AT first blush, they sound like deals worthy of a late-night infomercial: "Buy a two-bedroom cabin in the middle of the national forest just two hours from Los Angeles for a mere $169,000!"
Chump change for equity-rich Angelenos, right?
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
The cabins are part of the U.S. Forest Service's Recreation Residential Program, started nearly 100 years ago to encourage use of what was then the fledgling national forest system. And what you can buy today are the structures themselves -- not the land beneath them, which is "permitted" to cabin owners and essentially lets them maintain the cabin on Forest Service land.
In the heyday of the program, about 19,000 cabins were built in national forests across the country. About 15,000 of them remain -- half in California. Almost 500 are in the Angeles National Forest alone, said Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Peterson. There are about 450 recreational residences in the Big Bear area and 17 near Lake Arrowhead.
The wilderness surrounding these cabins is unquestionably spectacular, but so is the long list of restrictions that guide their purchase and use.
Buyers can't live in them full time or rent them out. They are intended for recreational use (original documents refer to them as "summer homes," although many have been winterized).
Although the Forest Service acknowledges the need for certain amenities, permission to install or upgrade even electricity and telephone services must be requested in writing. Forget trying to build an addition until archeological and architectural surveys are evaluated. Not even fences and mailboxes are permitted. Only native plants are allowed. Ix-nay on a vegetable or flower garden. And exterior paint colors must blend in with the forest environment.
But what probably deters most people from rushing to buy a second home on Bambi's street is cash. The asking prices are clearly below area market rates, yet lenders won't touch these places. You not only have to pay cash, but you also probably won't find an insurer -- so you risk watching your money burn up the next time there's a wildfire.
Owners pay an annual fee to the Forest Service as well as property taxes and hold a permit for a fixed period of time -- generally 20 years -- during which future terms may be renegotiated. The annual fee is determined by a complicated formula based on 5% of the market value of the lot and then adjusted to reflect the absence of significant property rights normally associated with fee-simple ownerships and the public's right to have access to any portion of the lot on which the cabin is not located.
Still, more than a few hardy souls are willing to deal with these obstacles for the chance at an affordable wilderness home. Many of the cabins have remained in families for multiple generations.
When they do come on the market, at least the Southern California ones, real estate agents say they tend to be hard to sell because of the restrictions and lack of available financing.
Half a dozen cabins are on the market in the Big Bear area now, said Mayra Doss, an agent with Big Bear Real Estate. They include a two-bedroom, one-bath cabin with 1,066 square feet, listed at $169,000. At the opposite end of the price spectrum is a 2,768-square-foot, three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bathroom mountain home with a large deck overlooking Big Bear Lake in Fawnskin for $899,900. On fee-simple turf, the same house would be worth far more, Doss said.
"There are some great opportunities to have a home up here for below-market prices," Doss said.
No need to convince Mike Cahill of the value of Forest Service cabins. Cabin 11 of the Soda Springs Tract in Camp Nelson -- 90 minutes northeast of Bakersfield -- has been in his family for three generations.
His grandfather, who worked as a branding inspector on cattle ranches, built it in 1927 so his family could escape the Central Valley's summer heat. Cahill remembers going there as a child and swimming in the Tule River and playing in the forest.
Cahill, owner and broker of Mountain Real Estate in Camp Nelson, uses the 640-square-foot cabin now as a guest house. It's about two miles away from his principal residence and has one bedroom, one bathroom and a loft space.
"Perfect for guests," said Cahill, father of five. He describes it as a combination of rustic and new with counter tops made from a tree log and modern plumbing and electricity. He pays $487 annually to the Forest Service.
Veda Kaplan is relatively new to national-forest-land cabin ownership. She bought her roughly 2,000-square-foot Big Bear Lake home in the San Bernardino National Forest in August 2005.
She wasn't in the market for a second home when she was surfing the Internet and came upon it. "For $215,000," she said, "it just seemed like I couldn't go wrong."
So far, she hasn't, although paying an annual $700 fee to the Forest Service is "annoying," she said.
Kaplan, who lives in Malibu with her three children, said that "going to the cabin" now takes precedence over most of her kids' weekend activities. "Sometimes, someone stays home if they have a soccer game or a sleepover. But mostly, they want to come up there, maybe bring a friend."
She's used the cabin with girlfriends and with other families and offered it as a weekend retreat in a charity auction.
Similar cabins exist in the Sequoia National Forest around Mammoth Lakes. Re/Max associate broker Karen Nelson said none are on the market presently, probably because they are essentially inaccessible during the winter. Some lack water, others have no heat except a fireplace.
"If you want to use it in the winter," Nelson said, "you'd need to dust off your snowshoes."