Ask East County real estate agent Bob Blessing what attracts luxury-home buyers and he answers, "Location." Blessing lists Mount Helix, Horizon Hills east of Mount Helix along Avocado Boulevard, and Blossom Valley between El Cajon and Alpine as the top three luxury areas in East County. "I was raised in this area," he says, "and when I was a kid in the '50s and '60s, Mount Helix was really a nice area. Then it kind of drifted along and really didn't do that well. Now, it's come back, and a lot of the older homes are being bought up and fixed up. It's kind of revitalizing. What's so nice about Mount Helix is the location from the standpoint of being able to get downtown in 12, 15 minutes down the 94. And all of East County is an easy commute compared to North County. Interstate 8 is getting more congested, but it still works pretty well compared to going to North County. Going north and south in San Diego is a lot more difficult than going east and west."
Ask him why prices on Mount Helix and other luxury areas in East County aren't as high as in Mission Hills and La Jolla, and his answer is the same: location. "It's 12 or 15 miles from the beach, and more people want to live by the beach. A house here on Mount Helix that could sell for $1 million could sell for up to $5 million in La Jolla — at least $2 or $3 million."
But it's not just proximity to the ocean that Del Mar, La Jolla, and Mission Hills offer to those who can afford to buy homes in those areas. They also offer window-shopping districts, restaurants, art galleries, after-dark entertainment, and day spas. In East County, antique shops and a couple of family-style Mexican restaurants line quaint La Mesa Village. Downtown El Cajon is on the upswing but offers limited shopping and only one or two restaurants. In Rancho San Diego, along Jamacha Road east of Mount Helix, wide, palm-studded parking lots front new shopping centers full of chain restaurants and retailers. And the East County's two malls, Parkway Plaza and Grossmont Center, target the middle-class shopper. But Blessing says this situation "hurts us very little. It's only 10 minutes to Mission Valley and 15 minutes to a nice restaurant downtown. Once or twice I've had potential buyers say, 'We like to eat downtown and we just like the scene downtown. That's why we are not going to buy out here.' "
Sharon Davis, who grew up in La Mesa and has been selling homes in East County for 21 years, echoes Blessing's sentiment. "When I go shopping, I just hop on down to Fashion Valley. It's only 15 minutes. So we can easily get to Fashion Valley for high end, and we also have the convenience of the East County shopping centers for the rest."
Davis believes that even if Parkway Plaza were Fashion Valley and downtown El Cajon the Gaslamp, East County's luxury areas wouldn't become La Jolla's peers "because La Jolla has the coast," she explains. "But it would certainly raise the prices."
The comparatively low prices are what draw many luxury-home buyers to East County -- luxury bargain hunting. "That's a good way to put it," Blessing says. "They look in La Jolla and find that $800,000 would buy them a tiny house on a postage-stamp lot. Well, I just sold a house on Russell Road on Mount Helix for $752,000. It was 4100-square-foot house on an acre and a half with a beautiful pool in a wonderful neighborhood. I mean, it was gorgeous -- nice location, nice view."
Same place in La Jolla?
"Two million to $4 million, if you could find it," Blessing answers.
"In Blossom Valley, for 750 [thousand dollars]," Davis says, "you can buy a Mediterranean masterpiece with 4400 square feet and a view that takes in all of El Monte valley and looks at El Capitan mountain square in the face. Or you could buy a house with a guest house and a nice, picturesque view. You can have a seven-bedroom house with two acres on it and a pool and spa."
Two million nine hundred thousand is the highest asking price on Mount Helix right now. "That's just before you get up to the cross," Blessing explains. "It's a gorgeous 9000-square-foot house on a couple of acres. The property is just gorgeous. That's the high end. Right now, we've got 82 properties for sale up on Mount Helix ranging from $300,000 up to two-nine."
Along with the luxury bargain hunters, Blessing lists a few other types buying upscale abodes in East County. "A number of homes I've sold in the last year are from people who are from out of town," he says. "Executives. Either company owners or high-ranking officers for large companies. The second thing you'll get is people that are buying maybe their third or fourth home, and they're moving up in the market. So you get the combination of the two. And you get people moving from one part of Mount Helix to another."
"Golfers is the number-one stereotype," says Davis, who sells most of her homes in the neighborhoods straddling Jamacha Road, collectively known as Rancho San Diego. "Affluent golfers. Executives. There are millionaires living all along Steele Canyon Golf Course. Some pro ball players have houses out there along the course. One pro baseball player just sold his $2.6 million house on the golf course. Then, in Blossom Valley, it is more the horse people buying glamorous horse ranches. In Alpine you have people who appreciate more rural settings buying beautiful estates. Intact families with a mommy and a daddy, dual-income families, people that cherish family and want to raise their kids playing Little League. There are a lot of transplanted Midwesterners in East County that like a drier climate, not as moist and damp as the beach is. And they like to see the sunshine a little bit more, to not be in the gloom of the coast."
Davis is reluctant to talk about East County as a single entity because she believes a stereotype exists of the "East County boy in a cowboy hat and a pickup truck," which is erroneously applied to the whole region. "That's a Lakeside boy," she says. "People out there might favor that description. But do you know how many houses I sell a year to horse people? Hardly any. Still, some people think of East County as nothing but horse properties, and labels stick. Thirty years ago, El Cajon used to be filled with horse ranches. That...was... 30...years...ago!"
The misconception, Davis figures, is largely due to many of the unincorporated neighborhoods in East County having El Cajon addresses. "The El Cajon address encompasses three zip codes and covers so many parts of East San Diego County. The city of El Cajon had quite a lot of pride 25, 30 years ago. But all of those grandpas are gone or dead. It hit bottom a few years back and became a little inner city. Now they're redeveloping it, but there are still people who have El Cajon addresses who never set foot in the city of El Cajon because there are so many beautiful areas that all get labeled El Cajon: Rancho Vista Grande, Fletcher Hills, Granite Hills, Monarch Ridge, Rancho San Diego. But people don't know that; they just go, 'Oh, you live in El Cajon.' And they have no idea that East County has many wonderful neighborhoods filled with quiet money. They're not flashy people, they're not fast-laners, they're people with quiet money."
Another group buying high end homes in East County is North County refugees. "I've had several clients," Davis says, "transfer themselves and their families to East County because they were fed up with North County traffic. It's just like anything; new is always better in people's minds. So when all the new homes were built in North County, people moved to the new house until they got so overpopulated, and they started saying, 'Well, maybe new isn't better,' and started looking toward East County. Now, they're rediscovering East County because it's such a great value and it's so convenient. It's like San Diego's best-kept secret. My North County transfer clients have told me, 'I've so had it with the North County thing and all of that traffic.' They're saying, 'I want more quality of life and less time on the freeway.' "