Take To The Hills

Cool mountain air, spectacular views and the home-equity boom are luring more Valley families to second homes. Family time, peace of mind and a retirement investment just hours away.

It’s 114 degrees in the Valley, and Tempe fifth-grade teacher Talley Kimble is pushing his six-year-old daughter on a backyard swing. Kimble and his daughter will spend hours outside today. They are at home about two hours northeast of Phoenix, a couple of thousand feet higher and 27 degrees cooler.

“There have been times when it was 90 in Phoenix, and we had snow up here,” Kimble says. He and wife Mercedes, a pediatric dentist, built their mountain getaway in Overgaard about five years ago for $125,000. Despite enduring one of the worst forest fire seasons on record, today their three-bedroom cabin still appraises for around $220,000.

The Kimbles are like thousands in the Valley now taking to the hills for investment homes doubling as cool vacation getaways. The National Association of Realtors reported in 2005 that two out of every five homes purchased in the U.S. were second homes.

That national trend seems common in the Valley. Sitting on equity in a crowding suburbia, more Valley residents are staking their retirement claims in the sticks, from Flagstaff, Prescott and Pinetop to the south in Rocky Point. During the summer months, mountain getaways see a hike in price due to elevated popularity.

Booming Sales, Literally

While real estate agents and homeowners are coming to terms with a leveling home market in the Valley, analysts expect sales of cool getaways and vacation homes to continue its fevered pace, fueled mostly by a wave of demand from baby boomers.

Second homes offer boomers both a retreat and an opportunity to diversify their hard-earned portfolio while stepping toward retirement.

The average vacation homebuyer last year was 52 years old, earned about $82,000 and purchased a property about 200 miles from their primary residence at a median price of $204,100.

At 53, Bison Ranch homeowner Bob Franklin nearly mirrors that typical buyer. His vacation properties are about 150 miles from his Valley residence. Franklin says boomers account for a growing segment of the “weekend warriors” fleeing to his mountain neighborhood during the summer months. He and wife Karen both work full-time jobs and spend their weekends skiing, hiking, fishing or golfing at Bison Ranch.

Forty-five minutes east of Payson, Bison Ranch offers the amenities of city living on a sprawling mountain ranch, complete with bison, horses and a mining-town style row of storefronts.

“You have permanent residents as well as weekend warriors. It’s nice to know there’s a permanent resident next to your place, keeping an eye on things,” Franklin says. He’s sitting on a leather sofa in the Bison Ranch clubhouse, where three young families, a number of baby boomers and a handful of retired full-time residents have all converged for a weekend meeting.

The Franklins own a cabin and two condos that double as an investment and extra space when their six kids and eight grandkids come to visit.

“The population here has tripled in the last four years,” Franklin says. He attributes the growth to Arizona’s population boom and the increasing demand for cool mountain getaways. “It was 114 when we left Phoenix. It was 67 when we got here,” he says.

Bob Franklin and his wife are two of nearly 36 million baby boomers between ages 50 and 60, many of whom have purchased second homes in recent years. National Association of Realtors chief economist David Lereah points to an even heftier segment of boomers, 45 million ages 42 to 50, who will buy vacation homes in the coming decade.

Equity for Family Time

Boomers aren’t the only Valley residents buying into the hills. Two houses away from the Kimble family’s cabin at Bison Ranch, a similar cabin sports a like-colored slide and swing set. During summer weekends this woodsy mountain subdivision teems with Suburbans, Expeditions and late-model station wagons parked between pines on gravel driveways.

One stretch of cabins claims young second-homeowners from Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale. In search of family time out-of-doors, these Valley families join retirees and boomers for summer weekends in the hills.

“I think you’re seeing the result of the real estate market,” says Kimble as he pushes his daughter on their backyard swing set. “It was pretty empty up here for a long time, and then all of a sudden we saw a lot of people taking equity out of their homes in the Valley and willing to bid up the price a little.

“We looked in Sedona and Lakeside and Pinetop, and those are a lot further of a drive. When we first came by here the sign said from the $100’s, then from the $120’s. Now I think they’re from the $200’s.”

Cooler Retirement

A rural condo was a near contradiction 20 years ago. Such is not the case today, as Valley residents with snowbird-like migration patterns are discovering maintenance-free hideaways in Arizona’s higher elevations.

Phoenix residents Betsy and John Trombino, both in their sixties, are no snowbirds, but they opted for the convenience of a condo getaway when they purchased their Flagstaff retreat in 2002.

The same convenience that lured the Trombinos to Flagstaff also convinced Bridle and Bit founder Joe Wager, 74, and his wife, Jerry, to spend their summer months at a rural condo. In January, Wager bought a fully-furnished, two-bedroom condo at Bison Ranch for $120,000. After coffee each morning the couple rides out on horseback to explore thousands of acres of national forest.

The Bison Ranch stables stand about 400 yards from the Wager’s condo. Today the couple happened on a group of about 30 wild horses upon their ride.

“You’ve got a lot of security and a lot of freedom. If I want to go play golf or go fishing or riding my horse to find these wild horses, I can do that. I don’t have to cut a lawn,” Wager says. “It’s almost labor free. They even give you a vacuum cleaner, though they don’t give you anybody to push it.”

Wager, who has owned second homes for about 35 years, has noticed more and more Valley residents purchasing getaway properties, adding that the majority of his Valley contemporaries own two homes, usually both of them in Arizona. “Arizona is the only place in the U.S. where you can have 70-degrees 12 months out of the year,” Wager says.

Many of the buyers also plan to pass their second homes on to their children. Such was the case for former Scottsdale Police Detective Dick Potts, who bought land near the White Mountains together with his father-in-law in 1972.

Potts and his father-in-law built a summer getaway on the property. When Potts retired, he and his wife moved to the mountain getaway permanently, and his own children moved into his Scottsdale home.

“It’s a change of climate and a change of pace too,” Potts says. “You drive down this gravel road, and you don’t have to wait for traffic. It takes a few minutes to get to the Post Office, 30 minutes to get to the store. It’s a nice slow pace.”

Fifteen minutes up the road, Fountain Hills entrepreneur Jeff Gross agrees. He enjoys the family time, the summer golf and the occasional chance to play in the snow with his wife and daughters. Gross’s nine-year-old daughter, Celina, may have summarized the experience of a mountain getaway better than any adult could: “It’s like a different state,” she said.