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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 MILLERS: Simplifying Life in Englewood, Colorado

By all appearances, the Millers were the model of the L.A. family who had it all: Steve, 40, had a successful practice as a personal injury attorney; Judy was in real estate.

They had owned houses in Santa Monica and Encino and ultimately a 3,500-square-foot two-story house in a gate-guarded West Valley community. They had one child and another on the way.

Still, Steve Miller recalled, "I didn't like our direction of life. We weren't home very much, always on the run. We had a housekeeper. The overhead was high, between house payments and insurance costs." Add to that the usual list of negatives: crime, pollution, traffic and earthquakes. And he wanted to make a career change.

So they decided to simplify. Both Valley natives, they looked elsewhere--Northern California, Seattle and Denver. After some scouting trips, they opted for the Denver suburb of Englewood, where they'd be near relatives and still get a dose of urban sophistication when they needed it.

It took 10 months to sell their Bell Canyon home for slightly less than the $548,000 they paid for it in 1988. In March 1994, they settled into their 2,100-square-foot house in Englewood, which they bought for just under $200,000 cash. It was in a beautiful neighborhood, with greenbelts and a lake.

Steve became a stockbroker, and Judy became a full-time mother to Erin and infant Corey. His commute was 12 minutes. It took them only half an hour to drive from one part of Denver to another. The mountains were nearby. The snow was OK because it often melted the next day, and there could be 60-degree days in January.

They found people--often transplants from other states--friendly and noncompetitive. "It was probably a lot like the Valley here in the '60s," said Judy, 37. "Everyone was from somewhere else. It was very easy to meet people and everyone seemed fairly low-key. They didn't care or ask what kind of car you drove."

*

But even with all the pluses, the Millers could not completely cut their ties to California.

Steve's former clients would often call, trying to coax him back. "Not being burnt out from it as much as I was before, I started developing a greater appreciation for the law profession," he said.

And with most of their family still in the Valley, they missed home. "We were coming back here about four times a year to visit anyway," Steve said.

It became increasingly apparent that there was only one thing to do: go back.

They sold their Colorado home for $218,000 and last August moved to a new $350,000 house in Thousand Oaks. Steve Miller bought back his law practice in Encino and commutes 70 minutes each way.

It's not perfect, but the Millers are happy with their choice. "I thought we were very careful when we decided to move," Steve said. "Still, we rolled the dice and took the chance. If someone was thinking about doing it, I'd probably encourage them. I'm all in favor of taking risks because you'll never know if you don't do it."

Added Judy: 'We don't consider this to be the same place we left. . . . We're starting all over again."

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