Photo by Brittany Johnson from Little Missy Photography
Shannon Carlson, right, is a licensed real estate agent living in Phoenix’s West Valley. “They call it the California Wave 2.0,” she said. “That’s the jargon in Phoenix regarding the many transplants from California.”
It’s almost Zonie season, that time of year when the arrival of triple-digit heat prompts Arizonans to head west in search of cool ocean breezes. But over the last year, I’ve been driving east to Phoenix to view their $200,000-$350,000 homes for sale. During my search, I’ve learned from other San Diego-transplants about the pros and cons of leaving “America’s Finest City” to move to America’s Fastest Growing County.
“The data shows that about 691,000 people left California for other pastures around the U.S., while only about 501,000 people moved into the Golden State in 2018,” according to an ABC 10 News report in November. The 2018 data also showed that most former Californians moved to Texas (86,164) and Arizona (68,516).
Photograph by Bianca Madriaga
Jake Moran, 23, ventured to hotter, drier pastures in July 2018 when he moved from south San Diego to Tempe, the home of Arizona State University. “I work full time and I get minimum wage: $11 per hour,” he said. “I am more than able to afford living out here, even between food, gas and everything, I’m totally fine. Whereas if I was living in San Diego making minimum wage” — which went up to $13 per hour at the beginning of the year — “I’d be pretty thin and I wouldn’t have much to stretch.”
In January, I spoke to Moran at Zia Record Exchange, where he works. He assisted me in purchasing a used Nintendo Wii console for $45 and a cassette for my boombox.
“Here, I split the rent and utilities and pay $620 a month with my roommate,” he continued. “We have a two-bedroom apartment.”
“Will you ever move back to San Diego?” I asked.
“I visit my family, mom, and eight siblings every three months. In my foreseeable future, I’d stay here for about five years. If I were to move, it wouldn’t be to San Diego. It’s not my style. It’s cramped, everyone always wants to do something, and the cost of everything is so much.”
Jake Moran moved from San Diego to Tempe, Arizona where he works for minimum wage at Zia Record Exchange. He says “I am more than able to afford living out here, even between food, gas and everything — I’m totally fine.”
I spoke to Shannon Carlson, a single mother of four who transplanted from Rancho San Diego to Goodyear, a city about 20 miles west of Phoenix, in April of 2018. We spoke in November, when the temperature in Phoenix was in the 90s.
“The heat wasn’t even an issue for me,” Carlson said. “Before living in San Diego, I re-located from the islands because my parents are from Hawaii and Guam, so heat to me is nothing new.”
David Walker is a 34-year-old 7-Eleven employee. He grew up in south San Diego, then transplanted to Phoenix; then Yuma; and back to San Diego.
“How long does it take you to drive back to San Diego?” I asked.
“About 4 hours and 40 minutes. I think we are the closest in terms of commuting from San Diego on the Google map app.”
That’s a half hour better than it takes me to get to Chandler, southeast of Phoenix. For a year, I’ve been looking for a house there.
Carlson is a licensed real estate agent in the state of Arizona. Like us, she’s saving up to buy a home. For now, she’s renting from a friend who relocated from Rancho Bernardo.
“My friend bought the house here in 2018. It’s a four-bedroom, two-bath, and it’s 2400 square feet. It’s like $1200 a month. It’s crazy, because here you can pay your mortgage and it’s nothing compared to our rent in San Diego. In Rancho San Diego, I was renting a four-bedroom and two-bath, and it was 2200 square feet for $2500. We save so much here in Goodyear.”
Over the last year, Mike Madriaga has been driving east to Phoenix to view their $200,000-$350,000 homes for sale.
Before my wife and I checked out the Phoenix area, we looked at homes in Temecula and El Centro. Initially, those cities made sense. We’d still be within two hours of our family and friends, and could continue our work in San Diego during the transition. But while trekking between real estate listings in Imperial and Riverside Counties, we realized the areas weren’t good fits for us.
El Centro homes sell for about half the price of San Diego homes with comparable square footage, but the school district rating wasn’t good enough. On Niche.com, El Centro Elementary School District received a C+. Niche.com grades and rankings are calculated “using dozens of public data sets and millions of reviews,” according to the site. “Our data scientists and user researchers rigorously analyze data and user opinions to assess the key aspects of K-12 schools, colleges, and places to live.”
While Temecula Valley Unified School District received an A on the Niche site, the downside there is the traffic on the I-15 and I-215, and how far inland the homes are from the freeway exits. Without traffic, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes, driving the speed limit, to reach our home in the Cherokee Point neighborhood of East San Diego.
“This traffic is killing me,” said Paul, a U.S. Navy retiree who worked at Naval Base San Diego. “When I visit my old friends and do side jobs down in San Diego, five additional hours of my day are lost in driving. It should only be about three or four hours. There’s too many San Diegans making the same drive, and we’re clogging up the 15. I don’t think it’s worth it to move out here and travel to work in San Diego.”
According to Zillow — the “leading real estate and rental marketplace dedicated to empowering consumers with data” — as of February 2020, the median home value in San Diego County is $602,153. Temecula is $484,022; El Centro is $249,730; and Maricopa County in Arizona, which includes Phoenix and its neighboring cities in the west and east valleys, is $293,886.
Despite the longer trek and higher-than-El Centro home prices, Maricopa County seemed more viable for our needs. Maricopa County was ranked in April 2019 by the U.S. Census Bureau as the number one county in U.S. growth, with 81,244 additional residents from July 2017 to June 2018 alone. This spurt also helped lock down its fourth-most-populous county-in-the-U.S. ranking, with about 4.4 million residents.
Maricopa County is home to Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Scottsdale, Tempe, Glendale and other cities spread throughout its 9224 square miles.
“I moved to Arizona in September 2019, because the house I lived in in Linda Vista was built in 1942, and it had a serious mold issue and was falling apart,” Gail J. said. “I could no longer do the repairs.”
Gail, 62, lived in San Diego County for almost 40 years. Around September, she sold her Linda Vista home and purchased a 1300-square-foot, three-bedroom and two-bath home north of Phoenix.
“I bought my house outright for $170,000. I could never afford to do that in California. I couldn’t even afford rent in San Diego.”
Gail is a single grandmother taking care of her twin 11-year-old grandchildren.“In July of 2016, my oldest daughter, the twins’ mother, lost her battle with mental health and drug addiction. I suffered what some call a broken heart. And six weeks later, I collapsed outside of my church in Clairemont, and had it not been for an off-duty police officer and my pastor performing CPR and using a defibrillator, I would not have made it. Three weeks later, when I got out of the hospital, my husband of 15 years left me. On January 13, 2017, my oldest son became the victim of a murder-suicide from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So all I wanted to do was crawl into a bed and sleep my life away, but I had the twins to take care of. My grandkids really keep me on my toes. So we moved here to start all over, and now we have our new home.”
Ramon M. calls himself and his fellow-transplants “Reverse Zonies.” He, his wife Pat, and their two children moved to the east side of Phoenix in July.
“We got our place in a gated community for $1300 a month. It’s a three-bedroom and two-bathroom home with a two-car garage, not to be confused with a condo or townhome.”
In 2015-2016, Ramon and his family lived in North Park; they then moved east to City Heights.
“We saved about $200 per month moving across the Orange Avenue/805 overpass. Then in 2019, they raised our rent to $1950.”
Ramon works from home as an online antique dealer. Pat worked within the San Diego Unified School District; she now works in the Maricopa Unified School District.
“How’s the pay in Phoenix compared to San Diego?” I asked Pat.
“I got lucky, it’s almost the same. Many of the other San Diego moms I met online that moved to Phoenix took a 10 to 20 percent pay cut. There’s about ten families that I know of that moved from San Diego to Arizona around the same time we did.”
Ramon says his business of buying from Arizona estate sales and selling online is on the upswing. “There’s a huge retirement community here, and it feels like there’s triple the amount of estate sales compared to back home. And because there’s more supply, the prices are cheaper. Another thing is, storage here is more than 50 percent cheaper, and gas for my car is cheaper. By cutting overhead and selling my ‘oldies but goodies’ for higher profits, I’ll be good here.”
(As of May 18, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in San Diego was $2.88. In Phoenix, it was $2.12. According to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council site, a group that “over the past 30 years, [has] helped more than 800 businesses expand or relocate to greater Phoenix,” cost of office rental space in Phoenix runs about $25.61 per square foot, which is about $11 cheaper than our county’s median rate.)
The couple saves about $600 on rent now, but their other bills are a different story.
“Our first electric bill was $350 for that first month,” Ramon said.
“But $100 of that was our setup fee,” Pat added
“On the other bills, we aren’t saving as much as I thought we would,” Ramon said.
Ramon broke down the majority of their monthly bills for me. “So here in Arizona, we spend about $1300 on rent; $250 on electric in the hotter months, which is about six months of the year and the thermostat set to 70 degrees; $150 for the utilities including gas, water and trash; $110 internet/cable; and $250 for our auto insurance, which is double our insurance in San Diego.”
“So you are paying about $175 more for electricity, $100 more for utilities, and $125 more for auto insurance, compared to back home?” I asked.
“Yes. During some months [January-March], our electricity dropped to $80, which is the same as back home, but our utilities went up another $25 because of the heater. On average, I spend about $300 extra per month in bills here.”
“But babe, look at all of the space we get here,” Pat said. “Our kids have a big living room, their own rooms, and we have high ceilings, a backyard, and a two-car garage.”
“But because we have more space,” Ramon added, “it costs us more money to cool it down or heat it up.”
The heat in Arizona isn’t the only weather phenomenon to which San Diego transplants must adjust.
“We have monsoons and sandstorms here,” Ramon added. “When I was parking at our Walmart Neighborhood Market in September, it was like a giant storm with wind and sand. It hit us and left within two minutes; it was bizarre.”
Another San Diego transplant said their swimming pool water was ruined when a sandstorm passed through their neighborhood. “That sand will mess up your car finish,” said Ramon. “Maybe that’s why our auto insurance is higher here.”
Gail, the grandmother from Linda Vista, said she lost her Lyft and Uber gigs when she relocated, because her $150 monthly auto insurance increased. “I contacted Geico, because you have to let them know if you’ve moved within ten days,” she said. “I let them know and they did their little calculations, and it came up with a deposit for my new insurance of $598, and my monthly would have been $355 a month to drive for the rideshare companies in Arizona.”
“When I was driving Uber and Lyft back in San Diego, I loved it. I could go out and talk to people and share the wonders of San Diego, give some advice, pray for people and have people pray for me.”
Carlson concurred. “I have a big SUV and I pay about $110 a month here. In San Diego, it was $86.”
Ramon said his Arizona auto insurance agent opined that the premiums are higher because of the influx of people moving into the state. “Which didn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t that lower the prices? I think it’s because of the shitty drivers.”
While everybody I interviewed said that their auto insurance increased when they moved to Arizona, others online who are considering relocating say it’s cheaper if you do a price comparison online.
I spoke to David Walker in November. Walker is a 34-year-old 7-Eleven employee. He grew up in south San Diego, then transplanted to Phoenix, then Yuma, and back to San Diego in October.
“The freeways are way different out there in Arizona," Walker said. "They’re on your ass like real close. I had a Suburban when I lived out there, and I put a light bar on the back of my bumper so when people were tailgating, I’d click that switch on.”
I noticed about five drivers in Arizona with bumper stickers that read something like, “The closer you get, the slower I’ll drive.” I agree with Walker. The driving style in the Maricopa County streets is different. I noticed longer stretches of road between stop lights with 45-mile-per hour speed limits , and most drive 15-20 mph over that. Some of the stop lights have functional cameras, so it’s common to hear vehicles skid to a stop. And because I’d gotten used to the faster-paced driving in Arizona, when we returned to San Diego, I’d catch myself speeding on my University and Adams Avenue routes where the speed limits drop to 25 mph.
San Diegans tend to give Zonies a bad rap regarding driving in our city, but now I understand where they’re coming from. Many of the streets that connect the cities on the east side of Phoenix remind me of the long, high-speed stretches coming into Eastlake from I-805, or Miramar between I-805 and I-15.
Ramon agrees; he said he’s gotten the bird for driving too slowly or taking turns cautiously. “These guys here drive like they’re in the Baja 1000.”
I recall seeing UTVs driving alongside us on city streets, and motocross and street bikers cruising around without helmets. “It seems us Californians are called scaredy cats,” Ramon added, “and I worded it nicely for our readers back home.”
I think that the heat has something to do with the driving style over there. When I drove around Chandler in June, and the temperature was about 117 degrees, I could feel the heat penetrating through my minivan’s roof and onto the back of my neck. Despite our air conditioning blowing at full blast, I couldn’t wait to get back into our air-conditioned hotel room.
As much as we complain about Zonie drivers, they think we’re the bad drivers. When I went into a CVS by Phoenix in August and provided my 619 phone number to the cashier for my membership discount, she said: “Oh, you’re from San Diego…you and your ‘California stops.’” I shrugged my shoulders, and she continued. “You know, those rolling stops.”
I responded “Whatever. Don’t get me started on the Arizona drivers driving on our boardwalk.” We both laughed and I said “Some of you don’t like us Californians.”
She said “Well, you guys are the ones driving up our rents and home prices.”
At that point, I understood the hostility aimed towards me as I drove our minivan on their 60, 10, and 101 freeways. It was my California license plates.
Walker, the 7-Eleven employee who moved back to south San Diego in October, still hasn’t found a place to live. “How are you adapting to the higher cost of living back home, bro?” I asked him.
“I’m homeless. I sleep in my truck because I can’t afford rent here. Sometimes I stay at a homegirl’s pad in Santee. Like, I’ll be heading to her place today. That’s why I went out there to Phoenix, I had a two-bedroom apartment, and I was paying like $600 a month.”
Walker is something of a homeless hero. Back in November 2019, his emergency first aid saved Mario Rojas’s life after a gunman entered the Church’s Chicken next door to his 7-Eleven and opened fire, killing Maribel Ibañez and injuring Humberto Ruiz and Rojas.
“One thing in Arizona is guns are legal, and you can carry your gun on you,” Walker said. “There’s like a respect thing there, and you don’t know who’s carrying. The people, or almost all of the ones I met, are humble.”
In August, when we were looking at houses in southern Phoenix, we attended Mass downtown. I noticed an armed policeman by the door saying prayers with us in unison. The next day, we went to the library to hop on their internet to map out our house-hunting excursion before driving to San Diego. We were greeted by a sign that read “Check in your guns at the front desk.”
“There’s a bigger respect factor here for sure,” Ramon added, “I mean the drivers are crazy, but I think twice about honking, or flipping someone off.”
Besides the claimed higher cost of auto insurance, another unforeseen expenditure in Arizona, one that we don’t share as often living in San Diego, is pest control.
“I literally didn’t want to move here because the minute I found out that Arizona has scorpions I freaked out,” Carlson said. “Me and my kids didn’t go to sleep, we were terrified. Our first year living here, I hired pest control every single month.”
“How much do you pay a month for scorpion treatment?” I asked.
“I pay $55 every single month. The first year, we found a couple of scorpions and they got inside the house. So far, nobody’s gotten stung. The locals carry black flashlights and go scorpion hunting inside and outside of their homes.”
On May 17, 2020, we visited a 2010 square foot. home in Chandler that was priced at $345,000. It had three bedrooms and two baths and was built on a 9021 square foot lot in 2004.
Another house we viewed in the same city had scorpion traps in the closets. “We put those out for precautions,” said the real estate agent hosting the open house. “All of our houses have those.”
Carlson referred to the city of Chandler as the “techie side in East Valley,” which is about 20 minutes southeast of Phoenix. But she lives in West Valley, on the opposite side of Phoenix. “They call it the California Wave 2.0. That’s the jargon in Phoenix regarding the many transplants from California. The average home in the West Valley, a three-bedroom and two-bath, goes for about $250,000. And in terms of renting, you can get a four-bedroom for about $1300.“
Like Ramon’s antique business, big business has followed suit here.
“There are fewer restrictions here for businesses,” Ramon said. “They want us to make money.”
“They call Arizona the wild west because we don’t have so many regulations,” Carlson continued, “and your hands are not tied up with all the laws, and property tax here is lower as well.”
The Greater Phoenix Economic Council states that corporate income tax is 4.9 percent as opposed to our 8.84 percent; their top individual income tax rate is 4.54 percent while ours is 13.3 percent; and “Arizona offers a minimalist regulatory approach, no corporate franchise tax and is constitutionally recognized as a right-to-work state.” Hence, corporations from California are moving to Arizona.
“Here on the west side,” Carlson added, “we have lots of jobs where there are warehouses;.We’ve got Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing facilities, and they greenlighted Nike to be here.”
If a family is considering re-locating to Phoenix, parents have to think about the options for their kids. During July 4th, I attended a gathering in downtown Mesa and was drenched by firemen spraying water into the sky. The children and their guardians loved it. Many of the parks that we hung out at were frequented only after dinner time during the hot months, and many of the parks have water installations or splash pads. Bowling alleys and malls always seemed packed with kids and teens.
“For me, I’m not super into going out to clubs,” Moran said, “so I do prefer a little more quiet myself. If I do decide I want to hang out, I can just go closer to campus, we have a really good music scene here, just like San Diego. And for artists, downtown Phoenix has a good scene. Everyone here is into sports and roots for the same local teams. It’s not like San Diego, where everybody rooted for someone else.”
Carlson takes her kids to Topgolf, a multilevel, climate-controlled driving range with individual bays, packed with music, food, bars and multiple giant screens playing sports throughout the massive venue, comparable in size to Horton Plaza.
“Since we moved here, our quality of life has improved,” Pat said. “We can go out and spend money having fun. Everywhere we go, there’s families and retired folks. There’s also hiking trails and national parks that are less than an hour from downtown Phoenix.”
“We really miss the beach,” Ramon said. “So we come home to San Diego every two months.”
I asked Ramon how much it would cost for San Diegans to haul their stuff to the Phoenix area. “A 27-foot U-Haul cost us about $1100, and they only rent a flat rate with a certain mileage [allotted]. Just have your cousin in the military come in with you because U-Haul gives discounts to the military. Gas will be about $400-$500, and it’s best to fill up in Yuma, where it’s $1-$1.25 cheaper per gallon than San Diego.”
“If you travel during the hot months, bring lots of water and a spray bottle filled with ice cubes and water to spray your car seats, seat belts, and steering wheel, so they don’t singe you.”