House hunt part 3: searching for 'just right' from Coastal California to Sonoma County and beyond

Kristen Philipkoski

This is a weekly series documenting a real family's quest to find a home in their beloved California coastal town, Pacifica, CA.

(Photo by Kristen Philipkoski)

It's hard to believe we are three weeks into our home journey. Our goals, priorities, interests, emotions, and energy levels have fluctuated wildly, which has only added to the bewildering sense of time passage we all seem to be experiencing.

On one hand I feel like shouldn't we have found a house already? On the other I think about the fact that we have four more months in this home that we love and maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. And then I laugh because when have I ever planned ahead so much that it became a problem?

Sonoma Land

So while last week we got more serious about buying in Pacifica, we also started looking at land in Sonoma County. I found so many large 10-acre-plus plots for less than $500,000 that I became even more overwhelmed than I already was. Some were so beautiful, with flat spots perfect for a prefab, surrounded by rolling hills photographed during golden hour.

As I gazed at one of the beautiful photos, something caught my eye. A tree at the edge of the property looks off. I realize the tree is black. The tree has burned.

On some of the plots, the platform where the house once stood is still intact. Theatric driveways sweep up to a dusty space of nothing. Swimming pools sit empty, many with chain link fences around them to prevent people or animals from falling in. Some of the listings even show macabre before and after photos. In one, an inviting pool is surrounded by a wood deck and lounge chairs with fluffly blue cusions. In the next, the scene is transformed into an ashen, waterless pool surrounded by dirt.

(A BluHomes prefab we happened upon in Santa Rosa. Photo by Kristen Philipkoski.)

I vacillated between wanting to buy the land to potentially financially assist the family that suffered such an enormous loss and feeling extremely sad about the tragedy that ravage the land, as well as fearful it could happen again.

I realized I was going down too many time-wasting rabbit holes so we enlisted an incredibly kind and patient real estate agent, Jennifer Parr, whom we had worked with more than a year ago on potentially buying an investment property in Sonoma County.

I worried she might be less than excited to hear from us after showing us so many properties in the past that we almost bought but didn't. But she responded immediately and said she was happy to work with us again and we were thrilled.

New Builds

My husband and I had become somewhat obsessed with new builds on properties that had burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa. I was mesmerized by the walkthrough videos with their soothing music navigating through enormous open floor plans with walk-in closets as big as a studio apartment, fireplaces in the master bedroom (in addition to the one in the living room), pristinely white kitchens that opened into dining and living rooms where I imagined our friends gathered as my husband cooked (one of his favorite activities thank God).

And then that reminded me of our friends. Our best friends live in Pacifica.


Later that day as I walked the Mori Point trail in our Sharp Park neighborhood, I couldn't get those shiny new homes out of my mind. As I looked out at the chilly but stunning Pacific Ocean and fluffy white clouds I thought, do I want this beauty, or do I want an enormous kitchen with quartz countertops? Do I want my best friends closeby for impromptu gatherings (let's just assume they will happen again?), hikes and bike rides, or do I want a walk-in closet? Did I mention I currently do not have a closet?

I was flailing, but Jennifer set us straight with some listings for places in our budget, in great neighborhoods, and with great schools. She set up a Sonoma County tour for us with back to back home visits from 11:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m.

It was an exhausting but exciting day. We liked one house in Santa Rosa enough to think about making an offer. We also saw some land that could be amazing, but, according to the listing agent, it could be two years before you could put a shovel in the dirt.

Back to Pacifica

In the meantime, we remain very interested in the Pacifica property I mentioned last week even though our local agent Eileen O'Reilly believes it will sell for $200 to $300 thousand over asking. It would be pushing our edges for sure so we're debating whether we will make an offer. We visited a second time to make sure we really loved it and we did.

Eileen also showed us another house walking distance from our daughter's elementary school that had a beautiful view of the ocean. Those are the awesome things about it. The not-so-awesome things are that the the price is at our budget's limit, and it's just about $1,000 square feet. We would be sardines enjoying a gorgeous view.

So here is where we stand with our options after this past week:

  • Place an offer on the Pacifica place that we love (and max out our finances).
  • Keep looking in Pacifica
  • Move in with my husband’s mom in Orange County temporarily and save like crazy (potentially for two years if we go with the Sonoma County land we saw this weekend).
  • Place an offer on the place we loved in the great Santa Rosa neighborhood.
  • Find a teardown to buy now and build later (this is looking less and less likely).
  • If we find land, build a prefab home (we’re still obsessed with Connect-Homes).
  • Buy in a cheaper area, although going out of state is looking less likely

And then, oh my gosh, I woke up this morning and wondered why we weren't looking in the East Bay (Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creet, etc), and saw many more rabbit holes in my future.

See you next week! Wish us luck, and please follow along on our house-hunt journey.

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I'm a veteran writer and editor and founder of Mean Magazine and The Mean Podcast for GenX women. I write about everything from fashion to science and everything in between. I’ve written for Racked, Refinery 29, 7x7, SF Chronicle, Wired, Gizmodo and many others.

Pacifica, CA

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