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    No matter how bad or good the real estate market is, the marketeers who represent them will always find the glass full.  We received an email from a marketing firm that represents a few communities we know, and we just had to chuckle at the way they paint lipstick on the pig.
    When the market was booming, the urge from the real estate industry went something like this:  "You better buy now, because prices are going up and you won't be able to afford the house you want a year from now."  The logic was unbeatable...if you consider real estate an investment, rather than shelter.
    Now that the market is in the tank, here's what the nattering nabobs of optimism say (and this is a direct quote from a company called GamePlan Resort Solutions):  "We are in the midst of a strong ‘Buyer’s Market’ which means that it is a great time to buy while the incentives are plentiful, interest rates are low, and sellers are motivated."
    Well, yes, it is a great time to buy...if you have the cash and if you are looking for a home.  Unspoken, of course, is that if you own a home, you are going to have to be a motivated seller in order to buy one of those homes being offered by another motivated seller.  Ergo, you accept less for your house and then have less to pay for their house.
    Resort Solutions also quotes news reports to show that, "Recently there have been indicators that the economy is accelerating and the real estate market is gradually coming back to life."  The company's email was sent to us on Wednesday (Feb. 28), the day after the 400+ point loss on the Dow Jones Industrials, demonstrating, yet again, that Pollyanna is alive and well, and probably selling condos in Miami.

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Thursday, 01 March 2007 18:00

Best restaurant in St. Mary's, GA

    In southeast coastal Georgia’s town of St. Mary’s, Sterling’s Southern Café is all the rage, garnering great reviews in local newspapers and magazines.  The lady at the Georgia Welcome Center, a good two hours up I-95 from St. Mary’s, had recommended it.  I had little choice but to stop for dinner last night.
    At first, I had trouble negotiating the menu, not because it was large or loaded with creative dishes, but rather because the menu seemed overrun with clichés.  Chicken parmesan is not exactly a classic low country dish, and the almond crusted grouper, tenderloin tips and chicken picatta seemed like déjà vu all over again.  I chose the crab cakes to start and the crabmeat stuffed grouper as the entrée. 
    I wasn’t disappointed, although the two crab cakes were a little light on the crab.  But the filler was tasty and perfectly seasoned.  The grouper was a large piece of fresh fish, lightly and perfectly pan sautéed, crisp on the outside, almost as if it had been fried, and moist inside. The accompanying lemon sauce was appropriately restrained in both its taste and quantity. The jasmine rice and bright green crisp beans were the right accompaniments.
    Sterling's is intimate; I counted about 10 tables.  The wait staff goes out of its way to be friendly. They were solicitous but stopped short of overbearing.  My water glass was refilled twice without asking.  Prices are friendly as well, with no entree topping $20, although salad does not come with the dinner (a nice piece of garlic bread does, however).
    The restaurant does something we haven’t seen since Durgin Park, the famous restaurant in Boston that seats people at long tables, strangers next to strangers.  Sterling’s maintains a communal table inside the bay window in the front of the room for those without reservations.  I had reserved a table, but a couple from Indiana who followed me in had not.  They were offered the empty communal table for eight.  A few minutes later, a single came in and was shown to a seat at the end of the table.  When I left, they were all on their way to becoming fast friends.  The communal table is a terrific idea that would solve some problems for busy restaurants, and maybe promote world peace (okay, okay, but we do like the idea).
    Some years ago, St. Mary’s was granted a “best small town” award by one of those magazines that invents such awards to boost circulation.  By all accounts and our own experience, Sterling’s is the best restaurant in the best small town.
    Sterling’s Southern Café is at 219 Osborne Street in St. Mary’s, GA.  Phone:  912-882-3430. Web:  www.sterlingssoutherncafe.com
Wednesday, 28 February 2007 23:00

Georgia on my mind; should be on yours too

    The state of Georgia doesn’t get its due when it comes to golf.  When was the last time your golfing buddies talked about a long weekend or week of golf in Georgia?  No, Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst, Scottsdale are top of the list largely because they offer quantity as well as quality golf.  But if you like to order a la carte from a big menu, Georgia can more than hold its own.
    This came to mind as I entered Georgia via I-95 yesterday and picked up a copy of the state's guide to golf at the Welcome Center.  This was my first visit back to the state since summer last year.  It was good to be back.  Last spring, I played the Dye course at Ford Plantation (see Tuesday post for how much I liked it).  Last summer, my son and I played the fantastic Cuscowilla in the north central part of the state, the Crenshaw/Moore design that typically ranks either first or second in GolfWeek’s annual residential course rankings (the competition is the renowned Wade Hampton in the mountains of North Carolina).
    The state that gave us Bobby Jones, Augusta National and the Masters provides an almost limitless variety of public-access golf as well.  At the coast, the best community courses include Sapelo Hammock (see our post yesterday) in Shellman Bluff; The Hampton Club and Sea Palms, both on St. Simons Island; and Osprey Cove, which we are visiting today.  We’ve played the dramatic Mike Young design at Cateechee near Lake Hartwell in the north part of the state, and would return in a minute.  Reynold’s Plantation and its own buffet of courses (five) is on our list for the summer.  We note as well that the upstate region is one of the fastest growing in terms of golf course development, and we look forward to exploring that area soon.  In short, you can put together and play your own Georgia golf "trail" without burning up too much gas.
    You’ll find a comprehensive list of public access courses at http://www.georgia.org/Travel/Rejuvenate/Golf.  Many of them are located inside residential communities.

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Mike Young's Cateechee course near Lake Hartwell is one of many hidden gems in north Georgia.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 18:00

Restaurant review: Lang's Seafood, St. Mary's, GA

    The houses in the historic district of St. Mary's, GA, are awash in pastel colors, but there is nothing fancy about the fish served at Lang's Marina Seafood Market Restaurant.  At dinner last night, I ordered the "Captain's Platter" and was rewarded with some of the freshest fish I've tasted in recent memory.  The huge platter, delivered grilled as requested, included rock shrimp and medium-sized shrimp, scallops, a generous piece of snapper and a half dozen nice-sized fried oysters (even though I ordered the platter grilled, we understand that's no way to treat an oyster).  The frying was expertly done.  At just under $18, the platter was a bargain. 
    Other items on the menu are fish house typical, and although all dishes are offered grilled or blackened, as well as fried, most scream out for breading.  This is the low country, after all.  A blackboard at the front counter included a list of fresh fish of the day, those not on the menu.  There was even an 8 ounce lobster tail for just $22 -- that's a half pound of lobster meat, almost -- which you could pair with a ribeye steak for just over $30.  I was disappointed our waitress said nothing about the alternative choices and, indeed, the service was the low point of the meal.  But she was cheery and returned to the table often to check on my status -- and, once, to attempt to take my half eaten plate of cole slaw.  No way I was going to give up the slaw, which was crisp and much enhanced by a modest amount of mayonnaise.  The hush puppies, by the way, the often leaden deep-fried dollops of corn meal, were as good as they get.
    The restaurant itself was clean, with nice views out to the inlet and the adjacent boat docks.  We were impressed that it wasn't overly nautical in its decor.  The food is definitely the focus at Lang's.  The waterfront park next door is a good place to walk after dinner; a few local coffee shops offer dessert options (we passed on dessert at Lang's, not wanting to tempt fate).
    The Lang family appears to own the waterfront in St. Mary's.  Not only does the name adorn the restaurant, but also the local marina and a seafood retail store.  The restaurant has no excuses for less than the freshest seafood possible, and it does not disappoint.
Address: 307 W. St. Marys St., near the waterfront park, St. Marys, GA.  Phone: 912-882-4432

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Golf Course Review:  Cooper's Point 

    When a course layout engenders praise and complaint in about equal measure, count on it to provide an interesting four hours. During our round at Sapelo Hammock, in the central coastal region of Georgia, one of our playing partners labeled one par 3 as “the worst designed in America,” a few holes before claiming another hole as “The worst designed par 5 in America.”  Yet Golfweek magazine has called the course’s par 3s and par 5s “spectacular.” Offered another of our playing partners: “[It is] a great course to walk, and fun to play every day.”
    Sapelo Hammock is Rusty Simmons’ solo design effort. We could not find another course he has designed on his own, although he was project manager at the respected public golf complex Crosswinds, near the Savannah International Airport, and was an apprentice earlier in his career in the firm of Davis Love III.
    If Sapelo Hammock was to be his only effort, it was a good one indeed.  Given 200 acres of rolling terrain flanked by marsh, live oaks and loblolly pine, Simmons didn’t screw it up and, indeed, crafted a layout that is easy on the legs, if you decide to walk, as well as easy on the eyes. Houses are kept well back from the course, and out of bounds markers are few. We played on a windy day, and many of Sapelo Hammock’s holes seemed to play downwind. The fairways, which had not been over-seeded during the winter, were firm and provided extra roll. However, that advantage was neutralized by greens that we found daunting to read; a few of our rolls broke the opposite of how they read. The speed of the putts, though, was consistent throughout the round.  The slope from the men’s tees, at just over 6,300 yards, is a fair 129. Women’s tees are either 4,900 or 5,400 yards.
    Sapelo Hammock is a bargain for members and the public alike. There is no initiation fee, with annual dues just $1,800. Daily green fees for walk-ins are $47 on the weekend, $37.50 weekdays. At nearly an hour from Savannah, Sapelo Hammock’s tee sheet is not often crowded with names. The owners are clearly hoping that the adjacent Cooper’s Point development will come alive and provide the members the club needs to thrive.
    Cooper’s Point has a nice inventory of marsh and river view properties at prices half of what you will pay farther up or down the coast. Houses at Cooper’s Point cost $100 per square foot to build -- $125 if you really want to get fancy -– also about half of what it costs to build similar houses in Savannah, just an hour away. Less than a mile down the road is Shellman Bluff, a tiny, quaint fishing village that time forgot. Get to know the shrimp boat captain, and he will take your order by phone from his boat and deliver it to you at the dock.
    For those with a little patient capital and an intrepid spirit, an investment in Cooper’s Point will provide the instant gratification of a beautiful marsh-view home at a bargain price, about 10 miles from I-95.   And the golf, despite the un-heralded designer, is more than enjoyable.  Contact Cooper’s Point Land Specialist Sharon Brooks at 1-877-266-7376 (SGBrooks04@hotmail.com).  The web address is www.cooperspoint.com.


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Golf Community Review:  Ford Plantation 

    At the end of his infamous Civil War march, William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops laid waste to the Silk Hope, Cherry Hill and Richmond Plantations, which later became The Ford Plantation.  On a general’s salary, Sherman might not be able to afford to live there today, but he wouldn’t fit in anyway (too intense).
    The laid-back Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, GA, about 15 miles south of Savannah, is exclusive without being excluding, but if you have to ask how much it costs to live there, well then you probably can’t afford it.  For the record, custom homes begin around $1.9 million, but the average is about $1.3 million.  (Update:  Current golf homes for sale in Ford Plantation start around $700,000.  See a selection of them at GolfHomesListed.) In the McAllister Landing area, Charleston meets Savannah, with 24 Charleston Battery-style homes planned around a well-treed square that evokes the layout of Savannah.  Square footage of the homes ranges from 2,100 to 4,000 in six designs; expect home prices starting at about $800,000.  The rest of the plantation is characterized by equally distinctive neighborhoods.  A few lots remain from the original 400 sites.
    Initiation fees and carrying costs are high compared with most other golf communities.  At $115,000, the golf club’s equity membership, which is required when you purchase a lot, is the priciest we have seen in more than 70 communities visited, but 80 percent of the investment is returned when you sell your property.  Membership in the Ford Plantation club conveys much more than golf, however.  The Plantation’s 6,000-square foot Sports Barn provides a basketball court, squash, badminton and fitness classes (we were afraid to ask about something called “primordial sound meditation”).  Other services, such as a spa, equestrian center, sporting clays, fishing excursions and use of the marina, are avilable for an extra charge.Ford Plantation - 88.thumbnail     Club dues and property owner fees together are high at $13,000 annually, but it is hard to put a price on the combination of deluxe amenities, high-class service, near perfect golf, a secluded location and proximity to city services, such as shopping, hospitals and restaurants less than 15 minutes away.  And there are unique touches as well.  Henry Ford purchased Richmond Plantation in the 1930s as a getaway for him and the missus; he built the plantation’s centerpiece, The Main House, a Greek Revival mansion that served as his and Clara Ford’s living quarters during their stays. The couple’s separate portraits still hang in the mansion’s living room.  If you are considering property at Ford Plantation, call to arrange to sleep where the car tycoon himself slept, or in Clara Ford’s bedroom.  We didn’t stay overnight, but we would have gladly paid the reasonable $200 to do so. 
    Ford Plantation’s topography is flat, characterized by marsh and river views and achingly beautiful live oaks.  The community has built 10 miles of walking trails (for horses, as well as humans) around Lake Clara, named for Mrs. Ford, and along the Ogeechee River.  Ford Plantation has a strong water orientation, although its marketing materials highlight the equestrian aspects as well.

Terrific Dye Job
    The Ogeechee Golf Club, named for the adjacent river, blends with the landscape beautifully.  Like the community, the course is refined and elegant and never calls too much attention to itself.  That certainly doesn’t sound like Pete Dye, but we admire him for the restraints he imposed here and the way he let the golf course flow with the river.  We drove a cart, but the course would be a joy to walk; even the #10 tee is near the #9 green, not always the case at modern, cart-oriented courses.  Caddies are available for members who request them.  Cart paths on the course were utterly unobtrusive, so much so that a few times we drove to the wrong side of the fairway looking for the path. 
    The front nine is studded with live oaks, and the back is a more open, Scottish links design, echoing somewhat Dye’s work at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.  Most holes played with a crosswind, but when the wind ran with the fairway it was with you on the long holes and against you on the short ones.  The greens were near flawless in March and medium fast, and although the grass on the fairways was still a little thin, we didn’t have a bad lie all day.  Bunkers in the fairways and at greenside were definitely in play, and if you went left or right of a green and were fortunate not to land in marsh or water, you typically were faced with a loft over a bunker to the pin.  The course was beautifully manicured; workers were in evidence throughout the afternoon round.
    Links magazine recently anointed Ford Plantation one of its top 100 "premier" properties.  And next August, the course will host the Georgia State Senior Amateur tournament.  It will be interesting to see the scores.
    Ford Plantation combines everything you would want in a golf course community -- a challenging golf course you could enjoy playing every day; a feeling of seclusion but in a location within 15 minutes of healthcare and retail options; a range of house styles without a clunker design among them; and well-chosen and executed amenities and services that appeal to both permanent and part-time residents.  The price of admission is substantial, but for those with trust funds, hedge funds or enough mutual funds, it is worth a look.
    For information, contact Lisa Andrews at 1-877-735-8367, or LAndrews@fordplantation.com.  Web site:  http://www.fordplantation.com

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[where:  31324] 

    The internet and low-fee brokers have put a bit of a scare into traditional real estate brokers over the last few years.  Now the big name brokers are fighting back with creative techniques quite unusual for the former "protected" class.  Good for them...and those of us hoping to sell a house in the coming years.
    We first learned about the new approach from C.B. Johnson, our real estate contact in Wilmington, NC.  Johnson, who leads the Fine Coastal Living Team under the Keller-Williams banner, recently introduced his "No Strings" listing program .  Its most attention-getting feature is a 0% commission if you sell your home before he does.  How can he do it?
    "I know I will sell it faster than the owners will," says Johnson, "because I won't take an overpriced listing."  If the owner lists with Johnson, sells the home before he does but wants the Jonhson team to write and process the contract, the fee is just 1%.  If the owner lists a home with Fine Coastal Living and the team procures the buyer, then the commission is 4%, a couple of points below the customary commission rate.  If some agency other than Fine Coastal finds the buyer, the commission is 6% total.
    Almost as impressive is that the homeowner may cancel the listing at any time.  All it takes is a phone call and two days to yank the listing from the Multiple List Service.
    The idea is not unique, although not yet widespread.  Bruce Hardie, an agent in Spokane, WA, offers an identical service called the "Hassle Free Listing."
    Whether hassle free or no strings attached, look for this kind of creativity to spread.  Lucky us.
   
Saturday, 24 February 2007 18:00

Quote of the Day: No thanks

"They put in PGA-type bunkers (sand traps).  Look, the average age of the golfer here is 78. The average handicap is 20 or above. We're not good golfers..." 
-- 73 year old John Reppert, a golf-playing resident of Rossmoor, a Walnut Creek, CA, "active retirement" community.  Developers spent $2 million on golf course improvements only to find some of its members quit because the course was too difficult.  (Source:  The San Francisco Chronicle)
    Given that an aging population puts stress on a state's ability to provide services, and that the converse is probably true -- that a state with more young persons is less burdensome and more vibrant -- we thought we'd take a look at the 2000 U.S. Census data of populations in those states that have significant inflows of retirees.  Here they are:


                                    Age by states

                           %65+        <18            18 to 65

Arizona             12.8            26.6            60.6

Florida              17.6            22.9            59.5

No. Carolina    12.1            24.7            63.2

So. Carolina     12.6            24.1            63.3

Georgia               9.6            26.0            64.4

Virginia              11.4            24.1            64.5

Tennessee        12.6            23.3            64.1

Alabama            13.2            23.9            62.9

Texas                   9.9            27.7            62.4

Nevada              11.3            25.7            63.0
    An article we are writing about Porters Neck Plantation Country Club in Wilmington, NC, and one we received in an email from our friends at Golf Vacation Insider got us thinking about the true definition of a private club.
    Porters Neck, which has been available for public play for a few decades, recently raised its greens fees by about 60% to over $100 and its initiation fees for new members to $30,000.  Last year, the members commissioned more than $1 million of work on the Tom Fazio golf course and added two tennis courts.  The club is also in its second go-round with Creative Golf Marketing, a firm that specializes in raising the membership rolls at private clubs (Porters Neck has even enrolled in CGM's 180-course "Private Club Network," which provides access to all the courses for members of clubs in the network).  Put all that together and the club is signalling its intention to be members-only.  Yet when asked if they plan to go private, Porters Neck officials say, “We’ve always been private.”  What they mean, they explain, is that they have always been “privately owned.”  Come on:  Private means members-only, not the opposite of municipally owned.
    The emailed article from Golf Vacation Insider describes how non-members can gain access to the “private” Gallery Club in Tucson where Tiger et al are competing in the Accenture Match Play Championship this weekend on the club’s South course (as we write this, Tiger has just lost to Nick O'Hern).  The North and South courses, according to GVC, alternate days when they are open to public play; in other words, on a day when the South is private, the North is public, and vice versa. That’s great for us golfers traveling in the Tucson area but, by definition, the club is not private.
    Like the word “unique” – how unique is very unique? -- privacy should never be qualified. That’s why we would outlaw the meaningless but ubiquitous term “semi-private” in favor of the more accurate “public access.”
    Of course, as always, we invite alternate views.  Just register or sign in and leave your comment here...on our semi-private blog site.
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