FOR Sue and Steve Burkhart, a real estate broker and custom-home builder, the 355-mile trip from their home in Phoenix to their second home in San Diego is well worth it, considering that they usually lose about 30 degrees or more. They bought a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the Alta, a 21-story downtown residential tower. They make the five-hour drive, or take an inexpensive flight, once a month or so in the winter and several times a month in the summer.
“There’s a lot going on: boating, fishing and diving,” Ms. Burkhart said. “But temperature is the No. 1 thing. When it’s 110 or 115 in Phoenix, it’s 80 in San Diego.”
Weather, in fact, is almost everyone’s first reason for buying a second home in San Diego. Midwesterners and Easterners have bought homes to escape the brunt of winter, while Arizonans — dubbed Zonies here — and some desert-dwelling Californians have purchased homes to escape the triple-digit temperatures of summer and bask in the cool ocean breezes.
“Weather is the main reason,” said Russell Valone, president of MarketPointe Realty Advisors. “It’s 75 degrees and sunny most of the year.”
Peter Rodman has a commute similar to the Burkharts’; he travels between his San Diego home and one in Palm Springs. But Mr. Rodman said cooler weather is not the only draw, adding that the image of the city itself has changed.
“Not long ago, downtown San Diego was a Navy town, full of brothels,” he said. “Now it’s a modern city on the water.”
The down-at-the-heels Navy town image was one reason this city was off the radar screen for second-home buyers for so long. A city of nearly 1.3 million, it is home to five Navy and Marine bases with 95,000 uniformed military personnel.
In the last few years, however, San Diego has morphed into one of Southern California’s most desirable places for vacation homes. San Diego has the usual attractions of a major American city, like theater and professional baseball and football teams, parks and its world-famous zoo.
Like other places in Southern California it has beaches, but it also has something remarkable for that region: a thriving and traditional downtown. Buyers from Orange County and Los Angeles have bought second homes to be close to the Gaslamp Quarter, the heart of San Diego. On weekends, the sidewalks are crowded and dozens of restaurants are bustling.
“The second-home market is growing more with the advent of condominiums downtown,” Mr. Valone said.
Robert Fields, a real estate broker from Rancho Santa Fe, 30 miles north of San Diego, bought a pied-à-terre in the Alta building, because of the city feel in downtown San Diego that was missing in the suburbs. “I grew up in New York and I was enamored with the smells, sound and energy of the city,” Mr. Fields said.
He paid $400,000 for a 1,000-square-foot condominium with 14-foot ceilings. His monthly $1,700 payment is less than his car payment, he said. “San Diego is like an adult Disneyland, and this way I don’t have to drive home after going to a ballgame or out to dinner.”
Builders and real estate agents in San Diego credit the construction of Petco Park, the new home of the San Diego Padres, with revitalizing the downtown and surrounding areas. Brett Schaffter, an agent with the Bosa Development Corporation, a Canadian company that has built nine residential towers in and around downtown, estimated that the park, projected by city officials to spur half a billion dollars in other development in the region, brought in closer to $3.5 billion.
Many of the new condominiums overlook the Gaslamp Quarter, the ocean and ships in the harbor, including the Midway, an aircraft carrier that is now a museum. Prices start at $1,000 a square foot or more.
A 23-story Bosa tower called the Legend is built just beyond the outfield fence of Petco Park. Residents on two sides of the building can watch the Padres play from their sofas, while others can go to a seventh-floor lounge to watch the game.
Mr. Rodman’s son recently bought a place there. “We had the Rolling Stones here,” Mr. Rodman said, nodding toward the baseball field.
About 15 to 20 percent of the residents, Mr. Schaffter said, are second-home buyers.
Also downtown is a new Hard Rock Hotel, a condominium “lifestyle hotel” with 420 rooms. In this condo-hotel, owners buy guest rooms ranging from studios of about 325 square feet to 1,800-square-foot loft suites. Prices run from $350,000 to $2.2 million.
The owners have access to their rooms up to 28 days a year. The rest of the time the room is rented, and owners get a portion of the proceeds.
So far, half of the room owners in the hotel, which is scheduled to open the last week of October, are from greater San Diego, while the rest are from across California and other parts of the country, Hard Rock officials say.
The hotel — whose motto is “life behind the velvet rope” — is loaded with amenities. Near the pool, for example, there are cabanas with wet bars and Wi-Fi.
“It’s a high-end hotel with a little more V.I.P. feel, a scene that has been lacking in San Diego,” said Sandra Nagy, a real estate investment analyst in the Waikiki area of Honolulu, who bought a suite. She said she would use the room to put up clients and her family, who often visit from Japan.
“And it has Nobu,” she said, referring to a high-end Japanese restaurant that will be in the hotel. “Everyone’s looking forward to that.”
OTHER areas near San Diego have also become popular for buyers. Coronado is a town just over the bridge from downtown, and Coronado Shores, a series of 10 towers built in the 1960s and ’70s, has long been a site for vacation homes.
The development has 1,465 units that have sold for $600,000 to $3.75 million. Nearly all of them are second, third or fourth homes, according to Ara Koubeserian, an owner of the development. There are tennis courts, pools and a private beach club.
“Buyers are looking to lock their door and leave and not have to worry about anything,” Mr. Koubeserian said.
While most of the buyers in Coronado seek condos, he said, people are buying and building detached single-family homes. He just sold a home on a 7,000-square-foot lot for $1.46 million. “That’s just for the lot,” he said. “The house is a tear down, a disaster.”
The cost of homes in Coronado or downtown has become prohibitively expensive for some. That’s why buyers like Rick Lombardo, a 51-year-old lawyer near Kansas City, Mo., who bought a three-floor town house in Carlsbad, about 25 miles north, have looked farther out. This 3,000-square-foot home is on the beach, and he said it cost about half of the $1,000 a square foot that his previous home in Coronado Shores was worth, about $1.5 million.
“My kids are surfers and it’s right on the beach,” he said. “I can walk four blocks and catch the train and 45 minutes later, I am in downtown San Diego.”
By JIM ROBBINS