Matt Kihnke, Real Estate Developer

As a general rule, real estate developers’ egos are directly proportional to the size of the projects they build. One exception to the stereotype is Matt Kihnke, developer of the new, contemporary high rise, SANSARA, in downtown Sarasota. Originally from Chicago, Kihnke and his brother have built numerous notable buildings in the Windy City and beyond.

mattInspired by his mother, who began investing in real estate when he was a child, Kihnke learned the business from the ground up. After graduating college, he started rehabilitating homes, and then joined his brother on residential projects. Soon they moved on to new construction high-rise development with a distinctive flair for modern design. Kihnke’s love of architecture is evident in the sculptural, artistic quality of his first construction project in Florida, SANSARA.

The antithesis of famous self-promotion real estate king Donald Trump, Kihnke has a relaxed, easy-going style and likeable nature.  A full-time resident of Sarasota for several years, Kihnke’s low-key lifestyle fits his affable personality. Forgoing an opulent mansion, he lives in a Sarasota School of Architecture style cottage on Siesta Key.

When I first met Kihnke for breakfast almost a year ago, the hours flew by as we discussed architecture, the construction industry, and a myriad of taboo subjects from religion to politics.  A well rounded, informed guy, he’s the type of man you would like have a beer with – the guy you want to see succeed. He’s someone who has forged his own path with hard work and thankfully held on to his humility along the way.Typically shy of publicity, he’s allowed me to share some of his ideas about the region, architecture, and his history in the real estate business.

Is there a significant difference in the buildings under construction now compared to those built a decade ago?

The current generation of  buildings being built today cater to the Baby Boomer generation, so we are seeing more sophisticated design. Also, technology is better integrated in the design now. Projects built 5 to 10 years ago are dated now. Technology is advancing at such a rate that every five to seven years, the systems become outdated.

Interior of SANSARA

But it’s an exciting time to build with the advancement of the home systems. You walk into your house, hit one button and your entire house lights up according to whatever mood you want, whether it’s night or day.  So, it’s literally a custom lifestyle that you build from the ground up.

Do you offer that type of smart technology in your new building?

Yes, we consider ourselves a boutique luxury property. It is an upgrade, but you can go to whatever level you want. You can run these homes from anywhere in the world from your phone or iPad.

Many people in this market are only living here a few months out of the year. So, it gives them a comfort level to be able to check on their home. They can turn on the camera in their residence and see what’s going on.  We’ve also integrated the camera system throughout the building to be accessible for our residents. They can see who is at the front door, in the lobby, or on the amenity deck.

How did you get your start in the industry?

The first house I ever owned, I was about eight years old. My mother, who was a special education teacher, was an avid real estate investor. When her mother passed away, my brothers and I were given a small inheritance. She pooled the money together to buy a rental property for us, introducing us to real estate investing.

After college, I started a technology company with a buddy. We were fortunate to have some success, but I didn’t love the technology business.  My brother had just bought a rehab project and was living on my sofa, soon after, I joined him in the real estate business. That was 1995, and I never looked back. Every project we did was a little different, a little bigger.  We did single-family development that morphed into multi-unit condo development, which lead to larger mixed-use projects with a commercial component and residential above. Most of  our business, our core competence, is in residential condo development and most of that has been done in Chicago. We have done many condo conversions in Florida and we’ve started expanding. My brother is do

ing a project in the Turks and Caicos and we have some small projects going in Michigan. This is my first high-rise project in Florida. It’s exciting for me, and it’s something new.

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Matt pictured with his parents and his two brothers on Longboat Key.

What is the square footage of your units?Before I started this project, I took it to the street to soft sell it. I talked to the brokerage community and they told me one thing emphatically: “build larger units.”  But, I watched a lot of two-bedroom units selling quickly because they were in that $800,000 category and the larger units kind of lingered until they were absorbed, but what I’m realizing now through my buyers (and some of the projects in town) the larger units are selling very well. I think there is a pent up demand for those units.

Our larger units are just under 2,800 square feet, three bedroom, three bath,  with den, air conditioned and 3,200-3,300 sq. ft., including the outdoor decks.  And, the smaller units are about 2,300 square ft. air conditioned, three bedrooms, three baths and 2,600 sq. ft. with outdoor terraces.

Do you think this phenomenon is due to the fact that Baby Boomers are coming  from large homes and our perception of adequate living space in America is rather expansive?

It is, yes. When I break down our buyers they are from Lakewood Ranch, Longboat Key and want to live downtown, or downtown residents who want to upgrade.  And, we have few out-of-towners who want to use the residence only a few months out of the year.  It will be interesting to s

ee what happens when season comes.

What brought you to Sarasota?

Back in 2004, I came to town to look at an apartment complex a friend of mine was selling. It was the middle of winter and miserable weather in Chicago, so I was happy to get out of town. I came down, visited my parents who were spending the winter in St Pete Beach and drove down to Sarasota. I thought- this is a great little town, so I bought the project and it became the first condo conversion project we did in Florida.

Coming here was purely by happen-stance. We weren’t looking to do projects in Florida; it just fell in my lap. I thought it would be fun to spend some time down here and enjoy the weather. Then, the more time I spent here, I really liked the weather, and Sarasota, in particular, is a beautiful place.

People still ask me today, “why don’t you leave Sarasota?”  But where am I going to go? Where am I going to go that’s nicer than Sarasota? So I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to. I still enjoy getting away, but Sarasota, in my opinion, is paradise.

 You live out on Siesta Key, correct?

Yes, I love it! I live in a great little Jack West house, a Sarasota School of Architecture home. It is one of my favorite homes. It’s pretty cool.

Siesta Key reminds me of the town I grew up in, Grand Haven, Michigan. It has a very similar feel to Sarasota, but much smaller. It’s a beach town set on Lake Michigan. It has the same small town, beachy feel. People are laid-back, similar to here. That’s what attracted me to Sarasota, it felt very comfortable, and I was fortunate to meet a lot of really great people when I first came down. Sarasota has all of the components of  a major city wrapped in a small city. It’s a unique place.

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