There was something strange about this place. Porsches and Teslas were as common as Hondas and Toyotas. I walked along a road with a guy named Don. As we walked, several recreational cyclists eased past on $10,000 bikes. As a lifetime cycling fan, I noticed they were Tour de France-level steeds.
I didn’t know Don well. We had just met the night before. His daughter was an old friend of my wife’s, someone my wife hadn’t seen for about 20 years. She had asked us to stay at her home the previous night because we were passing through.
As Don and I walked, I asked him if the local real estate was expensive.
“How much do you think my daughter’s house is worth?” he asked.
It was an unremarkable home of about 2,400 square feet. It’s in a town called Portola Valley, not far from San Francisco. I knew that San Francisco was expensive, so I figured this house might be worth as much as $600,000. But I didn’t know Don or his daughter well. I thought they might have been insulted if I guessed too far below market value.
“I’ll guess it’s worth about $800,000,” I said.
“Put a two in front of that,” said Don, “and you’ll be about right.”
I thought he was joking, or perhaps he was crazy. How could such an ordinary house be worth $2.8 million? That evening, I checked median home prices in Portola Valley on Zillow.com. It’s a whopping $4,186,100.
Apple, Facebook and Google’s headquarters are all within a 30-minute drive. In part, their high-salaried employees have pushed real estate prices up. But I wondered about the local teachers, the nurses, the grocery store clerks, the road maintenance workers, the accountants and everyone else without an Everest-sized income. How could ordinary people afford to live in such a place?
I checked home prices in some of the nearby towns. They were also nosebleed high. The lucky ones bought homes before prices went haywire. Others endure marathon commutes to work every day, or they rent rooms in other people’s homes.
Unfortunately, high real estate prices are squeezing millions of Americans. For example, according to Zillow, the median home price in San Diego, California is $632,700. In contrast, the U.S. Consensus Bureau says San Diego’s county residents had a median household income of $70,588 in 2017. In other words, the typical home is priced 8.96 times higher than what the city’s typical household earns.
Nationally, the median value of U.S. homes is $225,300. That’s just 3.67 times higher than America’s median household income. But dozens of U.S. cities, like San Diego, have squeezed people out. In Washington, DC, the typical home is valued 7.68 times higher than the people’s household income. In Boulder, Colorado, homes are 9.1 times higher than local household income. In San Francisco, real estate is a whopping 14.31 times higher than what the typical San Francisco-based household earns.
Millions of people in dozens of U.S. cities are suffering similar woes.
We can’t control real estate prices. But if we’re caught in their squeeze, we can sometimes get creative. Such is the case with Leif Smith and Nikki Westphal. Leif works as a speech-language pathologist. Nikki is a physical therapy assistant. Like many young Americans, student loan and credit card debt limited their options. They used to live in Colorado, but housing costs kept increasing, and their salaries didn’t keep pace.
“We decided to maximize our earning potential by leaving Colorado,” says Leif. “We purchased a 36-foot 2005 5th wheel RV camper (Nu-Wa Hitchhicker) that we bought privately from a retired couple for $16,500. We then financed a 2013 GMC Sierra 3500HD diesel truck to pull it, which cost another $30,000.”
Leif and Nikki now live in the trailer. In one sense, they’ve joined the gig economy. Their employer finds them work in different cities. They work fulltime, as they fill in for others who are on extended leaves.
“We mainly stay in RV resorts or RV parks (like KOA) at a weekly or monthly rate,” says Leif. “But we have also stayed at mobile home parks for significantly cheaper.” While working in the San Francisco bay area, they stayed at a nightly fairground that charged $50 a night. Their employer provides them with accommodation stipends of $100 a day.
Accommodation costs vary, but they can usually save most of their stipend. “We’re currently in California,” says Leif, “which has the most expensive RV parks in the country (aside from Florida), so we pay between $700 and $1,500 per month for an RV spot. In most other places, it’s $300 to $600 per month for an RV spot with full hook ups.” That includes electricity, water, sewage and often cable television.
Leif and Nikki have been on the road for about two years. They’ve found local day care for their daughter, and they’re quickly paying off their debts. They’ve been able to save about $30,000 a year.
When their daughter is old enough for Kindergarten, they plan to settle down. By then, they’ll have more money in the bank, which will help them buy a home.
Leif and Nikki know they can’t control home prices. Nobody can. But like so many others who think outside the box, they’re not sitting idly. Instead, they’ve found a solution to an insane housing problem.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacherand Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas