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For them, the second home comes first

Angelenos borrow a New York trick, renting in the city while buying a weekend home hours away.

February 08, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

YOU might call them nomads. People like Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, who rent a small apartment in L.A. and are building their home deep in the desert, three hours away. Or Liza and Blu Atwood, who rent a tiny apartment in town but just bought their dream house two hours away in Ojai. Both couples have babies and both belong to a new breed of urban pioneers who've bought or built what some might call second homes even before getting their first ones.

To understand their goals, you have to engage in some transformational thinking. A dream house, for them, is an inspirational place -- an ideal that tolerates little compromise.

In the case of Taalman and Koch, married architects with an 11-week-old daughter, that ideal house is small, elegant and green. It's a glass-walled cabin they designed themselves, which they planned to set on land that would nourish their desire to be surrounded by nature. A simple quest, but difficult to achieve these days in L.A. So they've toppled tradition, stretched the concept of home, altered their definition of it.

For most people, home is the place you return to every night, the place you leave when you want to get away. But for this creative, high-energy group, home is the place you drive to on weekends. It's where you feel at home, rather than where you actually live during the week simply to be near your office.

LIKE most L.A. residents, Taalman and Koch started out wanting their home in the city. "We love the culture of L.A., and it's where we have our business," says Taalman, 32, who moved from New York with Koch four years ago, and married him a year later. After they'd designed their 1,000-square-foot house, they needed land on which to build it. "We looked all over town, but soon saw that land here is too expensive for such a modest-size house. The cost of real estate and taxes requires you to maximize your investment," says Koch, 41.

In other words, they'd have to build big. And they didn't want to.

"We like small. We didn't want a giant stucco box that made financial sense," Koch says. They started looking for land within a two- to-four hour drive from the city, where he and his wife share a one-bedroom Echo Park apartment ($1,500 a month) and a nearby office. They checked out Paso Robles near the coast, Three Rivers in the Central Valley and the Joshua Tree area in the desert. They fell in love with a 5-acre spread in Pioneertown, near Yucca Valley, for which they paid $65,000. But the reasonable price wasn't all that enticed them.

"We found what we think is the same kind of retreat that Malibu must have been in the 1930s for people who lived in L.A.," Koch says. "It's a kind of frontier town, very sparsely populated, with one-room cabins, no stores, dirt roads and absolutely incredible natural beauty. By going that far away, you wind up in some extraordinary scenic surroundings, which makes the lengthy trip worthwhile. It's not a bedroom community or a suburb, but an actual retreat."

The couple started camping out on weekends as they put together their hilltop desert house. It's a prefabricated kit house, which they plan to eventually market to others on the same aesthetic wavelength: walls of glass, a steel decking roof and, in their case, an endless view of desert flora and rock formations that look prehistoric. There's not another house in sight when they look out over the landscape.

"We'll keep our little apartment in the city for most weekdays," Koch says, "but we'll spend lots of time out here. It's our home."

Liza and Blu Atwood were both renting small Santa Monica apartments when they decided to marry. She moved into his place. It was only three miles from the Internet firm where Blu works as director of business development. "He used to ride his bike to work every day," says Liza, 37, who owns two Internet flower-importing businesses that she runs from home. Both are based in Ecuador, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer, and where she is working to set up an orphanage. When their daughter was born 16 months ago, the couple started a yearlong search for a house that would be within easy driving distance of Blu's office.

"We looked everywhere, from Beverlywood to the ocean," says Blu, 35. Their budget was up to $1 million, and they did find suitable places. "We put bids on two of them, and lost them both," he says. Liza, less enthusiastic, says the homes were fine, but on small lots. None touched her heart, her preference for simplicity or her desire to feel at one with the land.

The couple decided to look in Ojai, where Blu had proposed to Liza. "The minute I walked in here, I knew this was it," she says of the 1940s house they bought for about $1 million and which they moved into three months ago. At 1,700 square feet, it had everything she'd dreamed of: Mission-style windows with the original glass, high ceilings and the Craftsman feel of a shelter built by humans rather than machines.

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