Terry McClusky fell in love with Lake Tahoe more than 30 years ago when he and his wife, Kathy, came down from Bremerton, Wash., to ski with friends.
"We were disappointed with the accommodations, so we said we ought to just buy a place of our own so we'd know what we're getting," he said Monday.
The couple bought a condominium on Wildwood Avenue in South Lake Tahoe for $50,000 in 1976. They've since re-pledged their love for Tahoe for other reasons - their investment. The condo - compared to a median price of $280,000 - could easily sell now for at least $350,000. Their lifelong dream keeps them from cashing out. They live here half the year - most of the winter and part of the summer.
The McCluskys' investment and their vacation habit represent a growing phenomenon on the South Shore. According to a study released earlier this month, about 70 percent of all homes within the South Lake Tahoe area are occupied by investors or second homeowners - compared to full-time, permanent residency.
"We've always seen it as an investment - a business proposition," he said.
People like the McCluskys make up the majority of the part-time owners in the area, according to an El Dorado County-spawned study the South Tahoe Association of Realtors uses as a basis of home ownership in the area.
A local need only talk to people on a chairlift or drive up and down streets left vacant or rented out to get a glimpse of the trend. It creates a seller's market that leaves property values high and those who can't afford them out in the cold from owning a home.
"The majority of the people who own homes in South Lake Tahoe do not live in them all the time. That's the bottom line," said Realtor association spokeswoman Cheryl Murakami, an agent for Remax. "That's why we're so interested in affordable housing."
Murakami said a one-room cabin was the one recent listing for homes priced at $200,000. Acknowledging prospective home buyers are priced out of the market every month, the association is taking part in a work force housing group tasked with accomplishing that goal.
The changing nature of South Lake Tahoe in the advent of a hot housing market dominates a report recently released by the Strategic Marketing Group titled "Understanding the South Shore, An Economy in Transition."
The report - authored by marketer Carl Ribaudo - declares the inequity between wages and the cost of housing continues as a trend. In 2004, the median price of a single-family home here was $379,000, an increase of 17 percent over the previous year - while the median household income stands at $37,000, a hike of 5 percent.
For the same year, the California Employment Development Department reported the median wage of all occupations in the Sacramento region covering El Dorado, Sacramento and Placer counties stood at $15.91 in 2004. The median rose a modest 35 cents in one year.
The SMG report paints a less-than-flattering South Shore job market: "If the current labor classifieds are taken as an indication of what employers are looking for among residents on the South Shore, the desired employee is career oriented, bilingual and skilled in housekeeping, retail, reception or culinary arts and is available on a seasonal part-time basis without benefits to work varied shifts in a non-union environment for less than $10 an hour.
In a community where the average home sells for over $379,000 and rents begin around $500 per month, desirable employees are hard to find," it reads. "Nonprofessionals often have two or more jobs they must juggle during any year. "
John Johnson of Substitute Personnel Services in South Lake Tahoe said he would agree "for the most part" with the assessment. His firm has handled its share of jobs paying under $10 an hour. Many of the jobs now fall in the building maintenance and clerical categories.
"This is certainly not unheard of. There's clearly an imbalance between prevailing wages and the cost of living. The way things are going, and with the reductions in jobs (at Stateline), it's really driving people away," he said.
The discrepancy could become unbearable. The report concludes the South Shore's middle- and low-income populations will eventually cave "to an extreme degree." The solutions remain to be seen.
"(This) paper does not offer much in the way of solutions. That is for the community to decide and decide (it) should," the report states.