Since I was a boy, I always dreamed of living in California. The usual cliches– the beach, the sun, and the laid back lifestyle, swirled in my mind as what the perfect life was like. I knew it wasn’t true. Just nice thoughts. So, I never really wanted to go to California.
It’ll Always Be There
When I was finishing up graphic design school I begin to think about what came next. I didn’t want to stay in Denver anymore. Not sure why, Denver was always good to me. The idea of moving to California came to me a few years after moving to Denver. Denver winters aren’t too tough to navigate, but still tough enough to make winter an annoyance. California was the only place that was warm all year around that I really thought I would like to live. I was afraid of the hot summers in the desert! and wasn’t liking the idea of the humidity in the South.
I was even considering living overseas. I thought about Austria or Belgium, places like that. But, there would have been no way I could do that. And California was still a pipe dream at that point.
So, for whatever reason, I chose to move back to Illinois. I guess that’s my safe place? Jesus! What the fuck was I thinking? After a little over a year I had to bale. So, I escaped to Huron, South Dakota and wrote more about it here- Out Yonder in South Dakota.
Hello, Are You Still There?
I knew Huron was only a stepping stone. There was nothing to be had in Illinois and I was running full speed into a brick wall there. I started thinking about a life with no winters after about a year in Huron. Could you imagine not having to start a car on a cold January morning? That’s what I was thinking.
But, I had the whole rodeo and Pow Wow adventures going on. I then decided on Dickinson, North Dakota. It was just 25 miles from Montana! Another one of my disillusioned happy places. I was in Dickinson for 2 months. No time to think, but I headed south to Rapid City.
Finally a big city! Holy moly! Rapid City lasted about a year and half. During that time I made a trip to the Bay Area in California. A scouting trip, if you will. I loved it, like I knew I would. But, I couldn’t bring myself to want to live there. I had a great friend, Victoria, offering me a helping hand. However, the price of rent was just overwhelming.
It’s Still There
I took an opportunity that present itself to me in Chadron, Nebraska. A high plains little town on the Nebraska Panhandle, Chadron was me taking a breath before I took the leap. I lasted 3 months in Chadron and was basically run out of town by an angry little cowboy. Seriously. I wanted to tell that guy to take a flying leap.
He did have a pretty cool little shop. They did everything. There was a small state college in Chadron and this little print shop in the downtown that I worked at supplied the college with it’s printing needs. All the area businesses, government agencies, schools and even the organizations from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. I designed t-shirts, brochures, newsletters, business cards, posters, and I even restored old photos. The work was a lot of fun. But, I was still in Chadron.
I loaded up the Kia in November 2012 and took the leap of faith and moved to California. I was lean, happy, and very optimistic. All the things you need in California. By February 2013 I landed a job with one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across, Stanley Lo of Green Banker Realty.
It Wouldn’t Be California If I Didn’t Talk About Real Estate
Working with Stanley I was opened to the world of real estate. Stanley was a marketing machine and I learned a ton from him. It was an extraordinary learning experience for the 2.5 years I worked there.
I also learned what a good real estate photographer could do in the Bay Area. I left Stanley Lo’s office and set out on my own doing real estate photography. I did really well with it. Every day was sink or swim. I was doing 5-6 houses a day during peak. 2-3 houses in non peak times.
Real Estate 101- Bay Area Style
Step 1- Make it a showcase!
A real estate listing in the Bay Area worked like this when I was shooting houses there– You decided to sell your house and you interview several agents that have filled your mailbox/email/Facebook feed with their marketing. You decided on an agent. You and the agent worked together to get the house market ready. This might mean some touch ups or a full remodel. Part of the reason you chose said agent is because he/she knew the people who could make your house a showcase! One of Stanley’s lines– I’ll make your house a showcase!
The market was very competitive in the San Francisco Bay Area during that time. Most homes sold for over $1 million. Homes in the mid-to-low range of the market would sell very fast. Homeowners would do everything they could to make their homes stand out. No matter the condition or position in the market they would try to show it the best that they could. Inside and outside. No detail was left untouched in most cases.
Step 2- Stage It
After the house is ready then comes the stager. Sometimes the stager, recommended by the agent, will handle the remodel. After spending 10’s of thousands on getting the place market ready you had to have it staged. Staging isn’t cheap either. The stager fills the house up with furniture, trinkets, wall hangings and at least one homage to a horse. Seriously, I always searched the house for the horse. I never knew understood that. I would of thought they would have played with the coastal culture, but I suppose that would have been to cliche. Not sure why a horse or horses was not cliche, but they all used them in one way or another.
Some stagers were better than others. I worked with a lot of them. The ones I loved the best that knew the understanding of less is more. I never understood why some would fill the house to the brim of staging. It cluttered the house. Cut off traffic flow. And just looked silly in the photos. The ones who could control their design powers usually did better and received more jobs. I was grateful most agents saw it that way.
Step 3- Find Some Guy or Gal to Photograph the Showcase House
After all the time and money you spent on your now, showcase home, it was time to market it. You couldn’t market your house without photos. That’s where I came in. I’d walk through the door and could read loud and clear all the minds in the room– Don’t fuck up the photos! I’d put my head down and go to work.
It Was a Challenge
It was good to be my own boss. I had to be meticulous. Maybe a little too meticulous. It was fun for the most part. I remember days taking lunch seaside parked in my car next to the beach in Pacifica. Then going onto shoot a seaside mid-century-modern home with ocean views.
But, The Houses!
Every home was different there and just about every home was immaculate. That’s how I survived. When I was a ski bum in Colorado in the 90’s I skied moguls or bumps. When the snow was perfect they were relatively easy to ski. We would call them hero bumps. I was shooting hero houses in California. They were pretty easy to not screw up. They were always well decorated and well lit. Most were professionally stage. Easy peasey!
No Two Alike
Many of the original houses were built in the 1960’s thru the 1980’s. Many of those homes were being bought and torn down for new larger cube like homes. My favorite were the ones that were original, but had been updated just before I showed up. If they were staged well, that was a bonus.
I also shot many high end homes as well. They weren’t always as much fun. It wasn’t uncommon for a home in Hillsborough to be 7,000-10,000 sqft. They had 7-8 bedrooms, umpteen bathrooms, and on and on… Most of those homes were dated. Many were estate sales from a parent that had passed away. Many hadn’t been updated since the 80’s. I did get a few really nice ones.
No matter where I was at in the Bay Area no two homes were alike. Condos were the exception, however many buildings had several different floor plans. I never knew what I was walking into.
Art and Design Rules
Collectors Were Gold
The best were the homes of art collectors. Many of the rich people whose homes I was in bought art because it was expensive. I could tell by the way that they had no cohesion in their collections. Some of the art was good and the rest was not so good. However, there were some who knew how to buy art. Those were the best of the best homes! I wish I could shoot them like I am shooting homes today.
I could incorporate the art into the shots. This would make a much more compelling composition and the addition of color was nice. Homes in San Francisco had the best art. They always had more modern art.
Hillsborough was no slouch either. I saw many nice collections in Hillsborough. One of the best homes was owned by an editor from Cosmopolitan magazine. She had an amazing collection of modern art. Both sculptures and paintings. She was very particular and I was still new. She liked the photos and gave me props. I always wore that very proudly.
Side Note– Hilary Zim
I have to mention an art collection I was commissioned to shoot while living in California. I photographed an original collection by an artist named Hilary Zim. I knew Hilary’s best friend, Claire, and met her several times. She was a warm caring beautiful soul who was an incredible artist. She sadly passed before I was able to get to know her better.
After her passing I worked with Claire and Hilary’s daughter to create an online gallery of her work. She had a vast collection of sculptures and paintings. She also had many mixed media pieces. She was incredibly imaginative and inventive. Her soul poured into her work as she centered most of it around the heartbreak of her husband leaving her for a younger woman. Yes, cliche, but she did it very well.
Hilary’s paintings were some of strongest work, she had created over a hundred of them. Some of the paintings were as big as 10′. She was very talented and this project has to go down as one the most meaningful projects I’ve been involved in. I posted a few of my favorites.
Ok, Back To Real Estate– Mid-century Modern Homes
Many of the homes I shot in California were mid-century modern homes. They were box like with straight lines, flat roofs, and lots of glass. These homes were built during the 60’s and 70’s were abundant on the hills of San Mateo County and throughout the Bay. This style appealed to many builders building on lots with a view of the Pacific Ocean or the San Francisco Bay. With their flat facing walls of glass they pulled water views right into the home. No home overlooked the Bay or the ocean better than a mid century modern.
The above home is an example of a high end mid-century modern. This was one of my favorite houses. The owners were trying to get it a historical status for it’s design. She loved the home and I loved the home, but not everyone did. One agent told me that it looked like a bunch of cargo containers. Not sure what happened to the home as many were bulldozed for a new home.
Many of the mid-century modern homes I shot were inspired by the homes built by popular Bay Area real estate developer, Joseph Leopold Eichler. He took a cue from Frank Lloyd Wright and built modern homes for the everyday home buyer. He built entire neighborhoods of these ultra modern homes throughout the Bay Area during the 50’s and 60’s. One of the biggest developments was right in the same city that I lived and worked out of, San Mateo.
These developments helped spur the mid-century modern movement in home building during the late 60’s and beyond. Eichler was a pioneer in building some of the coolest homes in California. I feel very fortunate in having the opportunity to photograph not only the source of the inspiration, but also the inspiration itself.
Just about every house I shot in California was professionally staged. I worked with many stagers and I learned a lot about shooting homes through them. I learned what I like best in photographs and what I didn’t like as much. I started seeing alleys and sight lines. A good stager would design the rooms with the viewer in mind. Meaning, they didn’t just want to throw a lot of pretty things in a room and say “Look at what I did!”. The good ones worked with the house and drew your eye to where the feature of the room was.
Shooting staged rooms taught me how to zero in on the most tantalizing feature of the room. It could be a view outside of a window or reading nook in the corner of a bedroom. Good stagers would accentuate these features and leave me a line of sight across the room to shoot through. Magic!
Staged homes had better lighting as well. Stagers knew where to place light fixtures such floor lamps and knew to use white incandescent light bulbs. Many made sure all their lighting had built in dimmer switches as well. This made my job so much easier.
Dana and Feiya Arrive
On June 6, 2014 Dana and Feiya arrived from China. Their arrival was derived from many years of planning and navigating through lots of bureaucratic red tape. After all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, they made it to San Francisco.
We spent the two and half years exploring all around Northern California. It was a wonderful time. We marveled at all the beautiful places in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. We spent many weekends and holidays on the road in the Buick LaSabre I bought especially for our road trips.
Seeing everything the coast has to offer
We visited the coast many times. We went on day trips to Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and the many beaches in between. One of our favorite spots became Montara State Beach on the northside of Half Moon Bay. It was barely a 30 minute drive from our apartment in San Mateo. There were tidal pools there and we tried to time our visits with the low tide.
Another great adventure was a drive to Año Nuevo State Park. We saw 100’s of elephant seals. They migrate to that beach each year and lounge around on the rocks by the beach.
Don’t forget about the inland gems
Dana, Feiya, and myself enjoyed the trips to the interior of California just as much as the coastal ones. We went on some day trips to the East Bay to places such as, Mt. Diablo, Berkeley, and the orchards near Sacramento.
We even went a couple long weekend trips to Sacramento and Yosemite. It was always a great feeling when I out drove the Bay Area traffic and hit open freeway. I’d let the cushy vinyl seat back a bit and put the Buick in cruise control. I always knew it was going to be a good weekend.
Extended weekend to Los Angeles
We also visited Los Angeles via a short airplane ride out of San Francisco. Los Angeles has so much to offer as far as sightseeing goes. We surprised Feiya the day before with a visit to Disney World. We spent 2 days there and 3 more in Los Angeles.
We visited many museums and spent some time in Venice Beach and Santa Monica. We used Uber and Lyft to get around the entire time. Traveling from the airport to Anaheim and then back to Venice Beach was over $100 each way. I still saved money versus renting a car and paying for parking for 5 days.
To me that trip was one of the most memorable ones. Every time I get an opportunity to visit Southern California I take it. I really enjoy being in and around Los Angeles. The weather is always nice and there’s just so much to see and do.
See You Later, Not Goodbye
It really wasn’t a hard decision to leave California. We left behind several new friends and many great memories. However, it was just so damn expensive living in California. If you knew the kind of money I was making shooting real estate in the Bay Area, you’d shit. There were times when I made $1000 on a single house. That was with all the bells and whistles I sold along with the photography. I did that 3 times. You can imagine shooting 3-6 houses per day 6 days a week selling straight photos and the $100-$200 add-ons here and there and what that could add up to.
It still wasn’t enough. The houses I was shooting were on average going for over $1mil. The lowend houses were selling for $750k+. I was making good money, but I still needed at least 3 times to afford living in the Bay Area.
Las Vegas isn’t the Bay Area or LA, but it is Las Vegas. After 2 years living in Vegas we’re home owners. We bought a condo in Summerlin, an area on the west side of Las Vegas. It would have been a herculean effort to do that in California. We’ll gladly go back and visit from time to time.
I would love to live somewhere in the Los Angeles area, but only if it economically makes sense to do so. I don’t have anything bad to say about living in California. We enjoyed our time there tremendously, but it will always be there. Just like I knew it was my entire life.