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Dennis Marek: It isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence

December 2, 2017 GMT

I have a saying one should be very careful where you take your children for his or her first visit to a college. They will be awed and might never give up the thought they have found their first choice. When my son was an eighth-grader, I needed to take some depositions in San Francisco, and I took my two oldest children with me. We decided because we were so close, a side trip to see the famed Stanford University would be pretty neat. My son was awed with this incredible campus.

During the next few years, my older sister, who was a California college professor, kept informing my son Stanford had become the hardest university in the country to get into. He shouldn’t plan to be admitted. Undaunted, he applied and had a tremendous athletic season his senior year that included winning the national pole vault title in 1989. It seems Stanford likes more than just valedictorians. He was accepted, got a scholarship and graduated from there in 1994.

Had we paid full tuition, it would have seriously damaged our finances. It became clear we had it backward. Live in California, earn the big money and send your child to the University of Illinois, not the opposite. But that isn’t the worst part. They often never come home after college. My son now has his own business right in Silicon Valley.

In August, my wife and I took a trip to see my son and family in California. When we have visited during the years, we were blown away at the expense of living there. It became even clearer as the years went by it has become impossible to afford that area unless you earn huge bucks. As we return to the Midwest after those visits, we are thankful for our standard of living, especially as we approach retirement. How different the economics of these two areas of our country can be.

Because I am the only coffee drinker, and because we sleep on Central time, I often wake up early there and wander down the street from his home to a coffee shop. One morning, I read the local Redwood City eight-page paper. The first page was international news, the second California and the third local happenings. The last five pages were all houses for sale. There were two less than $1 million, and at least 40 more than $5 million. And this was not the ritziest town in Silicon Valley by far.

Wealth abounds, but not for everyone. If McDonald’s charges about the same for an order of fries, they cannot pay their workers $20 or $25 per hour. Where do these workers live? The answer is they commute 30 to 40 miles from the other side of the Bay. Every day. Most can’t even afford to rent. When kids graduate college, they either have three or four roommates, or they come home to live with Mom and Dad until they can earn real money. There are no $800-per-month apartments.

The Apples, Googles and Facebooks have settled in San Marcos, the city where my son has his insurance office. His rent was due for an adjustment this year. It was to double under the formula for any right to continue in that space. He actually would have been paying per-month per-square-foot what I pay per-year for my office in Kankakee. These tech giants can pay whatever is asked, and it skyrockets rents for everyone else. He has decided to reduce his square footage and move.

Say a nice house in Bourbonnais has 2,500 square feet. It could sell from $200,000 to $400,000. That house in Redwood City would sell for $2.5 to $3 million. Rent for a four-bedroom home might be $10,000 per month. My son and I played golf with two men about 40, both with families, and neither had been able to buy his first house.

So, why do people move there? The weather is great. The city of San Francisco is delightful. Talented people with big ideas can make real money. Ask the Amazon, Google or Facebook people. But what about the raising of children. How warped is a 10-year-old who talks about $2 million homes and sees incredible wealth all around him? Remember, if he goes into the Army, he makes the same pay as the man from Chebanse.

We came back to our community with an amazing revelation of how the other half really lives. We could afford to buy our first home when we needed to, not when we were 45. We have places we can afford to visit, recreation that is relatively affordable and restaurants at which we can dine without choking when the bill comes.

Sure, we might be the poor cousins, but I have to believe we have less stress each day. Besides, the 49ers are worse than the Bears this year.