Yesterday’s confirmation of my suspicion that I won’t be able afford to stay in my home after I retire is disturbing. I will have to move someplace cheaper to operate. And if I need to carry a mortgage to do it, I’d better find a place sooner than later. No one will lend a house-sized chunk of money to an old lady trying to live on Social Security.
If I’m going to stay in the Phoenix area and not live in a three-story walk-up, there are only two choices: Sun City or a foreclosure in the city’s gentrified core. The city stands down off the property taxes in the historic district (the locals consider a house that’s 50 years old to be “historic,” a bit of a joke but hey…it’s Arizona). Right now three or four such shacks are on the market.
The historic area known as “Willo,” part of the larger Encanto district, is exceptionally well maintained and pretty: gentrified with a vengeance. My ex- and I lived there for 15 years. We moved after our son got big enough to play outdoors—surrounded with a blighted area boasting the highest per-capita drug use in the city, Encanto is infested with homeless mentally ill and dangerous criminals. We felt it was unsafe to let him play outside, particularly after one of the neighbors (yea verily: an elderly woman) was killed by an ax murderer. A woman living alone down there really needs a large dog. But (sigh) I suppose that can be arranged.
I saw two derelicts on Third Avenue as I drove down into the area this afternoon. One of them was so spaced, the poor guy, he was stumbling up the middle of the street. On the other hand, when I stopped to look at one of the vacant repo houses, I chatted with a yard crew. Their foreman said his company cleaned up and did handyman work for the bank that now owns the place. They were up on the roof the other day replacing parts in the air conditioner when two squad cars full of cops showed up and, pistols drawn, ordered them to explain themselves.
So that would mean the cops are showing up, something they rarely bothered with in the past. I remember the time The Walker, a mentally retarded gentleman who used to walk around and around the neighborhood, oblivious to the traffic on Third and Fifth avenues, from early in the morning when the settlement house tossed him out to evening when he could go back to bed. One hot day he passed out on my neighbor Chuck’s lawn. Chuck called 911 to get an ambulance for him, and the despatcher said—I kid you not!—”Don’t worry, he’ll sleep it off.”
They figured the old guy was a drunk, and they didn’t give a damn that drunks were passing out on people’s lawns. Chuck had to call the city, raise Hell, and put a block under it to get somebody to come take care of the man.
On the Night of the Screaming, it was an hour before the cops showed up. They almost arrested my husband, who appeared, coming home from a firm meeting, about the time a squad car surfaced. This was the time a rapist tried to come in the side door, having got himself all hot and bothered after he watched me, through a window, doing some calisthenics. I went to another door, threw it open, and started screaming “Fire!” LOL…didn’t know I even could scream that loud.
Anyway, the prospect of watching a house burn down brought the neighbors out, which scared our boy off. They watched him lam out of there on a bicycle.
That’s the neighborhood I’m planning to move back into. On the other hand, the mayor lives there now. That would explain the improved police presence. The city has long been anxious to gentrify that area, and these days people with lots of money have moved in. So…times may have changed in Encanto.
Because of the area’s exceptional charm (it’s actually the only charming district in the entire Valley—otherwise, all the housing is ticky-tacky sprawl, except for the huge and hugely expensive 1950s ranch houses of North Central), prices ran up very fast and stayed up, long before the Bubble. In 1968, three months after we moved into our very beautiful Santa Barbara-style house, a Realtor came to my door and offered $100,000 for it. We had just paid $33,000. Twenty years later, after I Ieft the marriage, I considered moving back into the area, but by then prices were utterly out of the question.
No more. The bust has brought prices for some very sweet little places back down under $400,000. If I can get three and a quarter for mine, I probably can afford as much as $370,000.
Right now an exceptionally pretty small house, shown above, is on the market for $365,000; probably the price can be negotiated down. It’s pretty tiny—1,488 square feet, compared to the 1,860 in my present hovel—but it has three (minuscule) bedrooms, an office, and, a valuable rarity in that neighborhood, an actual garage with a garage door! And a pool, freshly replastered. The roof looks new. The house has a new HVAC system…very big, indeed. The kitchen has been remodeled; the distressed owners left a restaurant-style gas stove and a big, brand-new refrigerator. Strangely, they built an outdoor fireplace on the far side of the pool, in a space too small for outdoor furniture; but it’s atmospheric, I suppose.
Three hundred sixty-five grand is cheap for that area. That’s $245 a square foot. Just down the road, on the street where our babysitters used to live, someone is trying to get $850,000 for this little manse: at 2,520 square feet, that comes to $337.30 a square foot. Now I will say, it’s a lot more elegant inside and out; it has a huge, fancified kitchen, the most stylish of all possible swimming pools, and a large, swell bathroom with a whirlpool tub. And no place to park your car. One extracts 2,520 feet from those places by converting the garage into a “guest house” (read “impossible to air-condition studio”).
Another place around the corner from where we used to live is on the market for $525,000. The seller boasts that the taxes are $1,780, significantly less than I’m paying on a house worth something around $300,000. Cute little fellow, isn’t it? It has a nice big kitchen, an office with handsome built-ins, big bright rooms, and the original tiling in the bathrooms, very attractive. At $228.25 a square foot, you get 2,300 allegedly livable square feet, again because the garage has been converted and you have no place to park your car. Understand, there’s no neighborhood in Phoenix where you can safely leave your car outside, and this particular high-crime area is not a place where you would want to leave your car sitting en plein air all night long. One of our neighbors popped out of her home one morning, jumped in her car to go to work, started to back out the driveway, and, turning around to watch where she was steering, found a derelict sleeping in the back seat. When she got her husband to evict the uninvited tenant, the man was indignant to have been awakened at such a ridiculously early hour.
The house I saw where I stopped to talk with the workmen was on the market for $270,000, having failed to sell at auction a week or so ago. The reason for that, I expect, is that it backs onto the commercial strip facing McDowell, a busy and loud main drag, so that the view from the backyard is the backside of some aged, run-down commercial buildings and their gigantic garbage bins. Needless to say, few people are willing to buy a fixer-upper of a repo for anything like what the bank wants to get for that thing. At any rate, while we were chatting I noticed a pile of broken car window glass in the street. The crew’s super said the car had been broken into while they were off at lunch. So: a garage is a nonnegotiable, as far as I’m concerned.
All these nervous-making issues notwithstanding, the area has many things to recommend it:
- An amazing esprit de corps exists among the neighbors. People live there because they love the old houses and they love living in the central part of the city. They’re vital, young, and generally quite friendly. When we lived there, we knew and socialized with neighbors for three blocks around; in my present house, I haven’t exchanged more than 200 words with any of the neighbors except for La Maya and a lady down the street who has a dog about Cassie’s size.
- The neighbors keep the houses up. Every yard is perfectly groomed. No one looks out her window to see anything like Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum.
- It is a lot closer to the Great Desert University than where I’m living. I could get to work in ten minutes flat.
- The city has fostered a midtown cultural and arts district. The neighborhood is within walking distance of the main city library and two vibrant museums.
- The train will go right up Central Avenue, four blocks from the coveted house. It will carry riders downtown and let them off within walking distance of the theater district, making it possible to enjoy plays and music without having to pay $10 or $15 to park your car for a couple of hours. There’s a baseball stadium downtown, too, for those who enjoy athletic events and can afford to watch them.
- My friend VickyC lives in the general area.
- Once the bust is over, property values can go nowhere but up.
- Taxes are kept low (although nothing can stop the city and county from rescinding the special tax district).
- It’s within walking distance of Phoenix College, where in my dotage I undoubtedly can pick up some classes to teach, to the tune of a couple thousand bucks a semester. This would be an easy way to pick up some pin money. Since the college has a writing program, I’m sure I can get hired to teach something less torturous than freshman comp.
The other possibility is to move to Sun City.
The biggest advantage of Sun City is price: it is extremely cheap to live out there. SDXB’s taxes are half of what I pay, and when he moved his homeowner’s and car insurance dropped to a third of what he was paying here. It also is very quiet and relatively safe—the crime rate is low, and since the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio knows that elderly right-wingers (which describes most of the populace) will keep him in office, he provides prompt and effective police coverage. The houses are built for old folks: many are intelligently designed, and they have lots of storage. Most have double garages. There are two big hospitals and several life-care communities, amenities one needs to think about as one ages.
For $300,000, for example, you can buy this place. Truth to tell, it’s a better house than anything in the price range in Encanto. It’s bigger, it’s newer, it’s in a safer area, it has an updated kitchen and interior, and it backs onto a golf course. Similar houses can be had for lots less: most of the sellers are either old folks who have been carted off to a nursing home or out-of-state heirs, both sets that fall into the “distressed” category. Houses are not selling in Sun City, with the result that every second shack is on the market. For $290,000, I could buy a place on a fake lake, with its own private dock.
And lo and behold, here’s a house with a pool, right on the golf course, with a kitchen best described as vast: it appears to be SDXB’s model, which is a nice house. It’s on the market for $259,900. I expect I could stand to live in this place.
So…why would I even consider spending $65,000 or $100,000 more to live in a smaller house in the noisy, crime-ridden heart of a big city?
Well, for starters, because it is Sun City.
- It’s a ghetto for the elderly. I’m a big-city girl. If I’m going to live in a small town, I will move to a real small town, not a “planned community” that plans out the sound of children playing.
- My politics lean to the left. Most elders in this part of the country lean to the right. Chances of finding sympatico friends are almost nil.
- Sun City is full of couples. It’s difficult enough to make new friends when you’re old. But when you’re a single old person in a culture where people don’t care to have a fifth wheel along, it’s almost impossible.
- Watching old movies does not strike me as a cultural event.
- I can’t think of anything more depressing than watching the few friends I would manage to find grow more and more decrepit. While I enjoy friends my age, I also crave the acquaintance of younger people.
- It’s way, way too far away from the university. If I can, I intend to keep my job another two to seven years. I wouldn’t want to make that commute every day for two weeks, much less for seven years!
- My son hates it and has said he will not drive out there to see me.
- The ‘burbs have moved west and surrounded the Sun Cities. As a result, the entire area is crowded, hectic, and crazy-making.
- The Sun Cities themselves are’burbs: vast tracts of almost identical houses turned out of a limited number of cookie-cutter molds. They are ugly, dreary, and monotonous.
- When you use the term “quiet” about Sun City, you mean the silence of the mausoleum.
So, while I’d love to turn a $40,000 profit on the sale of my house, I don’t think I’d like the trade-off. A smaller house in the central city would be less work for me to take care of and, with the taxes controlled and fewer square feet to air-condition, would cost less to operate. While I wouldn’t come away with the extra money I need to pad my retirement savings, expenses at least might be manageable.
It’s worth looking into.