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Unreal Estate Is More Like It

When I saw the ad for the “Santa Barbara Dream Home Raffle,” I figured what the heck. A $150 ticket gave me a 1-in-18,000 chance of winning a weekend home in this gorgeous little whitewashed city by the sea.

A home worth a cool million.

Judging by the seascape photo in the ad, I could see myself on the porch of my lavish new digs with a stiff gin and tonic, feet up, watching the dolphins frolic in the bay.

I wrote that $150 check a few months ago and had a 1-in-70 chance of winning something, if not the house. Secondary prizes included a Mustang GT, a Volkswagen Beetle, a Mini Cooper and cash jackpots as high as $25,000.

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The grand-prize drawing isn’t until October, but I realized last week I’d better drive up and start getting used to life in Santa Barbara.

It also would give me a chance to see what’s up following the walkout by several editors at the local paper to protest billionaire owner Wendy McCaw’s heavy hand in dictating content.

Now McCaw is looking for a new editor at a salary of up to $200,000, and I thought about applying before quickly coming to my senses. I have my standards.

Besides, she’s not likely to hire someone who recently referred to his current bosses as hog butchers. And $200,000 a year, shockingly enough, won’t cover the mortgage on a shack in Santa Barbara. I’d have to win the dream house.

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One morning at my hotel, the maid told me she and her son, a hotel gardener, share one room of a rented house with two other families. That’s the only way to get by, she said. Either that, or make a long commute from Oxnard or Santa Maria.

“Santa Barbara is very expensive,” she told me in Spanish.

Tell me about it. It turns out that my $1-million “dream house” has only two bedrooms and one bath, and is more than $200,000 beneath the median home price in the area.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After what the maid told me, I thought maybe I better go have a look at the “dream.” So I called Wendy Allen of the California Academy Federation, which is sponsoring the raffle and funneling proceeds into a multimedia program at Santa Barbara High School, and she said she’d meet me at the house.

I got into the car, headed up State Street and turned right on East Pueblo, where the dream died.

Now look, I’m no idiot, and I know houses go for $10 million, $20 million and all the way up to Oprah’s $70-million Montecito spread. So I wasn’t expecting a mansion, but a million bucks isn’t chicken feed.

The beige-and-gray stucco job is one house in from one of the busiest thoroughfares in Santa Barbara and sits on an alley. The yard is OK, and the house might generously be called a cottage, but Better Homes & Gardens will not be shooting the housewarming.

I met Allen on the porch and noticed what looked like a guilty smile. In the living room was a billboard-size copy of the promotional ad, with the spectacular view of the bay. I walked out back but found no view of anything other than the one-car garage.

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“No, no ocean view,” Allen conceded.

I passed through a kitchen that could use 50 more square feet, took a look at the tiny backyard and said it didn’t look like I’d be hosting any croquet tournaments at my dream house.

Allen said a reconfiguring of the yard could make for a really nice outdoor space. Inside, she pointed out the hardwood floors but admitted that the tile job in the bathroom shower was totally out of sync with the style of the rest of the house, using a loose definition of the word “style.”

Allen said her federation bought the house for $989,000 and will throw in $11,000 in cash, making the winner a millionaire on paper.

I know all about supply and demand, as well as the old saw about location, location, location. But something’s ridiculously out of whack when a modest starter house hits seven figures, and if you wanted to eat a bowl of Cheerios in the kitchen, you’d have to stand up.

On the upside, selfishly speaking, only half the 18,000 raffle tickets have been sold and the deadline had to be extended. Another local outfit auctioned a $1-million house earlier this summer, and there might not be enough gamblers to support two auctions.

So if nobody else buys a ticket, my odds are 1 in 9,000, and the beauty of the raffle is that the winner doesn’t have to take the house. You’ve got the option of $800,000 in cash, so I hooked up with a real estate agent named Ed Edick, owner of Village Properties, to go see what that might get me as a down payment.

Edick had listings ranging from $199,500 to $29 million. The first house we looked at was selling for $2.35 million, and not only was it a sweet hilltop abode, but it had a terrific view of the ocean. Unfortunately, it was way out of my price range.

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When I asked Edick why the owners would ever leave such a nice place, he said:

“You probably shouldn’t print this, but in Santa Barbara, there’s a lot of people who seem to make a sport of changing houses.”

Take Rob Lowe, for instance. We drove past the $20-million-plus Montecito house he gave up with a plan to build something only half a mile away, and apparently it’s going to be such a monster it may block the views for those living in nearby estates. Is there anything more entertaining than cat fights among aristocrats?

Out at Hope Ranch, we toured an $8-million hacienda on an ocean bluff, and I got a little depressed when I realized the living room was bigger than my entire dream house.

Hope Ranch, Edick told me, is where News-Press owner McCaw lives. He said he thinks she paid $20 million-plus, so that’s got to be quite a spread. Maybe she could rent her new editor a walk-in closet or a pantry.

To be honest, Hope Ranch had kind of a snooty feel, with lots of gated and walled mansions to protect the patrician paranoids. If I’d stayed longer, I probably could have found a moat.

I felt much more comfortable in a development called La Cumbre, where the houses are made of tin and sit on blocks, and the first guy we spotted in the mobile home park was the friendliest man in Santa Barbara.

“A hundred ninety-nine thousand? That’s a good buy,” Chuck Bigsby said when I told him I was looking in his neighborhood. I asked Bigsby, who was out for a stroll, if he knew what the square footage was.

“A double-wide?” he said, doing the math. “That’s about 1,400 square feet.”

Not quite a dream, maybe. But the last decent value in all of Santa Barbara.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com.


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