We’d been dreaming about owning property in Sonoma for a long time. I’d grown up visiting the Russian River and for years my dad and stepmother had owned a house in Healdsburg; we got married at Catelli’s the Rex in Geyserville with their house as a base. But my dad died young, and my stepmother rented out the house, and we lost our wine country foothold.
In the summer of 2008, my mother died, leaving me a bit of money. Interest rates were rock bottom, property prices in California had fallen farther than anyone ever thought they would, and we realized that if we were ever going to have a shot at owning a house in the country, now was the time. We started looking for property.
Our first offer was on a house on Fitch Mountain Road, just outside of Healdsburg along the Russian River. We ended up pulling it when we couldn’t make the economics work. The house was too expensive for the size and needed too much work, but the decision point came when the septic supervisor at Sonoma PRMD told us there was no way in hell we’d ever get a permit to expand it. Since part of the dream was having a place big enough to have my three sisters up, we bailed.
Our next foray was in the foothills, where property was much less expensive. Using Placerville as a base, we scouted Gold Country towns like Coloma, Fiddletown, and Plymouth. We made an offer on a house on a lake near Georgetown, but pulled it when we returned a few weeks later and found the lake so scummy and warm we didn’t want to swim in it, despite 100-plus degree heat. Next was a short sale in a community called Outingdale that reminded us of parts of Knoxville, but was situated on the Consumnes River, the last undammed river in California. The house was a bit suburban for our taste, but the site overlooking the river was incredible. We made another offer, but after a few weeks, we weren’t sure if the sale would ever be approved, and the three-hour trip was starting to look unrealistic. We pulled that too, and turned our sights back to Sonoma.
This time, however, we headed for West County. Unlike Healdsburg, which over the past 15 years had transformed itself from an authentically charming wine country town to an outpost of west LA, complete with bumperstickers reading “Women who love to shop love Healdsburg,” West County is – funky. Heading west out Highway 116 you drive through Sebastopol, Forestville, Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio, and Duncans Mills, finally hooking up with Highway 1 at Jenner-by-the-Sea, an impossibly cute town where tiny, colorful cottages tumble down a steep hillside just where the Russian River meets the sea. The housing stock out here is challenged – most houses began their lives as summer cottages for city folk, meaning they lack everything from foundations to insulation. There’s also a serious meth problem.
We saw fifteen places in one day. The schoolhouse was the last. We made an offer that night.