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Whew! A Record 35-Day Wait for a House to Call Home

Times Staff Writer

Giant, yellow earthmovers stir up clouds of dust, and the flesh of the earth has been torn away for a mile around. The skeletons of houses and giant silver conduits are strewn about carelessly.

Parked at the edge of a strip of asphalt, freshly laid on the rim of the abyss, are 18 families in vans, pickup trucks, tents and mobile homes. Waiting.

Today four of those families will have apparently achieved the dubious distinction of waiting longer than anyone else in the history of San Diego to purchase a new home--one of the 17 units in Phase I of the Sunset Ridge development. Each will have spent a total of 35 days and nights beneath the open sky in Scripps Ranch, sitting, playing cards, watching television . . . waiting.

“It’s boring out here, really boring, " said Maria Salvador, 12, whose father Ed was the first to arrive on the site on the morning of May 25. Sitting in her family’s Volkswagen van, surrounded by a television, a radio and a cooler of soda, she cocked her eyebrows and exclaimed, “I’m just having a wuuunderful summer!”

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The waiting game has proved quite profitable for Maria, who has spent every morning since school holding the place of the No. 2 family and every afternoon sitting in for her father--all at the rate of $3 an hour.

Such lines have become a common occurence in San Diego County. Cases of families waiting for two or three weeks for a home are abundant, according to Eve Hager, division sales manager for McMillin Realty, which is building the homes.

“We started to see this phenomenon about three years back, although 35 days certainly is exceptional,” Hager said. “There’s no doubt about it, they’re real nice homes.”

After checking with other area developers, McMillin has determined that the families at Sunset Ridge are record holders, she said, and the company provided a free catered dinner last night to commend them for their achievement.

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The “homes” remain purely theoretical for the moment, consisting of marked-out lots and half-poured concrete foundations. Although the houses will be filled with young families and professionals when completed in November, today the area is home for a host of construction workers and heavy machinery operators and the language of choice is Spanish.

Meanwhile, the line of anxious families has stretched out the entire length of nearby Miralago Road. Their cars and trucks have been chocked up so they won’t roll down the hill, a portable toilet has been dropped nearby and a snake nest of extension cords supplies the power for their portable televisions.

“We may have set a record, but its a miserable record to set,” said Jo Anne Tonelli, holding her No. 4 position in line, sipping a beer in the hot afternoon sun. “We weren’t much for beer drinking before we started this thing, but now it’s the only thing that gets us through the day,” she laughed.

While many of those in line have managed to rent or borrow motor homes, Tonelli and her husband, Walt, have made due with a four-wheel drive pickup. The only shade to be found is in the truck’s stuffy bed. The Tonelli’s have their hearts set on one of the four split-level houses in the group--as do the three families ahead of them.

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“It’s a good thing we didn’t get here any later, or we might have missed out,” Tonelli said.

This morning, the long wait will finally be over, and the waiting families will choose their new homes according to their places in line. “I expect it’ll all be over in half an hour or so,” Tonelli said.

Tomorrow the families will also be given the final word on the prices of the houses that they are hoping to buy. “When we first started waiting in line they gave an estimated price of $130,000 to $170,000. Now they’re saying 140 to 190. I just hope it doesn’t go any higher.”

Chuck Smith, vice president for McMillin Realty, said that the increased estimate was based on construction costs and not on the unexpectedly large turnout.

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Despite the cost rise, those waiting in line said they thought it was worth it. “The location is very desirable because of its proximity to (Miramar Reservoir),” said Hager.

According to the rules that were adopted by the line sitters themselves, families are permitted two, three-hour breaks per day. “We used to take every break that we could, but this week I haven’t left at all. It’s just getting too close to the wire to blow it now,” Tonelli said.

Relations between the soon-to-be neighbors have been distinctly amicable, operating according to a system that was voted upon by the first five families to arrive at the scene. Each sign in and out on a list maintained by Salvador’s family and refer to each other by their order in line.

“Why I’m on real good terms with everyone back on down to No. 10,” Walt said. “Of course you never know what people will try now that we’re getting down to the end,” he added warily.

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Tonelli and her husband squandered their entire year’s vacation to keep their place in line. “I feel kind of bad that we won’t be going away this year,” mused Walt, “but I guess it’s for a good cause.”

During the month they have spent here, the Tonellis have seen the landscape about them reshaped before their eyes. “Why just last week they scraped that whole hill away,” he said, pointing at an amputated stump of earth that was once a small peak.

The topsoil has been pushed away by bulldozers, leaving a shadeless carcass of rock and dust and the gullies have been filled. There is not a shadow to be seen.

“It took a while to get into a routine. Once I got a horrible sunburn,” Walt said, his nose heavily smeared with sunscreen.

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“Why we even had to split up the task of sleeping here according to who was on vacation, since you can’t go to work after spending the night in that thing,” said Jo Anne, gesturing into the padded truck bed. “On the weekends we both squeeze in there. After all, we got to see each other sometime!”

“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Amy Gonsowski, 15, who is sitting in for a Clairemont neighbor at the rate of $25 a day.

Sitting beneath a parasol that fluttered in the desert wind and sipping at a bottle of seltzer, Gonsowski and schoolmate Julie Leon looked like Edwardian schoolgirls on an Arabian vacation. They are the only group without a vehicle, living out of a pup tent.

Gonsowski was asked to fill in when her neighbor, whose wife is expecting twins to arrive at any moment, had to go back to work a week ago.

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Asked whether she would do it again, she replied, “Maybe. But I’d ask for a lot more money.”

Some professional line sitters make $60 a day, holding the places of families who want a choice house, but don’t want to spend weeks of their time staring out over the desert. “There’s one old woman that has her own pickup and makes a regular living at it,” Walt Tonelli said.

Despite trials to which its participants are subjected, the line waiting process is billed as a triumph of democracy by McMillin’s.

“Our experience is that this is the only way of selling the houses that will be accepted by the buyers,” Smith said.

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“We’ve tried a whole bunch of methods, including waiting lists. But we find that unless they’re administering it themselves, the buyers will always think that someone is getting preferential treatment. It’s just the democratic system in action.”


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