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    Today the golf course view.  Tomorrow the woods.  That could be the fate for some in the U.S. northeast, midwest and elsewhere who want to move south in the next few years but are determined to ride out the current real estate slalom and hang onto their primary homes.   
    PMI, the Private Mortgage Insurance Company, knows something about risk, and every year the company publishes a “risk index” which sizes up the potential for decline in major housing markets.  The latest index was released in late January.  Not surprisingly, the riskiest markets are on the west coast, with Sacramento leading the way with a 60.4% risk of declining home values.  The riskiest non-California market is the Nassau-Suffolk Counties area of Long Island, with a 60% risk factor.  Contrast that with the Charlotte, NC, area with a 9% decline potential, or San Antonio with a 7.5% risk.  That’s quite a spread for those considering moving south in a few years, and maybe it argues for taking your lumps now rather than later.
    Financial advisors are always preaching about conservative portfolios of investments as you approach or enter retirement.  The mantra is to reduce your risk, and being of a certain age ourselves, we can’t argue with that.  But it seems the same advice might apply to housing, no?
    Consider this.  Your home on Long Island (or wherever) is not appreciating and isn’t likely to for the next few years, according to many sources.  That gated golf community you’ve had your eye on in the Charleston area is appreciating at close to 10% annually and seems likely to continue to do so as more and more baby boomers head south.  How much risk do you want to take that next year your primary home may appreciate enough to keep up with the appreciation of the house you want to buy in a few years down south?  And if you are still waiting five years from now, will you have to settle for, say, a wooded view rather than a lake view?
    For the adventuresome, housing futures, which trade pretty much like stock market futures, may be an intermediate strategy, especially if you live in one of the 10 markets you can bet on (or against).  For more information, a simple Google search by the term "housing futures" will provide some information.
    In the spirit of full disclosure, we own shelter in Connecticut and, with one child three years from college, we have a convenient excuse not to take our own advice.  Out of impetuous dumb luck, we bought a condo near the coast in South Carolina seven years ago.  So we have some yang to go with the yin of a soft market in the Hartford area.  But three years from now, as empty nesters, the view from here will be very different.

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Photos by L. Gavrich
    You win some and lose some.  Castle Bay developer Randy Blanton apparently convinced the state transportation authority in North Carolina to build the Highway 17 bypass just on the other side of his property near Wilmington, rather than directly through it.  He had no such luck with the utility company whose high- tension poles and wires ruin the landscape on an otherwise visually interesting and playable links style layout.
     Blanton, we learned, had hired an architect from Raleigh to build the owner’s dream course, based on the Scottish links he had come to love on visits across the pond.  Not Scottish enough, it turned out, and Blanton decided to build it himself.  He included dramatic mounding on and around the fairways, mindful that the just-outside Wilmington location wasn’t exactly the old sod.  Not too many pot bunkers, but the greens are large, fast and quite undulating and we found them in fine condition.  Fortunate not to wind up above any pin positions, we nevertheless dropped a few at the back of the greens and couldn’t hold them within 10 feet of the cup.  Like a true links course, trees are few, although they do frame the backdrops (unfortunately houses do as well, but thankfully not on every hole).
    We had a true links experience on a cold November day.  The wind blew hard, gusting to 30 mph at times; we gave up on keeping the cigar lit by the second tee.  On one of the par 3s, which looked pretty routine to us, we left three straight shots short of the green; unfortunately there was a pond in front.  Castle Bay looks gentle, but when the wind blows, it is anything but.  There is also enough well placed water on the course that, even when gentle zephyrs blow, a hook or slice can blow your round.  100_1119.JPG
    Okay, now for the bad stuff.  The course is overrun with high-tension wires that are everywhere, marring every view it seems and turning every opportunity to fantasize your way across the pond into disappointment.  If ever we wished for underground utilities, this was it.  And on a few holes, closely packed houses were lined up along the edge of the fairway, but at a safe enough distance across a stream.  The ridiculously reasonable greens fees –- less than $50 when we played –- offered slight compensation.  We left Castle Bay thinking more about what could have been than what was.  Still, if you are in the area of Hampstead, NC, stop by.  If you keep your head down –- before, during and after your swing – you’ll have a great round.
    Note about the housing:  Randy Blanton and his fellow developers originally offered seven basic models of houses between 2,400 and 2,600 square feet.  When early purchasers  opted for just two of them, they reduced the portfolio to just the two, one four bedrooms and one five, both with three baths.  The master suites are good sized, but the other bedrooms are smallish.  Both models have room for an office.  They don’t have formal dining rooms, but there is the capacity to redo the walls to build a formal dining area.  Every home has a view of the golf course.  Prices run from just below $400,000 and up depending on whether you order transom windows and other flourishes. Lots, which are not sold without a house on them, are no larger than 1/3 acre, and that gives the community a somewhat high-density feel.
    Castle Bay is located in Hampstead, NC.  For information about Castle Bay real estate, contact Susan Jarman at susan@susanjarman.com or (910) 313-0004.  For the golf course, contact (910) 270-1247.

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    "We can...come up with cooler, more advanced products that will satisfy [subscribers] more."  ---  Mel Karmazin, Sirius Satellite chief executive, predicting consumer benefits from the proposed merger of equals with XM Satellite Radio (Wall Street Journal, A1, today).

    We are dedicated XM subscribers, and on those long drives through the south, XM is a great companion at every hour of the day (what a treat to listen to live Major League Baseball from the west coast at 1 a.m.).  Neither XM nor Sirius was likely to survive without a merger, and yet getting past the regulators will be tough.  We're pulling for them; if nothing else, perhaps the new company can push the PGA to put better announcers on the golf coverage (Channel 146 on XM).  Golf was not designed for radio coverage, to be sure, but they can do a lot better on the pauses between shots than the constant fawning over Tiger Woods. 
    Of course, we should always be careful what we wish for...
    Before our college visit to Sewanee, TN, last week, the University of the South warned us not to rely on our cell phones for communication, indicating that service in the town was “spotty.”  It reminded us of visits to dozens of golf course communities where, indeed, service was often unreliable.  We had no problem with service in Sewanee, but we did speak with others who could not raise a signal with Verizon and the other services (we use Cingular).  Advice:  If you are a big user of your cell phone, make sure you add that to your list of criteria when you check out a potential place to live.

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Residents complained about poor cell phone service at The Cliffs at Glassy in rural South Carolina (35 minutes from Greenville).  Developer Jim Anthony responded by putting a cell tower in a flagpole at the very top of the 3/4 mile high community.  (photo by L. Gavrich)
Sunday, 18 February 2007 23:00

Amelia Island and north of Jacksonville

    We will be visiting Osprey Cove (Georgia), North Hampton and Queens Harbour (north of Jacksonville, FL) and Amelia Island the first week of March and selected communities north of Myrtle Beach later in the month.  If you have comments or suggestions for us in advance of these trips, please let us know.

    Tom Fazio is one of our favorite designers, but it seems some of his otherwise sleek layouts are marred by too much fairway detritus.  We played the fine Porters Neck in Wilmington, NC last month.  At 100 yards from some greens, we were disappointed to find wooden stanchions that held two containers of grass seed and sand (see photo below).  They marred an otherwise nice landscape.  To make matters worse, these center-of-fairway posts included an exit sign to direct carts to leave the fairway.  At the phenomenal Cliffs at Keowee Vineyard course in southwestern South Carolina, yardage poles were plunked down at mid-fairway 150 and 100 yards from the green (we played there a year ago).   Director of Golf Dick Grout told us he had spoken with Fazio about the posts but the designer had indicated if they speeded up play, he had no problem with them interrupting his canvas.
    We do.  We suppose there is some rationale for resort and daily fee courses to speed play with these guideposts (although we prefer ours at the edges of the fairways).  But they have no business at private clubs.  Private club members know their courses; getting proper distances should be easy and quick.  How tough is it to find one of those sprinkler heads with accurate distances to front, back and middle of the green, especially when you have played the hole many times?  Second, every golf cart we've used in the last few years has two containers of sand and seed mixture (with fill-up stations around the course).  In the southeast, except during periods of extreme rainfall, carts are permitted on fairways, which means you take a divot, you walk five yards to your cart, you grab the seed container, you sprinkle the divot and drive to your next shot.  How hard is that?
    As for the exit signs 100 yards from the green, anyone stupid enough to drive their carts within a few yards of the green won't be deterred by a sign.  If private club owners are worried about that, they might as well replace the word "Exit" with the words "The End of the World is Near."

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Like a dart thrown at the Mona Lisa, it should be against the law to plant wooden posts in the middle of fairways.

Saturday, 17 February 2007 18:00

What a lot: Paying for serenity

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Photo by L. Gavrich
    Some of us are old enough (or skeptical enough) to have figured out that what seems too good to be true usually is.  Yesterday I received an email listing for a beautiful piece of property on Daufuskie Island, in the wonderful Haig Point community.  Daufuskie Island is in Georgia but closest to Hilton Head Island, SC, and is reached only by ferry (unless you own a helicopter).  With a view of an island green at the excellent Rees Jones Haig Point golf course, the property is listed at just $199,000 and includes full equity membership in the 27-hole club (a $65,000 value). You won’t find any lot on such a high-quality golf course in the southeast for a lower price.
    But the low lot price is tempered by the cost of construction in a community where all materials and labor must be shipped in.  Count on two to three times the costs of constructing on the mainland, which means 3,000 square feet for over $1 million.  And property owner and club dues combined are on the high end, over $10,000 annually. 
    Still, if you can afford it and want to leave your car and the hectic life behind, Haig Point is definitely worth a look.  The living is easy and the excellent golf at Haig Point is supplemented by two outstanding courses at the Daufuskie Island Resort.
    If you’d like an introduction to a real estate firm that knows the island, its real estate and golf courses, let us know by clicking here.
    We came across an interesting three-year old study that proposes that Jack Nicklaus golf courses are the most valuable of all.  We doubt that has changed over time, based on our own observations of house prices in the golf communities we've visited.  Homes in communities that sport a Nicklaus-designed course are almost always priced higher than comparable communities bearing other architects' names.   And if you believe, as we do, that homes in communities with a well-perceived golf course appreciate faster -- all other things being equal -- then factoring in the designer's name with other considerations is important.
    The study, by the UK-based Golf Research Group, focused on the value of Gary Player’s name but ranked other major architects in terms of their net present value (NPV) in 2003. Nicklaus, who has designed well over 100 courses in the U.S. and almost 300 worldwide, easily outdistanced Player, who finished just ahead of two Toms, Fazio and Weiskopf.
    The rest of the 14 listed architects included, in order, Jay Moorish, Pete Dye, Greg Norman, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Rees Jones, Jim Fazio, P.B. Dye, Arnold Palmer, Robert Cupp and Arthur Hills (one of our favorites).
    You can read the full report by clicking here.
    "When we get the figures for the spring, I expect to see a discernible improvement in both sales and prices."  -- David Lereah, chief hypemaster (er, economist) for the National Association of Realtors, responding to his organization's report yesterday that home prices had dropped in nearly half the metro districts it surveys.

    If there was a way to short the real estate market every time Lereah says "the end (of the bottom) is near," we'd be rich.  His supporters at the NAR can take heart, however.  Someday, the market will reach its bottom, and the hypemaster will be right.

   
Thursday, 15 February 2007 18:00

CEO plays poorly on, off course

    Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally took a beating yesterday in the Detroit Free Press and elsewhere for having putted while Ford burns.  Five days before Ford announced a mind-boggling loss of $12.7 billion for last year, Mulally was playing golf at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.  Two weeks after the announced loss, he played in the pro-am at Pebble Beach.
    As you might imagine, Ford workers, their friends and neighbors are miffed, to say the least.  But Mulally is not without his supporters, according to the Free Press.  Tour player Len Mattiace, Mulally's partner for three rounds at Pebble Beach, probably won't endear himself to the thousands of Ford workers afraid for their jobs.  Of Mulally's time at the tournament, Free Press columnist Carlos Monarrez wrote, Mattiace said:  "I can tell you there's no downside to him being there.  There is a lot of networking. All the CEOs of major companies are there. And I know when he's off the golf course, he's spending a lot of time with all these other CEOs, and I think it's smart of him and it's great for the company for him to be there."
    On the course was a different matter.  Said Mattiace of Mulally's play:  "...he certainly didn't play like knockout golf, you know?"  Must have had something on his mind.
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