Solana Beach, Calif.: An Aspirational Suburb, But Can You Afford It?

Sally Rollinson loves being at home in her sunny kitchen — not so much because she loves to cook, but because of the view.

Her home is at the top of a slope, and the kitchen’s large picture window faces north. That means that Ms. Rollinson, 52, a former school principal and mother of three, has an ideal perch whenever she does dishes or makes a batch of cookies. She can see Skyline Elementary, where all three of her children go, as well as Earl Warren Middle School, where her two sons will matriculate next year.

She can see the spire of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, where the family heads on Sundays; the Boys and Girls Club where her daughter Phoebe and son Evan take swim lessons; the skate park where her son Ben practices tricks; and the library where her whole family borrows books. They’re all right there, clustered together.

“Even though Solana Beach is a suburb, it’s really a town,” Ms. Rollinson said. “The actual things that you need in life are within walking distance, and it’s neat to be able to allow your children some independence without having to get into a car. The reason we came to Solana Beach is because we knew we wanted that feel of living in a town.”

Solana Beach, an affluent coastal enclave in San Diego County that sits atop striking Pacific Ocean bluffs, seems at first glance to have it all. A self-contained city with its own mayor, fire department and elementary schools, it’s a 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego and connected by both freeway and train to all the resources that California’s second-largest city has to offer.

At second glance, it has it all — if you can afford it.

For the Rollinsons, buying a home in Solana Beach took more than one try. Ms. Rollinson and her husband, Austie, 51, the chief designer of Odyssey putters at Callaway Golf, first landed in the area five years ago when they bought a home in the scrublands of Rural Del Mar, an adjacent community where prices are slightly lower. Their children still qualified for Solana Beach schools.

But then their daughter, Phoebe, was diagnosed with leukemia, and her weakened immune system prevented her from being outdoors. The Rollinsons’ home sat on an acre of land, but they were forced to spend much of their time inside. They sold the house, but couldn’t afford a new home in Solana Beach proper. So they headed to Carlsbad, a larger coastal community 10 miles north with excellent schools and a cooler housing market.

“The day we got there I said, ‘I knew I didn’t want to live in Carlsbad,’” said Ms. Rollinson. “I want to live in Solana Beach.”

Phoebe went through treatment and is now a healthy 7-year-old who loves to swim and play with her big brothers. After selling the Carlsbad house and spending months in a Solana Beach rental while they scoured listings, the Rollinsons bought a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath detached home in February 2017 for $1.125 million.

They spent $125,000 on upgrades to the property, which was built in 1968, ripping out the downstairs carpet, updating the kitchen and installing new drainage and irrigation systems. They also knocked down the creaking back porch and created space for a sweeping yard that basks in the leaning shade of a massive, handsome Torrey pine.

“We were ideally going to stay below $1 million,” said Ms. Rollinson. “But in Southern California, the situation is always that you’re looking for anything that has four walls and a roof, passes inspection, and you can get a loan for. You’re just trying to find something you can possibly afford.”

Kelli Miller, an agent with Compass Diego, agreed that “affordability is definitely a thing here.”

“Families would love to be in Solana Beach. It’s a highly desirable family neighborhood, but the price points don’t always agree,” she said.

Ms. Miller, 35, grew up in nearby Encinitas and has lived in Solana Beach since 2007. Despite the high prices — most detached homes here start well above $1 million — she called the vibe “chill and easygoing.”

“This is the best part of all of San Diego,” she said. “It’s walkable, it’s quaint, it’s active and healthy. Everybody wants to feel like they belong, and everybody wants a sense of community. And you have that all here.”

Solana Beach is bisected north-south by Interstate 5 and east-west by Lomas Santa Fe Drive. It juts against the Pacific Ocean to the west, with Fletcher Cove, a family-friendly area that has picnic tables, basketball courts and a playground, its most popular beach. Highland Drive and the edges of San Dieguito County Park form most of its eastern border; Via De La Valle sits at its southern boundary; and the city reaches up to the swampy edges of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve to the north.

Credit…Cody James for The New York Times

A stretch of Route 101, the storied highway spanning the entire West Coast, cuts right through Solana Beach, where it is lined with breweries, bistros and boardshops. The Solana Beach train station, where Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains depart regularly for downtown San Diego, Los Angeles and beyond, sits just across the street, at the intersection of Cedros Avenue — which itself is a bustling design district of galleries, boutiques and quaint shops.

Most new development is centered around Cedros Avenue, especially at the southern end, where a farmer’s market shuts down the street each Sunday and new coffee shops and home-goods stores are popping up.

Credit…Cody James for The New York Times

To guard against rising sea levels and coastal erosion, much of Solana Beach’s coastline is protected by a sea wall, which is partly funded by a fee levied on oceanfront property owners. The sea wall is not without controversy — homeowners with bluff-top properties welcome its protection, while the California Coastal Commission argues it accelerates erosion and chips away at public beach space.

With about 3.6 square miles, Solana Beach is a small area, and inventory is tight. This past September, there were only 11 detached, single-family homes on the market, with a median sales price of $1.36 million. In the same period in 2018, there were 20 detached homes on the market at a significantly higher median price of $1.875 million.

Credit…Cody James for The New York Times

Condos and attached homes are similarly limited: This September, there were 14 on offer, at a median price of $880,000. In September 2018, the inventory was 12 attached homes, with a median price of $733,000, according to the North San Diego County of Realtors.

For renters, prices range from under $2,000 a month for a studio apartment to around $3,000 for a two-bedroom townhouse to $8,000 for a luxury beachfront condo. A $24 million, mixed-use project dubbed Cedros 330, offering a restaurant, retail and office space, and eight luxury apartment units for rent, is slated to open in early 2020.

Credit…Cody James for The New York Times

“I always joke that when you go somewhere in Solana Beach, you could be gone for a while because you will run into someone and you want to catch up,” said Emily Behrmann, an agent with New Wave Real Estate who lives in Solana Beach with her husband and two children. “It’s a really friendly town.”

Locals describe a laid-back, active community where the beaches, bike trails and gyms are packed at 6 a.m., and the streets quiet down significantly after nightfall. Along Cedros Avenue, Belly Up Tavern has been pulling in crowds for live music for more than 40 years, and Carruth Cellars Urban Winery and Culture Brewing Co. fill up for happy hour. But in general, “It’s not a party town,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s more like wake up early and get off to your day, go run on the beach, and maybe have a nice dinner with a drink, but that’s it.”

Solana Beach’s public schools are among the highest-rated in San Diego County.

“It’s very comforting to know that no matter what, once you start in the schools, if you stay here your kids are guaranteed a great education,” Ms. Behrmann said.

The Solana Beach School District operates seven elementary schools. When students reach middle school, they join the San Dieguito Union High School District, which also serves the nearby communities of Encinitas, Del Mar, Cardiff and Rancho Santa Fe.

High schoolers attend either Canyon Crest High School, San Dieguito High School Academy or Torrey Pines High School. During the 2017-18 school year, Canyon Crest had 2,576 enrolled students; 90 percent met or exceeded state standards for English and Language Arts on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) exams, and 82 percent met or exceeded standards for math.

In the same year, San Dieguito had 1,902 enrolled students; 78 percent met or exceeded standards for English and Language Arts on CAASPP; 59 percent met or exceeded for math. Torrey Pines had 2,418 enrolled students that year; 85 percent met or exceeded state standards on CAASPP for English and Language Arts, while 70 percent exceeded for math.

Downtown San Diego is a 30-minute drive on I-5 south, but rush-hour traffic can push it to an hour. The Amtrak Surfliner ($13) and Coaster trains ($5) offer an alternative direct from Solana Beach to downtown. That ride takes about 45 minutes.

The modern town of Solana Beach was first developed in the 1920s, following the creation of the Lake Hodges dam, a lake and reservoir that brought water to the area. A housing boom followed World War II, and in 1986 the city of Solana Beach was incorporated. The Solana Beach Train Station opened in 1995, creating a direct route between Solana Beach and downtown San Diego that bypassed the city’s busy freeways.

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