Having grown up in rural Vermont, Debora knew she'd always live in the country. In 2000, she moved to a home on Old La Honda Road, and after several moves, still lives in the hills above Silicon Valley's "flat lands," as she calls them.
The main shock that many new buyers may discover if they haven't done their research is that most homes in Woodside and Portola Valley and along Skyline Boulevard from Woodside to Saratoga are on septic systems rather than the public sewer system. There also are other "issues," like whether a home is located on a road that is windy or straight, narrow or wide, or if it's OK that it takes 10-15 minutes for emergency help to arrive after a 911 call.
For Debora (who asked that her last name not be used), the main draw to living in the hills is "the feeling of not having neighbors, you have your privacy." She and her husband live on more than 5 acres with a 180-degree view of the San Francisco Bay -- which makes up for any inconveniences caused by landslides, street closures and other storm-related problems.
"If buyers understand the hills, then this is a minor inconvenience," Debora said.
Erika Demma, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Woodside who helps clients buy and sell rural properties, said buying land farther from the urban centers of Silicon Valley can be refreshing, but "it comes with a lot of things buyers need to know."
The main piece of education for buyers is learning about septic systems, which are underground tanks that collect the home's sewage and percolate it underground. "Percolation tests," "leech fields," and other terms are common parlance for country dwellers. Nothing flushed except toilet paper, and nothing down the kitchen sink other than water.
The main thing when looking at country property, Demma said, is to see if it already has utilities. It's a big process to buy a raw piece of land and get utilities and water brought to it. If the property is on Skyline Boulevard, for example, the power hookup might be a mile down a driveway to the main power pole.
The other issue, Demma said, is terrain. "If you have more than a 35 percent slope (the town of Woodside) is not going to let you build." To help clients, she gives them a hefty packet of information from the town they are interested in so they know exactly what the building rules are.
In 2016, Realtor Margot Lockwood sold 11 lots in the Woodside and Portola Valley areas, none of them buildable. Most were tiny, and bought by adjacent homeowners hoping to preserve their unobstructed views.
If there's already a home on a property, Lockwood said, it's helpful because there is an existing square-footage footprint there. You can't add bedrooms, but you can remodel the existing home. The issue is the capacity of the septic system, which is set by the number of bedrooms in the home.
"From my experience in buying a piece of land, the septic is probably the most challenging thing," Lockwood said. Prospective buyers also should make sure the land is stable and there are no hazards on it.
Most sellers, Lockwood said, won't sell homes or land in rural areas with a contingency to get building plans approved. "I just make sure in my disclosures that I let people know that they're taking their chances."
It's most important to go to the city and county before close of escrow to find out the building options for the property you want to buy.
Other things to consider are that some small sections of Woodside, such as The Glens, are on a sewer line, but not all homes in The Glens have opted into it. If a buyer purchases such a home and wants to add a sewer hookup, it can cost $100,000, Lockwood said.
While nearly all of the hills are connected to PG&E's electric power grid, cable television and the Internet are more tricky. Portions of Skyline subscribe to a local Internet provider as the major ones don't have good coverage. Even Dish Network and Direct TV are not necessarily available in rural areas.
Cell phone coverage is very sporadic as well, so Lockwood emphasizes getting to know one's neighbors.
She said often it can take years for approvals to wind their way through towns or counties for building permits. One listing she had in La Honda, she said, was on the market for two years (which is very typical for hills homes, as opposed to only a few weeks in the denser suburbs).
"I thought, 'no way the thing is ever going to get built.' They had red-legged frogs (an endangered species), and they also had a creek. The (septic) leech line had to be a good distance from the creek."
She drove by the property recently, and there was a house on it. "How they did it, I have no idea."
Buyers in this situation, she said, have to be "super, super persistent." A real estate agent does, too, as it's not uncommon for one property to go in and out of escrow three times, if buyers decide against completing a sale.
Still, many kinds of buyers are attracted to this "country" kind of living. Lockwood recently sold a home to a couple who had lived in Palo Alto but wanted to retire to the hills. Another client was a tech executive who was buying property for a second home. When all is said and done, she said, "there's a tranquility to it."