Friday, June 24, 2005 | Just eight months after closing on our townhouse in Chula Vista, my husband Bill and I spent a few hours last Sunday touring open houses in Mira Mesa.

When we moved into our first real home in Chula Vista’s scenic Otay Ranch master-planned community we figured we were finally home – at least for the next three to five years. We painted and bought a lot of stuff.

But the lure of real estate listings is too strong, especially when you have a personal yearning for a garden and a dog who would love nothing more for his first birthday than his own yard. And so we headed to Mira Mesa, which was selected for its proximity to our favorite beach in Del Mar.

Our tour revealed three truths:

1) People do some crazy things to their homes.

2) The real estate market in San Diego is disheartening.

3) When you can’t decide where to make your home for at least the next five years, it’s difficult to commit in other ways that can really build a feeling of community, such as volunteering or civic participation. Just when you start thinking about local organizations that might need volunteers, you start thinking about moving across the county.

By comparison, Mira Mesa is an older, largely unplanned neighborhood where the pros and cons of no homeowners’ associations are apparent. Although retail and dining areas look new and clean, the neighborhoods we saw are spotty at best. Although homes on some streets are well kept with meticulous lawns, homes on other streets are dingy with cracked paint and unfettered weeds. All of the homes we visited were single-family ones of less than 1,500 square feet with backyards. And all of them seemed overpriced at more than $500,000, especially the ones that looked like they needed at least $100,000 worth of renovations.

Back in our neighborhood later the same day, we saw a newer home for sale: 5 bedrooms, two-stories, a tiny yard and a price tag of more than $630,000. We couldn’t afford this house even if we wanted to and anyway, it has no real yard so what would be the point?

The day produced more questions than answers: Why don’t developers build smaller houses with large yards anymore? Who has enough kids to need five bedrooms and two living rooms? Isn’t this San Diego, you know, the place with the perfectly mild climate, where a large backyard could provide plentiful extra living and entertaining space?

What’s a young, married couple with a middle-class income – one a writer, the other a school teacher – to do? Do we stay in our two-bedroom townhouse with no yard for a few years and hope its value appreciates at a higher rate than single-family homes in older neighborhoods? Or do we take a bigger gamble now on an overpriced home in a junky neighborhood so we can have the yard of our dreams?

The calculations are endless, and in San Diego it seems the potential margin of error is nauseating.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a 32-year old freelance writer in Chula Vista, where she lives with her husband Bill and dog Charlie. Catherine and Bill, who met and married in Washington, D.C., moved to San Diego for the weather in July 2003. She can be reached at

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