In Murrieta, salt air, new homes, long drives

Special to The Times

Less than 20 years ago, the southwest corner of Riverside County was mostly rolling oak-studded grassland bathed by moist, marine air flowing through a break in the coastal mountains. Today, those ocean breezes cool a landscape in which the chaparral has been replaced by the clay tile roofs and tidy streets of Murrieta.

The basics

With the majority of houses less than 15 years old and well-kept neighborhoods, this bedroom community has become a refuge for homeowners priced out of San Diego and Orange counties. Among the top 10 fastest growing cities in California last year, Murrieta has more than 65,000 residents.

Historic sheep spa

The city is named after Spaniard Don Juan Murrieta, who bought a 52,000-acre ranch in 1873 and herded 100,000 sheep on the valley's rich grasses. The city's official history notes that the area's natural hot springs "proved a cleansing sheep dip." Murrieta remained a tiny community until a population boom in the late 1980s spurred local leaders to push for cityhood. It incorporated in 1991.

Drawing card

Relatively affordable new housing draws commuters who work in adjoining counties. The average current list price for a 1,800- to 2,000-square-foot home in Murrieta is $281,500. By comparison, homes that size in Orange County's Mission Viejo list for between $353,000 and $575,000, according to agent Bo Sandulescu of Tarbell Realtors in Mission Viejo.

Wow factor

The 8,300-acre Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is a glorious expanse of oak woodlands, vernal pools, bunchgrass prairie and chaparral in the hills to the west of Murrieta.

Insider's view

Murrieta has well-kept parks and playgrounds, but few restaurants. Most residents drive 15 minutes to neighboring Temecula for retail shopping and dining, and singles lament the lack of night life.

Hot spots

The city's high-end communities include La Cresta, on the Santa Rosa Plateau, where parcels are a minimum of 5 acres. Homes start at $500,000 for an older, 2,500-square-foot home without horse facilities and can run more than $2.5 million for newer equestrian estates.

Bear Creek Golf and Country Club is a community of 600 homes, ranging from $300,000 for two-bedroom condos to as much as $1.5 million for high-end custom homes on the golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. "The value is incredible, what you can get for your money," Bear Creek Realty broker Lisa Clark said. "For a million here, you're looking at $3 million to $4 million someplace else."

Good news, bad news

Unless you find work in the Temecula Valley, commutes average an hour each way to San Diego and as long or longer to Orange County. But in a recent survey commissioned by the I-15 Interregional Partnership, a two-county effort to reduce congestion on Interstate 15 between San Diego and Riverside counties, most commuters said that housing affordability, low crime rates and the look of the community made the drive worthwhile.

On the market

As of Dec. 2, there were 322 homes on the market, ranging in price from $210,000 to $1.9 million, according to Michael Horan of Tarbell Realtors of Murrieta.

Stock report

Murrieta has about 17,000 single-family homes, 3,354 apartments and nearly 600 condominiums and attached homes.

Historical values

Single-family detached home prices:

Year...Median Price

1990...$170,000

1995...$133,000

2000...$182,000

2001...$203,000

2002*...$245,000

*year to date

Sources: DataQuick Information Services, City of Murrieta Planning Department, www.murrieta.org, www.i15irp.org, www.murrieta.k12.us, Bear Creek Realty, Rancon Real Estate and Tarbell Realtors of Murrieta and Mission Viejo.

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