Sacramento ‘ruralpolitans’ feed the animals, then don suits for city jobs

Want a few acres for goats and chickens but need to be close to work? Sacramento is your city.

Unlike other major metropolitan areas in California, Sacramento has an abundance of affordable semirural lots ringing the city where “ruralpolitans” feed their livestock in the morning and go to work in suits.

“People say, ‘I want a property where I can grow my vegetables, have my four dogs, maybe get a goat or a horse, but be close to the city,’ ” said Rio Linda real estate agent Candace Taylor, with Re/Max Gold. “These are people who have gladly traded suburban or city life for more of a country feel.”

More than 10,000 single-family homes in Sacramento County sit on lots of one to 20 acres. Many, in areas such as Rio Linda and Wilton, are within a half-hour drive of the downtown core or suburban areas with well-paying jobs.

The areas, zoned agricultural-residential or rural-residential, are called “ruburbs” by those who live there. They aren’t popular with urban planners, who view ranchettes as a poor use of land and government resources, and want to preserve land in larger tracts for agriculture. But for those who want their piece of paradise, the prospect of a home on some acreage holds a strong appeal.

That was the case with Aleksandr Golovin, a Russian immigrant and general contractor, who recently purchased two acres in Rio Linda. He’s planning to build a home for his large family and hopes to have a few sheep and a pony for his daughter.

“I like land. I like to have freedom,” Golovin said.

With demand for rural homes strengthening in the wake of the housing crash, home price increases in some of Sacramento’s rural suburbs have been outpacing those in the city.

The median price of homes in Elverta, home to hundreds of modest rural abodes, jumped nearly 54 percent, from $118,500 in 2012 to $182,000 in 2013, real estate information firm DataQuick reported. It was one of the sharpest increases in the nation and far above the average of about 20 percent that most urbanized areas of the Sacramento region experienced in the same period.

Although sales volumes are generally low in the rural suburbs, sales in some areas have been picking up in unexpected ways. In Rio Linda, next door to Elverta and north of Sacramento, sales rose from 16 in December to 21 in January – a 31 percent increase. It was an unusual boost in the winter season, when home sales usually fall, DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage said.

“I think it’s fair to say that given the seasonal norm (a drop in sales from December to January), the increase in resale homes in Rio Linda was atypical,” LePage said. Only one in five ZIP codes in Sacramento County had similar increases, he said. “But let’s not lose sight of the (small) number of sales we’re talking about – five more than in December.”

Agents say the increase is no fluke. They say they’ve seen an uptick in the number of would-be homeowners seeking a pastoral idyll while prices are affordable and mortgage rates are near historic lows.

“The first thing out of their mouths is, ‘I want to buy a horse or have a piece of property for my RV,’ ” Taylor said. “A lot of people like to work on their cars in back.”

‘Redneck roots’

Years ago, Taylor and her husband left an apartment in Carmichael for 7.5 acres in Rio Linda to have their horses and elbow room. She said she treasures the sight of neighbors riding horses down the unincorporated area’s main streets to the local hamburger stand.

And while Rio Linda is known for a certain amount of rural squalor – still made fun of by former Sacramento disc jockey Rush Limbaugh – it’s a place where neighbors are friendly and everyone owns “critters,” she said.

Rio Linda is “known more for its redneck roots than attention to Christian Dior, but that’s OK.” Taylor said. “There are places in Rio Linda that still have cars up on jacks, but Rio Linda is becoming more gentrified every year.”

Urban professionals and those who want to own horses but shy away from pricier equestrian areas are steadily moving in to Rio Linda and neighboring Elverta, she said.

Kristy Venrick-Mardon, 23, bought her first house in Elverta last year for $175,000. It was a one-bedroom, one-bath house on one acre.

Two weeks before she moved in, she adopted a pot-bellied pig and has since acquired three goats and chickens. She also has two dogs and is thinking of getting a milk cow.

Venrick-Mardon, who works at a Kaiser Permanente call center, moved from her parents’ house in suburban Rosemont, where she’d been living to save money for her home purchase.

“I was in 4-H as a kid, and I wanted to have backyard chickens,” she said. “I jumped on the opportunity while the prices were still low, and I had money saved up.”

She said she’s delighted with her purchase. “I like the block I live on a lot. Everybody has some type of farm animal – a cow, a horse, a donkey or a goat.”

‘A little petting zoo’

In Rio Linda, Greg Crimmins and his wife, Lavonne, said they couldn’t be happier with their move to the country. Greg Crimmins grew up in San Francisco and lived in urban San Jose and Sacramento before making the move to the “ruburbs.”

The Crimminses, also Taylor’s clients, bought a home on three-quarters of an acre a few years ago and squeezed in their classic-car collection along with two miniature horses, two ponies, an alpaca, pygmy goats, 50 chickens, 20 ducks, geese, a rabbit, dogs and a cat.

“It’s kind of like a little petting zoo,” Greg Crimmins said. “We have grandkids. We have friends come over. They sit in the backyard and say, ‘This is so tranquil.’ It’s a piece of the country, but not far from city.”

Crimmins, a semi-retired electrician whose wife works for AT&T, built a goat shed, a stable and a henhouse. He also dug a duck pond and planted a large vegetable garden. He hooks up the horses to a cart that they pull along the paved streets for exercise. It takes him a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening to feed all the animals, but Crimmins said he loves his “Green Acres” lifestyle.

“I haven’t mowed my lawn in four years,” he said. “The animals keep the grass down.”

At the same time that former urbanites are moving to the country, others who spent years in the “ruburbs” are opting for a lower-maintenance lifestyle and selling their spreads. They say they’ve had enough of coyotes chewing through their sprinkler lines and having to watch where they step because of the flocks of semi-wild peacocks that roam their properties.

In Wilton, a more upscale area of white-fenced horse farms, veteran agent Dianne Pennisi, with Coldwell Banker Real Estate, helped Donna and Dick Sias sell their 5-acre ranchette, where they’d lived for 45 years. The couple, both in their 70s, moved to a Del Webb retirement community in Elk Grove last year. Now the only land they have to tend is a small patch of grass in the backyard.

“I have a little electric mower. It’s quite a breeze,” Donna Sias said.

In Wilton, a neighbor’s bull broke free and trampled their newly planted yard. Ground squirrels burrowed under their vegetable garden.

“We put up a couple of owl houses because they would get them,” she said.

Their children belonged to 4-H and raised cattle, horses and chickens. The country life was ideal for a growing family, but “we didn’t need the acreage anymore, and we didn’t need the work,” she said.

A couple with a teenage son who raised goats bought their property. “That’s what the place needed,” she said, “younger people again.”