Cindy Cole and Yves Sauvignon are getting married next weekend south of Sebastopol on land they purchased in December.
The 37-acre property, with two small residences, four horse barns and two equestrian arenas, was a foreclosure that had sold two years earlier for $2.6 million, Cole said. The couple bought it for $1.3 million, concluding it was too good a deal to pass up.
"We had the lust for land," Cole said, "and this property was like a siren. It kept calling to us."
The couple's purchase, and their sale of a neighboring property, represent a rare bright spot in Sonoma County real estate. At a time when The New York Times reports home sales at their lowest level in more than a decade, country properties are bucking the trend.
Sales of country homes jumped 42 percent in the county over the past 12 months. During the same period, sales of town properties declined 10 percent.
One reason for the divergent trends is that the number of available homes has been growing in the country market and shrinking in the town segment. But some agents suggest another possibility. Deals are being consummated in the country because many buyers are paying cash.
Cole, vice president of a Silicon Valley tech company, and Sauvignon, a professional equestrian trainer/coach, had an all-cash buyer when they sold Cole's three-acre property a short distance away from their new place. The price was $888,000. Two previous buyers who signed sales contracts also offered to pay cash, Cole said.
Country homes with two or more acres of land comprise a small slice of all residential properties in Sonoma County. They make up just 7 percent of all sales, according to Lisa Thomas of Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, agent for Cole and Sauvignon.
But the variety of properties is striking, from rustic cabins in the redwoods to the 500-acre Tuscan style estate in Knights Valley owned by former San Francisco 49er Joe Montana. His estate, offered for sale last year at $49 million, remains on the market.
The category also includes a range of locales and microclimates: Wine Country, Russian River, hillside, flatland and coastal headlands.
Even in the aftermath of a historic economic downturn, the ultra rich are still willing to buy elite properties. Last week, former Citigroup chief executive Sanford Weill and wife Joan paid more than $30 million for a 362-acre estate near Sonoma. The sale appears to set a county record, though many such deals aren't recorded.
But agents say there is another side to country homes today. Properties with any potential problems -- excessive noise, lack of usable ground, failing septic systems -- can sit like wallflowers at the sock hop unless sellers are willing to aggressively slash prices.
Many buyers are telling agents, "I'm going to get a great property, and I'm going to buy it way under the market," said Craig Sikes, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa.
Despite a jump in sales, the country market faces some of the same challenges as higher end properties within cities. The California Association of Realtors last week forecast that growing inventories and less attractive financing will cause "continued softness" in the price of higher end homes.
Agents and brokers who specialize in country property typically don't predict a big tumble. But many said uncertainty exists over property values, and it can lead to a big disconnect in the expectations of buyers and sellers.