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Now This Is a Tough Commute

Some workers are going to great lengths to have the best of both worlds: a good job and a great home, even if they're states apart.

September 06, 2006|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Like thousands of other California workers, Ann Inman spends more than two hours getting to work, trekking westward from her suburban dream house to a high-paying job closer to the urbanized coast.

But Inman isn't battling bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 101 Freeway. She's aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to San Jose, preparing for the first of eight days of mostly 10-hour shifts as a trauma nurse at Stanford University hospital.

When she's not at work, she crashes in a shared, no-frills, one-bedroom apartment near campus, 350 miles and a state line away from her husband back home.

"It's very intense for me, especially because I don't like to fly," said Inman, 60. "But I can make more money here than anyplace else, and I'm kind of getting used to it."

Blame a decade of soaring home prices in the Silicon Valley and other parts of California for the proliferation of what could be dubbed sleepover commuters. Working in a wide range of professions and trades, all that many of the new extreme commuters have in common are flexible schedules and a cheap place to stay when they're away from home, typically with friends or in one of the "commuter rooms" being advertised in the Bay Area.

Long commutes are nothing new to Californians. Historically high home prices in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles have fueled the growth of such far-flung areas as Hollister and Hemet and made herculean freeway commutes of two hours or more each way almost routine. According to federal statistics, San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the 10 U.S. cities with the most long-distance commuters.

But now some people are opting to keep their jobs in the Golden State while buying a house hundreds of miles -- or even two or three time zones -- away.

"Most of our members are younger guys who can't afford to live in San Francisco or even Oakland anymore," said John Ford, the dispatcher for Ironworkers Local 377, which now has members who live as far away as Yreka, near the Oregon border, about 300 miles from the Bay Area.

"They're forced to go out there if they want to own a home," Ford said.

The practice is becoming more widespread, said Patricia Mokhtarian, a UC Davis commuting expert, "and that's quite fascinating."

It's not surprising that San Francisco and the high-tech havens south of the city are at the forefront. At $26.23 an hour, the average wage in the Bay Area remains high compared with the national average of $18.09, according to the most recent figures, from 2004. That's an increase of 19% since 2000. But it has been dwarfed by the run-up in home prices, which in San Francisco have risen 60% in the last six years.

When the median home price hit $731,000 in San Mateo County last year, Inman despaired of finding a home she could comfortably afford, even on her six-figure income. Rather than leave a job she loved, and unwilling to endure grinding freeway commutes from cheaper exurban developments, Inman abandoned her rented Mountain View home and bought a house she could afford two hours away -- by plane.

Like California and most other states, Nevada is short of nurses. "But they're not willing to pay," said Inman, who figures that taking a job in Nevada would cut her annual pay in half. One key piece of that calculation: In California, Inman gets half her workweek hourly wage of $65 for time spent on call -- money she can earn even while sleeping. The comparable rate in her adopted home of Mesquite, Nev., is $2 an hour.

In housing, the disparity works in the opposite direction. Inman paid $450,000 to custom-build a 3,000-square-foot home with three bedrooms, an office and a separate guesthouse. It sits next to the No. 4 fairway of the local golf course where her husband works part time. The same house would cost $1.5 million in the Silicon Valley, and that's without the golf.

Inman spends $400 a month flying between Las Vegas and San Jose, where she keeps a car. Factoring in her $500 share of the Sunnyvale rent and the Nevada mortgage, Inman and her husband are spending nearly $2,000 a month more than they did living in California. But at least they will own a house when she retires, and a lot nicer one than a $4,000 monthly mortgage payment could get them in the Bay Area.

"It's beautiful," she said of her Nevada home, so beautiful that she hates to leave. But once she lands back in California, Inman said, she's happy enough with her second life.

She works evenings during the week, getting off at 11 p.m. She is on call many of those nights and on weekends. If she is called in, she gets time and a half.

When her pager doesn't beep, Inman goes to her old church in Mountain View and sees friends and her son, a San Francisco financial consultant, which helps compensate for the time she spends away from her husband.

"We go see movies or art shows and eat someplace fun," she said. "Recently it's been vegetarian restaurants."

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