San Diego's weird backcountry real estate

No traffic, but you need septic tank, well, propane

Looking out over Los Tules, a community of a few hundred homes above Warner Springs Ranch
  • Looking out over Los Tules, a community of a few hundred homes above Warner Springs Ranch
  • Photograph by Dave Rice

Bad foundations. Leaky pipes. Illegal garage conversions. Death (owner or otherwise) on a property. These are all things that have at least once derailed the sale of a piece of real estate during my 20 years in the industry.

Another interesting subset of listings one finds out here are forest cabins, built in the first half of the 20th century in the Cleveland National Forest on federally-owned land.

Another interesting subset of listings one finds out here are forest cabins, built in the first half of the 20th century in the Cleveland National Forest on federally-owned land.

Photograph by John Elliot

But that’s not why I’m winding my way up State Route 67, slipping past the backside of Poway and continuing through Ramona, where the town’s handful of stoplights will be the last I’ll see on this late May excursion. I’m interested in talking to some seasoned real estate veterans plying their trade in San Diego’s vast backcountry. My limited dabbling there has taught me that the work quickly becomes more complicated once taken-for-granted niceties such as city-maintained streets, water, and sewer systems are left behind.

State Route 78 carries me eastward out of Ramona, through vast stretches of dry meadows dotted with occasional stands of trees or rock outcroppings. Horses wander behind fences along the highway, a few head of cattle graze here and there, and at one point I spy what appears to be a herd of camels perched on a hillside.

The highway forks in Santa Ysabel, a small town near the headwaters of the San Diego River that grew out of a Spanish mission asistencia beginning in the early 1800s. Today it’s best known as headquarters for a pair of well-recognized local baked goods producers: Dudley’s Bakery and the Julian Pie Company.

The mining town turned mountain retreat of Julian is a few miles up a grade to the south. Instead, I head north on State Route 79, continuing to climb as the hills become rockier and the pastures a bit greener, eventually reaching the sprawling, sleepy community of Warner Springs, nestled among some of the highest peaks in the Laguna mountain range.

Angela Acosta stands in front of a Warner Springs home built in 1989 by Roger Craig, a World Series-winning baseball player

Angela Acosta stands in front of a Warner Springs home built in 1989 by Roger Craig, a World Series-winning baseball player

Photograph by Dave Rice

It’s here that I’ll meet Angela Acosta, an agent who grew up in the area, left to pursue a Stanford degree, spent several years traveling the globe, but ultimately decided to return home 16 years ago to raise her own family.

Acosta meets me near the highway and we trek for several minutes down a roughly-graded dirt road that’s still far more easily traversed than the one I’d taken on my own misguided attempt to reach one of her listings by relying on GPS. (Google Maps are not to be trusted when it comes to dirt roads). I’m wondering if it was a wise decision to trade the ruggedness of my battered old Jeep for the Realtor prestige of my wife’s Lincoln for this trip, but Acosta apparently has no such qualms about aggressively piloting her BMW through the ruts and dips of the trail.

The second-floor floating hallway features railing balusters made of a collection of Craig’s old baseball bats

The second-floor floating hallway features railing balusters made of a collection of Craig’s old baseball bats

Photograph by Dave Rice

“It’s the weirder the better for me, in terms of listings,” she tells me, hopping out of her SUV with an infant daughter in tow. “The quirkier, the unpermitted-er — I’ve done everything from multi-family listings in the High Desert to land and single-families down to the Tecate border.”

The property we’ve arrived at on San Felipe Road might qualify as a bit rustic, with its hewn-log construction lending a woodsy feel to the interior, but it’s not exactly weird. Built in 1989 by Roger Craig, a World Series-winning baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals who served as manager of the Padres in the late seventies, the home features more than 3500 square feet of living area and a pool, along with 40 acres of land that includes a seasonal creek running below the homesite. Eric, the affable seller (also a licensed real estate agent, it turns out), invites me inside for a tour. A unique feature that stands out from the otherwise luxury ski chalet feel of the home is a second-floor floating hallway leading to the master bedroom, where the railing balusters are a collection of Craig’s old baseball bats.

As we walk the property, I ask Acosta about how a real estate transaction, and the job of the agent, differs up here in the mountains from urban real estate.

The Lieu Quan Meditation Center is reportedly home to some of the country’s largest Buddhist statues that occupy an otherwise unremarkable ranch

The Lieu Quan Meditation Center is reportedly home to some of the country’s largest Buddhist statues that occupy an otherwise unremarkable ranch

Photograph by Dave Rice

“You’re going to have to get well and septic certifications to sell a house, which is something city folks don’t have to deal with,” she begins. “A well guy will come out and run water for an hour or two, noting how many gallons per minute are flowing. Water tables fluctuate, and sometimes you’ll break suction, meaning the pump is pulling water out faster than it’s flowing into the well casing.”

The well at the San Felipe house produces 33 gallons of water per minute, much more than the two-gallon flow rate that’s considered the minimum acceptable to most lenders. Acosta says that Warner Springs’ location at the base of the county’s highest peaks location puts the community “at the top of the food chain in terms of water access” for the county. A high water table means that wells usually don’t cause problems up here. That’s not always the case — sometimes sellers have to drill a new, deeper well if an existing one isn’t producing.

Bronner’s “All-One-Faith” Rain Forest, a 1200-acre parcel purchased by Emanuel Bronner, patriarch of the Dr. Bronner’s line of soaps and personal care products (though not a doctor), with the goal of establishing a rainforest on the arid, desert side of the mountain range.

Bronner’s “All-One-Faith” Rain Forest, a 1200-acre parcel purchased by Emanuel Bronner, patriarch of the Dr. Bronner’s line of soaps and personal care products (though not a doctor), with the goal of establishing a rainforest on the arid, desert side of the mountain range.

Photograph by Dave Rice

“Including pumps and tanks and a water tank, that could run $20,000,” Acosta says, referring specifically to Warner Springs. “But I’ve heard of people elsewhere spending $60,000 or $80,000 on a well, since the cost is largely based on depth. If you’re near a lot of agricultural use, which we’re not, that could impact the available groundwater.

“When it comes to drilling wells, we’ll usually hit water about 50 to 80 feet down, but in other regions like Santa Ysabel or Ramona I’ve seen them go down 1000 feet and not hit a drop.”

She shows me to the well’s pump house, where mechanical equipment pushes water up to a storage tank on a nearby hill and gravity feeds it back to the house. Since 1990, the county has required all new homes in the backcountry to be equipped with at least 5000 gallons of on-site water storage, with fire truck hookups for use in case of emergency. Acosta points to the pump house roof, designed to be removable so that a crane can reach in and extract the pump when it wears out after five or ten years and needs to be replaced.

“I’ve had people try to buy just the sign more than once,” Elliot laughs. “But it’s going to come with the barn still attached.”

“I’ve had people try to buy just the sign more than once,” Elliot laughs. “But it’s going to come with the barn still attached.”

Photograph by Dave Rice

“Something we real estate agents really have to have our heads on a swivel about is environmental stuff,” Acosta continues. “I have to know my flora and fauna pretty well, recognizing sensitive habitats for things like coastal sage, riparian areas. You wouldn’t be able to build your house right by a creek, for example; the county would never stand for it.”

This environmental stuff, it turns out, helps ensure future development of the area will be limited.

“A lot of people will see a 40-acre parcel out here and think, ‘Awesome, I can subdivide and develop that!’ Well, the county might say that there’s an eight-acre minimum lot size, but they really don’t want the backcountry to be anything besides the backcountry. They make it very cost- and time-prohibitive for subdividers.

“A sensitive plant, a moth, an Indian artifact being found, these could all derail a project. The county will tell you, ‘Give us $50,000, and we’ll let you know what we think about it.’ You can get really involved in the project, and the county might still come back a year or two later and tell you no. People ask me about this all the time, and I have to keep finding polite ways to tell them not to waste their time.”

“When we came here 30 years ago from the city [of Los Angeles], my dad could have bought an 85-acre parcel or an 11-acre one. They were the same price, but because the smaller one had already been subdivided into four lots he opted for that one.”

I ask about what motivates people to live the rural lifestyle in Southern California, a region much more well known for urban sprawl than 40-acre homesites.

We begin with her own story: Acosta’s father was a prison guard in Chino. The stress of his job led him to seek refuge in the wilderness, and the family would often escape the city on weekend camping trips.

“We moved here on my ninth birthday, and we never went camping again,” Acosta says with a laugh.

“I went off for college and worked for six years in the Bay Area, Chicago, Germany for a while, but I got it out of my system and came home. For me and almost every client I’ve ever worked with, people are looking for a healthier lifestyle. Clean air, clean water, more sustainable living. There are a lot of cottage industry opportunities out here, I’ve got a friend that has a safari tent on her property that’s rented out almost every day of the year. You can run a business out of your house.”

She rattles off a host of home businesses neighbors and clients have engaged in: winemaking, farming hops for local breweries, camel dairies. It turns out the camels I was only partially convinced I saw on the drive up were on the grounds of Oasis Camel Dairy, purveyors of camel milk chocolates and a host of camel-derived soaps and skincare products.

“Basically, we enjoy a lot of freedoms. Not necessarily to do anything nefarious, but in a ‘No one tells me what to do on my property’ sense. If you want to walk around naked…” Acosta trails off.

The freedom of country living is a virtue I’ll hear extolled time and again, from Acosta, her seller, and others I talk to over the next few weeks. Leaving the San Felipe house, Acosta stops to point out a sign at the driveway entrance reading Rancho Dos Aves (Two Birds Ranch.)

“It’s one feeling we all share when it comes to city life,” she explains, grinning broadly as she extends two upturned fists toward me, middle digits raised.

Mountain life, however, does present its own unique blend of problems. “We go to Temecula. That’s the closest shopping, and it’s 35, 45 minutes one way. If you get home and realize you forgot milk, you’re not going to have milk. On the other hand, we never have to sit in traffic. You’re pretty much hauling ass on a country road until you get to Temecula, Poway, wherever.”

“Building from scratch is not for the faint of heart,” she continues. “You’ve got to have a good imagination and be very determined, because it can be discouraging to go to the county and get a ‘no’ because you asked the wrong question about your project or didn’t phrase it properly. What I see more of is people buying something old, even if it’s funky or frankly not even usable, and improving on that.”

Beyond the lack of water and sewer, other utilities also pose problems.

“We do have SDG&E, but only for electricity. If you want gas, it comes from a propane bottle. There are definitely areas where even electricity is too far away to reach. These people have been on generators for a long time, but they’re starting to buy into solar or wind power. The off-off-grid stuff is really challenging, because if you need financing, there aren’t a lot of banks that will lend on something so far away you can’t plug into the power grid.”

Much of the financing for these properties, then, comes from owners themselves.

“Especially if it’s vacant land. One of the first questions I’ll ask is whether the seller is willing to carry paper, even if it’s just for three or five years. It can significantly speed up the process in finding a good buyer,” Acosta tells me. “Even then, you’re going to need 20 percent down as a buyer.”

After San Felipe, we hop back on State Route 79 and wind our way another few miles north, passing through the closest the area comes to a downtown in a tick under 30 seconds. In total there’s a fire station, community center, and the town’s school campus that serves about 200 students, ranging from pre-school to high school, who travel from as far as 45 miles away to attend. Acosta herself attended from fourth through eighth grades, but the town had no high school when she was younger and she instead took a bus for two hours each morning and afternoon going to and from Julian to continue her education.

The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway here, and a few hikers trudge north. I wonder if they’ll hit the desert leg of the trail before the weather becomes unbearable.

A short while later, we pull into Los Tules, a hillside subdivision of a few hundred homes that looks downright suburban compared to where we’ve just been. Acosta stops at the top of the hill near a vacant lot she’s preparing to list — it’ll go for $125,000, though homes in the neighborhood are worth anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million, and benefit from a network of paved roads and a community water system that alleviates the need for wells. Perched on lots ranging from a half-acre to about thrice that size, some homes date back to the 1880s and sit beside neighboring buildings a century or more their junior. Acosta says distinguished local architect Cliff May, influential in driving the post-war ranch style that permeated many San Diego suburbs, designed a handful of residences here in the 1940s.

From the hilltop, we’re afforded a sweeping view of Warner Springs Ranch, historic grounds that served as a waystation for emigrants from the East Coast headed for San Diego and Los Angeles in the mid-1800s and eventually evolved into a health spa and golf resort.

“If you see that clearing with all the rocks down there, that’s the original village site of the Cupeño people,” Acosta gestures. “They were displaced years ago when John Warner developed Warner Springs, subjected to their own version of the trail of tears to what’s currently the Pala reservation. They still have a bunch of the little adobe casitas that are original to the village that were converted into hotel rooms when the resort was created in the 1980s.”

While Warner was notoriously hostile to natives, many actually stayed on to work the land until, after Warner’s death, former California governor John Downey acquired the ranch and sued to evict the tribe from their village. Downey himself died in 1894 before the case was settled, but the Cupeños were indeed forced off their land in 1903.

Before parting ways, Acosta takes me even further north to Chihuahua Valley, near the county’s northeastern border, for a bit more offbeat sightseeing. First is the Lieu Quan Meditation Center, reportedly home to some of the country’s largest Buddhist statues, which occupy an otherwise unremarkable ranch. Some tower 20 feet or more above the ground. There’s no one around but the driveway gate is left ajar, and Acosta assures me that anyone is welcome to come and go as they please so long as they respect the grounds.

There’s also Bronner’s “All-One-Faith” Rain Forest, a 1200-acre parcel purchased by Emanuel Bronner, patriarch of the Dr. Bronner’s line of soaps and personal care products (though not a doctor), with the goal of establishing a rainforest on the arid, desert side of the mountain range. Bronner spent much of his life proselytizing for his self-crafted Judeo-Unitarian faith as a means of “uniting spaceship earth,; the company’s product labels still contain large doses of his philosophical musings.

After snapping a few photos and saying goodbye it’s a long, long drive back into town.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m speeding east on Interstate 8, climbing into La Mesa, dropping through the El Cajon valley, climbing again through Blossom Valley and Alpine. I pass the Viejas tribal casino that appears ever-more opulent every time I see it, Pine Valley, and finally crest the western peak of the mountains and descend into Buckman Springs. From here, it’s a similarly uneventful 15-mile slog south to Campo, the main point of interest along the way being a 20-minute traffic delay near Mountain Empire High School. I make a mental note to take SR 94 on the way home for a change of scenery.

As I near my destination, things get a little more interesting. First up is an oddly compelling array of rusting metal that stretches for acres: this turns out to be the Motor Transport Museum, which includes in its collection everything from San Diego buses dating to the 1940s to World War I era military machinery and the Julian Stage, one of a pair of vehicles that shuttled passengers and cargo between Julian and Lakeside from 1912-1915.

Further on, an aging white building with a tall silo is emblazoned with “Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company” in peeling black paint. A century ago, the company that would become American Standard had a mica mine out here; the plant refined material to create the porcelain to make toilets for a nation becoming acquainted with indoor plumbing.

After another jaunt down a rain-rutted Custer Road, I reach the listing of one John Elliott, a longtime backcountry agent based in Descanso, just north of I-8 on the way to Lake Cuyamaca. The house is unimpressive, a well-maintained but dated ranch-style that wouldn’t be out of place in any suburb save for its four-acre lot. It’s the property itself, however, that has a story to tell.

“This whole area was part of Camp Lockett, a military base in the 1940s,” Elliott explains, but the military presence here dates to much earlier. “This particular site was one of the last encampments of the Buffalo Soldiers, the famous all-black cavalry unit. One of their barns still sits on the property.”

As he warns me to watch out for rattlesnakes, we descend into the backyard where a mammoth wooden building with fading white paint sports a sign reading “11th Cavalry.” The Buffalo Soldiers were part of the 10th Cavalry stationed nearby, but the historical significance of the barn isn’t entirely diminished. Inside, old tack that Elliott says dates back to the military days still hangs on the stable walls.

“I’ve had people try to buy just the sign more than once,” he laughs. “But it’s going to come with the barn still attached.”

Elliott moved to the backcountry as a teen from the Granite Hills neighborhood of El Cajon and attended the old Mountain Empire High School. Until the current campus was built in the early 2000s, the school was housed down the road in old Camp Lockett barracks, which were used as an Italian prisoner of war camp during World War II.

“The history of the area is really interesting, once you get into it,” Elliott continues. “You can still see a bunch of pock-marked rocks on a side of the mountain where the troops used to practice firing their cannons; and right down where the railroad line comes across the border there’s a tunnel, and inside they’ve got this big white line painted across the middle of it with arrows pointing each way and ‘Mexico’ and ‘United States’ marked next to them.”

When it comes to real estate, Elliott shares many of the same concerns as Acosta: wells (I learn many were hand-dug as late as the 1960s), lenders being unwilling to offer financing, buyers not being prepared for the remoteness (he even uses the same anecdote about the danger of forgetting milk at the grocery store), property boundaries, and fire protection.

“The neat thing about doing real estate out here is you can take a deep dive into the deeds on these parcels, and they really tell you about the history of the area, how it’s developed over the years and how economics have really shaped the fate of the land.

“I’ll pat myself on the back, I’m pretty good at reading title reports, particularly when it comes to identifying access easements. Sometimes you’ll find parcels that appear landlocked, and you’ve got to find out why that’s the case. Often it just may be a gap in the deeding process — somebody years ago may have granted an easement that wasn’t recorded, and you’ve got to then try to get a title company to insure over that gap to restore access.

“That’s not always the case. I’ve got 300 acres out in Guatay that’s landlocked by the Forest Service. You used to be able to cross their land to access my listing, but they’ve changed road requirements and suddenly decided to stop recognizing the existing road. My client’s now had to spend $250,000 doing environmental studies to get his road re-established.

“Everybody likes to shop online for real estate, so much of the market has gone to the internet. But out here, each and every piece of property is going to be different, so you have to really be out here on the ground, assessing not just a house but the land and its facilities in real life.

“Most of the properties out here, if you look into it, will still have race restrictions written into the deeds as late as the 1930s where not only are minorities prevented from owning land, they can’t even live on a parcel unless they’re there under the employ of a white landowner. Obviously, laws have been passed striking these down and they’re entirely unenforceable, but they’re still there and it’s just kind of shocking to see.”

When it comes to prospective buyers, he says many romanticize the idea of owning land without really considering the amount of work that goes into it.

“Everybody thinks they want a 10- or 20-acre parcel, but there’s a whole lot of responsibility that comes with that, and people aren’t always aware of the amount of work that needs to be done to maintain that vacant land. You’ve got to own a weed whacker, mower, maybe even a tractor and brush hog, and you’ve got to use them.

“Defending against fire is a huge deal, and it’s getting worse. A big part of that lies in trying to get insurance, it’s getting to a point that if you’re in an area that’s been designated as having a high fire danger you’ve got to go to the state for the California FAIR plan, which is an expensive two-part insurance plan that not only covers you in case your house burns down, but also for liability if it’s where a fire starts. That’s something that’s much more complicated up here.”

Campo also has its answer to Los Tules, the tight-packed development I saw in Warner Springs. It’s called Campo Hills, was built in the mid-2000s, and is packed with hundreds of identical tract homes on lots no bigger than you’d find in any modern subdivision. I wonder why anyone would want to make such a long drive into the country just to feel like they’re still in the suburbs at home.

“You wouldn’t think it would be incredibly popular, but it is,” Elliott assures me. “Properties come on the market and they’re gone really quick. I mean, the prices are good, these places are going for a little over 300 grand, for San Diego that’s inexpensive. It’s just how far you’re willing to drive.

“During the crash, investors swooped in and bought a bunch of them up, so there are a lot of rentals now. You see a lot of military families, a lot of Section 8. Compared to what you get for the price in the city, it’s not a bad place to live at all.”

Another interesting subset of listings one finds out here are forest cabins, built in the first half of the 20th century in the Cleveland National Forest on federally-owned land. Elliott is currently offering one, a 900-square-foot two-bedroom built in 1926, for $95,000.

“Back in the day, the Forest Service wanted people to come up here and enjoy their public land,” Elliott explains. “So they set up a permit process allowing people to build little cabins from Guatay to Mount Laguna. These are some really cool, neat little houses that are all around 100 years old by now; some of the last ones were built in the ‘40s.

“Back in the early ‘90s, they took an inventory of every cabin and compiled its history, took photos of the exterior, and you’re not allowed to modify the exterior appearance in any way going forward. They’re frozen at that exact period in time.”

Elliott says about 300 of these cabins exist throughout the county, though strict restrictions prevent owners from living in any full-time. Forestry permits specify that all cabins are vacation rentals that can be visited for no more than 180 days each year, and Elliott says people flouting the rules elsewhere in Southern California are part of the reason for the rules.

“Up in Big Bear, they ended up with people building all of these mansions that they’re putting on Airbnb, using as vacation rentals, and just paying Forestry an $800 annual use permit. So they completely revised the system to stop that kind of abuse in the future.”

Headed home along Highway 94, I’m enjoying a peaceful drive, trying to take in as many sights as I can. I’m well familiar by now with the ranches, rocks, and fields that make up our backcountry, but alert for some more unique finds like the old toilet factory or the Camp Lockett buildings, which I make a detour to see before leaving Campo. Apparently I’m not “hauling ass” as much as natives like Acosta might prefer, so I find myself frequently pulling onto the shoulder to let trucks, many of them outfitted with white-and-green Border Patrol livery, blow by.

It turns out this is a grave mistake. Just past the turnoff that would take me from Potrero to Tecate, I find myself surrounded by three border patrol vehicles, and all three fire up their lights and sirens and force me off the road. Responding to a demand to know who I am and why I’m here, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m a real estate agent touring properties for a prospective client — I have a few of Elliott’s listings on the passenger seat, and in my head this is a simpler explanation than the truth: I’m a writer who is also a real estate agent who came out here to interview another real estate agent about what it’s like to sell real estate.

Apparently my answer is still suspicious, as I’m detained for the next half-hour by the six agents who’ve emerged from their two trucks and a Jeep as they try to radio in to confirm that my license is valid and that I am indeed legally present in the US.

“Our computers are all going to crap so this is going to take a while, because apparently we’ve got some other spending priorities,” one tells me after about 15 minutes, sarcastically nodding his head toward the sliver of border wall poking up along a hillside.

When I’m eventually freed (after taking the note that yielding to oncoming traffic is considered a “suspicious activity” when done near the border), I think about how this is exactly the kind of encounter both Acosta and Elliott tell me they came out here to avoid.

“Up here, you find a lot of very independent-minded people,” Elliott had told me, again echoing Acosta. “They don’t want to be connected to a lot of government assistance, interference, or regulation, they want to be left to be able to do what they want to do. San Diego’s backcountry is absolutely beautiful. It’s a lifestyle that isn’t for everybody, but it’s fun, rewarding, and offers an unmatched outdoor experience to those who are willing to commit to it.”

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