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Jon Reiter’s high-stakes gamble on the luxury real estate market pays off

While Sonoma is experiencing a housing crisis where young families can’t afford to buy a home and competition is stiff for ever-pricier apartments, things are different at the ultra-high-end the market – where luxury homes entice no shortage of multi-millionaires.

The Napa Valley has long had a reputation for courting the wealthy, but now buyers seem to be discovering that Sonoma is much closer to the city – and the vineyards views are just as good, if not even better.

Jon Reiter, owner of Reiter Fine Home Building in Kenwood, has built about 20 high-end homes in the Valley in 15 years, most custom built for owners who are willing to pay whatever it takes to create the high quality, palatial abode they desire. Reiter’s expertise is in building new homes that look they’ve been around 100 years, and will last for 100 more. He travels Europe sourcing antique windows, gates, sinks, stone and ancient wooden doors that lend the resulting homes a built-in sense of history. He fills 40-foot containers with pieces of the past and ships them back to Sonoma to be repurposed.

His clients are those who have decided they want a home here, but have shopped around and found that what they want does not exist.

Hence, the building begins.

There can be two glitches to that approach. Land, especially desirable land with the must-have views, is scare, though not non-existent. And it takes time to build such homes. At least two years, if not longer. Some people don’t want to wait.

So Reiter occasionally takes on a spec house – one he builds on his own for an unknown, someday buyer. He and his wife, Susan, who is deeply involved in the design process, study the trends in luxury homes and learn from their custom clients what sells. His last spec house, Fox Hill in Kenwood, went on the market in the spring of 2011, with an asking price of $4.9 million. It sold to the first person who viewed it – the CEO of a San Francisco bank whose primary home in Pacific Heights has a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Last month Reiter’s latest spec home, Fox Ridge, unofficially hit the market. The asking price: $11.5 million.

“That’s how much the market has changed,” Reiter said. “It’s the first eight-figure spec house built in the Valley.”

Prior to this, his most recent custom home was built for the head of a well-known San Francisco company. The cost of that home was near the price of the new spec house project, and so set Reiter’s market.

Is today’s Fox Ridge, more than twice as nice as the 2011 Fox Hill? As Scarlett O’Hara’s father teaches her about their Tara plantation in “Gone with the Wind” – it’s all about the land.

Reiter lucked out and was able to purchase 16 acres on a ridge in the Mayacamas with a view so perfect you can see sunrise and sunset. And you can see them for miles and miles. Most important? The estate is the very marketable “less-than-10-minutes to the Plaza.”

It’s brand new, it has four acres planted to cabernet sauvignon and it comes with a vintage red truck parked outside the property’s massive barn. Every room in the 4,800-square-foot, two-story main house has expansive views, with the master suite on the main floor and an elevator to the three downstairs suites. The ceilings soar, the view walls are floor-to-ceiling glass and the exterior is cedar and stone. There’s an 840-square-foot guesthouse and a garage with an additional 1,200 feet of living space. The buildings surround an infinity pool that drops right off into the sky above the Valley of the Moon. In what Reiter describes as a simple farmhouse style, there’s a Lacanche range, a butler’s pantry and a massive fireplace.

There is nothing else like it on the market. Its two closest competitors would be Bella Vista on Lovall Valley Road, a 7,500-square-foot home on five acres with vineyards, built in 2009 and recently remodeled in a Tuscan-style, with an asking price of $9.5 million. Next there’s 5340 Grove St., a $7.9 million, 4,908-square-foot contemporary home with views and a guesthouse on 20 acres, built in 2008. And on Lovall Valley Loop, Cypress Hill Farm is a 3,300-square-foot home with views and vineyards built on 12 acres in 2013 – yours for just under $6.5 million.

Perhaps the most expensive property ever sold in Sonoma was when Sanford and Joan Weill purchased Gary and O.J. Shansby’s 360-acre hilltop estate on Carriger Road for $30 million in 2010. Sandy, as he is widely known, is the retired CEO of Citicorp, and before that of American Express. The Weills’ primary home is in Greenwich, Connecticut. The New York Times reported last May that the Weills now spend more than half their time here. They sometimes attend Sonoma fundraisers and people speak of “Sandy sightings” at Sonoma Market. Weill, always one to know where the markets are headed, perhaps bought early into what is now a very trendy place to own a second (or third) home. The Weills’ property abuts the 250-plus acre custom-built vineyard estate of a retired Intel executive.

“People have definitely discovered our little town,” Reiter said. “There are mega estates quietly being built in the surrounding hills of Sonoma.” He and his wife and their 15-year-old son live in Kenwood “in a home much humbler than those we build for our clients,” he said. Reiter, 51, is a cancer survivor with intense enthusiasm for everything he does, whether it’s building or mountain climbing. He’s reached the top of six of the seven summits, the highest mountain on each continent. He didn’t make it all the way to the top on Everest in 2015 because he was on the mountain when a devastating 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal. When he returned home, he threw himself into helping the fundraising efforts of Sonoma’s Nepalese community who were sending financial support to their relatives.

Reiter paid a handsome sum for this land he has now enhanced, but his was not the highest offer. The seller, an older man, had multiple cash offers, but chose to sell Reiter in 2014 “because he knew I felt a stewardship toward the land.” He said to me, “At my age some things are more important than money,” and Reiter has protected the prior owner’s vision, saving trees and leaving much of the land pristine.

And when all is said and done, it appears Reiter’s hunch has paid off. Before the house was even completely finished or put on the open market, the first potential buyer, who was granted an early private showing by Reiter’s longtime real estate partner Maurice Tagelaar, scooped it up at full asking price. The sale closed Nov. 4.

Reiter will finish the build out on Fox Hill and the family, a couple with three school-age kids, will be able to move into their home by Christmas. He is currently also finishing up two custom homes and is now considering buying one of two potential properties, one in the Mayacamas and the other on Sonoma Mountain, where he will build yet another spec house. “I just want to build,” he said, with a huge smile. It’s his passion, and apparently a profitable one.

Maybe the high-end real-estate market isn’t speculative after all.