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Long-distance commuters’ road to nowhere

For Dollie Kinkead, the economic turmoil gripping the country translates into an 80-mile drive each work day from a house she can't sell to a job she thinks she's lucky to have.

For Danny Jesse, it means living with his parents and enduring a commute that is at times so costly and brutal that he would rather spend the night in his car.

For Brian and Ronda Mitchell, the combination of high gas prices and a housing market downturn has forced them to make the difficult choice to allow the home they have owned for seven years to go into foreclosure.

“Gas was, for us, the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Brian Mitchell said.

The weak housing market, high gas prices and iffy job market are proving a nasty mix, leaving many Americans stuck with long commutes, unwanted homes and few options.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of this unpleasant confluence of a number of things,” said Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis who studies commuting.

Mokhtarian said her research has long shown that Americans don’t just endure but actually enjoy having some distance between work and home. Commuting experts also have long argued that the cost and hassle of commuting was offset for many by perks such as better schools,  bigger yards and cheaper housing.

In the era of cheap gas, the data seemed to corroborate that notion. As the suburbs and exurbs extended farther and farther from urban cores, Americans spent more and more time in their cars.

In 2000, the most recent Census data available, the average travel time to work was 25.5 minutes, up from 21.7 minutes in 1980 and 22.4 minutes in 1990. Most workers — three out of four — were spending that time alone in their own car.

The number of people who spend more than 90 minutes traveling to work nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 1.76 million to 3.44 million, according to the Census data.

But the rising cost of gas has some experts wondering whether the cost of transportation is finally high enough to make far-flung suburbs far less attractive.

“Now all bets are off,” Mokhtarian said.

Still, some are skeptical that ingrained American habits will change dramatically, despite the current woes.

Alan Pisarski, author of a series of books called “Commuting in America,” believes high energy prices will prompt even more people to turn to carpooling, public transportation, telecommuting and fuel-efficient vehicles. Still, he disputes the more radical notion that a wide swath of Americans will suddenly flock back to in-city living. One big reason is that, in recent years, more jobs have moved to where those outlying houses have sprung up.

Nevertheless, he notes that the current spate of woes stand to hurt many Americans, especially those with the least financial wiggle room.

Even cutting trips to church
When the Mitchells bought their modular home in rural Platteville, Colo., north of Denver, they were among the many Americans trading a long commute for an affordable house.

Seven years later, the Mitchells are making another, more painful trade. Their housing woes compounded by the growing cost of Brian’s 50-mile roundtrip commute, the couple recently decided to let their home fall into foreclosure. Instead, they are renting a house that is biking distance from Brian’s job.

The Mitchells had bought the house in 2001, for $129,900, with the intention of fixing it up and selling it for a profit. But in 2005, when they put the house on the market, interest was tepid at best.

The couple decided to put more money into improving the house, in the hopes that it would stand out among comparable homes in the area. In the end, they plowed some $15,000 and countless hours of sweat equity into the improvements, using credit cards and a loan against a 401(k) account to fund some upgrades.

Still, the house didn’t sell, even when they dropped the price from $126,000 to $122,000. In the meantime, gas prices skyrocketed, which added to their own expenses and made their rural home even less attractive.

The couple, who have two kids, found themselves using credit cards for everyday expenses, like groceries and bills. Even trips to church were curtailed to save on gas. Finally, they decided that their only option was to let the bank take the house.

“Sometimes, in surgery, amputation is the best solution,” Brian Mitchell said.

As the foreclosure proceeds, the Mitchells have rented a house in Longmont, west of Platteville toward Boulder, Colo., that is nicer than the one they had owned. It's also less than five miles from Brian’s job as a project manager. Although the rent is more than their former mortgage payment, Brian, 43, said that, with gas savings, they are still coming out ahead. The move into town is allowing the couple to downsize to just one car.

“It was a tough decision for us to decide to let the house go into foreclosure, but I’ll tell you what, once we made it … it was very liberating, actually,” he said.

While Mitchell can now bike to work, for other Americans the weak economy means adding hours on the road.

When Dollie Kinkead found out that her job was slated to be eliminated, she saw a silver lining — another job, at a place she’d always wanted to work, had just opened up. Although the new opportunity, as a training specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was 80 miles from her home in the eastern Virginia town of Front Royal, Kinkead jumped at the opportunity. “I took the job thinking I could just sell the house and move,” she said.

Instead, she found that she was entering a real estate market already swamped with for-sale signs, many of them tagged “price reduced.” Kinkead and her husband, who paid $306,000 for their home about three years ago, now have it on the market for $276,000, and nobody has come to look at it in weeks.

That means that each work day, Kinkead, 53, leaves the house at 5:50 a.m. and doesn’t return until 7 p.m. Luckily, she drives a diesel-powered Volkswagen Beetle that gets 48 miles per gallon, meaning her gas bill is about $100 per week. She also works nine-hour shifts, giving her one day off every two weeks.

When she gets home, Kinkead says there’s usually time to eat dinner with her husband and little else. But she doesn’t see any other option.

“It’s either that or be unemployed,” she said.

The couple is looking at renting out their house, even though they likely won’t get enough to cover their monthly payments. Still, Kinkead said she doesn’t regret taking the job.

“I’m over 50, and sometimes, you know, it’s hard to find a job,” she said.

Sleeping in the car
Even though Danny Jesse is only 24, he understands the feeling. After Jesse lost his engineering job right before Christmas, he figured his job search would take several months, so he moved back in with his parents.

Jesse landed a new job six months later — but it was near San Diego in Escondido, Calif., about 110 miles from his parents’ house in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk. With apartment rentals at a premium near his office, he hasn’t been able to find a place he can afford. So instead, he’s spending hours on the road each day, and occasionally even sleeps in his car instead of making the long trek.

Jesse estimates he pays $215 a week for gas, and he also pitches in some rent to help his parents with the rising cost of their adjustable-rate mortgage. But so far he hasn’t found a housing solution that would make better financial sense.

“I’m stuck in a Catch-22,” he said.

He rarely sees his friends, and when he does they tend to hang out at someone’s house to save money. He’s also cut back on how much he eats to save cash, which means he’s lost a few pounds. He says it’s something he gets lots of compliments on, “but it’s not for the right reasons.”

Some stay put
While anecdotal evidence shows that some Americans are seeking to trade suburban or rural living for in-city housing, others say that even with high gas prices, they aren’t willing to give up their communities.

When David Speer took a job in San Rafael, Calif., three years ago, he didn’t consider moving from his home in Menlo Park, nearly 50 miles away, although he did invest in a Toyota Prius. Even though gas prices have risen substantially since then, Speer has no plans to give up his commute, which takes 75 and 90 minutes each way.

“I love Menlo Park,” he said. “I really feel like I’ve created a home, and to me life is more than just a job. You need to feel like you’re part of a community.”

It also would take a lot for Jack Sparks and his family to give up their home in Conifer, Colo., in the foothills outside Denver. Still, Sparks did recently stop driving the 38 miles each way to work and instead is taking the bus. He’s been surprised to find that there are more perks than just the hundreds of dollars he’s saving.

“Sitting on the bus is a lot easier than driving,” Sparks said. “I wish I had made this jump earlier.”