Escape Routes

How, why - and whether - you should buy a second home.

Thirty-six-year-old Robert T. Weber is married, lives in North Dallas, works at his own business (selling air-conditioning, heat-recovery and solar-heating systems as a manufacturer’s representative) and does well enough at it to buy what he wants.

What he wants, at least once a month, is a place where he can go with his wife Nancy and 6-year-old son Chris and get away from Dallas, demands, telephones and people.

Bob Weber is just one of the many around the Dallas-Fort Worth area who want occasional relief from the city, and have found it in a second home.

They all want escape, but they don’t all choose the same way out. For some, like Bob and Nancy Weber, the solution is a cabin in the woods, where they can hike on dirt roads and leaf-strewn trails, fish and wade in the creek.

For others, it’s a comfortable house in a development built around a big, white-columned clubhouse – a safe, sophisticated Eden, where life is abundant. Others find their action on a lake, where boats and fish and the water’s seduction of the senses are all that really matters.

1 The Mountain Retreat

What Bob and Nancy Weber wanted most of all was privacy. When they began their search for just the right spot, they decided together that they would look for something remote – wooded, rugged land, with a creek or river nearby. That’s what they were used to. Bob had grown up in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and Nancy in Bethesda, Maryland. They met while they were students at Penn State, in the Nittany Mountains. Besides that, Nancy’s parents have a vacation home in the mountains of Virginia, and Bob and Nancy liked the looks and feel of it.

“We started taking radiuses around Dallas,” Bob explained. “We were concerned about driving time. We didn’t want to be more than three hours from Dallas. We drove over to east Texas, then south, down to Austin and the hill country. We thought east Texas was too gentle, with its rolling hills, and the hill country was a little foreign to both of us.”

So the search went elsewhere. In 1970 Bob saw an ad in The Wall Street Journal, about an area in southeastern Oklahoma, in a new development called Pine Tree Estates. He and a friend drove up, hiked and looked around, talked to a salesman. He liked what they saw, but put off buying.

“Then I fell into the regret syndrome,” he said. “We’d be with some people and we’d get to talking about raw land. And we’d say, ’We had a chance to buy land up in those mountains – it was a great deal, waterfalls, a creek – and we blew it.’ “

On their way home from a vacation with Nancy’s parents in Virginia three years later, they decided they’d go back and see if they could still get a piece of that Oklahoma land. They discovered, however, that the development had failed and the land had passed into other hands. Persisting, Bob put an ad in a Dallas newspaper, designed to ferret out someone in Dallas who had bought in Pine Tree Estates and was now ready to unload.

The ad drew two responses. Bob ended up buying a rectangular 20-acre tract from one seller, at $200 an acre, and an adjoining 40-acre tract from another, at $250 an acre. This gave him a T-shaped piece of property, through which a chill, clear stream winds past rocky, forested slopes for three-quarters of a mile.

Getting there isn’t easy, though. After two and a half hours on concrete and blacktop highways (running through either Greenville and Paris, or Sherman and Atoka, then on to Antlers), you turn onto narrow macadam, traveling north toward tiny Moyers, Oklahoma. The land around the Webers’ is now part of a development called, confusingly, both Pine Tree Estates and Kiamichi Wilderness. Its new owner, Si Rickman, has nailed pointed signs saying “Kiamichi” to trees and posts, leading the way. You turn left, still on gravel, past a fenced, junk-littered farmyard, and climb slowly, curving up the hillside, straddling the deep ruts cut by logging trucks hauling timber out of the wilderness.

Finally there is a sign that reads “Pine Tree Estates,” where you turn down a sandy trail edged on both sides by evergreens and pines. Near the end of the road, a pair of dirt tracks marked “Weber Trail” branches off. At its end, out of sight till you are upon it, stands the Weber cabin.

It’s a modem design, a tiered, natural-wood structure on pilings rising out of the steep, rock-studded, wooded slope. Just below the cabin, in view of its wooden deck, flows the stream. You can hear it – in fact, the stream, the birds and the wind are all you can hear. The aroma of the woods fills the mountain air. It’s easy to believe the Webers have made the perfect escape.

For the first year after they bought the land, the Webers simply camped on it. “We pulled our travel trailer up and left it,” Bob says, “and we’d come up, stay there and hike around and fish. But soon we got bored, so we decided we’d build a little cabin. It began to grow as we started designing, though.

“We’d sit around sketching. I’d been an architecture major before I switched to engineering. I like to design things and I knew I could build a house that would stand up. We hiked up and down the creek looking for a suitable site, one that we could get to. That was our biggest problem -just getting in. On the other side of the creek, the big rocks keep the trucks out. I wanted a spot where the trucks could just come in and dump the materials, but Nancy kept pushing me down the hill, to get close to the creek. We found this place and staked it out. We got some kite string and stretched it on some stakes and said, ’Here’s what it’ll look like.’

“I talked to some builders, thinking maybe I’d get someone to do the frame and we’d finish it. Nancy and I had remodeled houses in Dallas and we liked to do our own work. And it seemed kind of a challenge. But no builder wanted to mess with it, way down on the hill like this. At first there wasn’t even a trail down to the site, and the trucks would come in and dump the stuff on the road and I’d carry the cement and lumber through the trees on my shoulders.

“We had electricity, though, so I could use my Skilsaw. I’d get friends up here every once in a while to help us, under the guise of treating them to scenic beauty and a lot of beer. The cabin is made of big steps, coming down the hill, and we had to dig holes to sink pilings in. We used posthole diggers and got down to rock almost everywhere. We poured concrete around the treated posts that we sank into the holes. The house sits on those.

“When it came time to put the roof on, I had to climb up and walk down the beams, carrying boards to put on the roof. Nancy would tie a rope around my waist and I’d go across the beams, hoping I wouldn’t fall.

“We didn’t have to drill a well, luckily. I took some creek water back to Dallas in bottles and had it tested three or four times. The lab people told me, ’You can probably drink this, but there are some bacteria in it.’ We had been drinking the creek water up till then, but after that we stopped. But we plumbed the whole cabin using creek water. I’ve got the parts to a system that will chlorinate the water and filter it for drinking, but I haven’t put that in yet.

“The creek water is pumped up to the house, with 50 pounds of pressure, just like in the city, and comes out of the spigots, and we use it to shower with and brush our teeth. But we bring up a five-gallon, galvanized container of water from Dallas to drink and cook with. If we run out, we can boil some creek water or go down the road and get some from one of the other people out here.

“The septic system was another problem. Under the house is a big tank, and everything drains into it. Then there’s a special kind of pump that I got through my business. It chews up everything and pumps it over to the other side of the hill, into a leaching pit. Then there are lateral lines that go out from there. If we were using that in Dallas, it would be considered a terrible thing, but just coming here on weekends, it would take a hundred years before it would pollute anything. There are other things I’ve done here that, if this was in Dallas, they’d say, ’Oh my God! You can’t do it that way!’ It’s kind of neat not having all those codes here.”

Inside, on the cabin’s highest tier, or step, is a sleeping loft, which easily ac-comodates the Webers’ son and the neighborhood pal he sometimes brings along. On the next lower level are Bob and Nancy’s bedroom and the cabin’s one bathroom. (There is also an outdoor shower, which Nancy especially likes: “It’s neat, taking a shower and looking up at all those trees.”) On the third level are the dining area, with a large, built-in, booth-type table and church pew benches, and the little kitchen. On the lowest level, even with the outside deck, is the living room, with a fireplace at one end and a built-in couch that opens into a double bed at the other. All the rooms are open – you can see from the loft into the living room and from the bedroom into the dining area. The only room with a door is the bathroom.

There is no air-conditioning, only a large exhaust fan near the ceiling in the dining room, and no insulation. A two-inch-thick wall is all that separates indoors from the wilderness. The living-room fireplace and a wood-burning stove in the bedroom, plus electric heaters scattered about the cabin, constitute the heating system. “We manage to keep the place about 20° warmer inside than outside during the cold months,” Bob said. “So when it’s down to 30° outside at night, it’s 50° in here. That’s not too bad.

“The cabin’s got about 1400 square feet of space, and it cost about $ 10,000 to build, counting built-ins, carpeting, everything. If a builder had done it, as near as I can guess, he would probably have wanted about $25,000 to build it the way we did it.”

Aside from the refrigerator, electric range and electric water heater, the only big appliance the Webers have is a trash masher. “And the only reason we have that,” Nancy says, “is that we were carrying all our garbage back to Dallas in bags. We decided to get the trash masher, so we can keep all the garbage in one plastic bag” – which they drop off at a rest stop in Oklahoma. “The only other thing I’d like to have is a clothes washer. If you’re up here for more than four or five days, you accumulate a lot of dirty clothes that you have to lug back.”

They come to the cabin an average of once a month, winter included, and when they come, usually on a Friday evening, they bring food, clothes, a radio, TV and the five-gallon can of water. When they leave, usually on a Sunday evening, they gather up what they’ve brought, turn off everything but the water heater, and in the winter, drain the water pipes by opening a valve under the cabin.

“We used to make jokes about our stuff being stolen out of the cabin while we’re gone,” Bob said. “We’d be coming up and we’d pass a truck going the other way, with something in it.and we’d say, ’Isn’t that our refrigerator?’ We did have one break-in, around Thanksgiving last year. Some guy came in through the window and took my telescope, TV antenna control box and a few little things. He was caught, though, and we’re going to get the stuff back. After that incident, we tried to attach as many things as we could so that they couldn’t be carried off easily. And we put in a security system. Anyone coming in here knows he’s got to get past a guard station on the way out, and that’s the place he’s likely to get caught.”

Burglars aren’t the only pests. In the fall and spring, wasps invade the cabin. They don’t sting unless provoked, but they’re bothersome. “We close the cabin and set aerosol bombs off inside,” Bob explained. “And they drop like Japanese fighter planes. Then we just sweep them up.”

The Webers pay $33 a year in property tax to Pushmataha County, Oklahoma. “They don’t know we have a cabin in here,” Bob says. “I’m sure one day they’re going to start looking around and raise the taxes. But right now, we pay almost nothing.” Electricity from the Choctaw Electric Company runs about $20 to $25 a month.

The Webers avoid socializing in the wilderness. “We kind of like for this to be just our place,” says Bob, “and if we want company, we’ll bring it along. I just want to come up here and really get away from people, other than the people I select.”

“I like the quiet,” Nancy said. “There are no phones or anything to bother us. I just like to go and sit out on the deck and read or listen to the creek. At night we can look at the stars. It’s unbelievable the number of stars you can see here. It’s just gorgeous. You don’t see anything like it in Dallas.”

“Most of our recreation here centers around that creek,” Bob says. “It’s fairly deep in places, and we have nice rapids. When the water’s up, we ride down the creek on a rubber raft, through the rapids and over the waterfall, about a 100-yard trip. We fish and hike along it. Chris and his friends catch lots of 10-or 12-inch fish.”

Bob thinks they were wise to camp awhile on the land before building on it. That way, he says, you can get the feel of the land and avoid choosing a poor site.

Nancy believes more people should try building themselves. “A lot of people would never think of it, so they end up paying twice as much to a builder. Building it ourselves was most of the fun. It was a lot of work, but we had a good time. Even working just on weekends, we finished our place in less than a year.”

“If 1 were doing it again,” Bob adds, “I’d look into ways of using the sun to warm it. I’d probably build it smaller, too, and insulate it, because of the energy problem. I didn’t even think about it at the time.”

“Another way to save money,” Nancy says, “is to go to a real estate broker in the area where you’re looking, or check the classified ads for people who are selling their land themselves. If you buy from a development, you’re going to pay top dollar.”

“I can’t think of anything that would keep me from doing it again,” Bob said. “Of course, I don’t know how many of these I’ve got in me. Looking back on it – boy, there’s a lot of back-breaking effort in this thing! As I get older. . .” A thoughtful pause. “I could probably go one more.”

2. The Lakeside Cottage

After 30 years in the Navy, Capt. Charles W. Hollinshead retired five years ago. He and his wife, Fay, were living in Dallas, since it had been his last duty station. They liked it, especially the theater and shopping. Fay was originally from Dallas, and Charles from Marshall, so they had friends and relatives, including grown children, around the city. They decided to settle right where they were. Charles took a job with Texas Utilities Services and Fay found a job as a secretary.

But having lived so close to it for so long, in so many parts of the world, they missed the water – the beach, the surf, sailing in their own small boat. After considering a second home at Padre Island -exciting, but too far away, too impractical – Charles and Fay started looking closer to home.

About a year ago, a nice day providing an excuse for the ride, they drove up 1-30 to Mount Vernon, then down to Lake Cypress Springs, in Franklin County. Recreational developments had sprung up around the big reservoir, and Charles had talked to a friend who had bought a place near there. The Hollinsheads thought they’d have a look.

They drove to a development called king’s Country. A new lakefront section had recently been opened, and the Hollinsheads soon saw a lot they liked: eight-tenths of an acre, wooded, with dogwoods blossoming among the pines, 250 feet of shoreline and a narrow strip of sand at the water’s edge. It was the next best thing to the seashore – and much closer to home (109 miles).

So they bought it, for $11,000. They made a down payment that same day, then drove away wondering what they’d gotten themselves into. “Charles has done only two impulsive things in his whole life,” Fay says. “He married me, and he bought this place.

“After we bought the lot, we didn’t really know what we were going to do with it,” Fay says. “We just wanted to build something, without waiting a long time, so we could get down there and enjoy ourselves.”

They met a young builder who had been working in the development and they liked him instantly. The Hollins-heads had seen a cottage that was sort of what they had in mind and they took the builder to see it. He sketched an “envelope house” – rough plans drawn on a piece of plain paper – and put them in touch with a Mount Pleasant bank to finance the construction.

For $22,000 the Hollinsheads got a 1,238-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath beach house built on stilts, with a wooden walkway running along the side of the house and a wooden deck outside the living room, overlooking the lake. The bedrooms and baths are at the front of the house, the living room, dining area and open kitchen are at the back. The price included a dishwasher, kitchen range, septic system – nearly everything but a refrigerator. The Hollinsheads later added a blacktop driveway, sloping from the road to the front of the house.

They get their water from the development’s system and pay a flat $5 a month for it. They also pay $6 toward the maintenance of the development’s roads. (The quality and condition of the roads are the only things in the development that the Hollinsheads complain about.) They pay $25 a year in property tax, too. Garbage pickup is available for 50 cents a week, but the Hollinsheads prefer to drop off their trash bag at the development’s dump on their way back to Dallas.

They have no phone, though service is available. In case of an emergency, they can be reached through the gatehouse, which functions as a security station and information and message center for the development. There is a telephone there, as well as a round-the-clock guard.

Some of the headaches of having a second home struck the Hollinsheads while the house was being completed. Much of the conferring with the builder had to be done by telephone, from Dallas, including the description of a shade of brown paint which Fay wanted (and got) in the living room. One week they were promised that the water and kitchen sink would be in and ready for them that weekend, and they drove to the lake that Friday evening and found that it wasn’t so. “Even now, I have to make arrangements with the plumber, or whoever, to leave my key in an envelope at the gate, with a note describing the problem,” Charles says. “You have to trust somebody with that key. All those things have to be taken care of by remote control. You can’t come out here every day and see how things are progressing or make little changes.”

The Hollinsheads go to the lake almost every weekend, leaving home about 8 o’clock Friday evening and arriving here about 10. They also spent a week of vacation at the lake last year and plan to again this year. “There’s no need to leave Dallas every weekend, though,” Fay says. “There are a lot of things I like to do there, too.”

“The chores at home suffer,” Charles adds. “There are things we can’t get to during the week because we both work, and they have to be handled on the weekend.”

Whatever pressure Fay feels usually melts away once they’re beside the lake. “Sometimes when you first start out from Dallas, you sort of feel that you’re going just because you know the place is there and you ought to take advantage of it,” she says. “But when you get here, you’re so glad that you wonder why you felt that way when you were leaving Dallas. Sunday afternoon comes, and you don’t want to go back.”

“It’s nice just being here,” Charles says. “At home I feel guilty if I don’t get the yard work done, even when I’m too pooped to finish it. But here it’s different. If I want to stop, I just stop and sit down and I don’t feel guilty at all.”

“Charles cannot get me into the yard at home,” Fay says. “But here I’m fiddling around with a broom or a rake or something all the time, and I like it.”

The Hollinsheads love to get out on the water in their 16-foot sailboat. “We don’t like fishing boats,” Charles says, “but we have relatives and friends who are really glad we have this place, so they can fish.”

“I just like to sit out there on the deck and listen to the water,” Fay says. “If I really concentrate, I can make believe it’s the ocean. I like to walk along our little beach. Everything just goes away, all my cares and everything. Sometimes Charles and I just stand out there and listen to the water and look at the stars.’’

The romance of the place is so infectious that each evening they’re there they’dine by candlelight, sipping wine with the exotic dishes Fay prepares, soft music on the stereo.

The Hollinsheads have become good friends with the people next door, Brooks and Jan Hanes, who are still finishing their place, and the neighbors on the other side of the Haneses. “When we haven’t seen each other for several weeks,” Fay says, “we hug and kiss, scream and carry on. A lot of things we do here involve them. We visit and have a drink and chit-chat together.’’

They also invite friends from Dallas and relatives to share weekends with them. And on the weekends when they stay in Dallas or go someplace else, they often let friends use the place. Lately the house has had so many visitors that Charles and Fay have written a checklist for guests, telling them what to do and how to do it.

The Hollinsheads’ 24-year-old daughter Debbie (they have two daughters and two sons) and her husband live in Dallas and are frequent guests. They bring their own friends from Dallas with them when Charles and Fay aren’t there. To return the favor, their son-in-law recruited some of his buddies last November while Charles and Fay were in Mexico and built a wooden boat pier as a Christmas present.

3. The Country Club House

Jack and Jackie Downey live in a modest neighborhood in Arlington, in a house that’s comfortable and paid for, but otherwise undistinguished from others on the block. Their two daughters are married and living in Utah; their son is just a year from his high school graduation. Jack’s going on 56 and though he obviously gets a lot out of his job as deputy executive director of D/FW Airport, he’s been thinking about retirement.

About two years ago, they got a phone call from the salespeople at Pecan Plantation, a country club-style development on the Brazos River, 15 miles from Gran-bury. Jack was interested, in spite of himself.

“We’d been to Granbury a number of times and we enjoyed it very much. And then this salesman called and wanted us to go to a movie and have dinner and then go down to Pecan Plantation and take a look around.

“Well, we didn’t go to the movie or to the dinner, but we did drive down on a Sunday afternoon and we did look around. I was impressed. Of about two thousand lots, it looked like nineteen hundred of them were already sold. They had a large clubhouse, with 24 hotel rooms, nice dining room, very reasonable, beautiful. There was a big pool outside, and six nice tennis courts, a championship golf course, a marina, stables, a skeet range, and a park. They had an airport with a four-thousand-foot runway, lighted strip. Best of all, everything was finished. The streets were in, the electricity and water. And it had twenty-four-hour guards.

“We decided we’d just buy a lot, go down to the clubhouse and enjoy ourselves – play golf, swim, whatever we wanted to. We could buy a lot for ten percent down and make the payments, plus fifteen dollars a month as a tax. You couldn’t join a country club for that.”

Jack and Jackie bought the 100-by-135-foot lot, backing up to a huge pecan orchard, for $8,000. They started going down as often as they could (which, despite a mere 70 minutes’ driving time, turned out to be not all that often). After a few visits, they discovered that using the clubhouse as a home base wasn’t exactly the gracious living they had in mind.

“It was difficult to change clothes,” Jack complained.’ ’You had to go in the locker room, which wasn’t exactly like you’d like to have it. There wasn’t much privacy.”

So, about two months after they bought the lot, they started planning to build a house. They worked up some plans with an architect friend, starting with a simple structure, eventually settling on a 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom house expandable to five bedrooms. During the planning sessions, Jack and Jackie began to see the place as a possible retirement home. It wasn’t to be a mere cabin; they wanted a comfortable second home. And just in case they never got around to retiring to it, they had to think about resale. They wanted to build something they could turn over without much trouble.

“In the contract that I wrote with the builder, we agreed the house would be done on a cost-plus basis, not to exceed $30,000,” Jack says. “$30,000 plus the $8,000 for the lot, plus whatever costs were going to be involved with surveys and so forth. We began building.

“Jackie was great on having me do a lot of the work. We talked about insulating and finishing it ourselves. But the contractor moved very quickly, and the first thing I knew, the house was finished, and I hadn’t done anything.”

However, the final bill added up to a bit more than $30,000. “It was more like $38,000. 1 realized then that I was looking at $46,000 worth of house – more than I paid for what I live in.

“The problem was, we couldn’t decide exactly what we wanted to build,” Jack explains. “We were thinking about three separate things. We wanted something we could consider an investment. Money is so hard to keep, and real estate is as good a way as anything. And we thought about retirement, about building something for the future. The third idea was to build something to enjoy in the interim, before retirement. We wanted something that was what we are, middle class, comfortable, a place where we could be private and enjoy ourselves.

“We enjoy it, but as for a leisure home, I have to tell you there isn’t any such beast. We now have two yards to keep up. We now have two sets of projects going, one in Arlington and one at Pecan Plantation.” (Only 1,600 square feet of the house is finished; Jack is working on the rest.) “So all we’ve done is double our responsibility. But I’ve got to admit it was fun. We enjoy it immensely. When we go down there, it’s usually just Jackie and me. And believe me, that’s worth the whole investment right there.”

Jack and Jackie don’t use the development facilities as much as they initially thought they might. Largely because of Jack’s job and church duties, they only go to Pecan Plantation about once every six weeks and even then, they usually have to head back to Dallas by Saturday evening. Now, instead of hanging around the clubhouse, they just hang around the house. “We work in the yard, or just sit down and have a cool drink, watch television and forget it. Or take a nap or read or ride our bicycles.” In the warm months, when the pool is open, they swim and eat occasionally at the big, white-columned clubhouse, center of social life for the development.

Being able to go off and leave the house full of bicycles, clothes and the like without fear of robbery is another of the development’s main attractions. Everyone coming in must pass through the tall, white portico at the entrance, then stop at the guardhouse and identify himself by the name and number assigned to each property owner. The Downeys give their invited guests a homemade, Xeroxed map, showing routes to their place and spelling out instructions for passing the guardhouse.

The security system has worked well for the Downeys. Jack and Jackie once-arrived at the house and found it the way their son Mike had left it two days earlier – outside lights on, front and back doors open. Inside, however, nothing was out of place.


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