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    Savannah, GA's Wilmington Island Club has come a long way, and yet perhaps it has a guilty conscious about its past.  What else could explain that its scorecard makes no mention of its legendary designer, Donald Ross?
    Built in 1927 during the heyday of U.S. golf architecture, Wilmington Island's design has been "updated" a few times since.  We have no way of knowing whether the improvements corrected some deficiencies in the master's original design or was just some latest owner putting his stamp on the place.  It wasn't unusual for Ross designs to be tinkered with in the ‘50s and ‘60s before everyone's consciousness was raised about the greatness of his layouts.  We did find strong echoes of Ross at the Wilmington Island Club in its generously sized fairways, although some trees and bunkers were placed strategically in the hitting zones, making shaped drives necessary on a number of holes.  
    Ross' characteristically crowned greens have been shaved over time, yet the false fronts and encroaching sand bunkers and swales at greenside imply that Willard Byrd and Clyde Johnston, who renovated the course in the ‘60s and ‘80s respectively, were compelled to leave a number of Ross features.  The course was in nice condition, and although it welcomes public play, it has an active membership; on the day we played, the tennis courts and pool were filled.  It felt like a private club, and we wouldn't be surprised if the rumors we heard that it might go that way in the next few years turn out to be true.
    Housing stock in the adjacent neighborhoods ranges from early 20th Century to a renovated historic hotel and adjacent new luxury development called Wilmington Plantation.  In its heyday, The Oglethorpe Hotel, which was built within months of the opening of the golf club, was the playground of celebrities, including Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.   It is in view from a number of holes on the course, and would be a convenient place to live and belong to the club.  However, there are hints that the property has had some issues getting off the ground.  Proceed at your own risk but, by all means, if you are in the Savannah area, play Wilmington Island Club.



Some tee shots at Wilmington Island Club, like this one at the 8th, require a controlled draw or fade to stay out of trouble and in position for an approach shot. 

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Thursday, 21 June 2007 05:20

Almighty credits for Virginia community

    Not many golf course communities can claim to have a featured role in a big budget Hollywood movie, but beginning tomorrow across the U.S., Old Trail in Crozet, VA, attains that status.

    Evan Almighty, starring nerdish but hot commodity Steve Carell, opens in theaters nationwide.  For those who have not seen the relentless stream of trailers on television the last three weeks, here's the gist of the storyline:  God appears to a U.S. Congressman and compels him to build an ark in the face of impending deluvian crisis.  Chaos ensues.

    There you have it.  The movie was filmed on location at Old Trail which, at the time, was a brand new community a few miles outside Charlottesville and eager for publicity.  When I turned into the community last year for a tour and round of golf at its interesting course -- click here to see my notes -- imagine my surprise to see a few hundred people emerging from large white tents and walking toward a five-story high structure that looked vaguely like an ark in construction.  Even stranger were the elephants and dozens of other animals tethered to poles. 

   Old Trail's Resident Expert Jonathan Kauffmann took me on a tour of the community after I wandered through on my own.  I pointed to one of the few houses that were finished, and the only one with a perfectly green lawn.  He drove me around the side to show me it was just a Hollywood facade, nothing behind it but supporting two by fours.  The rest of the community's housing was certainly more substantial and, as I wrote earlier, the golf course playable if a little quirky. 

    We offer our full report on the Charlottesville area and its golf course communities, free with a paid subscription to the HomeOnTheCourse community guide.  See the ad at top left for more details.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007 05:15

Bad housing market good news for some

    We don't know if the new Chief Economist at the National Association of Realtors is any smarter than his predecessor, but David Seiders is certainly more forthcoming.
    "The bottom [of the market] has not been reached," Seiders said succinctly after yesterday's report on housing starts.  He stopped just short of using the ‘R' word, for recession, but he did say, "...we are in that league in terms of a setback."  
    That's scary, especially for homebuilders whose inventories of unsold homes have grown as competition from foreclosures has increased and as potential purchasers have decided to sit back and wait for things to sort themselves out.  Although the rise in inventories had not caused a commensurate drop in prices, that is starting to change across the land as the odor of desperation grows in the new home construction industry.
    For the individual or couple already thinking about relocating, this can spell opportunity.  Here are few observations and ideas:

Permits misleading
    Don't take heart necessarily in the reports that building permits rose last month nationwide.  Most of the rise was permits for apartment buildings.  Unless you are looking to rent, count on inventories of unsold new homes in the southern U.S. to begin to drop slightly in the coming months as homebuilders lower prices and grant concessions to purchasers.  The near term may be the time to get the most concessions from homebuilders.

Illegal immigrants count for something
    Generally, employers like to keep their employees working, especially in the housing industry, rather than laying them off and then having to fight their competitors to hire them back when things turn around.  But there is nothing normal about these times in the industry.  By some estimates, half the employees in the residential construction industry are illegal immigrants.  No wonder the national unemployment figures haven't grown as housing starts have dropped; the undocumented workers weren't reported on the way in, and they certainly aren't being counted on the way out.  By all logic, the housing mess should have caused a recession.  How ironic -- illegal immigrants may have saved our economy!  In short, larger homebuilders will furlough their illegal workers and keep building to ensure their documented workers stay with them.

Sell low, buy low
If you own a home in the north, do some research on local market conditions and calibrate what might happen to the price of your home over the coming months.  Do similar research in the area you want to move to?  If the predicted spread between price depreciation in your current market and in the potential one is wide enough, it may make sense to put your home on the market for a quick sale.  Don't worry so much that you aren't wringing every last dollar from the house.  You will have lots of leverage with the seller at the other end, especially if he is a homebuilder sitting on a new home.  Insist on price concessions and upgrades (free membership in the golf club is a nice start); you will probably be successful.

Practical way to sit on the sidelines
Consider selling your current home and finding a one-year (or longer) rental in the community you think you might want to live in.  This gives you time to sit on the sidelines with the cash proceeds from your current home and watch the market story unfold.  The rental approach keeps your cash growing while the homes in your new community are depreciating.  Observe the market from up close, and when it starts to turn around to your satisfaction, you can react quickly.  This approach has the added benefit of giving you time to determine if you really want to live in the community; if you find it isn't what you expected - and many times that is the case - you won't be burdened with a house to sell.  The only downside?  You may have to store your furniture if you rent a fully furnished home.
    If you have observations of your own, I encourage you to comment in this space (see below).
    Like politics, all real estate values are local.  National data is misleading and, for all but the National Association of Realtors and the mainstream media, irrelevant.  If we want to sell our home in New York and buy one in South Carolina, do we really care about inventory levels and average selling prices nationwide?
    RealtyTimes.com gets down to the local level and is fun to navigate, although the information is more anecdotal than crisp.  Agents in hundreds of markets nationwide report into the site and assign a buyers' market or sellers' market designation to the areas they cover.  They also indicate whether prices are rising or falling.  Both measures are on scales of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating buyers' market and falling prices, and 5 for sellers' market and rising prices.  
    For the most part, recent realtor reports seem balanced.  For example, Asheville, NC, is still a fairly strong sellers' market but the price trend is neutral.  Across the state in New Bern, buyers have a modest upper hand but prices are actually rising a little.  Charlotte is neither a buyers nor sellers market, but prices are firmly up.  
    But some realtors can't resist the hard sell.  In Nags Head, NC, for example, one realtor - a couple actually - rate their area the strongest buyers' market, with a neutral price trend.  What their prose description lacks in precision, though, it more than makes up for in promotion, as in "This is the perfect time to invest in the Nags Head market. There are excellent opportunities right now, and we are beginning to see the market pick up, so they won't last long."  Hmmm, could they be auditioning for the open position of chief economist at the NAR?
    Web site:  RealtyTimes.com
    And, remember, if you are considering relocating to a golf course community or area with great golf, we have a network of qualified, golf savvy agents who will be happy to provide information and show you properties that suit your criteria.  There is no cost or obligation to you.  

Monday, 18 June 2007 06:56

Ground floor opportunity

    Flooding is a nasty word to many golf community owners, especially those who live in coastal areas.  But many happy homeowners live on properties that were the result of controlled flooding by the government in the name of hydroelectricity in the middle of last century.  Although power was the primary concern, the flooding also spawned thousands of homes and golf courses on manmade lakes.
    One such property is Lake Blackshear Plantation, which is set beside the 8,700-acre lake from which the community takes its name.  Blackshear is just a few miles from Interstate 75 in south central Georgia, near the town of Cordele, and it features all the customary amenities of a golfing community, such as pool, fitness center, and clubhouse. Boat related facilities are planned as well.  Homes are reasonably priced, as you would expect for a community that is a few hours from any major urban area; Atlanta is a good two hours up the interstate.  Villas start below $200,000, and single-family homes begin in the $200s.  Many properties on the golf course are still available.
    For the price of a high-end home, the golf course itself is available to those not content with a simple membership.  Golf Course Brokers, Inc. has the course listed at $1.75 million, which includes a 70-seat restaurant and 3,300 foot clubhouse.  That seems a reasonable price for a full-fledged course in the midst of a fair-sized community; with proper marketing and a quality operation, the course could attract most of its members from the neighborhood (the course is daily fee for now).  
    The Ray Jensen layout, which reaches 6,900 yards at the tips, winds its way across and around ponds and streams and is set on rolling land amid the ubiquitous loblolly pines of this part of Georgia.  Golf Digest gave the course a 4-star rating.

Reading the fine print

    A recent piece of legislation in Maryland is a good reminder for all of us counting on a certain level of amenities, including the golf course, in our next living situation.  Regulation H679 "would require that, in Prince George's County, a homebuilder that agrees to provide a community amenity to a community development must include specified information in the contract of sale."  The legislation also provides for penalties in the case of non-compliance.
    When shopping for a home in a golf course community, ask tough questions and read the fine print.  Buyers have a little more leverage than they have had in recent years, and you may be able to help the developer write your sales contract.

Sunday, 17 June 2007 06:10

The Ultimate Father's Day Gift?

    I'm counting on a pair of golf shorts or two from my wife and children for Father's Day today, although yesterday I went out and bought myself a new digital camera to improve the photos here on the web site and in the HomeOnTheCourse community guide. (By the way, a subscription would make a great Father's Day gift or belated Mother's Day gift at just $39 a year, hint hint.)  But in my wildest fantasy, I wouldn't mind membership in one of those destination clubs that feature a range of high-end properties in renowned golfing locations.    
    Private Escapes is one such destination company.  The firm's ad in the latest edition of Travel & Leisure Golf indicates that, if I hurry, I can gobble up one of the 16 remaining charter "positions" in the Pinnacle category of membership, and save $65,000.  I can stay in $3 million "private" homes that include such high-end accoutrements as Bang & Olufsen entertainment systems, and I'll play the finest courses on Kiawah Island, at La Quinta, The Abaco Club in the Bahamas, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and many other locations.  And when I need a break from golf, a nice apartment on Central Park in New York City will be waiting for me, with the refrigerator stocked by my Private Escapes concierge.
    If I have to ask how much all this costs, well then I can't afford it.  But since this is a dream, here goes:  Individual Pinnacle membership, the most expensive of the three plans offered, requires a $325,000 one-time fee, 100% refundable if you are one of the lucky charter members (other plans return 80%).  It permits unlimited nightly stays.  Annual dues, billed quarterly, are $22,000, and nightly fees are $185.  The entry-level Premiere membership carries a $105,000 initiation fee, $7,700 a year in dues and just $82 in nightly fees (again, unlimited nightly stays for the individual plan).  Corporate and extended family plans are priced the same or a little higher -- depending on the plan you choose -- than the individual plan, but overnight stays are restricted to 40 per year, plus seven nights of reciprocal privileges with the other clubs.  (The three private clubs, each with their own set of properties, provide limited reciprocal privileges with the others.)  Private Escapes' web site is private-escapes.com .
    The destination club model will appeal to those with a little wanderlust, and who want variety as well as high quality.  It won't appeal to those who like sleeping in their own beds and find owning traditional real estate comforting.  Also, if it is important to you to know well your fellow members at your private club, the destination model is not for you.
    Still, if variety does spice up your life, then the destination club may be appealing.  As with buying a home on a course, do your homework, ask lots of questions, and kick the tires of any destination club you might choose to consider.  The best source for information about the industry, including insights into the two-dozen clubs available, is The Helium Report .  Their web site is informative, comprehensive and offers free reports.

Saturday, 16 June 2007 05:33

Wilmington singing new tune downtown

    Wilmington, NC, has many cultural activities to recommend it.  But a viable concert hall isn't one of them.  That may change if a growing group of Wilmington citizens have their way.

    The group, ARCH, for Alliance for a Regional Concert Hall, has been working for a decade to get the city's fathers to consider building a performing arts center to host shows, concerts and ballet.  The only venue for such cultural events has been UNC Wilmington, the local branch of the state's university system.  Now local government officials are entertaining proposed plans for the expansion of the city's riverfront district, which would have room for a performing arts center as well as marina and residences, most likely condos.  It is exciting stuff for a city that has had a lot easier time attracting movie companies to shoot films in the area than it has attracting industry.  Maybe the performing arts center will help.

    We have a great real estate contact in Wilmington who is knowledgeable about the area's golf course communities and a member of one of its better golf courses.  If you are planning a visit to the area and would like a tour or just some information, let us know and we will be pleased to put you in touch at no cost or obligation whatsoever to you. 



  Porters Neck Plantation is one good option in communities near Wilmington.
















Porters Neck Plantation is one of the best choices of golf course communities in the Wilmington area. 

    Every time I see his picture taken with some developer or other, Jack Nicklaus looks tired.  Not to sound too motherly, but he needs a little more sleep, maybe a few more carbs to round out the flesh a little.  

    The Golden Bear could be the busiest man on the planet right now, certainly the most in-demand of all the golf architects.  His 60 projects in process worldwide under the Nicklaus Design name will bring his total to nearly 400.  His reputation as a designer is what it was as a player -- a fussy perfectionist.  Those courses that bear the Nicklaus "Signature" designation get a lot of his attention, as opposed to those under the Nicklaus Design umbrella which are largely administered by the Bear's excellent group of senior designers (but you can bet his hand is on those projects as well).

    Perhaps it is ironic that Nicklaus has now taken on a "sponsor" of sorts, something a wannabe tour player will do early in a career to pay expenses from week to week with the thought, to the investor, of a nice return if the player becomes a consistent winner.  New York billionaire Howard Millstein is paying $145 million for a stake in a new Nicklaus company that encompasses the Bear's design, licensing and golf club activities.  In short, it looks as if Nicklaus has rung the register.  After racking up thousands of miles in his Gulfstream and establishing the most successful golf design company in the world, maybe he has looked in the mirror and counted his days away from his grandchildren and will now slow down a little at age 67. 

    And maybe not.

    One 80 something who never seems to slow down is the icon of corporate takeovers, Carl Icahn.  He has been after the huge Florida developer, WCI Communities, and has put together nearly 15 percent of WCI's shares, the largest holding of any of the company's shareowners.  WCI earlier this week postponed its annual meeting so it could regroup and take other offers, but with the Florida condo market deep in the dumper, and WCI a big player in that arena, company shareowners are restive.  Icahn usually gets what he wants, and it will be interesting to see what a financial acquisition of a major developer will do to community real estate in Florida and across the south.  We will stay tuned.



Thursday, 14 June 2007 05:59

Can you stand the heat?

    Climate is a major criterion for choosing a home on the course.  Except for those lucky individuals with oceanfront property in Florida, the Sunshine State's flat, often boring topography is certainly not an attraction.  Frankly, Arizona provides more diversity of views than does Florida (again, except for those on or near the beach).  Real estate agents in the Carolinas report more and more people from Florida are buying property in the Blue Ridge mountains, and their chief complaint about Florida is the heat in the summer (and the traffic and, for those at the coast, the bump up in insurance premiums).  These "bounce backs," who moved originally from north to south, are now content to generate their own winter warmth with a sweater or jacket.

    If you are planning to live in just one place in retirement, it makes good sense to spend a few experimental weeks in your preferred location during the dog days of summer.  Play golf at all times of the day as an experiment to see if you can stand the heat.  Determine if your intended course opens for play early enough in the morning so that you can complete your round by 11.  The nice thing about taking the temperature of the lifestyle in a hot weather climate in summer is that rentals are abundant and cheap.

    Be mindful that it is not just about the heat but rather the combination of heat and humidity, or the Temperature Humidity Index (THI).  Residents of the desert southwest are fond of saying, "Yeah, it's hot, but it's a dry heat."  Residents of Florida can make no such claim but, on the other hand, you can almost set your clock by the afternoon summer thunderstorms that cool down temperatures, at least for a while. 

    Weather.com has a decent function to compare high and low temperatures between two cities on a month by month basis (although when we tried it earlier, it did not work).  We have yet to find a site with a good comparison of THI, but we'll keep looking and hope if one of our faithful readers knows of one, they will leave a comment here.





    Sometimes developers bite off more than they can chew.  Six hundred acres and a golf course at a small price per acre probably seem like a good idea at the height of the market.  But then the folks from New York and D.C. stop looking and you go over budget for the golf course, the community infrastructure and the nicely appointed clubhouse and, before you know it, things go all soft and squishy and reality sets in.
    The Highlands in Franklin, West Virginia, 600 acres and an 18-hole golf course, will be auctioned off on July 19th.  Background details are a little sketchy, but there is an odor of desperation about the sale.  Last year the owners put a reserve price on the property and the highest bid didn't meet it.  This time around it will be an "absolute auction," which means the community and course will go to the low bidder, no matter how low.   The road that runs alongside the golf course is called Troublesome Valley.  Someone either had great prognostication powers or a gallows sense of humor.
    The Highlands Golf Club opened in May 2006 and was designed by Bill Ward, a West Virginia architect who has completed 17 other projects in the region.  He carved the Highlands from a pine tree forest in the Potomac Highlands, and his design appears to follow the contours of the land; from photos I looked at, he didn't move a lot of earth.  
    Ward has an inclination to add one unforgettable hole on each of his courses; at Meadows Farms in Virginia, for example, he built the Guinness Book of Records' longest par 6 in America, an 841-yard monster.  At The Highlands, he built his excess around the greens on two successive holes on the back side.  The approach shot to number 10, a par 4 and arguably Highlands' signature hole (and its #1 handicap hole), is played to a small island green set in the middle of a small lake and reached by an iron bridge.  The pro shop estimates the green's dimensions at 30 yards deep by 20 yards wide. 

    The 11th, another par 4, presents a similarly sized green totally surrounded by sand.  Holes 13 through 16 are significant doglegs, with the approach to number 13 requiring a long drive down the right side to afford a view of the green snuggled behind the trees at a 90-degree left angle to the fairway.  To add an element of intimidation, out of bounds stakes run down the right side of the hole.
    Championship tees play to 6,800 yards with the men's tees a more reasonable 6,250 and the ladies tees just 4,680.  The senior tees play to less than 5,700 yards.  The course rating from the back tees is 73.7 with a slope of 144.  Comparables from the men's tees are 71.0 and 138.  This is not by any means an easy course, but it charges reasonable daily fees as low as $35.
    In its first abbreviated year of operation - the course opened in May 2006 - The Highlands hosted 15,000 rounds of golf, and based on rounds played so far this year, the run rate appears to be about 30,000 rounds, not bad for an April to October season.  The pro shop says most of its traffic is from the I-81 corridor of Virginia and the towns of Harrisonburg and Staunton, about 45 minutes away, but some folks from Washington, D.C., about three hours away, will make a long weekend of it in the area.
    Franklin, WVA sits in the valley between two large national forests west of Interstate 81 - the Washington and Jefferson and the Monongahela Forests.  Together they comprise about a million acres of public land.  From my research, and drives through the area in the past, it must be the kind of property that can make a man dream large.
    I am still waiting for a call back from Albert Burney, the auction house, handling the sale.  If more details become available, I will provide an update here.  The golf course has a nice web site with course layout and descriptions at HighlandsGolfWV.com.

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