I had gotten to the point where I thought it was never going to happen. For us Californians, especially those of us living in large cities, buying a house can seem like an absolute impossibility. In cities like Los Angeles, your typical charming bungalow runs at least a million dollars. And even the humble towns around where I grew up, where homes were probably in the 200K range when I left in 2000, a decent house in need of repair is around $600,000. Add to that the fact that I am a freelancer, single, and have lived through the two worst recessions since the Great Depression, all since graduating from college, and the likelihood of me buying a house in 2020 seemed slim to none.
While my parents bought their first house in their twenties, I was wondering if I’d be well into my forties by the time I put my roots down somewhere. I’ve long understood a lot of the people around me were able to buy homes because of help from their families. In fact, a 2018 investigation into this found that 43% of millennials received financial help from family in buying their first home (a number I’m sure is much higher in expensive markets like San Fransisco, New York, and Los Angeles). My parents could have done that, but I was raised with the understanding that I would be self-sufficient so I knew that option wasn’t on the table. I’d always known I’d have to just get a few high-paying jobs in a row to get a big down payment and then somehow magically I’d be magically lifted into homeownership. This sounds ridiculous, but I’ve seen it happen to so many of my friends. Home ownership is absolutely impossible until all of a sudden it isn’t.
The idea of buying a house has been brewing in my mind, perhaps forever. It’s one of the reasons I found my way back to California after living on the east coast for years. Part of it was about my obsession with homes and design – I love taking a bland space and customizing it to make it my own. But it was also about seeking permanence. When my parents left the house I grew up in in Yosemite Valley, it removed any sense of permanence I had in relation to a building. There was no place to go home to, only a series of temporary spaces I did my best to make comfortable and beautiful for myself. My parents moved on, into a large suburban house that was the energetic opposite of where I grew up – large and modern vs small and rough around the edges. My siblings had also relocated to Sonoma County, leaving me the only one who didn’t live within a 20 minute radius.
Running alongside all these ideas about seeking permanence and wanting to finally stop throwing my money away on expensive rent every month was the notion that for most of my life a huge part of my identity had been wrapped up in where I grew up. Growing up in a small house underneath Yosemite Falls was an odd, magical upbringing which has defined me since I left. One of the first questions we like to ask each other is, “where are you from?” And for me that question was always followed by a ton of (usually false) assumptions made about my class, education, upbringing, politics, and values. There are a lot of confusing things I have to explain when I meet people. First, my name, which usually leads to a full dissection of my ethnicity. Second, my hometown, which usually leads to a very long conversation as to where exactly I grew up. “So, like, in Fresno?” “I have a friend who is from Yosemite! He grew up in Coarsegold” [over an hour away and not the same place], “Yeah but, like, what town?” The lack of understanding about my hometown ended up being something that shaped me as a person, making me miss the place where I was from and the understanding that only came from other locals.
I spent so much time explaining where I’m from (if you’d like to see it on a map, Google “9015 Lost Arrow Road, Yosemite National Park, California 95389”) that I didn’t realize it had come to define a large part of who I am. When you are raised in such specificity, it has an effect on you. It shapes your view of the world and how you fit into it. So when my parents retired and had to leave the house I grew up in, it felt like part of the way I understood myself and my family were erased. Yes, we could still go back to the park, but we’d have to stay at the same hotels we grew up sneering at (the local services are run by a private, investor-backed corporation and have been highly substandard since I was a kid – I know this because I worked for the concessionaire for years). The house I grew up in wasn’t amazing but it was charming – a small craftsman style bungalow built in 1929 which at about 1800 sq/ft was one of the larger homes in the park if you can believe it.
For years, I’d fantasized about buying a house somewhere near Yosemite so that my family would once again have a physical connection to a place we all cared about so much. There are a few communities within Yosemite National Park that you can buy homes in: Yosemite West, Wawona, and Foresta. When I was a kid, some of my friends lived in Yosemite West, which was at the time an affordable little pocket where middle class families could afford to buy. But in the twenty years I’ve been gone, with the advent of Airbnb, all three communities have ballooned in price, most notably Yosemite West and Wawona, and are now wholly unaffordable (typical homes start in the $1.5-$3.5M range). Since my parents left the park, I have dreamed of buying a house there, but the notion seemed out of range for me due to how expensive the area has gotten.
Add to this mix Covid 19 and my hyper Quarantine, and this year oddly ended up being the perfect recipe for home ownership. I have a Zillow fetish, and spent a lot of time over the last few years scouring a few areas: LA’s East Side and Pasadena, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, Joshua Tree, Yosemite West, Wawona, and Foresta. But one town escaped my search until early this year. A little town called Fish Camp (population 55), two miles from the park’s southern border, had never really crossed my mind. I’d driven through it a bunch and found it super charming, the town’s center is a barn-red general store that overlooks a pond that freezes over in the winter and features a “no skating” sign to discourage any would-be figure skaters from risking it and falling to their deaths below the ice.
While Yosemite West had originally been my goal, given that it is within the park’s boundaries, I realized that there were numerous issues with it. Firstly, it is nearly impossible to find a home on flat land there. Almost all the properties are on steep, dark cliffs. So most of them are 3-4 stories tall, you enter from a long air bridge at the top and go down flights and flights of stairs to get to the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. A home that you can drive straight up to in Yosemite West is almost impossible to find. For me, this was important not only because I’ve spent years loading props in and out of annoying apartments with tons of stairs and multiple gates, but also because I wanted my home to be accessible to relatives as they age and stairs get more difficult. I still love Wawona, which has more flat land and a really pretty landscape, but housing stock there is extremely low and I couldn’t find anything for less than 1.5 million dollars.
Like most people, Quarantine has been a rollercoaster. I began working on my show in October 2019, and rarely had time to socialize or see my friends in the time I shot it October 2019 – June 2020. So in a way I’ve been Quarantining for a year at this point and with that has come a roller coaster of emotions. A trend I’ve noticed with myself is that some days I’m the perfect specimen of someone who’s “killing it in Quarantine.” I’ll cook healthy meals, go on hikes, make art and occupy myself with productive tasks. But for as many days as I’m like that, there are days where I just say “FUCK IT!” and drink wine, eat poorly, and just feel shitty about what’s happening. One thing I’ve learned about myself during this whole thing is how much of a rule follower I am (when the rules make sense) and how triggered I get when people don’t follow the rules – especially when those rules are designed to keep other people safe. So driving down Melrose Avenue, seeing maskless people sitting at restaurants breathing into each others mouths, watching friends go to big parties in Mexico, seeing people post maskless photos at Hollywood Hills parties, watching people fly all over the country and the world to get on boats mask-free, all of these things started to grate on me. A little feeling started creeping up in the back of my mind:
“I have got to get out of here.”
For me, it was mostly that all the things I love about Los Angeles are closed. Museums, the gym, restaurants, nightspots. Even hanging out with friends felt perilous because so many weren’t being conscientious about how far ranging their social circles were spreading. Because of this, I found myself isolating more and more, getting lonelier and lonelier and more antsy. I have a group of 4 friends that I see. About a month ago, two of them went to a party in Puerto Vallarta and got Covid, so that friend group was reduced to two. There was nothing keeping me in LA and there was no end in sight. Adding to that, my show had wrapped for the season and I needed a “Project.”
So when I came across a listing for a 3000 sq/ft house in Fish Camp, just a few miles from the park gate and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite, I was intrigued. The house had everything I wanted: ample space for my whole family, a ground-level entry, snow in the winter, proximity to Yosemite, a nearby decent grocery store (uncommon in the Yosemite gateway communities), and the chance to add my style to a home that is a relatively blank canvas. And magically, because I have been spending no money on anything I spent money on last year (mostly clothes for shooting and events and tons of travel for work and fun), I had saved a substantial sum of money to put down as a down payment, about $80,000 (I’d soon find I needed to scrounge up about 25K more, as closing costs ended up being way more expensive than I anticipated).
I’d begun talking to a realtor last year and had been getting my finances in order to set myself up to buy a house in the next few years. I had even gone as far as beginning the pre-approval process to buy a house in the Los Angeles area (I plan to write a whole other blog post about the financial process, as it was fascinating and all of this seemed so impossible to me just a few months ago). So I had a bit of an idea of what I needed to do to buy a house but had no idea if this Fish Camp house was a possibility or not. As I said before, home ownership seems so impossible before you do it. And in many ways I still feel like this has all been a trick and the house is going to be taken away (I have imposter syndrome about most things in my life so it’s not surprise I also have it about being a homeowner).
When I came to see this house, I was immediately taken with how perfect it was. It has a huge kitchen, it’s structurally stable and new enough that there aren’t a ton of internal issues (pipes, electrical, etc) that would make it difficult to renovate. And I found the town quite charming. It’s small, secluded, and has the kind of alpine feel I wanted. However, another bidder had already offered over asking. And as far as I knew, I was already at my financial limit with my offer (I was offering $590,000, the other bidder around $600,000). I kind of think the lender would have made it work if I’d wanted to offer more, but I was already so freaked out by the process and the commitment that I didn’t feel like I should go any higher.
My strategy, as advised by my realtor (who was wonderful but never wore a mask which annoyed me), was to be as “easy to work with” as possible. So I wrote an impassioned letter about growing up in Yosemite and wanting to make a family home here and how much I loved the house. And it magically worked! The weird thing about buying a house is you never really know if you’re being screwed over or not, and to a large extent I really didn’t care. Most people leave the home buying process feeling taken advantage of, and as I was leaving a relatively tumultuous experience with my former (morally bankrupt) landlord, I wanted to enter this situation without anger or a feeling of being cheated. I guess what I’m saying is I’ll never really know how serious the other offer was, how plausible it was, but I was willing to do whatever it took to get this house. Which for me meant agreeing to pay for a lot of things (tree removal, pest abatement, a new deck, etc). It also meant letting the previous owners leaving whatever they wanted in the house (which I’m still taking to the dump load by load, over time). But it was worth it, because I got the house!
Overall, my home buying experience was kind of exceptionally easy. This is the first house I’ve ever looked at. The first offer I’d ever put down. Watching both my siblings search in Sonoma County and get outbid over and over again, I was kind of shocked it worked out so quickly for me. However, I wasn’t out of the woods when all the paperwork was signed. The day my house closed, a massive wildfire surged directly towards it. The Creek Fire threatened this area for weeks and happened immediately upon ownership. This added another variable to the equation: it questioned the very permanence I had been seeking in buying this home.
California has had a terrible few years when it comes to wild fires. While my new house in Fish Camp was under threat, my parents were evacuated from their home in Santa Rosa, just three years after I visited them there only to be evacuated for the Tubbs Fire, which nearly burnt down their house. This fire burnt a few homes around the corner from them, but luckily their house was saved, for now. It’s hard for me to fully express what the past few years have felt like. I grew up with this sense that I lived in a beautiful, iconic landscape. The fires have made it feel like the place we call home, filled with so much life and history, is in peril, that living here perhaps doesn’t make sense anymore, that this landscape is becoming too formidable and dangerous to call home. I was with my parents three years ago when we loaded up their station wagon with art and photos and drove away from the encroaching fires. It was 3 AM and my mother was looking around, overwhelmed and befuddled as to what to take – what do you bring with you from a lifetime of objects and memories?
In this past evacuation, my parents took nothing. I think that is what happens when exhaustion takes hold. How many times can you gather all your things and flee in terror before you stop caring, realize it’s just stuff, and get out of there while you can, just thankful to be alive?
This sense of existential dread filtered into my new house. What was I doing? Was I buying a house that would just inevitably burn down? The work I plan on doing to this house is going to end up costing $300-$500K. Is that a ridiculous amount to spend on something only to watch it engulfed in flames? Since my parents retired in 2014, I’ve had a dream of buying a home in the area where I grew up. But was the area where I grew up, a place that meant so much to me, even going to be there in 50 years? In 20? All of these worries ended up piling up to create a sense of overwhelming existential dread and sorrow about the state of the environment, the world, and the future. But I came out of it, mostly.
I guess where I landed is that the only time we have is now. The reason I bought this house is so that my family could share it, that we could have a connection to a place we love so much, that we could finally have a house big enough for us all to fit into it at the same time, and that the project itself would be something for us to do together – something productive and future-oriented that would add some positivity to a dark time. I guess I’ve come to accept that you just kind of have to keep living. Hopefully this house doesn’t burn down. And if it does, hopefully we get out safely and by that time we’ve shared some wonderful moments here. The one thing it has going for it is that there have been fires on two sides of it now, fuel has been burned away, so hopefully there’s a bit of protection there. Another thing that has assuaged my fears is to remind myself that wild fires are natural part of our ecosystem. Lands are meant to burn from time to time. And if we can learn to let them burn when they need to (while protecting homes), perhaps we’ll be in a better spot. There’s a lot more to write on this topic but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on it (no fire danger pun intended).
While I was looking around for movers, the air quality in Fish Camp was so bad that it felt almost abusive to have people help me move in it. But I had no choice, I had an apartment filled with things that needed to get moved. I ended up finding some wonderful movers (I-Movers out of Merced) who we so careful and hardworking and made the (very long) move as seamless as it could be. In true decision-reinforcing fashion, 2 of the 3 friends who offered to come help me unpack went to Mexico for labor and got Covid at a party. Oops. I was annoyed that they were careless and have never been so thankful to hide from everybody in the forest.
This is my first full week in the house. Last week I had to go to LA and New York for a few HGTV shoots. I’m still getting used to all the creaks and knocks the house makes at night, and I cant’t figure out how to turn on the heat, but I’m settling in. The home buying process was an emotional roller coaster and I am so thankful to finally be off it of it. In an odd way, I am less lonely here than I was in LA. I have set up a series of protocols for people to be able to come visit me, including testing 5 days before and quarantining after, so I feel safe having my friends come up here (I’m only inviting friends who are self-isolating anyway).
I learned so much from the home buying process and I’m excited to share it with you. But first, I gotta get myself set up here first. Then start to tackle all of the projects I want to do one by one. Originally, I thought I’d get started on renovations immediately. But I have to admit I have a bit of money spending fatigue and we’re getting too close to the holidays for anything too involved to get done before new year. Instead, I’m concentrating on a few small projects: I had the septic system fixed, I’m having trees removed to make the house safer from fires, I’m pulling back brush around the house, and I’m building myself a fancy new gym.
The reason I’m starting with the gym is simple. Firstly, it’s in a room that will likely get remodeled last (the kids room, sorry kids!). Second, this move is really about my wellness and taking myself out of a situation that was no longer serving me (mostly, sitting alone in my LA apartment freaked out by what everyone was doing outside). I’m excited to get started on all of this and excited to spend the next year (or two?) working on the most personal design project of my life.
Someone recently commented on Instagram that I don’t seem happy here because I was being too self-deprecating about the new house and my new lifestyle. I am indeed elated to have a house and to have all these exciting projects in my future. However, I chose a hard house. Literally everything is hard. There is no trash service so I have to take everything to a dump an hour away. The heater doesn’t work, many of the appliances that were working during the inspection (dryer, oven range, heater, etc) no longer work. The chimney needs to be cleaned before I can use the fireplace, the septic system overflowed into my driveway for weeks. While I am overjoyed to own this big, woodsy house, this is a lot for a first time homeowner. So I have been a little sarcastic with how I talk about this place. I think part of that is self-consciousness, too. I realize the immense amount of privilege I have that I got sick of how careless people were being about Covid in LA so I just bought a house and moved into the woods to be a hermit until this all ends. But as spoiled as that might make me sound, this is a HUGE deal for me. I guess I’m just feeling like I need to temper the “LOOK AT ME AND WHAT MY MONEY BOUGHT” with some “HEY THIS IS WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BUY A HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WOODS.”
I hope you’ll follow along on what is bound to be a very fun journey with me. I have been waiting for this for a long time.