I finally made a long anticipated stop at Fairfield Glade, the sprawling multi-course golf community on the Cumberland Plateau, midway between Nashville and Knoxville, TN. I'll have more to say about the community in the coming days. During our round at The Glade's Stonehenge golf course, my wife and I were matched up with another couple. Dave and Judy live in Clearwater, FL, but now spend their summers at Fairfield Glade, as of about two weeks ago. Their newly purchased home faces the Stonehenge golf course, but the round they played with me was their first on the Stonehenge layout (they have played the four other other courses).
Of course, I asked why they had chosen this particular community in which to spend a quarter of their year.
"The temperatures and the home prices," Dave replied without hesitation, as if he had explained this to friends and family a hundred times before. He and Judy elaborated that they had had it with the heat in Florida from June through the end of the summer and were looking for a reasonable place to enjoy their retirement summers. Although they had checked out a number of mountain communities in the southeast, there was always something just a little off with the others. For example, one nice northern Georgia community high in the mountains had roads that twisted so much that even the simplest grocery run, they said, would have been a long and arduous journey. Then they found Fairfield Glade, located on the Cumberland Plateau, a flattish region in Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville that reaches 2,000 feet in elevation and averages 10 degrees cooler than either of the two aforementioned cities (and up to 20 degrees cooler than the hottest days in Clearwater).
Home prices in Fairfield Glade begin in the $100s for condos, and many single-family residences price out at less than $100 per square foot. (More on this in the coming days.) I asked the couple why they hadn't chosen Asheville as a potential area for their home.
"Too expensive," they said almost in unison.
On our two-hour drive from Fairfield Glade to Asheville, we encountered a surprisingly large number of cars with Florida license plates. Dave and Judy aren't the only residents of the Sunshine State looking for a little summer respite at higher elevations. North Carolina and the upstate regions of South Carolina are attractive lures for those seeking cooler summers. And should a couple from Florida feel the need for a beach in summer, both Carolinas have those in spades, just a few hours from the mountains in both states. On the other hand, Tennessee has no state income tax and treats military and other pensions as well as most states do. There are some cool reasons to consider all three states as retirement venues.
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The May issue of our free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course, will be emailed in the next few days. Some of the best golf communities in the Southeast require that when you buy a property inside the gates, you join the club. It's an obligation that, when times are good, can go down as easy as a mai tai on the back deck. But at other times, such as the housing recession that lasted from 2008 to 2012, such fees caused a lot of heartache -- and some surprising bargains for those willing to take on the obligation today. (You will read about $1 lots for sale in top Low Country golf communities.)
In the May issue, we also offer a selection of North Carolina semi-private golf clubs inside the gates of nice golf communities. Some do not even charge an initiation fee. We offer a selection on the coast and inland in the Tarheel State.
Just hit the "Subscribe" button on the top of the page and follow the simple instructions to ensure you don't miss an issue. (All we need is name and email address.) Or click here to subscribe to Home On The Course.
In the years that preceded the recession of 2008, ownership of a home in The Cliffs Communities, whose properties extend from the Asheville, NC, and Greenville, SC, areas to Lake Keowee, was beyond the grasp of any but the well-to-do. Prices for homes started around the $1 million mark. If you wanted to dip your toe in the water with the more modest purchase of a lot, you faced a personal tipping point within 30 days of closing: Join the club or not. If you decided on membership, you ponied up as much as $125,000. If you decided not to join, then your piece of property forever would wear the golf community equivalent of the Scarlet letter: Neither you nor anyone you sold your home to would ever be able to join the club at The Cliffs. Of course, once the new property owners determined that they had essentially ostracized themselves from the key activities in the community, they were free to buy a second property and attach membership to that piece of land. (Some people actually did that.)
Of course, the recession and a lack of customers changed that particular membership scheme, probably forever; The Cliffs, under its latest owners, today maintains a hybrid of that original plan which provides a bit more flexibility to its resident owners and at a price for full-golf membership that is $75,000 lower than the former peak price. At $50,000, it is a good deal for those who can afford it.
Prices for homes in The Cliffs Communities are moving back toward their pre-recession levels; developer lots begin at $169,000. However, anyone considering the purchase of a resale property at The Cliffs had better make sure to ask their buyer agent if a membership is attached because, in that regard, the new Cliffs owners are adhering to the old scheme.
"If a resale lot does not have an active membership," The Cliffs membership office indicates, "its owner or purchaser cannot obtain one in the future."
Instead, they will need to opt for a developer-owned property -- there are a good choice of those -- and choose from a menu of membership plans within 30 days of closing. If, for example, the buyer selects a "Wellness Membership," she can upgrade to another plan later but will only be able to downgrade the membership upon the death of a spouse or upon demonstration of "hardship."
The Cliffs' full-golf membership for $50,000 provides reciprocal privileges at all seven golf courses and full access to wellness centers, clubhouses, dining and marina facilities, as well as outdoor activity areas, including hiking and walking trails, private parks and pavilions. Monthly dues in 2013 were $892 for play at all courses without the assessment of a green fee; and $802 per month for no-fee play at the member's chosen "home" course and modest green fees when playing any other Cliffs course.
Other Cliffs memberships include a Sports Membership at $35,000 ($453 per month dues) and limited play on Cliffs golf courses; a Wellness Membership ($20,000/$319); and Social Membership ($20,000/$160).
We love Bowden's Market Barometer, and not only because the comprehensive golf industry follower gives us a shout out every once in a while, but also because we learn something every time the bi-monthly digital issue arrives in our inbox.
Bowden's editor Judith Shè actually threw two bouquets our way in her latest issue. She called your editor a "golf communities guru" -– I'm still blushing –- in announcing our new Golf Homes for Sale section and its links to the full listings of properties for sale in some of the Southeast's premier golf communities. And she also referred to a recent "Rant" I published in defense of golf and its future. (I'm still waiting for it to go viral, hint hint). That opinion piece was first published in our own monthly newsletter, Home On The Course, and later reprinted here.
Those with a casual interest in the golf industry, golf real estate, golf resorts and golf marketing should consider a subscription to Bowden's Market Barometer. Here are just a few of the topics covered by the issue that was published earlier this week:
• A comprehensive overview of the "Healthiest Housing Market in Years."
• A forecast for the second-home market with an in-depth look at sports tourism and its effect on the vacation real estate market and the "fractional," or shared-ownership, industry.
• A five-page detailed market overview of the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach that is as comprehensive as you will find anywhere.
• Updates on new golf courses and resorts; multiple initiatives to "grow" the game of golf, especially in the junior age group; updates on golf communities (some things we learned about in reading the publication); and enough other good material to fill 27 informative pages.
Don't take my word for how insightful and provocative Bowden's Market Barometer is; just send me a note and ask for a copy of this latest issue. I'll email it to you right away (well, at least if it is not the middle of the night). I'll even sign you up for our own Home On The Course free monthly newsletter. (Please make note if you do not want to subscribe.)
Thanks.....Larry Gavrich, Founder & Editor, Home On the Course
CarolinaLiving.com recently posted an article I wrote for its Compass eNewsletter about golf communities near universities. Large universities and even more modestly sized colleges are magnets for all kinds of cultural events, including concerts, museum shows, lectures by famous and should-be famous people and, of course, sporting contests. Those who like what cities offer in the way of entertainment but loathe the traffic, extreme pace and pollution will find most of the good stuff near a university in the Southeast.
In the CarolinaLiving.com article, I provided capsules of the best golf communities near universities in North and South Carolina. These include Governors Club near University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill; Landfall, just 10 minutes from UNC-Wilmington; Reems Creek, a few miles north of UNC-Asheville; Green Valley Country Club in Greenville, SC, near Furman University; Wildewood Country Club and the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia; Woodside Plantation in Aiken, near that city's branch of USC; and Wild Wing Plantation, virtually across Highway 501 from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, a few miles from Myrtle Beach.
Of course, many more choices abound throughout the region. We have toured and played the golf courses at most of the following communities. For more information, please contact us.
• Glenmore in Keswick, VA, home to a number of University of Virginia (UVA) professors and athletics team coaches. The entire community, including the John LaFoy golf course, has a Scottish tinge to it.
• Wintergreen Resort, 45 minutes from Charlottesville and UVA but worth the trip given its lofty Blue Ridge Mountains location, 45 holes of excellent golf and reasonably priced real estate
• Kinloch, whose golf course is perennially ranked in the top 3 in the state of Virginia and only a few miles from University of Richmond. Lester George, who designed another top 5 course at Ballyhack in Roanoke, partnered with longtime amateur golfing luminary Vinny Giles to develop the Kinloch layout.
• Viniterra is an unusual combination of Rees Jones golf and a working winery within an easy drive of colonial Williamsburg and one of the nation's oldest schools, William & Mary. Located halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg, Viniterra has the best of both worlds, even if life inside the gates is calming.
• The 4,800-acre Landings at Skidaway Island, with six golf courses, tons of activities and just 20 minutes from Savannah and its highly regarded College of Art & Design, which has helped transform the city and is a magnet for art and culture.
• Athens is the quintessential college town, a vibrant center of creativity. (The rock band R.E.M. formed there while its members were attending University of Georgia.) The Georgia Club offers 27 holes of golf and reasonably priced real estate (homes from the low $300s).
• Champions Retreat, just outside Augusta, is unique; its 27-hole golf course was designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer (one nine each). The community of mostly upscale homes lies along the Savannah River, just a few miles from another golf course you may have heard of with "Augusta" in its name. Augusta State University merged a couple of years ago with Georgia Health Sciences University to form the nearby Georgia Regents University.
• The Tampa Bay area in Florida offers just about everything in the way of entertainment, services, transportation (great airport!) and dozens of golf communities. Just 45 minutes south of the University of South Florida in Tampa is River Strand at Heritage Harbour, a "bundled" golf community, which means that golf membership in its fine [who] golf club is included in the price of the house. Another five minutes down the interstate, Lakewood Ranch is a city unto itself, as well as a sprawling golf community.
• If you are a college basketball fan, you will remember the terrific March madness run a few years ago by unknown Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. Between Ft. Myers and nearby Naples, those looking for a golf community have literally scores of them to consider. For those looking for a 55+ community, we have heard good things about Pelican Preserve in Ft. Myers. In Naples, we loved the golf course at Audubon Country Club, whose surrounding homes are as close to the Gulf of Mexico as golf communities get in Naples.
• In a few weeks, golf fans will turn their attention to the TPC Sawgrass "Stadium" course, just south of Jacksonville where the best PGA golfers will compete in the Players Championship, sometimes called the "fifth major." Divided into more than a dozen small communities, the Sawgrass community offers not only three golf courses but a wide array of real estate choices. Jacksonville University is a half hour away. (The ocean resort Amelia Island and its fine seaside layouts is just 45 minutes from the university.)
If you would like more education on any of these fine college town communities, please contact us.
The Founders Group International, whose roots and parent company are located in China, has become the largest owner of golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area after an announcement yesterday that the firm had purchased 12 golf clubs owned and operated by National Golf Management (NGM). (Full disclosure: Your editor has been a member for the past 15 years of one of those clubs, Pawleys Plantation.) The purchase brings to 27 the number of publicly accessible golf courses that Founders Group and other China-based companies own between Southport, NC, about 45 minutes south of Wilmington, and Georgetown, SC, 45 minutes south of Myrtle Beach International Airport.
Yesterday's purchase included some of the most popular and best reviewed golf courses along Myrtle Beach's Grand Strand, nicknamed for the virtually uninterrupted stretch of beach that runs from well above the border between North and South Carolina to a couple of miles south of the private DeBordieu Colony in Georgetown. They include Pawleys Plantation, the Grande Dunes Resort, Long Bay, Kings North and Pine Lakes International, the first golf course opened in the area (1927) and the birthplace of Sports Illustrated magazine. The other courses are River Club, Litchfield Country Club, Willbrook Plantation, the two golf courses at Myrtlewood, and the other two besides Kings North that are located inside the Myrtle Beach National complex.
Prices for these most recently purchased golf courses were not announced, but based on what Founders Group paid for the earlier clubs, we are guessing this latest group will have fetched as much as $100 million. Pawleys Plantation, the Grande Dunes Resort club and Kings North especially are among the highest-trafficked golf courses in the area and command more than average green fees. Pine Lakes International maintains the cachet of the oldest club in the area.
Founders Group and two other China-based firms now employ more than 1,000 Myrtle Beach area residents at their 27 golf courses. Under a longstanding U.S. Visa program, foreign nationals who make sizable investments in American companies employing 10 or more people can gain temporary residency for themselves and family members. Along with the clubs it and the other companies purchased last year, Founders Group also bought 100 homes in the Myrtle Beach area, as well as undeveloped land adjacent to the Grande Dunes Resort, a signal they intend to take advantage of the Visa program. But there may be other reasons for the big investment in Myrtle Beach golf:
• The Chinese government has cracked down on construction of golf courses in the country and recently closed 66 courses it said had been illegally built.
• Wealth in China is exploding, and there are limited opportunities to invest in businesses there. The rapidly emerging Chinese upper class has been spending its newly earned billions around the world.
• Chinese families with money want to see their children educated in premier institutions of higher learning, such as those in the U.S. (There is talk in the Myrtle Beach area that Founders Group may build a school locally.)
• China's current leadership may be a bit too authoritarian for those with the resources to now live anywhere in the world.
• A China-born real estate agent in Myrtle Beach has been instrumental in generating interest from the Chinese company.
What this all means, if anything, for current members of the now-Chinese-owned clubs and the residents who live adjacent to the clubs, remains to be seen. Founders Group has retained virtually all of the operations employees at the golf courses, and there are no signs at the clubs they purchased last year of anything but business as usual. If anything, the new ownership is providing some modest benefits already. In a letter sent yesterday to members of National Golf Management's Prime Time Honors Club program, which had been providing deep-discount access to the company's owned and managed clubs, NGM announced that although five of its golf courses will be removed from the program by the end of June, eight of the courses Founders Group purchased earlier, including the excellent TPC of Myrtle Beach and International World Tour, whose hole designs mimic some of the most iconic golf holes in the world, will be added.
Golf community real estate prices tend to follow the old saw about location, location, location. Those communities that set out to distinguish themselves in terms of amenities, such as The Cliffs Communities in the nether regions of South Carolina, might defy the conventional wisdom but, generally speaking, golf communities in remote locations do not command anything approaching top prices for homes and land.
One of our favorite "out there" golf communities is Savannah Lakes Village in rural McCormick, SC. The nearest town of consequential size is Greenwood, S.C., about a half hour away; Aiken and Augusta, GA, lie a solid hour to the south. It is about eight minutes from the front entrance of Savannah Lakes -– no guarded gate needed out in these parts –- to the only supermarket in the area, McCormick's Food Lion. But at 4,000 acres, 2,000 residents and with two clubhouses and dozens of activities, the community has plenty to offer without having to stray too far. And prices are about as remote from "expensive" as you can get.
That includes one of the most reasonable golf memberships anywhere. Every property owner in Savannah Lakes Village becomes a member of the club at no extra initiation fee and can pick and choose which of the communities many amenities they want to use. For example, golfers can either pay to play for modest green fee rates ($36 with cart) or $3,000 per couple for unlimited play throughout the year. If you own your own cart, the combined rate for 18 holes is just $32 if you choose to pay as you go. Homeowner association dues are just $101 per month; if you combine full-membership of $3,000 and HOA fees of $1,200 per year, the total monthly carrying charges are just $350. That leaves plenty of room for those who might want to use Savannah Lakes' Activities Center with its indoor and outdoor pools, fitness facilities, bowling alley ($3 per game) and bocce court. For those who play tennis, that is an extra fee but comparably modest.
We recently predicted that Chinese businesspeople would soon add as many as 20 golf courses to their portfolio of 13 clubs already purchased in the Myrtle Beach, SC, area. We speculated that a U.S. visa program that rewards foreign interests who invest in U.S. businesses that employ more than 10 people was the driver (pardon the pun). Not for nothing, those same Chinese businesses that purchased the original 13 golf courses also bought 100 homes in the Myrtle Beach area.
Now, according to a recent New York Times feature, the interest in Myrtle Beach could have a different root reason –- a Chinese government crackdown on the operation of golf courses. As part of an ongoing campaign against systemic corruption among China's government officials, Premier Xi Jinping and his government have shuttered 66 golf clubs that had been built illegally. Since 2004, according to the Times report, golf course construction in China has been banned for environmental reasons related to "unrestrained development." Developers and local municipalities essentially ignored the ban for much the same reasons, money; the developers tied the golf to adjacent high-rise luxury buildings they sold to China's new millionaires, and the municipalities found the tax revenues were just too lush to ignore.
But now more than 15 officials are under investigation for accepting bribes and other crimes and misdemeanors related to business done on the golf course, and any developer who undertakes to build a new layout will find it hard to identify investors. Those Chinese millionaires who have become infected by the bourgeois game of golf are now left to invest in other places where they can play. Welcome to Myrtle Beach.
In the excitement of an exploratory visit to a golf community, those of us searching for a golf home may ask all the right questions about financial stability, membership dues, homeowner association activities, and pace of play on the golf course; and we may kick the tires on the golf course, the fitness center, the walking and bike trails –- and forget to check one necessity for most of us, whether our cell phone will work in the community.
Cell phone coverage maps mislead. There may actually be coverage by my cell phone company, for example, in Pawleys Island, where I own a vacation home, but the signal is so weak at times that I have to leave the condo and find a good spot in the driveway in order to be able to talk and be heard. At the best of times, I have to almost press myself against the sliding glass doors in the back of the condo in order to pick up any signal. Forget the pub at Pawleys Plantation, where checking emails over a beer after a round of golf is impossible (unless the wait staff recalls the wi-fi password).
I have visited golf communities, especially those that are at high elevations in rural locations, where the dreaded "No Service" notification pops up on my phone once I am through the gate. I remember one salesperson many years ago pointing out the cell tower on a mountain top at The Cliffs at Glassy and proudly declaring that developer at the time, Jim Anthony, had dedicated a prime patch of real estate in the community to make cell phone service available to his residents. Sales offices know cell coverage is an important issue for most of us, but they won't typically bring it up unless you do, or unless they can say that coverage is strong for all the major carriers.
When you visit a golf community, make sure you check your phone at different locations within the community. If you cannot raise a signal, make sure to ask the salesperson what plans there are for better service and what carriers generate the best signal. Some golf communities advertise how you can "disconnect" from the world when you live there. But that should be up to you, not up to lousy cell phone coverage.
The following screed by your editor ran in our Home On The Course monthly newsletter last month. If you would like to subscribe to our free publication, please click here.
Judith Shé, the editor of Bowden's Market Barometer, a fine industry publication chock full of information and observations about the golf industry, circulated a recent Washington Post article to a group of friends in golf-related businesses, including yours truly. The piece by Drew Harwell (click here to view) greatly exaggerated the imminent death of the game most of us love, and for all the typical reasons –- the sport is elite, it takes too long to play, it's too expensive, blah blah blah.
We've heard it all before. Although the golf industry does have its problems, most of them are a consequence of a lack of creativity. When times get tough, most golf directors and golf professionals rush to lower prices because, heck, that's easier than brainstorming. Just an hour before Judith sent me a copy of the article, one of my readers in Arizona wrote me about a conversation he had with a concerned pro who was smart enough to get people around a table and think about how to attract and retain customers. Two ideas he decided to implement: Cart girls drive ice cold towels out to golfers in sweltering heat, totally complimentary; and the pro himself makes an appearance at the practice range before a foursome heads to the first tee to offer customized tips on how to play the course. I can't tell you how many pros I have met who spend all day in their offices, except for the trip to the snack bar or clubhouse dining room. (These are mostly public golf course professionals; most private club members wouldn't stand for such behavior.)
I also wonder why the nattering nabobs of golf's doom never compare golf with skiing. An estimated 20 million people made an appearance at a ski, snowboard or cross country venue last year. An estimated 24 million people played a round of golf. Skiing is more expensive than golf, is difficult to access because slopes are typically far from home, which means you have to pay for lodging, and you spend more "waiting" time prior to action than you do in golf.
And yet no one ever seems to write the end of days articles about skiing. Golf gets especially beat up because those who don't play the game perceive it as elitist when, in reality, more Joe Lunchbuckets play golf than do hedge fund managers. How often do we read articles about "elite" demographics of the skiing crowd?
We do have too many golf courses in the U.S. for the number of players, and that has been the case since before the recession of 2008 and before young people allegedly traded in their golf clubs for iPads. The explosive building of golf communities in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the over-production of golf courses, but there is no reason to assume that the huge baby boomer cohort will turn away from golf as a retirement pastime. That group has another 20 years or so to play out. Overall, we do need to lose a few more golf courses the way J.C. Penney needed to lose a few stores, the way Kirstie Alley needed to lose a few pounds, and the way a forest occasionally needs to burn down -– all in order to promote health and stability.
The game of golf itself is in great shape. Call me a chicken but, given a choice, Pete Dye's fairway moguls seem a lot more appealing -– and safer –- than the snow covered ones.