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Home Sweet Homes

Palm Springs, California; proximity to hiking trails is a reason for some to choose a second home's location.

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“It’s a magnificent area. You can hike for hours and see just five other people,” says San Rafael resident Sandy Hanus about Bend, Oregon. “It has the same pluses as Marin in terms of outdoor recreation, but it’s much more affordable.” Hanus and her husband own a town house in Bend that they bought four years ago primarily as a vacation rental property. But because they love the amenities of the area, especially the golf and skiing at nearby Mt. Bachelor, they use it frequently as a getaway themselves.

They’re among the many Northern Californians who are reaping the benefits of second-home ownership, whether that means a vacation retreat, a source of rental income, a place to retire—or, as for the Hanus family, all three.

A National Association of Realtors survey released in April found that vacation home sales across the country rose to record levels in 2006 even as the overall real estate market cooled. Who’s buying? Overwhelmingly, married couples with a median age of 44 and an average household income of $102,200. Twenty-eight percent plan to move into the property full time when they retire.

It’s no surprise that recreation — beachcombing, fishing, golf, skiing—is such a big draw. David Hehman, CEO of EscapeHomes.com, which deals exclusively in vacation properties, finds that most Bay Area residents who use his service buy within a three- to five-hour drive from home—meaning in places like Mendocino, Monterey or Tahoe. But he says plenty of Northern Californians also like Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, and Palm Springs. “And many people are recognizing what a good value Mexico is,” Hehman adds. Buying farther away needn’t mean the property sits empty most of the time; a home in an appealing area can generate rental income when the owners aren’t using it.

Here’s a look at a few of those spots that are luring local second-home buyers, along with their insights into how to get the most out of a secondary property.

The Great Outdoors

Gene Buccola, of the Buccola Group real estate agency in central Oregon, says Bend attracts outdoor enthusiasts. “It’s a golf mecca,” he says. “It also offers fly-fishing, world-class rafting on the Deschutes River and nearby skiing.” Plus, it’s sunny—a rarity in Oregon—thanks to its location on the eastern side of the Cascades. And it has very good health care resources, something to think about, Buccola says, when you’re considering where to retire.

San Rafael’s Hanus is so enamored of Bend that she intends to make it her permanent home someday. An avid skier married to an avid golfer, she makes frequent visits to their town house. “Being able to vacation here in all four seasons has allowed us to really get to know the place,” she says. She likes the diversity of the people who live there, too. “It’s not like a retirement town. There are young families here too.” Bend is comparable in size to San Rafael, she points out, and has every amenity—including some great restaurants run by ex-California chefs.

At first, Hanus kept the property rented out to weekend vacationers, but found it hard to schedule time there for her own family. Then she switched to renting it out for long-term stays. “We rent to professional couples who are building a home in the area and need a place for a few months. That makes it easy for us to sneak in visits between rentals.”

Another recreation-packed magnet for Bay Area residents is Tahoe, with its magnificent lake, snowy slopes and forests full of hiking trails. “Ten years ago, 50 percent of owners were second-home owners. Now it’s 70 percent,” says Carl Fair, of Buckingham Lake Tahoe Properties in South Lake Tahoe. Home buyers seeking a place to retire are particularly drawn to the Nevada side of Tahoe because of its income tax benefits. But the California side gives you a little more property for your money, Fair says, since there’s slightly less demand.

Image 1:  Finding a second home location on a lake provides opportunities for kayaking and other water sports.

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