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Heavy breathing at Sandalwood Court, Encinitas cul-de-sac

Get your checkbook out!

Construction site of Shea Homes, Encinitas. The sign at Via Cantebria that, in early 1998, advertised homes selling “from the high three hundreds” now said “from the mid-four hundreds.”
  • Construction site of Shea Homes, Encinitas. The sign at Via Cantebria that, in early 1998, advertised homes selling “from the high three hundreds” now said “from the mid-four hundreds.”
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” villagers converged in a central square for an annual raffle. They chatted about current events and village life; a few remarked about the peculiarities of the proceedings. Then the lottery began. A winner got chosen. She was stoned to death.

But the lottery today at Encinitas’s new cul-de-sac, Sandalwood Court, will not be so grim. Instead of being killed by rocks, 85 competitors will vie for the chance to spend a half-million dollars on homes not yet built. Homes that may have ocean views.

It is 10:00 a.m. on an unusually toasty Saturday morning. Sedans and utility vehicles, most of which are black, white, or gray, are parked in neat rows on graded dirt lots. Townspeople, a few with strollers and young children in tow, congregate near a trailer displaying the banner “SHEA HOMES.” In front of the trailer is a long blue- clothed table sporting droopy balloons that flap with each faint breeze. A young Shea Homes representative fields questions and signs in contestants near a gold lottery drum half-filled with folded green paper slips. The mood is anxiously upbeat “... I was saying to my wife, ‘Do we really want to pick up all of our stuff and move somewhere else?”

“...We’ve already had the mother of all garage sales...”

“...Well, we could get houses close together...”

Many of the men wear baseball caps.

A few of the women wear visors. Practically all are Caucasian, circa 35 to 60 years old, dressed in scruffy weekend uniforms — jeans, shorts, T-shirts, sunglasses. They take seats in metal chairs beneath an awning, just yards from the Shea Homes trailer. Someone has thoughtfully laid out croissants, pound cake, and juice on a card table, but few indulge.

Thirty minutes from now, a Shea Homes representative will begin drawing names for the Sandalwood Phase I raffle. “Winners” — those who are called first — will have their choice of 13 lots, whose homes, when built, will cost between $451,000 and $665,000. The lots, Numbers 72-86, form an inverted horseshoe about Sandalwood Court. Lots 74 and 77 already are presold. Two couples have left their seats to pace out the dimensions of a big five-bedroom home at Lot 76. They point, step thoughtfully, and try to see the ocean.

“Why do you want to move?”

“Ask my wife.”

“We looked at some houses that were supposed to be $700,000 but turned out to be $1.2 million...”

Periodontist Dan Roberts stands beside the awning, waiting for the lottery to begin. He would like to move his family of four into Sandalwood, which is walking distance from his office.

“We’re in a valley right now. Here, we’d be able to see the sun set.”

“Maureen,” a Meryl Streepish homemaker in her early 40s, greets a realtor friend who has come to observe the lottery. Maureen, too, hopes to relocate her family of five to one of Sandalwood’s residences.

“It would be wonderful,” she says. “I like living in Encinitas, and I’d be able to walk to the stores and enjoy the ocean view.”

Shea Homes’ mortgage division ascertained that the men and women gathered here today can muster roughly $133,000 in cash (20 percent of the most expensive home’s price) as a Sandalwood down payment, without selling their current homes. One hundred forty-four applicants prequalified for the lottery. Eighty-five showed up.

They will have a choice of four floor plans — Heather Mist, Victorian.Rose, Viola, and Wisteria — offering optional bedrooms, wet bars, “retreats,” exercise rooms, studies, and wine rooms. Heather Mist will be one story — a 2830-square- foot J-shaped home. Her sisters will be two stories, over 3300 square feet each.

One prequalified couple, Scott and Patty Whitehead, are absent today. They are on a plane bound home from Fiji, where they had distractedly enjoyed a long-awaited two-week vacation. The Toyota parts and service dealer and his wife, an OR nurse, had been so enamored of Sandalwood “before [Shea] even turned a foot of soil,” that they put their home up for sale. They had visited a nearby Shea development, chatted with Shea reps, and pored over brochures. Their home sold faster than expected, so they moved with their three children into a rental unit. Then there came a glitch.

San Diego’s residential market heated up; so did Sandalwood’s prices. The sign at Via Cantebria that, in early 1998, advertised homes selling “from the high three hundreds” now said “from the mid-four hundreds,” Scott Whitehead recalls.

“Then one day Patty says, ‘Did you see the sign?’ and it said, ‘From the low five hundreds.’ So we realized we probably had to start shopping for another home. But we still kept checking back.” This is because Scott Whitehead, who says he grew up in a house near the sea, had set a “lifetime goal” of once again securing an ocean view.

At the lottery today, Mark Grassi, a local loan officer, will represent the White- heads. Prior to the drawing, he e-mailed the couple in Fiji that Lot 78 (which would feature a two-story Victorian Rose, with an optional balcony) was still available for $519,000. Did they want to try for it?

An answer came from Fiji: yes.

It is 10:20 a.m. The drawing will begin in ten minutes. A man in sunglasses notices an acquaintance. “Are you in the lottery?” he asks.

“Isn’t everyone?”

Conversations grow louder, more animated. The two couples have finished pacing Lot 76 and are back in their seats. Rumors about Sandalwood’s desirability are circulating through the crowd: more than 2000 people requested Sandalwood’s mailings, and 3000 souls made telephone inquiries; six local realtors, sensing phenomenal deals, are among the contestants; the lottery was set up to prevent a huge post- Woodstock house-buying campout.

Jeanne Gleeson, a Coldwell Banker agent from La Jolla, is the best-dressed person at the lottery. She has come today to observe, not to buy, although she admits she was tempted to sign up. “I said to my husband, ‘Honey, I know real estate and this is a good investment.’ ” She cites Encinitas’s growing prestige, Sandalwood’s distance from commercial sites, Shea’s reputation, and, yes, the coastline views.

Near Shea’s long blue-clothed table, two boys play with a stick and a plastic monster doll. One of the boys fixes his attention on the horizon, which drops precipitously behind Shea’s trailer. In front of the trailer, a blondhaired Shea representative fidgets with the lottery drum, opening and closing its metal mouth, riffling entries, as a late arrival apprehensively queries about the drawing.

All talking ceases at 10:31 a.m., when a soprano voice begins its soliloquy:

as we pull your number, let us know what lot you want and —”

The voice grows inaudible. “Louder!”

“Speak up!”

Several contestants rise from their seats to move closer to the Shea representative, who tells her audience that, when their names are called, they must go into the trailer, specify the lot they want, and tender payment ($10,000 earnest money). If they do not desire any of the available lots, she continues, they can defer selection for a later Sandalwood phase.

“... You’ll receive a letter in the mail about the next release,” the Shea representative concludes.

“Do we have to show up for each release?” someone calls out.

“You mean we have to go through this again?” another asks.

The representative begins to turn the lottery drum. “It’s so we’U know you’re still interested.” Turning, turning, the lottery drum glints in the stark sunlight. Eighty-five folded green papers in its maw flutter and tumble like leaves.

Reaching into the drum, the Shea representative chooses a folded paper.

“Number one, John ——.”

Collective silence, then a gleeful shout as a baritone voice yells, “Get your checkbook out!”

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 are called. Couples squeal, gasp, hug, jump to their feet. They begin queueing behind the long blue-clothed table. One by one, in lottery order, they ascend the trailer’s wooden steps, disappear into its interior, and reveal their purchasing intentions to awaiting Shea personnel.

“Number five, Dan Roberts!” The periodontist looks to the sky. “Yes!”

Numbers 6,7, and 8 are called. A ponytailed man seated under the awning looks tense. A woman near him whispers heatedly.

“Number nine—”

“Turn it!” someone shouts angrily. “You’re not turning it!” As the Shea representative continues to call out numbers, the remaining crowd’s frozen anticipatory smiles melt. A few stomp their feet, fold their hands against their chests. Others, closer to the trailer, stare wistfully at their more victorious rivals. Numbers 10 and 11 are called. “Hey! We’re number 11!” a man calls out in disbelief.

“Number 12... Scott Whitehead.”

Cheers, hoots, and hollers go up. Mark Grassi steps forward.

By 10:55 a.m., well before lunchtime, all numbers have been called. The queue, which resembles depictions of departed souls at the Gates of Judgment, is nearly 20 yards long, extending beyond the awning area. Those at the front of the line stand with faces uplifted, peering up at the trailer’s entrance. At the far end of the trailer is yet another door. Here, those who have shed $10,000 earnest money—or deferred choosing a home — exit somberly and unobtrusively.

People on the lines begin to chat nervously.

“Are you going to defer?” “Um-hmm.”

“Me, too.’

“I didn’t like the first phase. If there was a premium lot left, I’d have bought it, but —” “Sorry if I sound bitchy...” “This line is taking forever.” By 11:02 a.m., four lots are sold. Three minutes later, another is claimed. The queue beside the trailer is still 12 yards long.

Before ascending the trailer’s steps, lottery contestants near the blue-clothed table study a site map, maintained by a Shea representative. It shows available remaining lots. When a suburban Marla Maples leans over the map, she grimaces. “They sold it! The one I wanted” Behind her, a husky woman in a white “cat” T-shirt stares trance-like at a still-available lot. “My husband’s out of town and I don’t know if he’s gonna want that.” No one responds. She adds quietly, “But I don’t want to lose my place.”

Farther down the line, two men swap hardship stories: “...I’m staying in a guest house right now...”

“...When we got our home ages ago we had to camp out...” And a young couple grimly informs an older female relative, “It’s just too much money...”

Maureen, small son at her side, looks weary. She tells a friend, “I think there’s a reason for everything.” Jeanne Gleeson bids good-bye to colleagues and heads off to a client meeting.

“I think you get a lot for your money,” she later says of Sandalwood. “Homes like those would be about $900,000 in La Jolla. There’s minimal new development in Encinitas, so there’ll be hardly any other new products with ocean views. My only concern is long range. If the market falls again —” She considers this for a moment. “But at least those buyers’ll have a high quality of living.” Now the lottery site seems empty, lonely, only 20-odd people remain beside the trailer. At Lot #82, a middle-aged couple enters the only tall wooden house-skeleton near the lottery site — a budding $524,000 Victorian Rose with a half-built fountain on its front lawn. Inside its cavernous walls are stacks of drywall and piles of wood shavings. The couple stands near the doorway, looking at studs, joists, and concrete flooring. “This is the living room,” the man says authoritatively.

Near 4:30 p.m., the Whiteheads land at Palomar Airport. They are picked up by a friend, who suggests they visit Sandalwood to see if Grassi secured a home for them. They drive up Via Cantebria to Sandalwood Court. They notice commotion at Lot 78, the lot they had hoped to buy.

About 20 friends and relatives are waving, cheering. They have set out champagne, foodstuffs, and party favors.

Weeks later, Scott Whitehead will have an epiphany. “We’ve got a good piece of view, an ocean view, and we can see sunsets. Maybe it all worked out because we didn’t care anymore. It was out of our control. We finally realized that.”

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