5 p.m.July 16, 2014
Can you put a price on the beautiful life in Rancho Santa Fe?
You could if you rented La Bella Vida, a Spanish-style 6,000-square-foot private home set on a 4-acre estate, complete with mosaic-tiled pool, gazebo and fountain.
To hold her 40-guest outdoor wedding there on May 17, San Francisco bride Kira Maisel paid about $14,000 to Estate Weddings and Events, a San Diego company that specializes in renting out owner-occupied luxury homes for weddings, corporate retreats, charitable events and Hollywood location shoots.
Cofounded in 2007 by a San Diego State University graduate then in her 20s, the niche company gives wealthy homeowners around the country — with about 15 in San Diego County — the chance to earn thousands in tax-free income for the use of their resort-style properties for a day. At the same time, brides and other renters get a taste of life in some of America’s ritziest enclaves.
Renting these multimillion-dollar homes — from oceanview homes in La Jolla to equestrian estates in Rancho Santa Fe — costs anywhere from $3,500 to $30,000, depending on the property and the size of the event.
Under a full-service contract, Estate Weddings & Events handles everything from the liability insurance to arranging for the catering, valet, tent setup, even hiring security guards to watch over pricey works of art.
Though La Bella Vida wasn’t Maisel’s first choice, it turned out to be the right one.
“It felt like a mansion. It was big and could clearly hold a 150-person wedding … and we had access to a beautiful bridal suite,” said the 30-year-old relationship coach. “It was totally perfect.”
La Bella Vida’s owner, Roblee Valentine, says that response is exactly why she rents out her estate.
“Seeing people enjoying my home makes me happy,” said Valentine, founder of The Ranch EQ, a luxury real estate firm in Rancho Santa Fe. “I use my home quite a bit, of course. I love to entertain.” But she also travels often to compete in horse-jumping shows, and her grown children are out of the house.
“So it’s really easy for me,” to rent it out, she said. “It’s really not about the money. I just love to have people there enjoying themselves.”
In 2007, Jamie Ehrsam was fresh off earning a business and hospitality degree from SDSU, working as a wedding and events coordinator and living in Pacific Beach. Ehrsam was helping her boyfriend’s sister find a beach house to rent so she could hold her dream wedding in the sand.
“They were my first clients,” chuckled Ehrsam, now 32. “But we couldn’t find anything.”
The idea for Estate Weddings & Events was hatched, and she and her boyfriend, Luke Whittaker, launched the business with little more than a hastily created website.
The company started small, with just three or four properties in San Diego, but it orchestrated big events.
“It was the year of over-the-top weddings, before the recession,” she said. Free-spending corporations were throwing lavish parties, too, and Estate Weddings & Events took off.
The recession didn’t really slow it down: “We still did weddings; they were 50 guests versus 200 guests. But the inventory exploded,” as people, even in the highest income brackets, were looking to make extra money. As an added incentive, the federal tax code allows the income earned for renting a primary residence for fewer than 15 days a year to be tax-free.
The company’s current San Diego client roster includes doctors, real estate investors, a renowned local architect and a high-end matchmaker.
Why would they entrust Ehrsam with arguably their most valuable possession, opening their doors to hundreds of complete strangers?
Only two of the homeowners listed with Estate Weddings & Events would agree to be interviewed. Both of them said they feel their interests as homeowners are the company’s priority.
“Jamie and her team, they’re very professional and very good at what they do,” said Valentine, who already knew and trusted Ehrsam, through The Ranch EQ, when she signed on.
In addition to arranging for liability insurance and private security, Estate Weddings requires renters to put down a hefty security deposit, and Ehrsam said they also take video of the property before and after an event.
There’s been only one minor mishap at La Bella Vida, said Valentine, during a showcase tour for wedding planners, when a chef left a lemon on the marble kitchen counter and it ate through the finish.
“Within 24 hours, they had somebody out there fixing it,” Valentine said.
Another of Ehrsam’s clients, dating service owner Irene Valenti, has had multiple events at her sprawling 16.5-acre, Mediterranean-style estate, which features a lake ringed by weeping willows, walking and riding trails and a rose garden. One of the largest events was a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House, with about 500 people in attendance.
Though not Valenti’s primary residence — her company, Valenti International, is based there — she expects Estate Weddings & Events to treat it as if it were.
“We’ve never had one experience where someone has taken a pen or broken a piece of art,” Valenti said.
“(Ehrsam’s) a good business lady, I have to give her that,” she said. “She has a critical audience, she has to be performing and delivering at her peak.”
Good word-of-mouth is what drives much of her new business, Ehrsam said. Also effective is sending mailers directly to luxury property owners.
“The old traditional money in Rancho Santa Fe, they still read their mail, thankfully,” she said.
Ehrsam wants to make something clear: Estate Weddings is not a wedding planning company.
“First and foremost,” she said, “our client is the homeowner, and we wouldn’t want the bride to be number 2 on her wedding day.”
Don’t tell that to Kira Maisel, the San Francisco bride. Last summer, she was looking for a place for her wedding to Kamo Asatryan, 28, who works for a Bay Area tech startup. Maisel Googled “weddings at private homes” and up popped Estate Weddings & Events.
Even though the couple were not looking to marry in San Diego, they saw a property in Escondido, near Elfin Forest, with a view that reminded Asatryan of his native Armenia. They booked the estate for May 17.
On Wednesday, May 14, they flew to San Diego to find wildfires raging across North County, including one near their rented home. It wasn’t the kind of wedding drama they expected. On Thursday, they wrestled with telling their Bay Area guests to cancel their flights but decided not to. By early Friday, it looked like the estate would be spared. Then, at 3 p.m., exactly 25 hours before their ceremony was to start, the road to the property was shut down so a firefighting helicopter could fill up with lake water.
Taryn Walker, Estate Wedding’s director of special events, assured the couple she could find another venue. Walker contacted Valentine about using La Bella Vida and drove the bride and groom there for a tour. With a go-ahead, Walker scrambled to reschedule the entire wedding — caterer, table and chair rentals, cupcake vendor, florist, guest shuttle bus — for the next day.
“We wouldn’t have had a wedding if it wasn’t for Taryn,” Maisel said.
She said that post-ceremony, her new husband said he thought the larger Bella Vida estate turned out to be better in the end.
Maisel can laugh now.
“It wasn’t Armenia, but how many places are?”