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    FindYourSpot.com and BestPlaces.net purport to help you find the retirement or second-home location that best suits your preferences.  These are good resources as far as they go, which is to say they go about as far as they can without any human involvement.
    Both sites take you through a step-by-step questionnaire that covers all the important categories you will consider when looking for a city or town.  Most of the usual suspects are there:  cost of living, crime, climate, housing values, transportation, religion and schools.  FindYourSpot includes more specific additional questions about recreational and cultural issues.
    Flaws are abundant.  For example, when you plug in the name of the city you are considering  (or its zip code) and then search BestPlaces’ transportation category, you get data for the city compared against the U.S. average, which strikes us as pretty much irrelevant.  And do we care as much about average commute time (included) as we do, say, the distance to the nearest commercial airport?  There is no mention of the latter at BestPlaces.  In the education category, should we care as much about the number of students for each librarian as we do about the number of continuing education courses that are offered in the area?
    Although BestPlaces asks you to indicate your preferences, we prefer FindYourSpot 's more peronal approach (a little humor here and there).  It asks a longer list of questions than does BestPlaces and produces a longer list of towns that FindYourSpot thinks are right for you.
    It makes for some fairly bizarre results, and shows that these services lack a whole lot of nuance.  My wife and I separately filled out the FindYourSpot questionnaire.  We both enjoy our second home on the South Carolina coast, and our responses reflected that (we thought), although my responses indicated I would enjoy living in the mountains as well.  I emphasized golf, continuing education, access to an airport and the desire for culture and entertainment activities nearby.  My wife, besides stressing a coastal location with an emphasis on access to beaches, highlighted an interest in museums and orchestras, as well as access to an airport, continuing ed and many of the things I stressed.  She is not a golfer and ranked it way lower than I did.
    Her top results:  New York City, Boston and San Francisco.  Mine:  Two towns in the Texas Hill Country and one in rural Louisiana.  We’ve had a good chuckle over what might be a compromise location, and who might get the kids.
    You won’t make any decisions on where to live based on these sites, but a few minutes on either one might give you something to talk about.

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Golf Course Review 

    Until recently, I had never heard of the University of the South at Sewanee in Tennessee, let alone that it had a well-regarded nine hole golf course.  But the prodigal son was granted admission to the school after the recommendation to apply by his college counselor, and so we thought we should take a look,  He insisted on bringing his clubs, albeit for one day.  He had read that the university owned Sewanee Golf Club was a quirky classic.
    The course is about 50 years old, a nine hole track featured in the new book "To the Nines" by Anthony Prioppi that features the best half courses in the land.  Sewanee Golf Club is proof positive that a course does not need an abundance of hazards -- water or sand -- to make it challenging and fun.  We counted a half dozen or so traps and a lake that was more window dressing than hazard.  The land is the thing at Sewanee, whose terrain swoops and swerves; and although the uncut greens were reading somewhere around 20 on the stimpmeter, we still needed to be careful when we were above the hole, such was the severe sloping.  Short yardage holes were more than compensated by quirky green complexes.  Our favorite, in a perverse way, was the 159 yard par 3 4th (which also played to 164 as the 13th; Sewanee moves the tees around on the second nine); it had easily the smallest width to length ratio of any green we have played.  At its widest, the green measured about 25 feet, with a sand bunker guarding the first half of the left side.  The green ran front to back at least 100 feet, and behind it was a neat view of the Cumberland Valley below. (I'll post a photo of the green when I return home).
    Sewanee Golf Club is minimalist in more than its number of holes.  The pro shop is spare and multi-purpose; the same person who sells you a hat or sleeve of golf balls will also fetch you a hot dog.  I had decided to leave my clubs at home in a not-so-coy attempt to duck a round of golf in 40-degree weather.  I asked benignly about rental clubs, and the young lady behind the counter told me,"Sir, we don't rent clubs, we loan them" at no charge.  She sent me around the corner to take my pick of the dozen available sets, a collection so motley that it made my few hairs hurt.  I chose a bag quickly -- too quickly -- and learned later that I had two pitching wedges, two nine irons -- one left handed -- and a five wood with a head smaller than the hybrid I left at home.  I had no sand wedge, no six or eight irons.  This was also the first time I hit a wooden club, the driver, in more than 20 years.  I guess this is known as golf the way it is meant to be played, old clubs on an old style course.  I was pleased I broke 90, with an 88.  Tim mixed a few double bogies with a few birdies and scored a nice 75.  His length off the tee helped a lot on the 6,100 layout.  A modern, matched set of clubs didn't hurt either.
    You won't find any houses on Sewanee Golf Club, but prices in the area bespeak the town's distance from any city of consequence (90 minutes from Nashville, 60 from Chattanooga).  We smiled to see an almost 1,000 square foot house near the college listed at under $100,000.  We didn't think any of those were left anywhere in the land.  The town is all university; that is, the university owns all 10,000 acres in the town, the second largest "campus" in the nation.  Professors attend classes in robes (the academic kind, not terry cloth) and most students still adhere to the tradition of natty attire in class (coat and tie for men, dresses for the young ladies).  Some might say college the way it was meant to be played.

    We reported in yesterday's post about the vibe at the Live South show in Greenwich, CT (the show ends at 5 p.m. today, Sunday).  Here are a few additional notes we took during our tour of the show:

  • Live South founder Dave Robertson shared some of his organization's research that indicates golf is hot again, ranking second -- behind walking -- as the most desired activity for those contemplating a move south (55% of respondents attending Live South show included golf on their list).  Tennis and swimming also showed impressive gains in interest.  31% indicated a preference for a gated community, a significant increase from pre-9/11 levels.
  • During his seminar called "How to Choose the Right Place," Robertson indicated there is an average of 7.3 months of housing inventory in the south, below the historic lows of 10% back in the 1990s.  We have no reason to dispute the number but, like politics, all real estate is local, and averages mislead.  In Wilmington, Robertson's hometown, real estate brokers tell us the inventory is at 15%.  A range of inventories is a more helpful figure than an average.
  • Robertson indicated that most new homes in the south are in the 1,800 to 2,500 square foot category but that two master suites has become the rage, the better to accommodate kids and grandkids.  On the other hand, he told the amusing tale of the couple who decided to move into an age-restricted community largely so they could unburden themselves of a 35-year-old son who lived at home.
  • Soft housing market be damned.  The marketing folks we talked with at the show booths said they haven't seen any price erosion in their communities, although they acknowledged that inventories of unsold homes were up.  The representative from a construction company confirmed the same from the builder's side (slower sales but no price erosion).  We were especially impressed with the number of brand new communities touting their wares at the show.  Since they opened last fall, three of them said they had sold more than 120 home sites each.
    On a large buffet table, everything looks good if you are hungry.  But you just don’t have the time or stomach to taste everything.  You take a piece of this, a piece of that and move on.
    So it is with trade shows and, especially, with a real estate trade show where every booth sports large and wonderfully colorful displays and is hosted by well scrubbed salespeople eager to fill you up with sweet and savory dreams of a beautiful life.  Choose well, and you can make a nice meal of it.
    We made a swing through the Live South Real Estate Show in Greenwich, CT, yesterday evening and found much to recommend to those who want to do some preliminary one-stop shopping for a southern community.  The show runs through Sunday, with three more weekend shows scheduled for Boston, Detroit and Cleveland (see LiveSouth.com for the schedule).
    Be mindful that the 60 exhibitors represent a nice selection, but are far from a totally representative sample.  It appeared to us that the communities at the show were in the middle of the pack in terms of price points.  We spoke with some agents about lots that began as low as $35,000 and others where they started north of $200,000.   The big guys, the ones with huge marketing budgets like the Cliffs Communities and Ford Plantation, were absent.  
    A number of new communities were there.  We had good conversations with representatives from Queens Gap, east of Asheville, NC., which will include a Jack Nicklaus signature course, and Cutter Creek, another new community located near Greenville, NC.
    Exhibitors pay $5,000 and more to display their wares to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people over the course of a weekend.  It is money well spent, one exhibitor told us.
    “We do about 25% of our business from these shows,” he says, adding that he and his colleagues in their South Carolina golf community close deals with about 20% of those who visit the property.
    The Live South shows are a great way for people just beginning to look for a southern home to get a good sampling of what is available.  Yes, every place looks like paradise from this side of the booth and, as Live South founder Dave Robertson advises, you should the amenities and location you want and then go visit before you make any commitment.  And we would add one further piece of advice, almost as obvious as the aforementioned:  If you can afford it, live in your chosen place for a month or two before you buy.  There are nuances of living in a community that you won’t discover during the “Discovery Weekend” packages most communities offer.
    One final note:  Make sure your mailbox is large enough to handle the avalanche of material you will receive in the weeks after the show. 
We have done a quick survey of a few homes for sale in some of the best golf communities nationwide.  For an apples-to-apples comparison, we looked at houses of about 2,500 to 3,000 square feet with a golf course view.  Here's what we found:

                                                                                         
Community, Location                          Architect              List $

Ford Plantation, Richmond, GA         P. Dye                 1.5M

Cliiffs at Keowee, Keowee, SC          T. Fazio              800K

Mount Vintage, Aiken, SC                   T. Jackson         650K

Superstition Mountain, Phoenix         J. Nicklaus         899K

Governor's Club, Chapel Hill              J. Nicklaus         599K

Pawleys Plantation, SC                       J. Nicklaus         570K

Tennessee National, Loudon, TN      G. Norman         590K

    Most friendly golf matches among strangers are won and lost on the first tee, before a shot is struck.  It is all in the negotiation of terms and handicaps. Rule #1 in the negotiation process:  Don’t ever give an opponent a stroke on any par 3s, let alone all of them, no matter his age or physical condition.
    I violated Rule #1 at Porters Neck Country Club just outside Wilmington in January.  My young host (35 years old; everything’s relative) had arranged to round out our group with two friendly retirees, Rick and Gary.  No sooner had we shaken hands than Rick asked, “How about a game of Wolf?” Rick’s eagerness sent up all sorts of warning signals, but I was the guest, and it would have been impertinent to decline the invitation.  I figured my host had his own radar working, but maybe his ability to drive a ball 300 yards and straight gave him a strong sense of confidence (his 18 handicap didn’t hurt either, compared with my 10).  He accepted the challenge, and the game was on.  Only after handicaps were exchanged did I realize I might be doomed; Rick was a 27 and Gary a 30, meaning Rick would get a stroke from me on every hole but one par 3, and Gary would actually double up on three holes.  Worse, I learned just before we teed off that Rick was a financial planner in his working days and rarely finished out of the money in club tournaments.  This was going to be tough.
    For the uninitiated, the rules of Wolf offer an opportunity to the lowest handicap to make wise choices and overcome bad play.  Indeed, Wolf is a game of choice and chance, and if you choose wisely, it almost doesn’t matter how you play.  Almost.
    Here’s how the game works.  On the first tee, the group decides the tee-off order for the entire round.  Player A drives first on holes 1, 5, 9, 13, and 17; player B on holes 2, 6, 10, 14 and 18…and so on for the others.  The first one to drive, the Wolf, has a choice after he tees off:  He may either decide to go it alone – that is, take on all three other players on the hole – or wait.  If he goes it alone, he must win the hole from all; a tie is a loss.  As each successive player tees off, the Wolf can decide on his partner for the hole.  But he must choose his partner before the following player tees off, so there is much chin stroking on each tee box…
    …and much opportunity for miscalculation.  I guessed wrong virtually every time.  Gary, a “strong” 30 handicap who would make a great member/guest partner, sent his tee ball down the fairway a good 200 yards a few times when I was the Wolf, once on a par 4 where he was receiving two strokes.  “Gary, you’re my man,” I declared confidently, knowing he was in the middle of the fairway in minus one.  My man then grounded three fairway iron shots, sent a chip shot over the green and missed a five footer coming back that would have halved the hole.         
    And then there was Rick the financial planner.  He sank 20 foot putts to beat me and my partner a few times on the front nine.  He didn’t miss anything inside 12 feet all day, except once when he was my partner, and his chipping was unerring.  I chose him a few times on the back nine after he struck nice, middle of the fairway drives.  But you know how the mutual fund companies warn you that past performance is no predictor of future performance; his prior performance was no predictor when I was riding him. 
    At day’s end, I forked over my $5 to Gary and Rick.  As lessons go, it seemed a small price to pay.

Footnote:  Porters Neck in Wilmington, NC, is a terrific Tom Fazio layout that was totally refurbished a year ago in preparation for the club going private.  Every hole is a nice test, with typical Fazio bunkering in the fairways (which is to say they are large and in play for the longer hitters and just out of reach for those who play the shorter tees).  Bunkers at greenside have been brought closer to the putting surfaces, as Fazio originally designed them a couple of decades ago.   Condition of the course in January was excellent, indicating that in spring and summer it will be exquisite.  By summer, Porters Neck should be able to fill out its membership rolls and eliminate daily fee play.  They have raised the current rates for public play to north of $100 a round.  Initiation fees are $30,000.  For membership information, contact Leslie Hurley, membership director, at lhurley@portersneckcountryclub.com, or (910) 686-8164.


Porter's Neck
Porters Neck could go private by this coming summer.  The course is a fine example of Tom Fazio's work.

    In one colorful and interesting sitting, you can see why so many golfers choose to spend their vacations and retirement years in the Carolinas.  A small panel of experienced golf writers and players have posted their consensus choices of their favorite 18 holes at the CarolinaLiving web site.  Although favorite anything can be a matter of great subjectivity, we think the panel generally got it right.  We've played many of the courses whose holes they salute, and there isn't a clunker among them. 
    If anything, there may be a sin of omission or two.  The panel selected no representative holes from Harbour Town, Governor's Club or Old Chatham (in the Chapel Hill area), Wade Hampton (Cashiers), Caledonia or Pawleys Plantation (Pawleys Island) or myriad other viable candidates.  It was a tough task, and we don't envy the challenge.  Wait a minute; we do envy the challenge; they must have played all those great golf courses they did select. 
    Take a look for yourself by clicking here or by visiting CarolinaLiving.com.

    “If hordes of inexperienced [real estate] agents are scrapping for business…that can only lead to a ‘race to the bottom in fees.’”
    -- Christopher Galler, SVP of Minnesota Assn. of Realtors, Wall Street Journal, Page B6, 2/7/07.
    No surprise:  Mr. Galler adds that competitive commissions are not good for consumers and that they will result in poor service.  More productive agents, he argues, are better at “solving problems.” 
    The article indicates the total number of agents nationwide reached a peak last year at 1.4 million but their ranks will drop between 6% and 8% this year.  A former golf pro who gave up the links to sell houses is featured.  He recently left the real estate business to take up a new profession, training dogs.

    Business 2.0, one of the few magazines dedicated to the internet that stuck after the dot com bust, has published a list of cities where they think bargains can be had in real estate.  As longtime fans of baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers all the way back to the team's Brooklyn days, we found our interest piqued by the magazine's second choice.  It's Vero Beach, FL, where for more than half a century the Boys of Summer have honed their skills in the pre-season.
    Alas, sadly, soon no more.  The Dodgers are pulling up stakes after 2008 and moving their spring training facilities west to join every other west coast team in the springtime.  Dodgertown, long known as one of the best, if not the best, training facilities in baseball, is for sale.  The complex includes a modest nine-hole course, but across the street is an 18-holer, Dodger Pines, that includes a major league 600+ yard par 5.  Former Dodger great Maury Wills learned to play golf at Dodgertown; it was the only course in the area that permitted access to African-Americans.
    It will be a sad day in 2008 when spring training ends in Vero Beach.
    For a list of Business 2.0's top cities for real estate now, see http://money.cnn.com/magazines/business2/

Sunday, 04 February 2007 18:00

Love grows: Most romantic towns for retirees

    According to Dr. Warren Bland, one of the most-quoted authorities on retirement destinations, some cities have more “romantic” qualities than others.  In an article in the Feb. 2 issue of “Retirement Weekly,” an online publication from MarketWatch.com, Bland includes two of our favorite areas on hist list, Savannah and Charleston, numbers 8 and 9, respectively.  The only other southeastern city to make the top 10 is Naples, FL, giving rise to the notion that couples in that vastly overheated real estate market are not arguing about whether they should have cashed in a year ago.  Las Vegas, with much the same real estate problem as Naples, rates a #4 ranking on the romantic cities list.  It must be all those Wayne Newton concerts.
    Bland rates Ashland, OR, as the most romantic city in the nation for retirees.  Home to Oregon’s respected Shakespeare Festival, the remote Ashland certainly provides a nice setting for Romeo and Juliet, although we recall that story didn't end so well.  Ashland's climate is terrific, and perhaps Midsummer's Night Dream is more appropriate.
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