How to find an affordable vacation house in California

… or A Zillow Obsession Pays Off

A few friends have asked us how we picked Dunsmuir, a town remote enough from the Bay Area that pretty much no one here has heard of it. A few others have asked how we pinpointed a destination where it’s possible to haggle down a three-bedroom house to less than $100,000.

The short answer: Marry a dude with a tendency toward obsession, especially when it comes to real estate and iPhone apps.

Tim obsessed

A man obsessed with Zillow

The longer answer:

Keep a real estate app on your phone
Download the Zillow app, or another real estate app of your choice, for your smart phone. We like Zillow because although its price estimates usually miss the mark by 20 percent in either direction, it shows active properties based on your current location–perfect for driving around the countryside, dreaming about buying that beautiful winery just over the ridge. If you’re anything like Tim (above, with the sly grin), you’ll spend 25 percent of all road trips daydreaming about building a cabin in the woods right… there! Or there! Or maybe down that road!

Keep your eyes peeled
Even if you’re just passing through on your way home from Aunt Bertha’s pig roast, take note of towns or counties that give you a good vibe. While you drive around the state, have your passenger pull up Zillow and surf around using the location-based search. You can tag favorite properties–maybe based on price alone–and check them out in depth when you have time to snuggle up to a bigger screen.

Accept tradeoffs
Someone somewhere probably knows a punchy aphorism about tradeoffs in real estate, but I can’t think of it, so I’ll make up my own: All that matters in real estate is location, location, and letting go of that location you thought you had to have.

We knew we wouldn’t find a bargain-basement price in the Tahoe area, for instance, but we also knew we wanted a place that gets snow and has some basic winter-sport opportunities nearby. The drive to Dunsmuir takes about an hour longer than the drive to Tahoe, but probably saves us $250,000 in mortgage costs.

Don’t give up
We weren’t on a mission to buy vacation property when we found this house. On the other hand, we weren’t not looking for vacation property. We kept the possibility in the backs of our minds and although we didn’t expect to find an affordable second home, we kept our options open.

Get a local agent…
Once we decided that Dunsmuir hits our sweet spot, we picked a Realtor from Up North. She’s not perfect, but she knew exactly what we needed to bid to get the mountain house. She understands the local market and made it clear to us that we could probably buy for much less than asking. She also knew about our house before it hit the market, an advantage that simple Web searches couldn’t give us.

…who uses DocuSign
We’ve signed almost all our mortgage and contract documents so far over the Internet, electronically. With a 257-mile drive between us and the buying and selling agents, the Internet signing saves us from hours of scanning and faxing.

Don’t be creeped out by a history of gigantic chemical spills
Ha! Ha ha. You think I’m joking. I’m not, but it’s a story for another day. (Seriously, there was a giant chemical spill 20 years ago. Also seriously, we’re not worried about it.)

More on that soon.

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