Napa clay tennis court builder sees good returns from Bay Area’s luxury real estate market

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Sometimes a hobby can turn into an obsession that becomes the path to a new life.

For John Scruby — a licensed Napa County general contractor — it was making clay tennis courts. The indelible desire led him on a journey all the way to Roland Garros, site of the French Open, and later to a successful career spanning nearly four decades catering to Bay Area luxury clients.

“He started in the early ’80s and was really into tennis, and he wanted to play on a clay court but there were no clay courts in California at that time, so he ended up building one in his backyard,” Scruby’s 42-year-old son, Sean, told me.

Sean said that his father first found a place in Lake County that had a red clay material and used that as the top surface for a prototype court, which the family still has in their backyard in Oakville.

But as it turned out, that particular top dressing method rendered the court too soggy and didn’t dry very well. So Scruby’s quest for the perfect compound continued.

“My dad did some investigating and went to the U.S. Open, which had two Har-Tru courts at the time, and he got some samples from there, and also went out to Europe and got some samples of the clay at Roland Garros and went to Italy, too, and got some samples there,” Sean said.

But then something happened.

“It just became really popular,” Sean said. “He was a general contractor building custom houses for about 20 years and he stopped doing that because everyone was asking about the tennis courts and he ended up doing it full time.”

The business became more popular in the late 1980s in Napa County and continued its rise into the ’90s, building a reputation in the North Bay among luxury home owners.

I asked Sean how he marketed to his high-end clients.

“I don’t,” he said. “My dad did a little bit of marketing — he advertised in a tennis magazine in the early ’90s and late ’80s. Other than that, it’s all been word of mouth really for about 20 years or more.”

The business — Olde World Design — still exists to this day. John died this year from heart failure. Now Sean, who worked side-by-side with him for years, continues his father’s passion by taking over in the family business. And even with bigger market competitors like San Francisco-based Vintage Contractors and San Jose-based Saviano Co., the small business continues to produce a steady volley of work from the North Bay to the Peninsula all the way south as far as San Luis Obispo County.

“A lot of courts that I’m rebuilding right now, he built about 30 years ago,” Sean said, adding that all the material comes from the Har-Tru company in Virginia, which offers toppings like green Har-Tru, American red and European red clays. “It’s such a niche market and people that do have clay courts are fanatical about not only about tennis but what kind of material they play on.”

Clay tennis courts require a lot of maintenance and aren’t cheap; Sean told me his base price for construction is $80,000. But with clientele in the region who own homes worth tens of millions of dollars, a clay tennis — or a bocce ball court, which the company also builds — is a luxury one can afford.

But what about value added? Do these European-style luxuries actually add value to Bay Area estates? Some factors may come down to tie-breakers for the buyer.

“The value is in the eye of the beholder depending on the level of expertise in tennis,” said Napa real estate agent Nick Muccitelli, who represents Compass Real Estate. “The increase in value would have too many factors to associate a dollar amount to as well. It varies from area to area. However, a hard court requires less maintenance than a clay court. A less experienced player will value a hard court more because it appears to add more value because it’s more expensive to install.”

Sean told me that many new buyers of estates where his father had built clay courts replaced them with hard courts or got rid of them entirely after purchasing the estate.

“There’s a lot of TLC you have to put into it, and a lot of people don’t know that when they buy a property that has a clay court on it,” Sean said. “I don’t think there are many people that actually maintain the court. The maintenance is just kind of the forgotten part of it.”

 

Link to Article: https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2021/11/03/olde-world-design-napa-oakville-clay-court-tennis.html