The Golden State

The California way of life continues to attract sun-seeking vacationers

Few places in the world have had such an enduring hold on the imagination as California. From the ravenous gold seekers of the mid-19th century looking to strike it rich to the never-ending tide of starry-eyed dreamers hoping to “make it” as stars in Hollywood, the state has continued to work its magic on the human psyche. The climate alone makes it a magnet for generations of winter vacationers. But today, they’re drawn to a state rich with “golden” real estate  bargains.

 Places you’ll love
â–  Coachella Valley
Extending for 72 kilometres from the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains to the saltwater shores of the Salton Sea, the Desert Empire of the Coachella Valley is popular with Canadian winter escapees. Each of the nine communities nestled in the valley has its own unique character. In the north, Palm Springs is known for its mid-century architecture inspired by the Bauhaus movement and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Museums and art galleries abound. Desert Hot Springs has the honour of being located over one of the most pristine natural hot mineral water aquifers in the U.S. Indian Wells is tennis country (home of the annual BNP Paribas Open), and La Quinta is a leading golf destination. The valley, as a whole, gets an average of 350 days of sunshine a year.
Average prices (La Quinta) House (single family): $273,000; condo: $290,000

â–  San Diego
With its Mediterranean climate (which hovers nicely between 20 and 30 C) and more than 100 kilometres of beaches, San Diego remains a popular hot spot. Forbes magazine rates it the ninth safest city in America, and rates it the 18th most walkable. Real estate bargains are in abundance; median home prices declined by more than $200,000 between 2005 and 2010.
Average prices House (single family): $421,000; condo: $273,000

â–  Santa Monica
With 340 days of sunshine, it’s the true home to the California beach lifestyle. Just 25 kilometres from downtown Los Angeles, its toney shops, seaside eateries and farmers market give it a neighbourhood feel. And, as opposed to L.A., people actually walk here.
Average prices House (single family):  $1.29 million; condo: $598,000

â–  Santa Barbara
Located between mountains and the sea, laid-back Santa Barbara is often referred to as the American Riviera. It certainly fits the bill with its Mediterranean climate, wealth of Spanish colonial-style architecture and prime location on a meandering stretch of coastline 150 kilometres north of Los Angeles. World-class shopping and dining compliment a bucolic lifestyle in this civic gem at the foot of the often snow-covered Santa Ynez Mountains.
Average prices House (single family):  $737,000; condo: $495,000


Buy in Cali now, retire later
and, in the time being, generate some income

California’s real estate slump has created a hot opportunity for Canadians looking to invest now (taking advantage of today’s attractive real estate fundamentals) and retire later. Those who want to generate rental income should consider the communities of the Desert Empire of the Coachella Valley, says Robert Kaplan, a real estate agent in Palm Springs. Kaplan, who claims three-quarters of his sales are to Canadian buyers, says cities like Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta remain hot rental markets for those who like the idea of having someone else pay their mortgage while they are still engaged in their career back home.
“This is one of the few places where you can count on being able to rent out year-round because of all the Europeans who come here,” Kaplan says. By way of illustration, he says he has a two-bedroom condo he rents out for US$700 a week. Not enough to pay off the mortgage outright, he says, but darn close.
On average, he says, prices in the valley have declined to about where they were 10 years ago, with offerings ranging from basic one-bedroom condos going for as little as $50,000 to mansions in gated communities surrounding golf courses fetching $5 to 6 million.
In late summer, he was listing a mid-century home with a pool for US$400,000, a place that could rent out for $250 a night. He says many absentee owners hand over rental chores to local management companies.
And, like  many other Sunbelt communities suffering economic malaise, Kaplan says the welcome mat is out for Canadians. “People here love them for what they are doing for the state economy,” he says. “And there are a lot of them here now; walking down the street it’s like every second person you meet is from Canada. Trust me. We love Canadians.”


Slab City
it’s not at all what you think

Slab City, or “the Slabs,” could well qualify as the most unusual RV campsite in America. Actually, its name is misleading – Slab City isn’t a city at all, but an abandoned World War II military base in the Colorado Desert Niland, in southeastern California, sandwiched between the Salton Sea and the Mexican border.
It’s here that an offbeat collection of RVers have established themselves on concrete slabs that once supported military barracks. Camping is both free and unregulated, which relegates it to very exclusive set of travelers, but it remains popular with a small contingent of snowbirds who call it home during the winter when the temperatures are tolerable – the heat in summer is merciless.
Centrepiece of this 640-acre cultural and civic oddity is Salvation Mountain, an ongoing creation by self-styled artist Leonard Knight, a bona fide eccentric who has daubed a three-storey hill with 100,000 gallons of acrylic paint and a collection of gospel messages.


Snowbirds need to know
• California is a big state, but vacationers largely congregate in the southern portion, including the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs) as well as coastal retreats in and around both Los Angeles and San Diego

• California’s tidal shoreline measures a whopping 5,500 kilometres, of which as much as 1,600 kilometres are beaches

• According to GolfLink, there are no fewer than 1,140 golf courses, with many top-ranked courses located in snowbird destinations such as Palm Springs, La Quinta and San Diego

• Canadian Consulates General are located in both L.A. and San Francisco