Given the boundless growth of the Sacramento region, it’s easy to imagine a lurching sprawl of bland stucco houses gobbling up farmland as far as the eye can see. While some farmland gobbling is inevitable, the hottest new neighborhoods range from bargains within spitting distance of the Capitol to super-exclusive equestrian estates and golfing communities. As for those huge developments that are supplanting rural land, we found some that turn out to be cleverly planned communities destined to create not just neighborhoods, but neighbors. Here are eight hot new communities that struck our fancy.
Winchester Country Club: “We Still Pinch Ourselves’
The figure $300,000 does come up when talking to the sales staff at Winchester Country Club just north of Auburn; it’s the price tag for the lowest-priced lot. From there, the acreage soars to $1 million. Building a home amid Winchester’s stately oaks and pines is setting owners back anywhere from $1 million to $5 million. There are about 200 home sites left of the initial 409. Most range from 1 to 6 acres.
But Winchester is more than pricey real estate. Its centerpiece is a championship golf course designed by the Robert Trent Joneses—senior and junior—in their final collaboration before the elder Jones’ death. (Resident membership runs $70,000, but, hey, it includes a practice green and a 35,000-square-foot clubhouse that conjures images of a grand Bavarian hunting lodge.) There’s also a swim and tennis club, along with 10 miles of paved hiking and biking trails, and The Pinnacles, a collection of 22 luxury spec homes scattered throughout the 1,100-acre development.
“We viewed the property and made a deposit the same day,’ says Donna Lucas. “We knew this was just what we wanted.’ That was in October 1999. She and her husband, Michael, moved into their custom 5,200-square-foot home a year ago.
Donna makes a 45-minute commute to her job as office manager at Barnes Personnel in Fair Oaks. “It’s worth it,’ she says, gesturing toward her soaring living room windows and the jaw-dropping view of the Sierra.
She says she does miss the amenities of living closer to Sacramento—“the easy availability of shopping, specialty stores and restaurants. There’s no P. F. Chang’s, no Red Lobster, no Spoons,’ she says with a shrug. “But this is such a special place. We still pinch ourselves whenever we drive up.’
Two years ago, Paul and Debbie Porter, who have four children, took one look at the only model home in the Winchester development and promptly bought it. The 7,000-square-foot house had everything they wanted, including a theater and an expansive great room, perfect for entertaining. Just as important was the rural setting. “We wake up above the fog and it’s beautiful,’ Paul says. “We see snow-capped mountains every day. The wildlife is extraordinary—turkeys, raccoons, deer. And the pace is slower.
“We love the little community of Meadow Vista,’ he adds. “It’s like stepping back 20 or 30 years. There are no chain restaurants. There’s a park with a gazebo and a duck pond. It’s so serene and peaceful.’
Porter also commutes to Fair Oaks, where he is president of Premier Pools. “I have a very stressful job,’ he says. Living at Winchester, “you feel like you can come home and really relax.’
The Marquis Collection at Diamond Woods: Worth Camping Out For
When Mike Lamb was hired away from Fox Radio in Los Angeles by Sacramento’s KHTK radio station recently, the first thing he and wife, Sandy, did was look at a map and ponder reasonable commute distances to the station near Madison and Interstate 80. Mike was interested in an older home, but Sandy wanted something new. Pulte Homes’ Diamond Woods development off Highway 65 in Roseville seemed close enough, and Mike—who co-hosts the talk show Sports Line with Grant Napear—happened to read in Smart Money magazine that Pulte was known for quality construction.
The Marquis Collection at Diamond Woods is made up of 98 homes off Blue Oaks Road on Highway 65. They’re large homes on large lots with large price tags: from the mid-$500,000s to the high $700,000s. Generous front porches and 10-foot ceilings add graciousness to the homes’ proportions. Split three-car garages are de rigueur.
The Lambs chose one of the smaller designs—2,600 square feet with four bedrooms, three baths and an office. Mike loves that it’s “a big single-story house that’s kind to my knees,’ citing college football injuries that still plague him.
Melissa and Scott Stegeman were so taken with the plans for the Marquis Collection that Scott camped out for four days in front of the construction trailer to be assured of getting one of the first nine homes to be released. Their home, at 3,400 square feet, has it all: five bedrooms, four baths, a game room, family room, and formal dining and living rooms.
The easy living of Roseville—great shopping, schools, entertainment and easy freeway access—was part of the Marquis Collection’s allure. “We’re two freeway exits from the Galleria,’ says Melissa. “And there’s a shopping center going up right near us.’ Melissa says the only drawback is her commute to Rancho Cordova, where she is a claims adjustor for Zurich North America Insurance. “I’m not going to lie,’ she says. “I hate my commute. But I love where I live, and I wouldn’t change it.’
Gibbons Park: Hidden in Plain Sight
“I had a program planned for (directional) signs, but it’s proved to be entirely unnecessary,’ says Chris Hanson, sales manager for Warmington Homes’ Gibbons Park development, tucked away amid the winding streets of Carmichael. With nothing but a sign on the former site of American River Hospital on Gibbons Drive at Edison Avenue, the development amassed a list of 729 interested parties—for 60 houses. “The demand has been particularly interesting considering that the community isn’t easy to find,’ says Hanson.
Gibbons Park offers three floor plans, from 2,334 to 3,357 square feet. These are move-up homes ranging from $550,000 to the low $600,000s with all of the amenities that current buyers have come to expect: 10-foot ceilings, Cat 5 wiring, recessed lighting, efficient floor plans and three-car garages.
In-fill developments like this one are unusual and desirable. Buyers are drawn to the appeal of a brand-new house in an established neighborhood. And, in the case of Gibbons Park, the neighborhood is close to downtown—so close that residents can avoid the freeways during errands and commutes if they so choose. What’s more, the well-established community park that the development is named for is just across the street.
As it turns out, says Hanson, most of Gibbons Park buyers are from Sacramento, Carmichael and Fair Oaks. Several of the buyers we talked with were Carmichael residents who went on high alert when American River Hospital was razed last summer. They sensed new homes were coming, and they wanted in on them.
Diana Nelson ran to her computer as soon as she saw the Warmington construction sign go up. She knew she needed to get preapproved online so that she and her husband, Jim, could be placed on the waiting list. They ended up being 13th.
Ed Harrington is an executive at Energetic Companies and a Carmichael resident for 22 years. “I actually pass the site every day on my way to and from work, and I was curious about it,’ he says. “Then the [house] plans literally fell into my lap when my company was asked to bid the drywall and stucco work on the project.’
The Harringtons decided to buy, called Warmington’s 800 numbers and were among the first to be prequalified. “The floor plan and the flow of our house are great,’ says Ed. “Initially, we thought we’d stay just until I retired. Now we’re thinking maybe it will be the house we keep.’
The Ranch: $300,000 Appreciation in One Year
With 30 miles of white ranch fencing, The Ranch Equestrian Estates resembles a little piece of thoroughbred Kentucky plunked down in the rolling grasslands of Wilton, located about 20 miles south of Sacramento. Unique in Northern California, the JTS development boasts luxury production homes and picturesque barns on 2- to 4-acre sites, all with horse-and-rider access to 200 acres of permanent, undeveloped rangeland and 20 miles of horse trails.
Horse property “wasn’t on our agenda in life,’ says Liz Helms, a public relations executive at Perry Communications Group. Currently, the Cameron Park resident boards her horse, Bandido, in Placerville and works in Sacramento, so she’s on the road pretty steadily, both for work and recreation. Early last spring, she and her fiancé took a Sunday drive to Wilton, saw The Ranch signs and, within a week, “had fallen in love with what they were doing out there. I could see that I’d save so much time,’ she says. When she moves into her new 2,900-square-foot home avec barn at the end of March, she’ll need only walk out her back door to go riding early in the morning or right after work.
The Ranch prides itself on extremely low density: just 220 lots on 1,200 acres. And, yes, low density does mean high prices. Houses currently range from $865,000 to $1,000,010, up $300,000 from what early Ranch buyers paid a year ago. And that’s before upgrades, which can add an additional $1 million to the price tag. The models are shown with barns, casitas, additional garages, basketball courts, pools and spas, all available as JTS-built upgrades.
The fact that all that luxury is situated in the middle of nowhere is part of the appeal to most buyers. They’re quick to point out that there’s a Raley’s in Galt, just six miles away, and that a new Safeway is being built on Sunrise Boulevard. Besides, says new homeowner Kristy Uhrich, “We were looking for country property. To get to the country, you’ve got to get out there.’ And the lack of nearby cultural activities? “We have a theater room,’ points out home-owner Delena Gregory.
Even though The Ranch home buyers Karen and Bruce Jones are not horse owners, Karen says, “My husband is entertaining the thought.’ They have a 4-year-old daughter, and Karen says with a laugh, “How rude would it be for us not to give her a pony?’
Natomas Park: Good for the Whole Family
Veteran Bay Area residents Louise and Tony O’Carroll—he’s a long-retired school administrator, she’s a recently retired reading specialist—looked all over Northern California for two years for a retirement home.
But, Louise says, “Prices were just so inflated. We weren’t going to spend and arm and a leg for something smaller—and not as nice—than what we had.”
The couple were stalled until their daughters, Shannon Dunn and Holly Vannatta, bought back-to-back houses in the Natomas Park village of the 2,100-home Regency Park master-planned community in North Natomas. When Louise and Tony came to visit and saw the model homes, a seed was planted.
“I was blown away,” says Louise. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow! Look what you get for your money here!’” She and Tony were impressed with Beazer Homes’ generous, open floor plans, the 10-foot ceilings and the fact that the air conditioner cooled the rooms in total silence. But she quashed her initial enthusiasm with worries about the Sacramento heat and the nagging feeling that Shannon and Holly might be less than enthusiastic about having Mom right around the corner.
“Tony and I kept talking about it,” she says. And the prices continued rising, jumping from a base price in the mid-$200,000s to the low $300,000s. “Eventually, I broached the subject with the girls,” says Louise. “They were really gung-ho, which surprised me.”
Since moving in June 2004, Louise has become a North Natomas booster. She ticks off what’s to love about the area: “I’ve always liked being close to a university library, and here I have access to Sac State and UCD. Plus, the social things the university provides; we just saw Fahrenheit 911 for free at Sac State. We’re close to museums and the Mondavi Center. We’ve already been to the ballet and symphony. And ethnic restaurants—we’ve got Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Thai. And we’re just 10 miles from the J Street exit and downtown.”
All that’s before she even gets started on the neighborhood itself. The jewel in the crown of the Regency Park community is its 37-acre park, which boasts extensive walking and bike trails; lighted soccer, baseball and softball fields; tot parks; water play areas—even a ramp-based skateboard park. There’s a just-completed elementary school and smaller pocket parks, too.
And for Louise and Tony, there’s the added pleasure of being close to their daughters. “We’ve been very careful not to encroach on their privacy. We call when we go over. They call when they come over,” she says with a big smile. “It’s worked out fine.”
Bella Rio: On the River, With a City View
Elise and Brian Gyore wanted to be close to downtown Sacramento when they set out to buy their first house. Elise works at the Capitol and Brian is a financial analyst for Krispy Kreme downtown. They love the clubs, the restaurants and the energy of the city. “We’re big downtowners,” Elise says.
“We looked at midtown but thought the back yards were too small, and we were priced out of Natomas,” says Elise. On the Internet, they learned about Morrison Homes’ Bella Rio development, a community in West Sacramento targeted to first-time buyers. Given West Sac’s rough-and-tumble past, were they reluctant to buy there? “We did a crime report and found out West Sac had a much lower crime rate than other places in Sacramento,” says Elise. “Better than Natomas.”
Bella Rio’s 57 homes are set amid the flat fields of marsh grass just south of the I-80 interchange in the 7,000-acre Southport development area, within shouting distance of the Sacramento River. Eighty-eight additional homes will be built this year. Bella Rio’s roomy houses feature nine-foot ceilings and open floor plans set on modest lots. Jefferson Boulevard, the main artery, is being widened, and there’s a new shopping center anchored by a Nugget Market and—you gotta have it—a Starbucks.
The Gyores got themselves preapproved for a loan and were second in line at the construction trailer on the day the first phase of homes was offered for sale. They moved into their 1,500-square-foot model in August 2004 after adding several thousand dollars in upgrades to the $318,000 price tag.
“My husband is a fanatic about all the energy efficiencies, the insulation and fluorescent bulbs that last a lifetime, and all that stuff that comes with a new home,” Elise says. “We couldn’t have gotten anything as nice as we have now if we were looking at older homes. Plus, new houses appreciate faster.”
Doug Williams and his partner, Monarith Min, both employees at Verizon Communications, also are Bella Rio buyers. They loved Land Park and rented there happily for six years, but when the time came to buy, they confronted two challenges: Land Park was too expensive for first-timers, and if they couldn’t have Land Park, they wanted a new home.
When Bella Rio set up its construction trailer in March 2004, they were ready. “We showed up on the second day, signed on and were part of the second release of homes,” says Williams. Between the first and second phases, prices jumped 20 percent, yet they’re delighted with their four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home. Larger than the Gyores’ home, it had a base price of $369,000, and they added about $13,000 in upgrades.
Williams and Min and the Gyores don’t just love their houses and neighborhood; they’re also excited about the promise of West Sacramento. Says Williams, “My love for Sacramento being what it is, I was torn about moving out at all, but we look at West Sac as a great opportunity, a great location. It’s so convenient to downtown—everything’s just a stone’s throw away.”
Serrano: Moving Up by “Trading Down”
Susan and Brian Mackin had spent their entire adult lives in the Bay Area, living within a five-mile radius of their childhood homes. But a few years ago, frustrated with the traffic and congestion, they decided it was time to seek greener pastures.
So the couple sold their 1,400-square-foot house in pricey Cupertino and bought a house more than twice the size—3,300 square feet, to be exact—in the Serrano development in El Dorado Hills. And with the money they had left over, they landscaped and furnished the house, to boot.
The pair giddily refer to the transaction as “trading down.” “We got so much square footage for such a reasonable price,” Susan marvels.
The Mackins are typical of the home buyers who made Serrano the Sacramento region’s top-selling development in 2004. To date, nearly half the buyers have come from the Bay Area, lured by Serrano’s comparatively gentle prices—large new homes here range from the mid-$400,000s to the high $500,000s, and custom lots go for $300,000 to $500,000.
The couple, who have two children, were seduced by Serrano’s friendly, small-town atmosphere, the natural beauty of its rolling, oak-flecked hillsides, the three on-site schools and the amenities, especially the private country club. “We decided to join the club rather than build a pool,” Susan explains. “I didn’t want to be stuck in the back yard reading a book—we wanted the social aspect of the club.”
In 1995, when Parker Development Company started selling lots in Serrano, buying in the sleepy rural community up Highway 50 from Folsom was a bit of a leap of faith. But in the intervening decade, El Dorado Hills has come of age: It now has two major business parks, a sophisticated shopping center and several good restaurants, including the highly touted Masque Ristorante. (Esquire magazine recently named it one of the 21 best restaurants in the country.)
“I go shopping with my girlfriends at La Borgata (shopping center),” says Theresa Buriani, who moved to Serrano with her husband, Doug, and their two children about a year and a half ago. “I love Masque, and there’s a new sushi restaurant called Kabuki Sushi.”
The Burianis had just moved into a new custom home in Vacaville when Theresa, a real estate agent, came up to Serrano to list a house—and promptly fell in love with the development. “I thought it was beautiful,” she recalls. “So I up and moved us.”
The Burianis’ 3,500-square-foot production home includes a guest casita and a gourmet kitchen with stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops. Theresa was impressed with the builder’s willingness to make changes to the plan. “They’ll let you move walls or do pretty much anything you want to do,” says Theresa, who opted for hardwood floors in the bathrooms and French doors in the dining room.
She loves her “quiet little neighborhood” and its proximity to the children’s schools and activities. “I’m not in the car driving all over the place,” she points out.
Like Theresa Buriani, the Mackins revel in the slower, gentler pace of their new lifestyle. Susan, a teacher, was able to stop working, and Brian, who works for Sun Microsystems, telecommutes from home. Now that he’s no longer tied up in traffic, he has time to help coach his kids’ sports teams and attend their school plays.
“Living here has given us the opportunity to be much more involved in our children’s lives,” Susan explains.
Sun City Lincoln Hills: Not for Retiring Types
After working for more than three decades, Barry Cunningham was looking forward to retirement. And on the day he left his job as a P.E. instructor at Feather River Community College, he and his wife, Glenise, moved to their new “retirement” home in Lincoln.
They say they’ve never been busier.
The couple bought in Del Webb’s Sun City Lincoln Hills development, located at the southern end of the booming town of Lincoln. This is definitely not your grandfather’s retirement community. Marketed to “active adults” 55 and older, it’s not the place to move to if your idea of retirement is snoozing on the porch in a rocking chair.
“It’s like Disneyland for adults,” says Glenise. “There’s so much to do here.”
The 3,000-acre development offers a mind-boggling array of activities, clubs and classes, from softball, tennis and boccie to ceramics, sewing and square dancing. There’s a full-time activities and fitness staff, including personal trainers—one of whom happens to be Barry Cunningham. “I’m working again,” he says proudly.
Two and a half years ago, the couple purchased a 1,600-square-foot house with two