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    As a real estate market junkie, I love the web site Zillow.com and return to it occasionally to check on the latest market estimates for our primary and vacation homes, as well as those of our neighbors and friends.  But I certainly don't trust its accuracy and wouldn't price my house based on Zillow's estimates.     

    Zillow, which accumulates its data from many public sources, claims 70 million U.S. homes in its database, but a one-hour search of homes up and down the east coast left a little to be desired. I plugged in the addresses of a dozen homes in golf course communities we have visited, and only a handful showed any results at all (although figures for homes in the immediate neighborhood were listed).  To give Zillow a fair shake, I made sure not to include any home sites or homes less than two years old.  

    Also, when I tried to get a value for our eight-year old condo unit in Pawleys Island, SC, in a building that comprises five other units, just two of the six units were displayed, even though they were built at the same time, sold roughly at the same time and their records are kept in the same county office. 

    Sometimes the estimates are a little loopy.  Zillow provides one set figure but also includes a range from low to high estimate.  Our next-door neighbor's condo unit - ours was not assessed - has a Zillow estimate, or "Zestimate," of $502,000. Trust me, that is way over the mark by at least $125,000.     

    We scanned a few real estate sites in the southeast for homes currently for sale and then matched their asking prices against Zillow's estimates.  In Aiken, SC, either folks are smoking something when they list their houses, or Zillow's estimates are ludicrously low.  For example, a four-bedroom golf course home at 437 Woodlake Drive is listed at $598,000, but Zillow's estimate is a paltry $270,000 (and the top of its range, $429K, doesn't come close to the asking price). 

    Another Aiken listing for a four-bedroom home, at 312 Willow Lake Court, shows Zillow's estimate $180,000 less than the asking price of $640,000. On the other hand, Zillow did a pretty good job of nailing an estimate for our primary house in Connecticut, although clearly it hadn't caught up with some major renovations we did on the house two years ago.     

    In the end, Zillow is most helpful as a clearinghouse for selling prices in your neighborhood or the area you want to move to.  It is just another tool at your disposal when selling or buying a home, but as with a hammer or saw, use Zillow with some degree of caution.     Web site:  www.zillow.com

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High point: You can see most of the layout, community and Blue Ridge Mountains from the highest elevations of the Reems Creek golf course.


    Reems Creek does not provide the sleek, sophisticated country club experience of other communities in the Asheville, NC area.  Its links-style golf course is semi-private, permitting daily fee play, although members receive preferential starting times.  Houses are fairly close to the golf course perimeter, somewhat encroaching visually on the golfing experience, but the designers made sure to bury some of the routing below the house line.  That causes the layout, designed by the English firm Hawtree & Son, to feature some unnervingly blind shots and some bizarre lay-ups, such as a five-iron tee shot on a par four.  Water comes into play only on two holes. 

    At less than 6,500 yards from the tips, the layout is not long, but it is tricky enough to warrant a rating of 71.9 and slope of 133.  From the white tees, at just 6,100 yards, the course will present little challenge to those with less than low-teens handicaps.  The golf course was in fine shape when we played it a little over a year ago, although the fairway grass was a little thin, and it offered enough high-risk, high-reward shots to be worthy of a return trip someday.
    Greens fees are a bargain at $49 on the weekends (just $44 during the week).  Fees are even less if you hold an "area's resident" card.  Non-equity membership initiation is just $5,000, which includes pool, tennis courts and driving range that aims straight up a hill toward a pair of houses we estimated were about a John Daly drive away.  Dues are quite low at $170 per month, and we found it charming that members are not billed for their dues; "It is the member's responsibility to pay," says the membership information sheet.     

    Reems Creek is located in Weaverville, about a 20-minute drive north of Asheville.  The course and surrounding real estate is owned by the developers of Kenmure, a more upscale community about a half-hour south of Asheville.  What Reems Creek may lack in panache, it more than makes up for in real estate prices considerably lower than other area golfing communities. It is still possible to purchase a Reems Creek lot with mountain and/or golf course views for less than $100,000 and, if you don't need the golf view, for around $50,000 for a half-acre.  New homes start at around $300,000.  Exterior house styles in the community are eclectic; we saw the entire range, with some brick, some wood, some plantation style and some that appeared almost New England colonial.    

    The town of Weaverville supplies all services to Reems Creek, including public water and sewer.  Utilities are underground, preserving the nice views from most spots in the development.   The homeowners association is "voluntary" and, therefore, owners are not assessed any fees.  Supermarkets, houses of worship and fast-food restaurants are within just 10 minutes, with a hospital, university, cultural and entertainment options and fine dining an additional 10 minutes away.  Asheville Airport is a good 30 minutes.
    Not as high in elevation and price points as other communities in the Asheville area, Reems Creek is not lowdown by any means.  From the high point at the middle of the golf course, you can see just about the entire community and the rest of the course.  Views of mountain ridges from local homes are good, and views from them of the golf course are excellent.  The popular city of Asheville is a convenient 20 minutes away.  Housing is about 20% less than in other golf course communities within an hour, and Reems Creek golf fees are tens of thousands of dollars less than local private clubs.
    We have more information on Asheville and its golf course communities.  Send us a note, and we will be happy to fill you in.  If you are interested in exploring the Asheville area's golfing communities, let us know and we will provide you with the name and contact information of an agent who can take you through those communities that best suit your interests.  We do this at no cost or obligation to you.


Five-iron is all you need or want at the 348-yard par 4 5th hole at Reems Creek. 

Thursday, 10 May 2007 07:58

Invasion of the teenage golfers

    This post is a little late today.  The Simsbury, CT, Westminster School's golf team is coming to dinner tonight, what they call succinctly a "team feed."  I've been out all morning trying to do the impossible; i.e. figure out just how much a group of 14 teenagers will eat for dinner.  Quality of the food is rarely the issue with teenage boys, although we're going to grill some nice marinated chicken and pork.  The issue is always the quantity.  To hedge our bets, we bought enough to feed a small nation.
     The team's season is off to a great start.  With three seniors, a junior and two freshmen on the starting six, they have won 10 of 11 matches and avenged an early loss to Avon Old Farms School with a big win last week.  The group of seniors, which includes my son Tim, is headed to Davidson College, the University of Virginia, and Washington & Lee College (Tim's choice).  It has been fun to follow their progress over the last four years and to see how their games have grown along with their bodies. 

    Most gratifying has been their recognition that they don't get points for hitting the ball as far as possible.  At yesterday's match, I saw as many 3-woods and 5-woods off the tees on tight par 5s as I saw driver.  Slowly, they are learning to use some management techniques on the course.  Double bogies or worse are becoming rare.
    Two huge matches loom for Westminster before the season ends on May 23, including the nine-team league championship and the Kingswood-Oxford Invitational, which includes a strong 25-team field.  In Tim's sophomore year, Westminster won both tournaments and finished with the best record in school history, 45-3.  The team will be trying to run the table and pass that record as a sendoff for the seniors.  The five scores of the six that count toward the team totals will need to be in the 70s for Westminster to have a chance.  We'll chart their progress here as they go for the glory.

Wednesday, 09 May 2007 07:14

Formerly cool markets are hot now

    According to the U.S. Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), which keeps track of single-family house prices in more than 200 markets, many metro markets that flew under the radar during the real estate boom are among the hottest ones now, relatively speaking.
    From 4th quarter 2005 to 4th quarter 2006, the Pacific Northwest led the way in price appreciation, capturing the top five spots.  Bend, OR, was #1 with a whopping 21% appreciation year to year.  Bend is somewhat unusual in that it has been in boom mode for the last five years, with an overall appreciation of 105%, but it hasn't received the same publicity as, say, Naples and Las Vegas.  Myrtle Beach, SC, and Wilmington, NC, at 11th and 12th place respectively, were the highest appreciating markets in the southeast, with prices up more than 15%.  Miami/Miami Beach housing appreciated 15% year to year, which is strong confirmation that the condo market there is really in the dumper (remember, the OFHEO report only looks at single-family housing).   Mobile, AL, a city on our list to visit this year, also made the top 20 at #17 with an appreciation rate just under 15%.
    The Wall Street Journal covered this story today and confirmed what we have been saying for months, that Floridians are moving to the Carolinas in significant numbers.  Charlotte, whose price appreciation numbers are +9%, seems to be one of the most popular destinations for Sunshine Staters escaping traffic, insurance rates and the threat of hurricanes.  The Journal even refers to them as "half-backs," a term we picked up on from real estate agents in the southeast over a year ago.
    We feel for the poor soul who lives in Kokomo, IN, and wants to move to, say, Oregon.  Kokomo had the worst appreciation rate of the 282 metro areas that were surveyed, with homes depreciating more than 5% in the last year alone.  Joining Kokomo in the bottom 20 were other markets in the Midwest, California and Nevada.  Price appreciation numbers from markets with communities we have reviewed, and rounded to the nearest whole number, generally showed good to very good results:
    Asheville, NC (+11%); Brunswick, GA (+11%); Charleston, SC (+10%); Charlottesville, VA (+10%); Chapel Hill/Durham, NC (+6%); Greenville, SC (+5%); Jacksonville, FL (+13%); Knoxville, TN (+8%); and Savannah, GA (+12%).

    You can see the entire list at the OFHEO web site

Monday, 07 May 2007 21:52

Notes on golf at The Landings

    Yesterday in this space we reviewed The Landings at Skidaway Island, just outside of Savannah, GA.  The private, gated community provides as much quality golf as any non-resort in the southeast.  Today we present a few notes on two of the courses at The Landings.


Marsh and moguls are but two of the challenges Arthur Hills throws your way at the Palmetto Club. 

The Palmetto Club

Designer:  Arthur Hills

    A wonderful, challenging layout, with not a single boring hole.  The toughest course of the six at The Landings.  Even seemingly routine par 4s display well-placed live oaks to gobble slightly errant shots.  The marsh provides beautiful framing on some holes, and the undulating greens are well bunkered, with plenty of moguls and swales around them.  Grass on the greens was thin in late February when we played, but they fill in nicely by the spring.
    Our playing partners, Bob and Bill, had 150 years between them.  Bill, a former pharmaceutical exec, and Bob, who owned the last Amercian maker of phonograph needles, had been friends and fellow club members in Waukegan, Illinois. Two other members of their Illinois club had moved to The Landings as well.  With threesomes and foursomes in front of us, we finished the round in less than 3 ½ hours, even though some holes were cart-path only.

    The driving range is ample and heavily used, as is the practice green.  Service was fine, except attendants did not move to get our bags onto a cart, a big miss for a private club.  The clubhouse is the biggest in the community and used for weddings and other affairs.  Lunch was fine, with a small but nice selection including buffet (pot roast plus salads), as well as menu items.  Hallway held a small art show on the walls, courtesy of one of the many women's clubs in the community.

Pete Dye may have "invented" railroad ties for golf courses, but Hills knows how to use them too.



Although Fazio's Deer Creek is not a stiff challenge, you cannot relax on many shots. 


Deer Creek

Designer:  Tom Fazio

    Tame Fazio with interesting short doglegs around beautiful live oaks.  Fairway bunkering in play on a number of the easier holes, but the par 5s are pretty tame affairs.  Marsh mostly there as backdrop.  Greens hold shots fairly well -- even though they were a little thin in February -- and they roll true and pretty fast.  Slight to significant break on virtually every putt; we under-read the putts on the front nine, over-read them on the back.  Marsh is not a reliable magnet for putts; a few break away from the water.  Bunkering is tight to the greens. 

    The 17th is picture perfect, with a green backed by long stretch of marsh that begins before mid-fairway to just beyond the rise in the rear of the green.  Putting surface slopes severely back to front.  The 18th is a finishing hole we see often, with marsh down entire right side and a forced third shot over a glob of the marsh and a trap to a pin position that, no matter where it is placed, is tough to get close to.  Back of the clubhouse provides nice view for those cheering you on or feeling your pain.    

    Driving range is fine, with a nice touch for distance markers at the tee -- a small board whose yardages are changed as the tees move forward and back.  Can of water and rag at each station to clean clubs is a nice touch as well.  Can't chip on putting green, but there is a chipping green and practice trap between the range and first tee (we like such proximity to the tee, especially on crowded courses).

    The club emphasizes fast play.  A loudspeaker calls foursomes to the tees 15 minutes in advance.  Even with play starting on both nines, we finished our round in four hours.  We saw no water fountains on the course; in stifling summer heat that could be an issue.

    It might seem counterintuitive, but if you are pointing toward a home on a golf course when you retire, there may be good reasons not to wait until then.  So says Chicago Tribune columnist Jane Kidd Stewart in a syndicated article I read today in the Hartford (CT) Courant.
    On the face of it, such advice might seem rash, but Ms. Stewart does have a point - actually a few of them - however, her approach will only make sense for those who are on track with their retirement savings.  First, by purchasing now, she writes, you get the costly stuff out of the way while you are still earning a regular paycheck, which is better than drawing down retirement assets you will need for a few decades.  Second, making the investment now might compel you to defer retirement for a few years more, shortening the length of your retirement and preserving your retirement assets longer.  Of course, this only works if you don't hate your job.      

    Finally, Ms. Stewart writes, a big dream purchase now - whether it is for a home or a trip around the world or whatever - has psychological benefits.  You find out before retirement if the lifestyle you've dreamed about is really, truly the one you want.  Many couples retire cold turkey to a community only to find the lifestyle there is not for them.  That is no way to start life's next journey; better to kick the tires before you make the full-time commitment (and you can rent the place out to help pay the mortgage).  Plus, you don't delay the gratification that might otherwise cause you to retire prematurely.  (We baby boomers want what we want when we want it, which doesn't always make good sense.)    

    One other reason for considering buying your dream home now, which we harp about in this space often:  Prices in golf course communities generally are increasing faster than homes in many markets in the northern U.S.    

    You can find Jane Kidd Stewart's column at the Chicago Tribune web site (Note:  This is a link to the article itself.  If the site asks you to login or register, just go to the main site at chicagotribune.com , do a search on "Jane Kidd Stewart" and you will find it).


    The Peninsula on the Indian River Bay is a high-end community near Rehoboth Beach, DE.  It is not exactly a place for year-round golf, but you can certainly don a heavy sweater and get through January and February in fairly good shape.  Rehoboth Beach is a popular summer destination spot for people from the Middle Atlantic states.  The Peninsula offers town homes, single homes and home sites that begin in the $300s and range to over $1 million; because of its proximity to the beach, it could have strong-second home appeal for New Englanders, New Yorkers and Philadelphians.  The community's private Jack Nicklaus Signature course opened recently and, in our experience, Jack does quite well when presented with land at water's edge.

    I like the location of The Peninsula because it is just 21 miles from the quaint little town of Lewes (pronounced Lew-Is), which is where you catch the ferry to Cape May, NJ.  This is no occasional trip across the the Delaware Bay, with scheduled departures every few hours in the winter and up to 15 departures from each port in summer.  The ferry trip takes about 80 minutes and cuts out a few hours and the headache-rendering New Jersey Turnpike for those who live in NJ, New York and New England.

    The Peninsula is offering a taste of its community on the weekend of June 22 that will include tours by boat, golf cart and helicopter, as well as what they are callilng "signatures" (sic) foods and "an amazing array of wines."  Although advertisers who spend $40,000 or so for an ad in the Wall Street Journal should do a better job of proofreading, and visitors to this space know we are not fans of hyperbole ("amazing array"), still I would consider attending.  I love Lewes, Rehoboth has a well-regarded beach area, and it would be fun to try out amazing wines.  If you are interested, more info is available at TasteOfThePeninsula.com.


  Arthur Hills' Palmetto Course often invites you to take the short way home, but beware.

    We had dropped into the golf community version of Apocalypse Now.  The daily cart invasion along the roads of The Landings at Skidaway Island, GA, reaches its peak around 8:30 a.m., as residents scramble to make their tee times at one of the community's six golf courses.  As the golf carts rose up and down the swales of streets and cart paths, we almost dove for cover.
    Except for the sheer number of golf carts, we experienced little of the high-density we had anticipated before our two days in The Landings community, although with 1,900 members for the six courses available, we would hate to see them all decide to play at the same time.  Overall, The Landings developers planned well.  We drove a few times from the community to Savannah, 12 miles to the west, and never hit traffic of any consequence.
    The Landings golf courses appeal to the widest range of golfers, from the least difficult, wide open and nicely groomed Arthur Hills track (Oak Ridge) to the complex's most difficult layout, the Palmetto Course, also an Arthur Hills design, which we played and loved (see notes tomorrow at this site).  Rounding out the rotation are two Arnold Palmer courses, a Willard Byrd design, and the Tom Fazio Deer Creek course, which we also played and found less challenging than some of the designer's more notorious layouts.  With all the traffic the courses get, we were amazed at the speed of play.  Our two rounds took less than four hours each.     

    The clubs at The Landings exhibit styles somewhere between private club and daily fee course.  Because everyone seems to own a golf cart, there is no need for locker rooms; members keep their clubs on the carts in their garages and change into their golf shoes at home.  For our two rounds, there was no greeting at the bag drops, and when we signed in at the pro shop, our instructions were to "take any cart available," meaning we hoisted our clubs onto the cart.  At the end of the round, no attendant waited with a rag to clean our clubs.  We don't consider ourselves country club prima donnas, but those looking for a little more in the way of private club amenities for a $55,000 (equity) initiation fee might be put off.  On the other hand, maybe we just caught them on a bad day. 100_1174savb

    By the way, when you give up your membership, $25,000 of your equity comes back to you, a little lower than many other private clubs.  Monthly dues for golf, which also includes tennis and social memberships, is $483, which seems reasonable for access to six good courses and their clubs' facilities as well as other amenities.     

    Housing options at The Landings run the gamut, from condominiums that begin at $275K and end beyond $1 million for a 3,000 square foot unit with a marsh view; to patio homes (on ¼ acre lots) from $350K to $1 million; to single family homes that range up to a $2.5 million.  There are only a few original developer lots still available.  Almost 90 percent of the community's 4,300 lots have been built on, and the lot-resale market is tight (about 25 lots on the market at any given time).  Available lots range from $250,000 to $1.4 million for the choicest (large and on the marsh).  Once you buy a lot, you can count on construction costs of about $175 to $200 per square foot.

Friday, 04 May 2007 07:27

A community for Hicks

    I have never watched an entire episode of American Idol, but it has been hard to avoid Taylor Hicks, who won the competition last year.  Before, during and after the Super Bowl, he was all over television hawking automobiles for a company whose name I have forgotten.

    Now, according to a flyer we received this week, he is hawking a community in Alabama, not far from the Tennessee border.  The Oaks at Goose Pond Island advertises home sites from $49,900, including lake access, and dockable waterfront sites from $194,900.  A few hours away in the Knoxville, TN, area, similar dockable sites can approach $1 million. 

    This is a lake-oriented community, the lake being the 70,000 acre Lake Guntersville.  Down the road is the Goose Pond Colony Golf Club and 36 holes of lakeside golf.  George Cobb, a respected architect, designed the Colony course in 1971; the Plantation course is the work of Don Croft and Phillip Green.

    Taylor Hicks has bought property at The Oaks and will be on hand May 19 when the developers release sites in the next phase.  Mindful that fame is fleeting, Mr. Hicks is keeping a close watch on his investment.  For more information, see The Oaks web site at http://www.theoaks-gpi.com.


Thursday, 03 May 2007 05:44

Buying vacation home hedges your bets

    Remember that famous speech in the movie "Wall Street" in which the oily slick Gordon Gecko proclaimed that "Greed is good?"  Well, maybe greed is good on the street called Wall, given the incredible compensation packages of the last few years, but certainly not among those late to the game of "flipping" real estate in places like Miami and Las Vegas.  There, greed kills.

    According to a National Association of Realtors report a few days ago, investment home sales fell almost 29% compared with 2005 figures.  Vacation home sales, on the other hand, hit a record last year, up 4.7%.

    People are not stupid, and most are not greedy.  They understand that, the housing bubble notwithstanding, a house is first and foremost shelter, and secondarily an investment.  And chances are that if you buy a vacation home in a place you have researched and that offers all the activities and other benefits you and your family want, then others will find it attractive when it comes time for you to sell.  Even if you aren't prepared to sell your primary home up north, using some cash to buy property in a growing market in the south -- and using the property for vacations -- might make sense for those who can afford to do so.

    Areas of the southeast we have visited recently are not in a market funk (obviously we haven't been to Miami or Orlando).  Prices in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, for example, are holding pretty steady. But a number of metro areas in the north are suffering price depreciations.  People contemplating retirement from north to south face a quandary:  Do they wait for the housing market to snap back and provide them with what they think is the true value of their homes, or do they get the best price they can now?  (This all assumes they are ready to move).

    The numbers say sell and move now, if you can.  According to Money magazine's website, people who own property in the Nassau/Suffolk County area of Long Island, NY, where median home prices are around $483,000, are likely to see the value of their homes decrease by about 6%.  Yet prices in popular areas in North Carolina, for example, like Greensboro and Charlotte, are forecast to increase around 2% over the next 12 months.  Factor in the relatively lower cost of living in the Carolinas compared with some high-tax states in the north, and the spread of 8 points above looks even wider.

    We understand that people do have emotional ties to homes they have lived in, raised kids in and invested in over the years. It will be difficult for my wife and me to leave our home in Connecticut in just a few years when both kids are off to college and we don't need a five-bedroom house for two people.  We hope at that time that we don't try to wring every last dollar from the sale of the house, especially since we intend to build one in a faster appreciating market in the south.  Waiting would be fool's gold.

    A list of forecasts and housing information for 100 cities can be found at cnn.money.com

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