Warmer Pastures and Waffle Fries

Our rent is $2600 for a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom townhouse in Newport Beach, Calif. If you live in a flyover state, you might think this place must be next door to the Bryant estate at that price. If you live in Manhattan or the Bay Area, you might feel compelled to start a GoFundMe to get my family of three out of the slums.

The reality is somewhere between, as reality tends to be. It’s a nice home much closer to the highways than any beach, and a world away from the opulent Newport where Kobe lived. Overall I think our month-to-month lease is a pretty good deal relative to Southern California.

Anchoring reality in the Southern California housing market, however, can be more like floating away from reality. I told you three years ago about the dream house in a suspect L.A. neighborhood that inspired us to include a creepy Photoshopped letter with our all-in offer, which got buried. And the Kevin Durant house two years before that.

Now consider the market today, even higher and climbing against low interest rates and inventory. The severe supply and demand imbalance out here is not new. Ever since my risky roommate-for-spouse swap, I have been acutely aware how much further a mortgage goes in my home state of Texas.

Non-native Texans, particularly those who grew up in L.A. like my wife, typically find the idea of living in suburban Dallas to be untenable. I can be empathetic to that. I loved spending my 20s in an epicenter of beach, city, geographic and demographic diversity, entertainment and culture.

I am almost 37 now. My kid is almost 2. (We could have had the same birthday, but he blew it.) My target bedtime on weeknights is 9:30. My target bedtime on weekends is 10. These numbers do not comprise the stat line of someone in his prime.

Even well before Covid, my Google Maps history included no Hollywood comedy clubs, downtown speakeasies, secret surf spots, museums or food truck chases. My pace is more like grocery stores, parks, work, kid’s school and chain takeout. With a toddler and two working parents, even Netflix-and-chill sounds like two separate pipe dreams.

At a certain point, which we passed a long time ago, it no longer makes sense to pay the premium to live here. La La Land can be a paradise for the young, single or rich, but I am none of the above. I am willing to rent instead of own and absorb a higher cost of living – as long as it yields a higher standard of living.

So this isn’t really about market analysis as much as life design. The question I need to answer is what am I doing here that I can’t in Texas, often at lower cost and higher convenience. Keep in mind In-N-Out Burger arrived in the Lone Star State years ago, bringing critical feature parity akin to the camera on the iPhone that made digital cameras obsolete.

Any trip to In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A is a vivid illustration of the gap between infrastructure and population in Southern California. Cars are piled out 360 degrees like an overturned Ferris wheel, and your table-stakes dilemma is to block the right lane of a busy road until you can inch into the parking lot… or come home with Jack in the Box, a greasy participation ribbon dripping with a loogie from the first-place winner.

To bring home the fresh-cut waffle fries, I have to channel my inner Chris Hemsworth in Extraction, an Oscar snub about a hostage rescue that turns into basically two hours of kill-or-be-killed. Hems called it survival mode, and that’s exactly what going to the Chick-fil-A by South Coast Plaza at 6 p.m. entails. My heart rate doesn’t slow to normal until the fries have long gone cold.

This one time at In-N-Out, the guy behind me got out of the car and stood in front of a woman in an SUV trying to merge in front of me. She either innocently or rudely considered it an ancillary merge lane; he thought it was clearly cutting in front of a long line. While he tried to wave me forward, she released the brake against his body. There were f-bombs, picture-taking of a license plate, a call to the police and retort of being married to a sheriff, and a sheepish teenaged employee trying his best to keep up that impeccable In-N-Out cheery service. People can be animals when Animal Style fries are on the line.

It’s just harder out here overall. My wife drives 80 miles a day to shuttle our child to Mandarin immersion school. The highways are so dangerous it’s almost comical. There is such a stupid variance in speeds people choose, and Orange County is the best place to go if you want to practice switching three lanes in 40 yards to make your turn.

Take me back to the suburbs. I am a suburban guy. And although my wife wouldn’t admit it, she’s even more suburban than me – same static group of friends, same orders at Starbucks and McDonald’s, afraid of sand and cold Pacific water at the beach, eight Target trips in seven days.

We do not need to be in L.A. or anywhere near it. It’s like we’re waiting in line and paying cover to get into a club, only to hang out in the lobby. For what, to hear about other people having fun (and to a small degree, subsidize it for them)?

I have routinely dropped probing half-jokes about moving back to Texas over the years to my wife, with only eye rolls in return. A few months ago, I said the desire to relocate had reached a different kind of gear, not urgent but definitely more real. To my shock, she responded with nonchalant agreement.

There are some moving parts to align. I started my new job five months ago. During a chitchat trading life stories, my boss asked if I would ever want to move back to Dallas. I played it off with an “Oh I hadn’t thought about it but sure,” and without skipping a beat, she said “Well you let me know and we’ll wire you in remote.”

It could have been just a flippant remark on a late Friday afternoon, and I would still need another layer of approval. But overall the women in my life are stepping up big to make this happen.

We’re not rushing right now, mainly because our Harry Styles concert from last year was rescheduled to Aug. 27 at the Forum. I didn’t hang in the lobby this long to not at least squeeze in a song.
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