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Housing Bargains, at a Price

Rural Modoc County has California's cheapest real estate. But its remoteness and lack of jobs make 'affordability' a relative concept.

January 13, 2006|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

ALTURAS, Calif. — In California's most remote corner, the air is crisp, the sweeping plains and towering peaks inspire awe, and the median home price just crested $100,000 for the first time.

Yes, you read it right.

Modoc is California's only county where the median price of a home has stayed so low for so long. It is the least expensive nook in one of America's priciest states, a place where home buyers live out the pluses -- and many of the minuses -- of that elusive concept, "affordability."

In Los Angeles County, $100,000 will just about cover the traditional 20% down payment for a median-priced house -- certainly not the whole building, yard and garage. In Orange County, it's about 80% of a down payment, and in Marin County, the most expensive housing market in the state, it's less than two-thirds of what's needed.

Compare that to the county seat of rural Modoc, where a snug blue house on downtown's Court Street -- complete with two bedrooms and a bath -- was recently listed at $84,000, and one unimpressed local real estate agent complained that it was overpriced.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Modoc County -- A Jan. 13 article in Section A said that the land that is now Modoc County did not become part of California until 1864. In fact, California's current boundaries were set by the state's first constitution in 1849 and included that land.

But even in Modoc County, the self-proclaimed "last best place" -- closer to Boise than San Francisco, with more slogans (four) than people per square mile (two) -- the median home price is rising fast.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked the Modoc median price at $69,100. By the third quarter of 2005, the median -- the price at which half of all homes sell for more and half for less -- had jumped 40% to $96,500, according to DataQuick Information Systems, a research firm that tracks property transactions. Preliminary figures indicate that the median home price was about $116,000 for the last three months of the year.

Statewide, the median is estimated at $458,000 for the same period.

"We've had a red-hot market here too," said real estate broker Dean Neer, who describes the region his family moved to in 1873 as a "buckaroo county."

Affordability used to be a tangible concept that allowed the real estate industry to predict what buyers would do. That was back when mortgage companies required big down payments and wouldn't allow households to spend more than 35% of buyers' take-home pay to cover monthly housing costs. It was before low interest rates, soaring home prices and creative financing.

But these days -- and especially in this place -- affordability has become a slippery concept.

"To me, affordability is being able to have a job and being able to pay for the house you live in with that job," said Robert Nash, executive officer of the Superior California Economic Development District, a nonprofit agency that focuses on Shasta, Trinity, Siskiyou and Modoc counties.

"While you would call a $120,000, three-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood in Alturas an incredible bargain, it's not a bargain. You couldn't find a job to pay for it."

It is hard to imagine that California's real estate eccentricities would extend this far, to a remote outpost that barely feels like part of the Golden State. In fact, what is now Modoc County had its start as part of two other U.S. territories -- first Utah, then Nevada -- before hooking up with California in 1864.

Most people "aren't going to be able to get up there very conveniently," said Dan Ripke, director of the Center for Economic Development at Cal State Chico, who visits on a semi-regular basis. "If you have a private pilot's license, it's much closer."

If you don't, then you're in for a long drive -- 6 1/2 hours from San Francisco whether you take Interstate 5, hang a right at Redding and twist your way up California Highway 299 through Ingot, Round Mountain and tiny Burney, or take Interstate 80 to Reno and head left. The first route is more scenic. Locals swear the second is faster. Both can get very dark and very lonely.

Tucked away in extreme northeast California, Modoc County is home to, well, almost no one. The elevation in the county seat of Alturas -- 4,366 feet -- is a larger number than the population of about 3,000.

The highways have two lanes. There are no traffic lights, except for one of the flashing red variety. You can't rent a car or hire a taxi. No prison, no psychiatrist -- except for the one in Oregon, who visits twice a month.

Until the new Rite Aid opened in late October, there was only one pharmacy in nearly 4,000 square miles. Many here describe the unassuming box as a "marvel"; it has increased the availability of everything from hair color to Chardonnay. Modoc County's single theater screens a first-run movie every week -- but only Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

What the restaurants lack in variety they more than make up for in serving size. One early morning mainstay for sportsmen and law enforcement, Bullock's Donut Shop, often sells out of doughnut holes before the sun rises.

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