Fleeing California: Half Complete

The Smiths in their building

A headline in the LA Times caught my eye today. It is George Skelton’s article called “Why Californians are Fleeing this Once-Golden State.” While we’re leaving California, I don’t necessarily view what we are doing as “fleeing,” but I’ll describe our reasons and let you, the reader, decide.

We are leaving, not because of the cost of housing, but because of the property taxes. My husband arrived in California in November 1993 and I arrived in March 1994. We’d just sold our house in Texas after a collapse in the housing market there. Whether we broke even or lost money when we sold our house there still comes up for debate. The upshot is that we rented the same house in Sunnyvale for 30 years. We could, technically, afford to buy a home, but I don’t want to pay property taxes ad nauseum. It’s not a great prospect for anyone, but especially not for someone entering retirement years.

As my husband, Wade, looked forward to retirement, we started looking for a different place to live. My father died some years ago and left us a not-very-gracefully aging farm house on a couple Illinois acres. As we hunkered down for the pandemic, we delayed clearing it out. The pre-pandemic day that we got the deed for my family home, we also bought a property my parents used to own, a former furniture factory, turned theater, turned hardware store turned museum/storage unit. When we walked in to take possession, water literally dripped from the ceiling and I wondered, “Oh, no! What have we done?!?”

We’ve invested more in rehabilitating the building, with help from the great people at the Illinois Department of Historic Preservation. The Agile concept of a minimal viable product has also helped. The humidity inside the building averages about 55 to 60% rather than the 85% it was when we acquired it. So, now, our plan is to live in the farmhouse with my father’s things, continuing to sort through them while we temporarily store our things from California in the building.

As I go through things at the farmhouse, I’ve devised a yet-to-start “DUST” series for my social media accounts where I post photos of interesting things I find and will ask readers if I should donate, upcycle, sell or toss these various items. I also have contemplated a “Could it work here?” series where I remix reels from home makeover accounts with the often sad situation we have with this farm house.

I usually only post exterior shots of the two buildings. However, I will share that, at the farm house, the plaster is cracked and missing, the walls are stained where water leaked in. The doors no longer shut on the north side of the house due to either a foundation issue or the fact that one of the supporting beams is half rotted away, or possibly that the cracks in beams under the kitchen floor are causing the house to skew. The commercial building is even older with it’s own set of needed repairs.

The Smiths with boxes in their building
The Smiths with boxes in

We have not yet reached a point for either building where the list of things to do and fix is getting shorter!

While we are living here, we plan to redo the apartment where I first lived – the apartment above my parent’s hardware store. We are storing our things in what used to be the hardware store. So, while I go through my family things at the farm, Wade will go through his things at the store.

Once we vacate the farmhouse, I need to decide what to do with it. Rare are people around here who demolish a house and build something new. Lots of families build new houses on their property and leave their older homes to rot and sink back into the earth. (I can think of 5 such situations with a five miles of where I’m writing this.) Many families rework and repair old houses to extend their lives. There is also a 5-year county tax credit for doing so. If we fix the farm house, sad to say, the local standards are differentheirt for owner-occupied houses versus houses that are rented, so that’s another question: live in it or rent it? The housing shortage is keenly felt here in Central Illinois as well.

How do I feel about all these changes? Firstly, you can see in our photos we are smiling. I like the area and have told people that I like who I am when I am here. I cook more, I take meals to people recovering from surgery. I’m more relaxed. The humidity plumps up my skin and makes my hair full-bodied. We don’t hear leaf blowers. Traffic is practically non-existent. We never struggle to find parking! The food options are way better than I remember.

Yet, it feels different to call this farmhouse my primary residence. When sorting through things the summers of 2021 and 2022, I felt more like a sojourner. Next year sometime maybe we’ll call the apartment our primary residence while we do whatever we do to the farmhouse. I’m suddenly a part of a community I haven’t been part of since I was a recent college graduate. My dad’s neighbors, now our neighbors, said “Hi, neighbor!” for the first time when they called us this week. Our presence means something here. We are, just the two of us, 0.33% of the population here!

I wonder how I’ll fit in and contribute. Only 25% of the residents of this county vote the way I do. There are fewer – way fewer – nonprofits here to volunteer for. How will I “give back?” (Nothing is clear so far and I can’t even make a prediction.) I’ve been scouring the internet for opportunities and realizing where my views about building opportunities in my local community came from. Our county seat is 20 miles away and our little village is on the very eastern edge of the county – underrepresented and overlooked. This sort of feeling of wanting recognition drove me to deal with the San Jose/Sunnyvale relationship the way I did: I co-founded Democratic Club of Sunnyvale and joined Sunnyvale Rotary and served on Sunnyvale City Council.

Religious life here isn’t as I remember from my youth, either. Some storms and distress are on the horizon there.

I wonder if – and how often – I’ll need to commute to my employer’s offices in Champaign, a city 60 miles to the south.

I can’t wait until I rejoin my writing group May 1st and start in earnest on the beta version of my book. I harbor a bit of disappointment that I couldn’t shop it around as a resident of Silicon Valley, but I don’t anticipate much of a setback. The content is provocative enough to get a reading, I’d say.

I wonder which Rotary Club I’ll join: Pontiac or Fairbury?

This post notes the halfway point of our “fleeing” California. The next milestone is to clean our rental house, say goodbye to friends and work with my employer to change locations. The final item is driving across country with those things we did not entrust to the moving company. Then, we start to settle in to our new adventure as Illinois residents.

So, are we fleeing California? Or has this decision been building and gaining inevitability for years?

6 thoughts on “Fleeing California: Half Complete”

  1. I think your decision has been building over the years. Were I to move now from Texas, it would be the exact opposite. I’d be fleeing – and I could go to many of the other places I have lived over the last 60 years: New York City, NY state, Everett, WA, Arlington, WA, or back to Lebanon, IL.

    1. I am glad we left Texas when we did. Beautiful state. Love my in-laws. PMC friends are world-class!

      Politically, it has changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

  2. As you know, we left CA as well, and did so because of my father as well. He was still alive and our hope was that we would help him with treatments, etc. and his life would be long. That was not to be. Now we are here for my mom.

    We miss just a few things from CA — some friends, but many of our friends had or have moved other places (TX, ID, UT, AZ, FL, etc.) and food options. We don’t miss some things — crowds, taxes, traffic, taxes, COL, almost total lack of changes in weather/seasons, etc.

    This isn’t really a homecoming for us even though I was born here (0-2 years old) and did my senior year of high school plus college here. We were in CA for 25 years but, IMHO, it has grown MUCH worse of a place to live. Will we stay here when my mother passes? Time will tell and certainly that will be informed by where the kids and granddaughter (hopefully grandchildren) settle.

    Love reading about your journey and we will continue to think fondly of you. That will happen, as a minimum, with each use of the Blackstone griddle. 🙂

    All the best!

    1. Thanks, Doug! We are moving partly because of family reasons. It’s certainly interesting to trace the role family dynamics plays in the trajectories of our lives!

      I love seeing the good use you’re making of that griddle!

      Hope you’ll keep following – and do let me know if and when I get boring or repetitive

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