Visiting Austin and the
2007 Easter Hill Country Bike Rally

2007/04/03-07 (Tuesday - Saturday)

All the Photos
(and they are intermixed in the paragraphs below):

Austin view north
Austin view bat bridge
Austin view at night
cat mountain view
cat mountain living room
cat mountain living family room
remodeled ranch
remodeled ranch kitchen
remodeled ranch backyard
remodeled ranch living room
floor plan 1
floor plan 2
tear down exterior
tear down interior
tear down bathroon
Brody and Hurley
Dinner with Russell and Glenda
Funny ducks
UT Parking Ticket
high-rise kitchen
high-rise view
high-rise living room
Camp David pecan suite front
Camp David pecan suite side
Wildflowers with bikers

House Hunting in Austin

In looking back through my email, I see that Anne and I started looking at homes in Austin back in mid-January, 2007. We had started thinking about retirement because some of our co-workers were either retiring, or thinking about retirement (Ron Barry retired, Mike Armstrong retired, Bill Ruszchyck retired, Ron McAfee was just_this_close to retiring last year!, and Chris Brow has had property in New Mexico for several years getting it ready for retirement). It seemed like the right thing to start thinking about it, making plans, and perhaps getting something in place for 5-10 years down the road.

Recently I have been thinking about retiring near a University. I really like the idea of taking classes, going to music events, shows, plays, political events, and hanging out with college students. Anne has wanted to move closer to family, and to have a place with a view, and away from the power lines that haunt our current house.

We counted and found that we had done the Kerrville Easter Hill Country bike rally 10 times (at least) !! We really like the Texas Hill Country, and decided that Austin might just be the place to retire. UT Austin is in the Hill Country (views). It has 30,000 undergraduates and another 20,000 graduate students. It is reasonably close to family in Houston.

We started watching in early February. We setup our criteria and started raking in the interesting properties. Their web site is very nice in that we can set up search criteria and then get automatically notified when something changes, like a new property appears, or one is sold, or the price changes.

As Easter got closer Realty Austin set us up with Suzanne Pfeiffer, an associate realtor living in the Austin area. She set us up a different, custom web site in which we could mark the properties with Preferred, Possibility, or Reject. We settled on 9 properties to look at. We only had 1/2 day Wednesday morning, and 1/2 day Thursday morning, so this seemed like a reasonable number.

We chose properties in the Cat Mountain area, and north of UT Austin in the "Triangle" area, and in downtown, a high-rise condo. We had 3 properties in Cat Mountain, 4 properties in north Austin near UT, and 1 high-rise condo. We also had several Possibilities in the South Congress (SoCo) area, just south of Town Lake, west of I35.

On Tuesday morning we took our time and packed up the car. This was our first overnight bike rally of the year, so we had lots of bike gear to bring, and we had everything else to bring to support the house hunting expedition. So we made lists and eventually got the car packed up. We had hired Nancy Paglia (Pets Need Nannies Too) to take care of our kittens, so we knew they would be well kept while we were gone. We finally got on the road about 12noon and arrived in Austin about 3:30pm. We had reservations at the Austin Hyatt, located on the southwest corner of Congress St. and Town Lake. I had requested a Lake view on a high floor; We got the 12th floor with a stunning views of Town Lake and the city. The room had a wall of windows looking north. Anne pointed out that this was definitely one of the views that would satisfy her View Criteria. We were both very interested in visiting that high-rise condo in downtown!

We were a bit worried about driving into Austin on I35. The last few times we did this the roads were packed with traffic and it took an hour or more to get through. Russell and Glenda said it took them 2 hours to get through Austin when they came up to visit about a month ago. At 3:30pm in the afternoon we didn't have any problem at all getting through Austin. We got off the freeway at the right exist and promptly missed our turn onto Cesar Chavez. So we drove on down the access road and turned at Town Lake and worked our way west through the park. Turns out this took us right by 54 Rainey St, the high-rise we were to visit on Thursday! How convenient. That area was/is under heavy construction as more and more high-rise condos and offices are being built. It was tremendously busy, dusty, loud, with cement trucks, pickups, and other utility vehicles crowded into the construction areas. The area was an odd mix of 1940, 50, and 60 bungaloes and cottages mixed in with all the crazy construction. This was a recurring theme of the trip.

We eventually found our way to the Hyatt and got checked in. This is a very nice place to stay while visiting Austin. We dropped off all our stuff in our room, including the bikes and gear, then took a drive north on Lamar to see what downtown was like during rush hour. We also wanted visit UT Austin campus, the Triangle area to the north, and generally get a feel for the various neighborhoods.

Austin was very crowded during rush hour, but not any worse that Dallas, and nothing like the rush hour that Stewart experiences when driving back from Lockheed in Fort Worth! As we drove north we saw Whole Foods, REI, Central Market, "The Drag" on the west side of UT, as we zig-zagged through the city and the neighborhoods to the north. Eventually we turned around and headed south into the SoCo area and located some of the condos we had marked as Possibilities. The SoCo neighborhoods were very northern-like. They reminded Stewart of Louisville housing, small bungaloes, cottages, no garages, lots of vegetation, trees. Anne thought of Brady St in Milwaukee, stuck in the 60s, very Hippy. Turns out the Possibilities were empty lots with billboards showing drawings of the condos that were to come some day! We visited three sites of these. Looks like the developers were buying the old cottages and tearing them down, then building these multi-plex condos on the properties, designed to fit the neighborhood (not McMansions). We saw this over and over; There would be cottage, cottage, cottage, townhouse, cottage, cottage, empty lot, cottage, 4-plex, etc. Mostly it was in the early stages of gentrification, but it looked like it would just be a matter of time before the balance would shift.

Back at the Hyatt we relaxed and watched the sunset over the city. We could see the Congress St. Bridge right out our window. This is the bridge where the colony of 1.5 million Mexican Freetail Bats live, and head out for foraging every evening at sunset. We watched from our window as people gathered to view the spectacle of the bats flying out from under the bridge. This view and the night view were spectacular.

Wednesday morning we met Suzanne in the lobby at 9am. She had carefully arranged the order of visiting the properties to optimize our time. She drove us directly out the west side of Austin, north along Highway 1, the MoPac, and then west into Cat Mountain. We saw three properties there. They could all be categorized similarly: great views (some really incredible!), big houses built into the hills, 1980s-style carpet, fixtures, paneling, etc, all between $350K and $450K. Here are two photos of representative interiors, photo 1 and photo 2. We liked the views, but realized that they would need updates similar to what we did to our house in Plano! Also, Stewart noticed that these houses lacked any privacy. The nicest one had another house directly beside it, whose windows were adjacent to the windows in the main living area, the one with the most spectacular view!

From here Suzanne drove us back east across the MoPac and into the neighborhoods on the north side of Austin, north and west of UT, in the Triangle area. Here, like in SoCo, were small bungaloes, cottages, no garages, trees, heavy vegetation, mostly built in the 50s and 60s. As in the south the developers were slowly gentrifying the areas. This time we saw two different types of development. In one property we saw a 60s house that had been completely remodeled on the inside, but left essentially unchanged on the outside. We could tell it had been remodeled, but we couldn't tell the extent of it until we went inside. Very nice, open floor plan, wood floors, Silestone counters, new cabinets, tile in the bathrooms, beautiful. Outside was moderate to large trees, chain link fence out back, nice deck, modest lawn. Very period, but nicely remodeled.

The other type of development was like we saw in SoCo. Tear down the old house and build a multi-plex condo, 2 or more attached units with 2 stories each. These had stained concrete floors, granite counters, upscale cabinets, very nice bathrooms, very open floor plans.

All of these homes were selling for $ 350K - $ 450K. This seemed very high compared with the size and quality of the houses in the neighborhoods. We got a reference from Suzanne to the Travis County Appraisal District web site, so when we got home we checked the tax records. The 1950s/60s houses appraised for $150K - $200K, which was most of the houses in the neighborhoods. Intermixed in there were the remodels and rebuilds, popping out at $350K - $1M, like, right in the middle of the block! hmmm... Also, we found widely varying charges for Home Owners Association dues, from $50/month to as high as $350/month! Huge differences.

Suzanne dropped us off around noon Wednesday so we could think about what we saw. We talked for a while, had some lunch, and drove up to UT to take a walking tour that started at 2pm at the tower in the center of campus. We parked at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (we need to go in there some day!) and walked west to the drag, got some coffee at the Metro coffee shop, then walked back over to the Tower in the middle of the campus. We went down below to the Information Desk and asked the woman their about the tour. She smiled, said it left from right there in about 10 minutes, and for us to sit down over on the bench and wait for the tour guide to show. We were the first to arrive for the tour today. The woman working the desk kept glancing over at us and eventually called out to Anne "What's you full name?" Anne French. "What's your maiden name?" Now that's strange question... Anne answered, then asked Why? The woman asked "Are you Trina Webb's sister?" We were stunned! 50,000 students and we managed to run into Melanie's best friend from her early high school days, Keeley. She attends UT and was working the Information Desk that day. She recognized Anne as Trina's sister by her voice. She said that Anne sounded exactly like Trina.

The tour was led by a very enthusiastic freshman (B.K. Anne called him The Broiler). He took us around to the business school, the atheletic facilities, the various quadrangles and grassy areas where concerts and student events are held. The engineering school, psychology, interior decorating, then back to the tower concluding the tour. He explained how to get your grade bumped, which dorm was best for freshment, which was the worst, how to get the police to arrive within 1 minute.

After the tour we strolled back to the car where we had gotten our first parking ticket at UT! Now I felt like a real student.

We had plans to meet Russell and Glenda that evening for dinner, so we headed back to the Hyatt to clean up, then headed south to San Marcos. We arrived at Russell and Glendas about 30 minutes later and played with their pups Brody and Hurley for a few minutes. We went over to the River Cafe for dinner, sat out on the deck, and watched the strange ducks and kayakers on the river. It was very relaxing and fun. After dinner we dropped Russell and Glenda back off at their apartment and headed back to the Hyatt.

Thursday morning Suzanne met us in the lobby about 10am and drove us over to 54 Rainey St. This was the only high-rised condo we had selected to visit. We really wanted to understand the details of high-rise living. This seemed to be the best of both worlds, excellent views, close to downtown, low/no maintenance, high quality construction. For some reason we couldn't quite understand Suzanne was very down on 54 Rainey St, and all the high-rise condos. The place was quite beautiful with incredible views, very nice kitchen, nice living room, but also very small, very expensive, with $350/month in HOA dues. There were multiple units available in the building, but we only looked at one on the 10th floor. It was really quite striking. This would make a really fantastic vacation home. It would get much better with time, as the construction around it got completed and the neighborhood built up with retail shops and cafes. hmmm...

We check the Travis County Appraisal District web site for 54 Rainey. This was very strange. Every unit was listed, but was valued at $80k - $100K. That makes no sense. Every unit we saw online was being sold for $350K and above. Suzanne said she'd check into that for us. After looking this last property over Suzanne dropped us back at the Hyatt; We were done looking at properties and had a lot to think about!

Texas Hill Country Bike Rally

We loaded all our gear back into/onto the car and checked out of the Hyatt. Anne needed to pick some things up at REI, so we drove north on Lamar and did some shopping. Whole Foods, REI, Central Market, and the shops all along Lamar and Guadalupe reminded us so much of Northern California, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. Part of it was the beautiful cool weather we saw during the week, part of it was the low construction, landscaping, and people. Lots of hippies, students, young and old people. Very eclectic and varied, very nice. From REI we headed back north up to the property on Jim Hogg. That was our favorite place of all that we looked at. The side door was open, so we went back inside and looked around. We could envision ourselves both living here, and using it as a vacation home until the time came to retire several years from now. But was now the time? And was this the right property ??

We got back onto the MoPac heading south, then onto 290 and out the west side of town heading toward Johnson City, then Fredericksburg. We have stayed at the B&B Camp David twice before in the Sycamore cottage. It was reserved this time, so we stayed in the Pecan Suite. This was two bedrooms, a bath, and living room running the length of the main building, separated from the owner's suite by a set of locked doors. It was nice, but not as nice as the cabins which all had full kitchens, and modern bathrooms. The Pecan had two bedrooms, but you had to pass through the first to get to the second! The single bathroom was between the two bedrooms so you had to go through the first bedroom to get to the bath.

We unloaded our gear then hopped back into the car and headed to Kerrville for packet pickup. Kerrville traffic was _terrible_, stop and go all the way from I10 to downtown due to construction. Once we arrived at Shriner University we drove all around looking for the packet picket. We were getting worried when we stopped at the cafeteria and found the packet pickup in the back. The t-shirts are great this year, and we got suggestions for alternate routes back to the highway (worked great). The people there said that, although the wildflowers weren't great this year, there was a stretch along the 60 mile route that was really wonderful. So we decided that we would do that route. The Willow City Loop was not on the route this year, nor was Enchanted Rock. Instead they took us north along Lower Crabapple then west with various distance pealing off and heading south back into Fredericksburg. We discovered that the route went right by our B&B so we didn't have to load up the car and drive over to the high school. Instead we just got on our bikes and drove 1 block to Milam turned north and were on the route. Then on the way back in we just stopped when we arrived at our B&B; the route went right by it on the way back in!

Our niece Melanie, and her friends Haley and Catherine were going to have dinner with us Thursday evening as they headed from San Antonio to Austin for a concert on Saturday. They arrived about 6pm and we drove over to Bella Pasta on Llano St for dinner. We had a very good time talking and visiting ending up back at the B&B for a while, until they jumped up and headed out toward Austin about 9pm. Good timing because we had a long bike ride planned the next morning.

Friday morning was cool and clear with a very light breeze blowing. Anne had forced me to bring my fancy biking jacket and I was very glad for it this morning. Molly, our host, brought us a fine breakfast of eggs, fruit&yogurt, banana bread, orange juice. We made coffee watched the weather forcast and planned our ride.

We biked onto Main St about 8:30am, turned north on Milam and joined a group of riders that had left a few minutes earlier from the high school. Zig and Zag and we were on Lower Crabapple for a 16 mile leg of rolling hills, cool temperatures, cattle crossings, and wonderful views. The first rest stop was at the end of this leg. We headed west from there and through the best bluebonnets of the entire trip! After some long rolling hills we stopped again at the 2nd rest stop and refueled. Anne was having problems with her gears. The front derailer wasn't working and she was stuck in the middle chain ring. This was better than being stuck in the low or high one, but was still annoying for the climbs where a granny gear would have been welcome. We messed with it a bit but couldn't get it to work right. The next leg went west again then south, again long rolling hills, wide vistas, and more cattle crossings (and loose cattle crossing the roads!). When it was all said and done we had crossed 28 cattle crossings. The third and last rest stop gave us the opportunity to cut off the last few miles and reduce the route to 53 miles. The ride in from there along highway 89 was very fast, south, wind to our back, low rolling hills, merging right back onto Main St just before our B&B. We rolled in at about 1:40pm.

We had a scare with the Pecan Suite after the bike ride on Friday. After the ride we sat outside while housekeeping was cleaning up inside. They entered the suite through a locked door from the owner's suite into the second bedroom in the back. That was the bedroom we had chosen, so we closed the door between the bath and the bedroom in case housekeeping came back through. Turns out that doorknob was not secured to the door and once closed, would not open it! There we were butt-naked and unable to get to our clothes! I dug around in the living room (with all the windows open) and found what passed for a screwdriver and managed to get the doorknob back on and working enough to open the door. We were laughing and laughing and recalling Darryl Hannah in Roxanne, and Terry Hatcher in Desperate Housewives.

We had been listening to the weather forecast Friday morning and picked it up again Friday afternoon. The weather was going to be wild Saturday with rain, cold, wind. They were even saying that snow and sleet was possible! We decided that if it was raining we would not ride the Saturday Kerrville ride, but instead pack up and head out a day early. That evening we drove over and had dinner at Bejas, in downtown Fredericksburg on Main St. They have a very nice outdoor seating area. When we arrived there we decided to sit inside because it was _so_cold_ and breezy outside! The Canadian front was arriving and the temps were dropping. We had a wonderful meal and talked for a while with our very friendly waitress.

We had missed lunch so had dinner early. After dinner we sat on our porch, drank wine, listened to the NOAA weather forecast, and watched the sunset. We also had visits by Bob (Mister Molly) our hostess' husband, some of the other guests, who were having a family gathering in the cabins in the back. The father, Harold, was from Oklahoma City, some of his grown children were from Wichita Falls, others from San Antonio, others from out of state. We talked with Bob and Harold for quite a while.

A man, wife, and small boy, guests at the B&B, opened our door and walked in on us thinking this front entry was the Office to the B&B. This is easy to mistake since the Pecan Suite is at the front of the B&B, with the office at the rear. There is a sign at the entrance to Pecan that says, in big letters, "OFFICE", then in small letters, "is in the rear ->". This confuses everyone since OFFICE can be read from the car, but the little printing cannot. We greeted them warmly and sent them to the Office in back.

We awoke Saturday morning to rain, 38 degree temps, 20-30 mph winds. I had turned on the heat the night before expecting this, and our rooms were warm and cozy. Molly brought us a very nice breakfast of quiche, fruit, pecan coffee cake, and coffee. After breakfast we loaded up the car and drove north. It is a 6 1/2 hour drive from Fredericksburg back to Plano. We pulled off in Waco at the Starbucks for coffee and a sandwich and to watch it sleet and snow! It was very heavy in Waco, but nothing stuck since the ground was very warm from the days before. It was very strange to see the snow on the bluebonnets by the side of the road.

We arrived home about 3:30pm. Tootzak and Seebie were very happy to see us. They got lots of pets, treats, fresh water, clean cat box, and then helped us unpack our luggage. They are very good at that. We called our neighbors and cat sitter to let them know we arrived home early.