I suppose we might have David Letterman’s widely regarded and oft-quoted “Top 10 Lists” to blame for the profusion of “best of” lists. But at least Letterman’s lists were funny. There is nothing funny about Where to Retire magazine’s annual “50 Best Master-Planned Communities in the U.S.” issue.
In this year’s July/August edition, the magazine’s editor, Annette Fuller, writes that the issue is “guaranteed to bring you many fruitful hours of contemplation.” My minutes of contemplation included checking Where to Retire’s top 50 choices against the paid ads inside the same issue. Marketing to potential buyers certainly doesn’t disqualify a community from a designation of excellence, but it does call into question how the magazine goes about choosing its Top 50.
No Science Involved
At least Where to Retire makes no claim of science behind its selections; they simply say they were the editors’ choices. (No doubt the advertising director had some input.) And the only apparent research done on the communities was after they were chosen, when a Where to Retire senior writer “spoke with residents at each of our 50 winning communities [and] heard a lot of glowing reports.” Duh. Consider if the mainstream media announced that it checked with its sources only after it published an important story. (Consider also if a resident did not present a “glowing report” to Where to Retire; would it have made the publication?)
You might say that, like the Letterman lists, no one takes the Where to Retire rankings too seriously. But that is not so. The magazine’s circulation is around 200,000, and it is sold in bookstores, like Barnes & Noble, and by subscription to thousands of couples in search of a retirement community. Unwary and trusting readers could very well look at Where to Retire’s helpful cost of living chart that compares cities across the country and conclude that the rest of magazine is objective. It isn’t, at least not in the July/August issue.
Many deserving high-quality communities do not make the Top 50 list in Where to Retire; I won’t list even a few of them here because, well, that would be employing my own biases. Suffice to say that of the Top 50 communities listed in the July/August edition, I counted a couple dozen who advertised in that very issue, and others I recognized from past issues. My advice may be free –- contact me if you are searching for a golf home –- but at least I do not accept a marketing fee from any communities I recommend.
No Established Communities Considered
Lacking any objective criteria for its selections, and the obvious large number of worthy communities left off the list, the magazine’s choices are suspect. The editors explain those choices, in a manner of speaking, in a response to a letter from a reader who asks why they don’t “publicize” more communities than those that are “developer owned.”
“We cover more closely locales where thousands of retirees are going,” the editors respond.
Seriously? That implies retirees don’t buy resale homes by the thousands in the many already developed communities across the country. Developer-owned communities, of course, spend more on marketing to get noticed and to sell their properties. Established communities don’t typically have the discretionary budgets to take out a full-page ad for a few thousand dollars in a retirement magazine. In their response to the letter writer, the Where to Retire editors imply that if thousands of retirees are moving to new communities, then they are not moving to established communities, a notion that is demonstrably false yet may be disorienting to some retirees searching for the best possible community.
Pay to Play
Where to Retire, which claims to be “The Authority on Retirement Relocation,” could be a guiding light for couples looking for the best place to retire. But true guidance requires objectivity. By promoting almost exclusively in its editorial content the communities that advertise in the magazine, and by ignoring the benefits to retirees of well-established, built-out and financially stable communities, Where to Retire does not live up to its claim of authority.
A more accurate title for this annual list would be “50 Best Master Planned Communities that Advertise in Our Magazine.”
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I subscribe to Google Alerts for mentions of golf communities and related terms, and so I am treated to a daily stream of stories from media around the world. A fair percentage of the topics have to do with failing golf courses, and it is sad to contemplate what that means for those who own properties in those communities.
There are a few different types of owners of golf community clubs. The most secure, generally, are the property owners themselves. If a golf course owned by residents fails, they have only themselves to blame. (I have visited a few communities in which there is friction between residents who are club members and residents who believe the club members get special privileges. My advice to those non-golf member residents who might feel that way is to tread lightly; the values of your homes are tied closely to the health of the country club.)
A developer of a golf community typically owns the golf course and associated amenities but offers it for sale eventually to residents when the community is substantially sold out of properties. In some cases, the original covenants indicate that the club must be offered to residents at a certain time and, sometimes, at a pre-stipulated price. In other cases, the developer will simply begin negotiations with the residents and if they break down, will look to sell it to an outside firm. In a few cases, the developer will keep the course and either manage it himself or herself or hire a management firm to run it.
These latter situations are the ones that, most of the time, can devolve into chaos through mismanagement. Given all the horror stories I have read about golf courses going under, my advice to anyone who lives in a golf community in which the signs point to mismanagement, try to rally your fellow members together as soon as possible in the process and see if there is a way to take over the club from the owner. This could involve a pooling of resources to buy out the owner, or a visit to a local bank to see if a purchase loan to the community is possible.
I know; your first instinct is to recoil in horror at the thought of spending money to “own” a golf club that someone else couldn’t run. But consider that the golf course at the heart of your community is abandoned or taken over by the bank or, if permitted by local covenants, sold to a developer to turn into 150 acres of new homes. That could erode the value of your home substantially, especially if the golf course becomes an eyesore. Let us say, for the sake of argument, your home is worth $300,000 today. An adjacent white elephant golf course could cause it to lose 10%, 20% or even more of its value. Suddenly a modest investment by each of a few hundred residents doesn’t seem like the worst type of protection money.
Let us hope it never comes to this but for those currently living in a golf community, keep a close eye on the operation of your golf club and if trouble seems to be brewing, don’t wait for things to go south. And if you are looking to relocate to a golf community, don’t ignore those communities that “bundle” golf course membership with the purchase of your home. Yes, you are obligated to pay monthly dues, but since is everyone else has the same obligation, you can be confident that, barring outright embezzlement, your club will have enough ongoing revenue to survive and thrive. In other cases, find out who owns the country club and make sure they have the reserves and the experience to make it work.
If you would like to read about some communities facing problems with their golf courses, here are some links:
There are many ways to skin a cat but really just one way to make a search for a golf community home efficient and successful. Follow these few steps and you are on your way to find a golf home that matches your requirements.
Okay, you like the mountains and your spouse likes the coast. Do you really think you are going to resolve that particular issue by looking at golf communities in the western mountains of North Carolina and in Myrtle Beach? Unless you have the budget and the desire to own homes in both geographies, you are going to have to settle on one.
A compromise is necessary to keep your search from taking years. Let’s say one spouse doesn’t play golf and wants to be near the beach, and the other, who prefers mountains, is an avid golfer, the more courses to play the better. Perhaps the compromise here is to identify a coastal community with a beach a few minutes outside its gates and more than 18 holes of excellent golf within. St. James Plantation in Southport, NC, Landfall in Wilmington, NC, and the Barefoot Resort in Myrtle Beach all come to mind (others too). Or for the ultimate in compromise, where each gives a little, the choice could be a lakeside golf community, like Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, Keowee Key near Clemson, SC, or one of the fine communities along Lake Norman north of Charlotte. One spouse gets the water view and the ability to loll by the lake, and the other gets the golf. And as a bonus, many of these inland golf communities in the Carolinas and Georgia are just a couple of hours from beach and mountains.
I have conducted searches in which the clients wanted to see an endless stream of golf community homes that matched their specs rather than the details on the golf communities themselves. This is a classic case of making perfect the enemy of good. The fact is that, except for golf communities with a limited number of properties, most people will find the home they are looking for in any golf community (or at least a home that, with a little cosmetic updating, will match their preferences). If you choose the perfect home in what turns out to be an imperfect (for you) community, you will be miserable. After all, the choice to live amongst other people implies a desire for a social life. Focus on that before you focus on the house you want.
Let’s say you have found an area that is right for you, and you have narrowed the search down to two local golf communities. At any one moment, a golf community typically has between 8% and 10% of its homes for sale, although inventories have tightened up recently. In a medium to large community, that means 80 to 200 properties on the market. You will have plenty of choices.
Since you have targeted a golf community, the quality and costs of the golf course and club should be a top priority for consideration. You probably wouldn’t buy a car without driving the model you wanted; it stands to reason that you should always play your future golf course at least once to ensure it suits your eye and your game. Have lunch or dinner in the clubhouse as well, preferably with a couple of members. Check out the other amenities; okay, you don’t have to swim in the pool or walk the treadmill to assess those, but you do want to know that the pool is big enough to handle the crowds and not overrun with screaming children –- unless you like happily noisy children at your pool –- and that the fitness center has the particular machines you like to use -- and enough of them.
If you are down to a choice of two communities and have no clear preference for either one, then consider yourself lucky. You can just start searching for the best home in both of them.
That subheading is a bad attempt to communicate that a focus on one small element –- like a fireplace -– can derail an otherwise efficient search for a golf community home. In many locations in the Southeast, especially the warm ones near the coast, such an add-on is unnecessary and, frankly, a little weird. (It is kind of like maintaining an outdoor swimming pool in Alaska.) Some northerners used to a basement in their homes may be surprised and dismayed to find that the soil in many parts of the region does not support an underground room. Focus on that particular element of a home near the coast, and you will be greatly disappointed.
Other elements of a search may limit the choices. Those wishing to be in a defined golf community close to a city will need to concentrate their searches in the Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Savannah areas. These are typically comparably pricier choices than similar golf communities more remotely located. You may need to make some compromises. For example, my wife and I typically like to go to the movies every few weeks, but from our home in Pawleys Island, SC, it is a good 50-minute round trip to the nearest cinemaplex. We don’t go to the movies except rarely when we stay in Pawleys, but we do have a Netflix subscription. One compensating factor, though, is that within four miles of our front gate, we have a choice of five supermarkets including a Fresh Market, a worthy competitor of Whole Foods. The warning here is that if you get hung up on one item on your wish list, you may be constrained in terms of choices. Flexibility is key to a successful search.
I’ve spent 10 years helping couples navigate the many choices in their search for a golf community home. The search can seem complicated, but it really doesn’t have to be. Contact me, and I will be happy to help you work through the options -– by the lake, in the mountains or by the shining sea.
I could have no trouble recommending enthusiastically most of the more than 150 golf communities I have visited and reviewed over the last 10 years. After all, developers don’t invest in a multimillion-dollar enterprise to fail, although some indisputably do a better job of development than others. To anyone or any couple interested in moving to a golf community but not sure of where that community should be, the choices are dizzying. If it is mandatory to be close to a city or be able to play multiple golf courses under one membership or enjoy mountain or ocean views from the golf course, then the choices narrow.
However, as I have found, each community is special in its own way, and those differences could make the difference between choosing one community over another. In the July issue of my free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course, I plan to include a list of communities that display “something special.” As a preview, here are a few that stand out. (Click here to subscribe to our free monthly newsletter.)
Those with even a passing knowledge of college basketball know that perennial powerhouse Duke is located in Durham, and that means Treyburn residents can take advantage of continuing education courses on one of the most beautiful campuses in America, as well as watching big-time collegiate athletics. Treyburn’s Tom Fazio golf course threads its way through the community, its sculpted fairways winding through trees and over streams and distracting attention from the homes beside the layout. But it is the club membership itself that makes Treyburn special, especially for serious golfers who don’t mind a little bit of travel to play some of the best layouts in the Southeast. That is because Treyburn is one of a dozen clubs in the McConnell Golf Group collection in which membership in one club confers privileges at the others, which range from the mountains (e.g. Asheville Country Club) to the coast (The Reserve at Pawleys Island). Nearby Raleigh Country Club, designed by the famous Donald Ross, and Hasentree, another Tom Fazio gem, are within a half-hour’s drive, essentially giving Treyburn members three top courses within easy reach for the reasonable price of one.
I don’t know of a community better suited to active adults than Wintergreen, which is both a resort and year-round residential community. The 45 holes of exceptional golf designed by Ellis Maples and Rees Jones are special enough, and the fact that a community geographically in the Southeast region maintains an active and popular ski operation just a couple of hours from Washington, D.C. qualifies as unique. But for me, the truly special aspect about Wintergreen is that, on any given day in January, you could very well ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon. That is because the Rees Jones 27 holes are located in the valley below the mountains and ski lifts, and when it is freezing at 3,500 feet it can be sweater weather down below on the golf course. This weather anomaly occurs just often enough to qualify Wintergreen for “special” status.
Back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the group of communities known as The Cliffs was the big gorilla among golf developments in the upstate area of South Carolina, and The Reserve was fighting for attention. Formed by a small group of local professionals with the good sense to call in a professional management team from startup, The Reserve boasts lots of special characteristics, such as its tournament ready Jack Nicklaus golf course, the crystal clear lake along its edge, and a large and comfortable craftsman style clubhouse atop a 200-yard lawn that sweeps down to the lake and community pools. But you have to be in The Reserve clubhouse on a cool autumn evening when Clemson University’s vaunted football team is playing an away game to understand the special spirit that happily infects the community. If it were a home game, many of The Reserve’s residents would make the 25-minute drive, but in the clubhouse when the Tigers are away, it might as well be a home game, given a boisterous crowd festooned in Tiger orange. Retiring couples from Syracuse, home of the Orangemen, should not consider tossing their shirts and pom poms before a move to The Reserve.
You know the saying “Idle hands are the devil's playground.” Apparently, 35 golf courses, plenty of other amenities and dozens of social clubs (aka taverns) are not enough to divert some residents at the gigantic, age-restricted Florida playground known as The Villages from a life of crime.
Earlier this week, area police raided a home at The Villages on a tip from a neighbor about a possible illicit drug operation. What they found, however, was not only a cache of methamphetamine and heroin, but also a golf cart chop shop. One of the five arrested said he had been stealing 30 golf carts per month. The arrests follow others a few months ago for golf cart thefts in The Villages.
The community, which is known for its inexpensive housing and high level of amenities, is growing at one of the fastest rates in the country, with well over 100,000 residents inside the boundaries. Television ads that feature the squeaky clean Arnold Palmer, may he rest in peace, and Nancy Lopez make The Villages seem a hotbed of activities and safety. But like cities of a similar size, and despite the fact the community is restricted to “mature” folks only (age 55+), The Villages has its issues that include theft as well as a staggeringly high percentage of socially transmitted diseases. You would think old folks would have the experience to protect themselves, as well as their golf carts, some of them valued at $25,000 and more. Apparently not.
The news about The Villages is in stark contrast to a stop my wife and I made 20 years ago to visit friends of my parents in a large Florida retirement community (no golf). The wife told us we could only stay for a couple of hours because the couple was headed to a concert on site early that evening and they needed to get there early to buy tickets.
“Aren’t you afraid they will be sold out?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “we can always buy a ticket from one of the residents.”
“A scalper?” I asked. “How much do tickets cost at the box office?”
“$2.50,” she responded.
“How much do they scalp them for?” I asked.
“We can usually get them for $3.00.”
Now that is not much of a living, but at least it’s an honest one.
You can read an amusing article about The Villages’ crime spree at Deadspin.
The main feature of this month’s edition of Home On The Course, our free monthly newsletter, identifies three golf communities currently listed for sale. Chances are that most of our readers don’t have access to the seven or eight figures it would take to scarf up one of these high-quality communities, but the point for those seeking a vacation or permanent home attached to great golf is that real estate in communities listed for sale tend to be a bargain. The three we highlight have something for everyone, including one on the coast, one in the mountains, and one near a medium-sized city with a major university.
The June edition of Home On The Course also features a rundown on the best golf community courses in North Carolina, courtesy of this year’s rankings by the state’s golf panel, a group of regular Joes who love golf and “subject” themselves to the rigors of taking mental notes as they play some of the finest layouts in the state. The top course is Pinehurst #2, the Coore/Crenshaw redo of the Donald Ross classic, but there are many other worthy golf community courses on the list.
The newsletter will email to subscribers in the next day or two, so please don’t miss out. Click here to sign up today.
A round of golf, especially if well played, can be an uplifting experience, and many of us consider a nicely laid out and manicured golf course a work of art. But if you are a golfer and a lover of fine art, there may be no better place to be uplifted than just off the 15-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 17 from Murrells Inlet to Georgetown, SC.
The area that comprises Murrells Inlet, Litchfield and Pawleys Island is one of the most densely populated with excellent golf courses of any similarly sized area in the nation, with 16 public courses and three private clubs (DeBordieu, The Reserve at Litchfield and Wachesaw Plantation) of Myrtle Beach’s 100-plus layouts. Because of the competition, deals abound, especially for those who live year round in the area. For example, an annual membership to Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, arguably the best of all 100 courses in Myrtle Beach, and True Blue Golf Club, a visually arresting and playable track (wide fairways and enormous waste bunkers, many of which double as cart paths), costs less than $2,000. At an average rack rate green fee rate of around $125, the break-even point for a member is around 20 rounds (plus the mandatory cart free of $25 each time you play, but you will pay that at any club). Other annual plans include the Prime Times Signature Card, which provides discounted green fees (and free rounds) at a group of 22 of the finest layouts in the area, including Pawleys Plantation, TPC Myrtle Beach and The Founders Club. Membership in the Legends Group includes the underrated Heritage Club in Pawleys Island and adds a free breakfast, lunch and beer whenever you play.
Vacationers to the area south of Myrtle Beach understand the amount of golf available, but what they might miss are the cultural blandishments, principal among them Brookgreen Gardens, an astonishing piece of property festooned with beautiful flora and fauna (there’s a zoo), garden sculptures large and small that seem created for the spaces they occupy in the fountains and bushes and beside the sprawling live oak trees that populate Brookgreen. The indoor museum buildings are great places to cool off and check out a continuing rotation of locally produced art, many pieces depicting marsh country animals in their habitat. My wife and I attended an art show there this past weekend and were impressed with the range of works offered by artists from up and down the east coast. (We purchased an abstract rendering of the Blue Ridge Mountains that, given its dominant green and blue hues, could just as well have been an ocean scene.) The shops along Front Street in the historic Georgetown feature many paintings and other works of art by local artists; some of them are extreme bargains given the quality of the efforts.
At $100 annually for a “household,” a Brookgreen Gardens membership is ridiculously inexpensive for what it offers, which is not only a sculpture fan’s dream but a great contemplative counterpoint to a competitive round of golf. As my wife and I strolled past a fountain with a large sculpture of the Goddess Athena at its center on Sunday, we noticed a woman sitting in the shade on one of Brookgreen’s hundreds of benches, reading a book. My wife expressed what I was thinking: “I’ve always wanted to do that here,” she said.
A perfect day for a couple living in the Pawleys Island area, or for a vacationing couple, could very well be a round of golf in the morning at one of the aforementioned clubs, a contemplative stroll through Brookgreen Gardens in the afternoon, and dinner in a converted brick-lined alleyway at Al Fresco’s in Georgetown or outside under a tent or inside in full view of the kitchen at Frank’s, justifiably the single most popular eatery in the entire Myrtle Beach area.
Since any frequent visitor to this site has seen plenty of photos of golf courses, and since we all know what a plate of good food looks like, I include below some shots taken at Brookgreen Gardens. If you would like to know more about life in the area south of Myrtle Beach –- my wife and I have visited for at least a couple of months every year since 2000 –- please do not hesitate to contact me.
Twice this past Memorial Weekend I played in golf events for which the format was a “Scramble,” or “Captain’s Choice” if you prefer. Simply put, a four-player team selects each of the best shots during a hole and every member of the team plays from that spot. The “Captain” in Captain’s Choice makes the call on where the shot should be played but, in reality, it is almost always a team decision. The idea of a scramble is to build camaraderie amongst the team members.
In our first scramble of the weekend, on Saturday, I and two neighbors plus my son visiting from Florida comprised the team at the Mike Strantz Memorial outing at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, SC. (See immediately prior posting here.) Since we were all low double-digit handicaps and below -- my son Tim played college golf and sports a scratch handicap – we took the event seriously. No team was assigned a handicap but we knew there were some excellent players involved. We figured a score in the low 50s would probably win the day; as it turned out, our 60 was eight shots off the pace. But we had a lot of fun as well as a few highlight shots for all of us.
The par 3 13th at Pawleys Plantation, where our group posted our only bogey.
The Memorial Day scramble at Pawleys Plantation did employ handicaps but this was more a social event than a golfing competition. As a “member mixer,” teams were picked at random and flighted by aggregate handicap; my team had a total handicap of 92 which adjusted our final score downward by 3 strokes. Although I have owned a condo in Pawleys Plantation for 20 years and been a member of the club for that time, I had never laid eyes on my three teammates before Monday. Ceil is one of the better women players in the club and Tony and Bacil, both celebrating life in the 80s, which was also the temperature for the day, were all delightful companions. We ham and egged it around the tough Pawleys course, aided by our ability to play from the senior tees (and Ceil from the ladies tee). Our net total of 65 that included six birdies and only one bogey fell one short of first place in the #1 flight. (My son’s team finished first.)
I know that some good golfers complain about scrambles, that it denies them the opportunity to play their own ball and challenge the golf course without the burden of having to play from where someone else’s ball came to rest. In our competition, each member of the foursome had to contribute at least one drive per nine holes, and it added an element of strategy and drama to the round. (One of our teammates was not very long off the tee, and as we came toward the end of the front nine, we suggested he play short and to the left side of a par 3; he executed it perfectly and we got up and down for an easy par.) Anyone who takes golf so seriously that they can’t occasionally play the game purely for fun should avoid scramble events.
The real scramble on Monday was in the totally mixed-up, random composition of the teams, and I made three new friends over the course of four hours and at the dinner afterward. The $25 in pro shop credit we each earned was a nice little bonus.
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is arguably the best golf course of the 100+ that line the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach, which stretches from Brunswick County in North Carolina and its northernmost point in Wilmington, to Georgetown, SC, more than 90 miles to the south. With virtually flawless conditions on Saturday, including greens that were smooth and fast and a warm but rain-free day, Caledonia served as a fitting site for an annual memorial to its designer, Mike Strantz, one of the giants of modern golf architecture.
Strantz, who died at age 50 a dozen years ago, is responsible for the layouts of some of the eastern U.S.’s most popular golf courses, including True Blue Golf Club, Caledonia’s sister club a half-mile away, and the iconic Tobacco Road in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The word “unique” gets thrown around a lot, but ask anyone who has played Tobacco Road and that description is likely to come up, along with a few other choice words. (“Bizarre,” “weird” and “unfair” came to my mind the first time I played it, but that was in 35-degree temperatures with a consistent sideways rainfall. “Fun,” “exhilarating” and “memorable” characterized my second visit in sunshine and moderate temperatures.)
The event is a scramble format, otherwise known as “Captains Choice” which, for the uninitiated means everyone in the foursome hits a drive, the team chooses the best one and then everyone plays from that point...and so on into the cup. The winning team this year, on a match of scorecards, shot a 52. Our team, composed of a couple of my neighbors in Pawleys Plantation and my son, who drove up from Vero Beach, FL, posted a 60. Handicaps were not taken into account but no one seemed to mind that this was competition lite. It was all for a good cause and in the name of a terrific architect..
For the last half dozen years or so, Strantz’ widow Heidi and her children have memorialized the designer’s life and work with a Memorial Weekend event at one of his courses. All proceeds benefit the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. This year Caledonia was the choice after a successful event last year at Tot Hill Farm in North Carolina. Heidi and her daughters weren’t committing to a choice of venues next year, but given the smooth operation and beautiful conditions at Caledonia, True Blue would not be a bad choice at all. Wherever the event is held, I plan to go out of my way to be there.
I am not a fan of magazines and online sites that tout the best states to live. Those best cities to live rankings are only slightly more helpful, especially if the cities are on the small side and comprise only one or two zip codes. Sure, these lists are fun to read, and I have referred to them often here and in our free monthly newsletter, Home On The Course, but if you are considering plunking down a few hundred thousand dollars for a home, more concentrated research is advised.
Once such source for that kind of research is USA.com, where you can find all kinds of census-related information down to the zip code level. The data includes average housing costs, population information, including how fast the area is growing, crime statistics, income, school information and the climate, including its effects on heating and air conditioning usage.
However, even after comparing two communities you are considering in two different areas, your choice may still come down to a lot of personal preference and a little bit of gut instinct. The quality of the data is only as good as those posting it on the web site; for example, in looking at the data for Salem, SC, the home of the golf community Keowee Key, I found that the population of Salem was indicated as just 126. The population of Keowee Key alone is more than 1,000. Such a discrepancy may not be important to most of us, but it does point to the need for caution in “trusting the numbers.”
With a little caution, though, USA.com can offer guidance to those for whom no detail is too unimportant.