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Arizona -- it's the new Nevada

Home prices once lured Californians to Vegas. Today, Phoenix calls.

April 24, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

BUCKEYE, ARIZ. — Kyle Campos doesn't look like a pioneer, standing behind the counter at Main Squeeze, tossing frozen berries into a whirling blender. And "go East, young man," doesn't have quite the same ring as the 19th century version.

But when he transplanted his family from Santa Barbara to this scorching slice of Sonoran Desert three years ago, Campos accomplished something he never could have done if he'd stayed on the California coast: He bought a house. He started a business.

And he unleashed a flood of family members who followed him here to the Phoenix suburbs to fulfill the same thwarted dreams. First came Aaron, his brother and business partner, with wife and four children in tow. His in-laws, who could never afford a house, came next and bought two. And last year, his mother joined them, buying a home for the first time since her divorce nearly a decade before.

"Living in Santa Barbara, you get used to nothing being under a million dollars, and a million-dollar house is really small," Campos said. "Here, I could build my dream house for less than $300,000. At some point, you weigh the beach versus a realistic life someplace."

These days, that "someplace" is likely to be Maricopa County. For the first time since Nevada became a magnet for Californians in the 1990s, the Phoenix area has nudged Las Vegas aside as the No. 1 destination for people fleeing the Golden State and its soaring home prices.

In fact, the Arizona-bound are at the head of a long parade of bargain hunters marching out of expensive urban California and settling ever eastward, in Riverside, San Bernardino, Buckeye, Phoenix.

Tax returns for 2005, the most recent data available, show that a net 11,375 households -- representing nearly 29,000 people -- moved from California to Maricopa County in 2004. At the same time, a net 10,657 households with about 23,000 members moved from California to Clark County, Nev.

"Housing isn't cheap in Vegas anymore, nor is it in Phoenix, compared to what it was. But it's still cheap compared to California," said R.L. Brown, publisher of the Phoenix Housing Market Letter. "We're averaging 9,000 Californians a month changing their [driver's] licenses to Arizona. To me, that's a phenomenal number."

As much as California has beckoned adventurers throughout its history, the state has had an equally long tradition of defectors, in search, at least in the last generation, of destinations with fewer cars and cheaper houses.

In the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest decried the hordes of "Californicators" who snapped up real estate and filled freeways in Starbucks' stamping ground. After that, Sin City and its non-neon environs reigned supreme: no state income tax; no brainer.

But then home prices in the Silver State took off like a drunken gambler's dreams. Between 2003 and 2004, the median price of a Las Vegas-area house jumped 40%, according to DataQuick Information Systems. Phoenix started looking better and better.

February's median home price -- the level at which half of all home sales are above and half below -- speaks volumes about California migration patterns. Los Angeles County: $528,000. Las Vegas area: $300,000. Phoenix area: $253,000.

Maricopa County, here we come.

At least that's what members of the extended Campos family thought when they moved to the western suburbs of Phoenix, a vast, wind-swept expanse that looks like the Central Valley with saguaro. Most of them ended up in Verrado, a New Urbanist development in the shadow of the White Tank Mountains.

Real estate experts here would place the subdivision at the higher end of Phoenix's offerings; unlike most other new developments, which look as raw as a fresh haircut, it boasts its own tree-lined shopping district. It has a grocery store and a pharmacy, a bank and restaurants like the Campos' juice and smoothie bar, where Kyle and Aaron sell drinks named after California beach towns.

Still, an earth-tone bungalow with a red tile roof, a Craftsman-style front porch and two to five bedrooms will cost somewhere in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. For anyone house hunting in Greater Los Angeles, that pretty much qualifies as a steal.

At least that's what Patricia and Joe Ornelas found. She's 34 and an architectural designer who grew up near Chavez Ravine and loves the Dodgers. He's 33 and a construction manager who had a chance to move his job to Tempe. A couple of years ago they adopted Penelope from China.

In January, they stepped into the quintessential CA-to-AZ story line, which goes something like this: Buy a fixer-upper in Alhambra for $240,000. Sell it five years later for $600,000. Pay off all your debts. Buy a four-bedroom house, complete with office, gym and pool, 25 miles outside of Phoenix. Have enough money left over so mom can stay home with baby and start adopting child No. 2.

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