FAIRFIELD — Randy Franklin knows the story of Villa de Madre better than anyone. He’s the nephew of the owner, saw it built and may see it sold.
For millions of dollars. In September.
Franklin is the nephew of Willis Johnson, founder of auto auction company Copart and owner of Villa de Madre, the 22,882-square-foot house on Suisun Valley Road just north of Rockville Road. It’s in an 80-acre vineyard and is available for $18 million – what Franklin calls the “buy it now” price.
The problem? Villa de Madre’s been on the market for more than four years, during which time few potential buyers have looked at the property. That led to a new approach: A Sept. 10 auction that could see the home change hands – and could end Franklin’s residency in the caretaker home on the property.
“I have mixed feelings,” Franklin said during an open house at the property last weekend. “I’m kind of sad it’s going to change hands, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to live here and for the generosity of Willis Johnson. He is a fantastic provider for his entire family.”
The home has plenty of amenities. In addition to the large working vineyard and three large barns that Johnson used to showcase his classic auto collection, the large home features a great room with a cathedral ceiling and six bedroom suites, including a 2,000-square-foot master bedroom suite. There is also a large indoor pool, several fitness rooms and six fireplaces.
The home and property have been on the market since May 26, 2010, and were originally listed at $22 million.
“It’s the highest price I’ve ever seen in Solano County,” said Denise Kirchubel, a Realtor for ReMax/Gold in Fairfield.
Actually, the Suisun Valley Road home of Jay Adair, Johnson’s son-in-law and successor as CEO at Copart, was briefly on the market for $28 million. He pulled it back and still uses it as his California base – Copart moved its company headquarters to Texas in 2012, but retained a significant employee presence in Fairfield.
Villa de Madre is unusual for the area. Suisun Valley doesn’t have a lot of multimillion-dollar estates, particularly like this.
“This property is different for the marketplace,” said Ed Kaminsky, president of Premiere Estates Auction Company, the Manhattan Beach-based company that will handle the auction. “There aren’t two of these, let alone 10 or 100. That’s one of the reasons people consider the auction process – it’s hard to determine the true value by similar sales. The fair way to identify the value is auction.”
Bob Ogan of Country Estates, who has represented the property with his wife Rosemarie, agreed about the home’s unusual status.
“If this property were in Napa, Marin or on the peninsula, it could be a $50 million property,” he said.
Instead, it’s in Fairfield – which requires creativity to market and sell it. Thus, the auction.
Bidders will be required to register and submit a cashier’s check for $100,000 before bidding. There is a reserve amount known only to Johnson and the people at Premiere – although Kaminsky, the founder of Premiere, said that Johnson could still negotiate a deal with a bidder if no one reaches the minimum.
Kaminsky said it’s no surprise that an unusual approach is needed.
“In the Suisun Valley, we have to look a little more outside the marketplace than we would in Beverly Hills, for instance,” he said. “In Beverly Hills, we wouldn’t have to look outside of the greater Los Angeles area. (For Villa de Madre,) we have to expand our reach to Napa, San Francisco, the East Coast – anywhere a buyer could exist.”
The home was built at the peak of Johnson’s expansion of Copart to a Fairfield-based international auto salvage auction company. He decided in 2000 to build his home in a vineyard previously owned by Cadenasso Winery, not far from his company’s headquarters on Business Center Drive.
“I was ecstatic,” said Franklin, who moved into the 1,896-square-foot caretaker house shortly after the purchase was final. “I knew it was going to change the area. It was good for the area and good for the company (Copart). Somebody was going to build a 22,000-square-foot house – you know that is exciting. To be on the property and see it go up every day was great. It was the talk of the town.”
Franklin took residence in the caretaker house and watched Johnson’s home be built. It was completed in 2002 and Johnson, his wife, Joyce, and Johnson’s mother moved in.
The caretaker home created a challenge because Johnson wanted to build a “mother-in-law” home adjacent to the main house for his mom, but zoning laws limited him to two homes on the property.
The solution? Villa de Madre is like two homes – a 2,000-square-foot, self-contained residence with a full kitchen that shares a wall with the rest of the home. His mother lived there, while the Johnsons lived in the rest of the house.
It’s a large, spectacular place: The six bedroom suites, 11 bathrooms, a “restaurant-quality” kitchen, a wine cave and more. Much more. It also has the large indoor pool area with a hot tub, cooking stove and fireplace, as well as a secure play area for children, with video games. There are hand-painted ceilings and murals all around the building.
Outside, Johnson built the three car barns for his collection of more than 100 autos – an 8,500-square-foot building that was built with the home, then a 12,000-square-foot hall erected in 2006 and a 22,000-square-foot building built in 2007. They feature three maintenance bays, car lifts and a retro gas station – plus a fully functional retro diner and entertainment stage.
The attraction is obvious for some people.
The working 63-acre vineyard, mixing “old-growth” grapes and others planted after Johnson moved in, is a business opportunity, too.
Tuvia Sablosky, the point man for Premiere on the auction, said he is focused on four targets: someone interested in the wine industry, “ultra-high-worth individuals” interested in a winery, Bay Area corporations seeking a retreat and wealthy individuals who may purchase the property and donate it.
Ogan said that when Johnson decided to list the property four years ago, he knew it would be a challenge.
“I didn’t know what to expect – it’s unique,” he said.
When Premiere approached him after four years with just a few nibbles, including NBA star Parker, he was skeptical.
“I’m usually open-minded, but when Premiere called, ‘auction’ was a negative word,” Ogan said. “But then Tuvia asked me how expensive artwork and cars are sold – and I had to admit it was through auctions.”
Johnson wasn’t hard to convince. Here was a man who made his millions through auctions – mostly selling salvaged autos.
“You couldn’t talk to a better person about an auction than Willis Johnson,” Ogan said. “He understood it well.”
“You could say he was a knowledgable consumer,” he said.
Now it’s a waiting – and marketing – game. there will be a final tour by appointment Sept. 9 and the next day, the sealed-bid auction will take place at noon. Within a few minutes, assuming the reserve amount is reached, Johnson may have a deal.
“Decisions happen quickly,” Kaminsky said.
Four years of waiting – and 14 years at the site for Franklin – could come down to an auction for a man who made millions by holding auctions.
Reach Brad Stanhope at 427-6958 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bradstanhope.
Note: Corrects spelling of Rosemarie Ogan’s first name and corrects title of the real estate firm’s name to Country Estates.