They Fled L.A. for the Desert. Then Her ‘Renovator’s Gene’ Kicked In
A creative couple, itching for change, takes on a home renovation project deep in the California desert.
If Anna Roth Milner’s phone comes to life with a buzz or a ding, the interruption is likely coming straight from an online real estate marketplace. When an unusual house on the West Coast pops up on Redfin or Zillow, a property that has serious potential but could use some attention, trust that she will be clicking through. It’s a kind of game that Anna, a wardrobe stylist, and her husband, Gavin, a creative executive in advertising, have been playing for years. They send each other listings—like an architectural modern in an unexpected spot in the hills near Fresno, or a wind-swept cottage in Sea Ranch that needs a refresh—via text. For a few minutes, they consider the “what if?” of moving away from the urban grind in Los Angeles. It’s a harmless way to kick the tires on a new life. The texts are typically met with some good-natured mock horror—as in, “You want to commute from Fresno?”
And for a while, it was just that: an escapist shared pastime, a quirky virtual home tour obsession.
“I’m always looking at real estate, but not really looking,” Anna says over the phone from her home, with a chorus of birds chirping in the background and the sound of one of her three dogs barking in the distance. Spoiler alert: She’s not calling from L.A.
“I have the renovator’s gene. When I was a kid, my parents would buy houses as investment properties and rent them, and on family vacations we would stop in front of properties with ‘For Sale’ signs in the front yard and peek in the windows,” she says. “I’m always trying to hop fences to get a closer look at houses, and Gavin says, ‘Anna, you’re not supposed to do that!’ And I’m like, ‘You’re not?’”
The game took a more serious turn when a listing for a 1980s mini compound on a little under three acres in California desert horse country appeared on Gavin’s screen, and he tapped the arrow to forward it to Anna.
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The house was modern but unusual, with some Mayan and Moroccan influences like flagstone floors, exposed support beams, thick adobe-style walls, and stately palm and olive trees. It was designed as a small ranch by a builder for his wife, who loved horses, and the couple who lived in the house were only its second owners. There was a main house, a guest casita, five stables with an adjoining tack room, a pool, a grass tennis court, a large paddock, fruit trees, and views of the snow-peaked Santa Rosa Mountains. The tiled, sunken bar with views of the pool was made for margaritas with friends. Hidden patios and courtyards were secluded behind decades-old cactuses. The property ticked all of the boxes on their fantasy house list. And this time, things were different. “We were all on top of each other in our house, months into lockdown,” Anna says.
The family of four, with two antsy teenage sons, felt a little trapped in their Spanish-style house in the center of L.A., confined by pandemic restrictions and staring into the void of Zoom all day. Collectively, they were eager for some open sky and space to stretch their legs. A little bit of land was alluring, and a big home improvement project didn’t seem like such an outlandish idea.
“We couldn’t get on a plane. We weren’t the people who were going to rent an R.V. and drive across the country,” says Anna. Everywhere they looked, people were taking the plunge, fulfilling long-delayed dreams to start over somewhere new. “Since the boys were little, I always wondered, ‘Did I make a mistake by never exposing my kids to anything other than city life?’ And then this house appeared,” she says. “When we were walking around the property, a hummingbird followed us the whole time. That’s why we call it Rancho Colibri, which is Spanish for hummingbird. It was magical.”
It didn’t matter that neither Anna nor Gavin had set foot in the desert city of Rancho Mirage. They’d come as close as Palm Springs and the eastern Coachella Valley city of Indio, visiting the polo grounds to see Anna’s brother play. A clean slate was enticing.
“It felt like a breath of fresh air,” she adds. “This property needed love, and I wanted to give it love so badly. It helped that I had time for a project like this.”
Within days, the wheels of a move were in motion. They put in an offer on the Rancho Mirage house, listed their own house with a broker, closed a couple of deals, toured schools for their boys, and the next thing they knew, they were knee-deep in a full-scale remodel—110 miles from home, but worlds away.
Carpet was removed and concrete floors were poured. A couple of the stables were quickly transformed into a home office and a gym. The tack room became a separate two-bedroom, one-bath casita for their boys. Piles of dead branches and debris were removed to reveal a vibrant garden. The 80-foot-long pool was refinished, and a new concrete deck with room for chairs installed. They added a bocce court and a small putting green. And once the literal dust settled, their furniture and contemporary art collection, a mix of vintage and modern pieces with plenty of graphic pattern and color, fit like a glove.
Anna says the new adventure strengthened their family bonds, gave the couple a creative outlet when advertising production and photo shoots were stalled, and allowed her sons a chance to try on a different kind of life at a slower pace. Her older son, who will graduate from high school this spring, worked at the nearby Indio polo grounds and on a private horse farm before and after school for extra money. They both made new friends at a school they love. They have a skate ramp in the driveway, and the family dogs happily discovered the carob seeds that fall from the trees. Anna got to explore local estate sales and secondhand shops to add to her trove of treasures that line the shelves and fill the sunken bar. Together, they spent warm summer nights floating in the pool.
“That’s been my favorite part,” she says, “being in the water and looking up to see a sky full of stars.”
Little by little, work and life have returned to their former pace, and drawn them back to the city. Rancho Colibri will soon be available for family reunions, vacations, and events (DM @_ranchocolibri_ on Instagram with inquiries).
“It was a true labor of love, and we’re excited to share it with people,” Anna says.
Without taking much of a beat, she’s on to the next construction site, rolling out the blueprints to expand a mid-century ranch in Laurel Canyon. And the phone continues to beep and rattle with more possibilities.
“Now we have the Italian real-estate markets popping up on our phone every day,” says Anna, who’s laughing but also dead serious. “Why not? We did it once. We could do it again. Yes, it was scary. But it was great. We don’t have any regrets.”
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