealed that those issues exist in Bowling Green. "It was kind of like the devil you know versus the devil you don't know," said Teri.

"In some ways it was worse, because it seemed like lots of the parents were in denial," said Jim.

Any regrets? Not really. "I wish we hadn't put our kids through it," said Teri. "But I don't regret going there, because we're so much happier here now. There's no thoughts of, where are we going to go next? We're here and we love it."

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