Town Shopping

Maintaining karmic balance in the New West’s real estate economy

  • Author John Fayhee searches for a new, undiscovered Western town to call home

    Todd Powell
  • Downtown Silver City, New Mexico, is glowing with the fresh pastels of gentrification, including the local health-food store

    Michael Berman
  • The town of Roslyn, Washington, gained fame as the mythical Cicely, Alaska, in the television series Northern Exposure. The Roslyn Cafe mural and Old West-style Main Street remain

    Joel Rogers
  • Roslyn and its surroundings later caught the eye of the developers of the giant Suncadia resort. Now, large and lavish houses like this one are under construction

    Joel Rogers
  • Jarbidge, Nevada, fixer-upper

    John Fayhee
  • Jarbidge, Nevada's local bar

    Thomas Hallstein/Outsight
  • Signs in downtown Silver City, New Mexico

    Michael Berman
  • In the foothills, new adobes are being set on pads carved into the pino and juniper in the new Dos Griegos subdivision

    Michael Berman
  • Silver's Brewer Hill is one of the last places in town working folks can afford, and likely is next in line for the bulldozers

    Michael Berman

Page 3

I picked up a copy of Roslyn’s MLS listings and spent an afternoon wandering the town’s back streets. When I did the same thing two years prior, I seriously thought I could cash out of Colorado and move here. Now, not only were the prices completely out of my range, but the town’s vibe just flat-out felt different. There were more new SUVs parked around town. And the houses, which had remained pleasantly unpainted for 100 years, were now blazing in bright Victorian pinks and purples.

On the surface, all this may seem good, or, at worst, benign. But I couldn’t help but notice that the local workmen were giving me what can best be described as the hairy eyeball as I walked around, assessing $300,000 fixer-uppers that, like the new Suncadia resort residences, are increasingly the domain of second-homeowners. (Apparently the workers figured that since I was looking, I was one of "them.")

"What do you think this town will be like in 10 years?" Cox had asked me, knowing that I lived in the belly of the real estate beast. I was tempted to ask her if she’d ever visited Telluride, Colo., but I didn’t. "It will be different," I said, in the same honest-but-evasive tone Kevin Costner used in Dances With Wolves, when asked how many white people the Sioux ought to expect for dinner.

Actually, I have no earthly idea what Roslyn will be like in 10 years, because I don’t know how things work in the Pacific Northwest. But I do know that I have, with a heavy heart, checked Roslyn off my potential relocation list, the same way I have, one by one, eliminated towns as disparate as Homer, Alaska, Silverton, Colo., and Jerome, Ariz., and for the same reason: Too damned late.

Pulling into downtown Jarbidge, Nev., on Labor Day weekend, I knew (just KNEW) deep down in my corpuscles that this would be IT, the last undiscovered cool Western hamlet. This was a place so far removed from the cultural and economic mainstream that there would undoubtedly be dozens of nice and funky fixer-uppers. I would soon be trying to decide whether the historic log cabin back in the aspens or the quaint false-fronted general store — both surely available for under $20,000 — would be more to my liking.

Jarbidge boasts that it is the most remote town in the Lower 48. It’s 105 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho, where people go to shop. It’s 102 miles from Elko, the county seat; you can’t even get there in the winter because of a snowed-in dirt-road pass. It boasts one little general store that looks like something straight out of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Jarbidge has a population of 40 or 50 in the summer and eight to 12 in the winter. Crossing Jarbidge Creek and turning onto the main drag, I had visions of Bisbee, Ariz., circa 1975, a place that, with the proper progressive planning and the right population mix, could become an artsy haven for folks like me who are weary of the New West’s increasingly obtrusive rat race.

But the first thing that caught my eye as I slowly drove from one end of Main Street to the other — a distance of a mile or so — was the preponderance of FOR SALE signs. A total of six or eight in a town that boasts maybe two dozen houses. And, with the exception of one cabin best described as "cozy; needs bulldozing" (which, come to find out, was listed for $52,000), all the available properties were closer to $200,000 than to $20,000.

I headed to Jarbidge’s one bar, the Outdoor Inn, for a cold one. It being midday and all, I was the only customer, and I started hobnobbing with the bartender, who had lived in Jarbidge for three years. She had just learned that she was likely going to have to move, because the owners of the place were going to mothball the bar — and her employee apartment out back — for the winter.

"The few houses here for rent run $800 a month, and there’s no way on earth I will ever be able to buy a house in Jarbidge; they’re just too expensive," she lamented. "The prices keep going up and up every year, and people, mostly from California, keep buying ’em as fast as they are listed. They’ve got the money."

She was especially bummed because almost every house in Jarbidge would be shuttered in the winter. "They’re almost all second homes," she sighed, as I started looking for the hidden Candid Camera crew. This just couldn’t be happening here — not the same dreary beat-down monologue that has echoed through the Colorado high country ever since downhill skiing became more of a real estate amenity than a fun thing to do in the winter.

Arguments about this kind of second-home market are likely to rage forever. Some say that second-homeowners put less of a strain on public infrastructure while paying the same property taxes as full-time residents. Others say second-homeowners don’t contribute as much to local economies, because they’re simply not there enough to support local grocery stores and bars the way full-time residents do. But one thing is indisputable: Second-home mania causes a drop in the housing supply for locals, driving real estate and rental costs up and up in an endless spiral.

"You could try Tuscarora, if this is too expensive," said one old-timer, who was puttering in his yard. He was selling his two-bedroom, one-bath house for $170,000 for no other reason than he figured he could get that much. "Supply and demand," he snickered. "We’ve got very little supply of housing here in Jarbidge, and there’s a lot of demand for it. There aren’t many places like this left. People are looking for remote towns that are unaffected by growth that they can come and live in the summer."

The old-timer told me he was looking to cash out of Jarbidge so he could buy a motorhome and spend his golden years traveling around the country. "It’s the American dream," he said, putting a funny spin on the slogan.

It took me 15 minutes to find Tuscarora on the map. By the time I found it, of course, I was already too late.

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