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— People fled rental units to snap up creative mortgages to buy homes that were beyond their financial reach. "The rental inventory went up," says Tagg. Now, as in Yuma, speculators who bought homes, hoping to flip them, find that the rents they get aren't enough to service their mortgages. Many are in trouble, but Tagg hasn't seen a lot of defaults yet.

Some builders report that 10 percent of homebuyers have been commuting to San Diego, says Collins. That's a long commute -- one and a half hours to East County. And in the winter, snow can stymie traffic. Two years ago, the San Diego Association of Governments found that 400 people commuted from Imperial to San Diego County for work, while 800 commuted the other direction. Higher gas prices should crimp that activity.

My guess is that a lot of San Diego-based would-be flippers bought new homes in Imperial County and tried to convince potential buyers that the commute to San Diego would pay off. As Collins points out, people put up with road rage every day driving to Temecula -- why not have an easier (and far more beautiful) commute to El Centro? But until gas prices come down, that argument is less compelling.

"We have not really increased our capacity to host snowbirds," says Cathy Kennerson, chief executive of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. It might not be a bad idea to go in that direction. Meanwhile, both Yuma and El Centro get a boost from the Imperial Sand Dunes, where off-road vehicles race about over 118,000 acres, enraging environmentalists. Both El Centro's Kennerson and Yuma's Rosevear boast that the dunes attract 200,000 enthusiasts on Thanksgiving weekend.

Some buy homes so they can despoil the environment all year. They may do to themselves what they have done to endangered species.

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