Every neighborhood has its own personality. On Vashon Island, a close-knit community full of artists and people who want to do their own thing has created a culture captured in a popular bumper sticker: “Keep Vashon weird.”
Neighbors wave and stop to chat. Produce from local farms and even the occasional display case of pies are set up on roadsides and sold by the honor system.
“I was just a country girl waiting to happen,” says Tessa Scriver, who moved to Vashon Island two years ago with her husband, Cody, and two grade-school sons.
Since moving to the island, Scriver has learned to make jam using homegrown berries and tilled the soil in her fenced garden. The Scrivers live on 10 acres, which includes a creek, a small forest and an impressive treehouse under construction for the boys.
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It’s a huge difference from their old house in West Seattle where the houses were so close they could hear neighbors’ conversations.
They spent two years staking out the island in all kinds of weather and commuting conditions to be sure they knew what they were getting into. She says the longest they ever had to wait for a Seattle ferry was 40 minutes.
Regular commuters say the 20-minute ferry ride from West Seattle provides relaxation and a chance to meet up with other islanders on deck for happy hour.
They describe it as more of a treat than a hassle, especially for those who live close to downtown Vashon, just minutes from the ferry dock.
“It’s a forced 20 minutes of quiet, which a lot of us enjoy and need,” says Tessa Scriver, who occasionally commutes to Seattle to work as a teaching chef.
The downtown core — sometimes called in-town or uptown — has changed in recent years. WalkScore, a Seattle company that provides automated walkability ratings, called the downtown a “walker’s paradise” and gave it a perfect score of 100, finding residents can do all their daily errands without using a car.
The heart of town is the intersection of Vashon Highway Southwest and Southwest Bank Road, with The Hardware Store Restaurant on the corner. Now gourmet places like La Boucherie, a farm-to-table, family-owned special-occasion spot, and wineries off Vashon Highway attract people from the mainland.
Ron Irvine, owner and winemaker at Vashon Winery, has lived on the island for 34 years. He says he’s seen more visitors during its summer season than ever drop by for wine tastings at his little red barn full of oak barrels.
“It used to be only locals. But now people are coming into town from all over.”
These are the same people who become enchanted with the island and think about buying homes.
What will they find?
The median value of all single-family houses (not just those recently sold) on Vashon Island was $371,800 in October, down 1 percent year-over-year, but up 1.4 percent from September, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.
And the median price of the few homes that were sold in October on Vashon Island was $319,000, compared with $419,950 in Seattle, according to figures compiled by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
But you really can’t compare prices in Vashon with neighborhoods in Seattle because there is so much acreage and diversity on the island, says Emma Amiad, a real-estate agent with Amiad & Associates, with an office in downtown Vashon.
“We are an eclectic market,” she says, “We have mansions right next to shacks — and we like it that way.”
Amiad lived in Seattle for 10 years before coming to Vashon 25 years ago. She has seen a change in herself and in others, which she thinks is due to the open-minded progressive culture.
“You aren’t judged by how much money you make, or what you do or how you look. You can be yourself,” she says. “We seriously defend your right to be different and unique.”
Back before the recession and before K2, the ski and snowboard maker and the island’s biggest employer, left the island (which it did in 2006), real-estate money flowed freely and prices rose. The downturn turned that around and home prices have become more affordable, Amiad said.
I hoped this was the case as I set out with real-estate listings and a bunch of dahlias from the downtown outdoor farmer’s market filling up the back seat of my car. I drove the 13-mile-long island in search of a hidden real-estate deal. My online directions seemed to contain mostly million-dollar properties, but I found a few waterfront view homes to visit listed in the $179,000 to $220,000 range.
Several potholed country roads later, I realized that these were not my dream houses. But standing, very carefully, on one of the rickety decks and looking at the water, there was no mistaking the beauty and the allure of the island.
If seized by the sudden desire to become a Vashonite, consider the following:
• Ask about the septic system or contact the King County Wastewater Program to learn if a specific waterfront property needs help. The cost to upgrade a leaky septic system can start at $30,000.
• Appreciate forced downtime, also known as relaxation, on the ferry.
• Know that you may not be able to order a coffee after 3 or 4 p.m. on a Sunday. Vashon is sparsely populated and shops don’t stay open long. Except for the downtown area, there are few shops at all.
• Plan ahead. Living on Vashon means planning ahead, from the ferry schedule to buying groceries.
• Better be nice. There is a reason for all that waving. Nobody is a stranger and eventually you’re going to know most everybody you run into.