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Saturday, 07 April 2007 04:01

Aiken in your heart?

  Genteel horse country life beats at murmur level

    Augusta National is hosting the Masters golf tournament this weekend, and the city of Augusta, GA, cannot accommodate all the players, their families and the thousands of spectators.  There is considerable spillover across the state line into South Carolina, much of it in the Aiken area.
    We visited Aiken and a few of its golf communities nearly two years ago and came away impressed with the town, the golf and, especially, the relatively reasonable prices for real estate; development in the area has accelerated since then, but you can still find a nice lot with a view of golf course and/or water starting at around $200,000.  For a small town, Aiken offers a range of golf-related options. You'll fine laid-back gentility with an accent on things equestrian at Mount Vintage, the convenience of a mall just outside the gate and three golf courses on site at Woodside, and a community that revels in its lack of pretension at Cedar Creek.  And for those who prefer buying home and golf separately, the combo of an old house in town with membership at the famed Donald Ross Palmetto Golf Club is a wonderful option.     

    Horses share the spotlight with golf in Aiken. Long before the first mashie was swung in America, wealthy Charlestonians seeking relief from summer heat and malaria fled to Aiken, their horses in tow.  The lures in the 19th Century, as they are today, were the fresh spring waters, rolling hillsides and pine-scented air that have increased the area's popularity as a second- and retirement-home destination.  If horseracing or polo or steeplechase get your heart racing, Aiken is worth a look.     

    The town itself is right of central casting for antebellum, with a main street that is both quaint and active at the same time.  Although the ubiquitous malls have popped up outside town, Aiken has enough cafes, small retail shops and other attractions to keep the sidewalks crowded.  We had a nice meal at Davor's in town, but the family-owned Malia's receives the highest praise of Aiken's eateries.      

    Although Aiken isn't exactly nightlife central, there is an eight-screen movie theatre in the area, a recently formed performing arts group and a small but active art museum.  A branch of the University of South Carolina offers a stimulating array of courses geared to adults (as a side note, USC-Aiken has one of the best golf teams among NCAA Division II schools).  Most social activity, however, seems centered at the clubhouses in the communities we visited.     

    Modern medical care is available at Aiken Regional, a 225-bed facility that is currently promoting a plan to provide private rooms only, and at four hospitals in the Augusta area, including the Medical College of Georgia.  All are within 30 minutes of Aiken's golf communities.  The nearest airport of any consequence is in Columbia, about an hour away, with daily service to such hubs as Washington (Dulles and Reagan National) and Charlotte.     

    The topography of the area is much as it was in the 19th Century. Hitchcock Woods, American's oldest "urban forest," spans 2,100 wooded acres inside the Aiken city limits. In keeping with such a tradition of land preservation, golf architects Tom Jackson, Bob Cupp, Rees Jones, Steve Nicklaus and Arthur Hills have taken great care in leaving the land substantially undisturbed by their designs. Tall pines frame most of the fairways.    

    Architectural review boards in the communities we visited are conservative, and indeed a few of the communities have "preferred" builder programs ("preferred" as in mandatory). The results are harmoniously coordinated housing, if not architecturally diverse.  Housing styles for the most part fit the antebellum nature of this part of the south; many bricks from the good red clay of the surrounding countryside buttress the homes of Aiken.     

    The following are notes on Mount Vintage Plantation, the area's most refined and highest-priced community.  We'll follow with notes on Woodside and Cedar Creek in the next two days.


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 Mount Vintage is open for play year round, and the framing makes up for a few cold days in winter. 

Mount Vintage makes horse sense to equestrians, golfers

    Mount Vintage Plantation is a 4,500-acre community 12 miles north of Augusta, Ga. It features rolling hills, many miles of fences and a challenging 27-hole Tom Jackson layout. No condominiums or villas intrude on the plantation's rolling hills and forests.  Home sites range from one-third-acre wooded tracts (for patio homes) to 17 acres to accommodate multiple horses.  Indeed, some front yards are actually horse pastures on the larger properties, but even those people who choose more modest acreage can board their horses at the plantation's well-outfitted equestrian center.

    Mount Vintage is named for the vines that once dotted the plantation. Two local business executives developed the upscale community, which opened in 2000, and they attracted a women's professional golf tournament to Mount Vintage's relatively remote location. When Japanese soft drink maker Asahi Ryokuken ended its sponsorship in 2004, no replacement was found. By then, however, Mount Vintage had gained a measure of prestige in the golfing world, and to this day, the Plantation's marketing materials still point to the tournament.    

    The course's original 18 sports a 147 slope and 74.5 rating from 7,107 yards, although it plays as short as 4,779 and from three other sets of tees in between. Designer Jackson has been given beautiful pieces of property to carve in the past -- the upstate South Carolina Cliffs at Glassy comes to mind -- and Mount Vintage is no exception. Five sets of tees temper distances, but they don't leaven the pain of high entry shots to greens guarded by traps and water. The course's Crenshaw Bent greens, underpinned by a sub-air system like the one at Augusta National, are true and fast. Initiation fees are $15,000, and dues of $440 per year cover not only golf membership but also other property owner costs, such as roving security, landscaping and maintenance of the common areas.  Jackson's third nine recently opened for play, and we look forward to giving it a try.

    Mount Vintage's town center includes an exercise room with modern Nautilus Nitro-Plus equipment, a large conference room suitable for family reunions or business meetings, and a general store selling "basics" (snacks, drinks, toiletries) and offering a small "lending library" of books contributed by members. Six illuminated Har-Tru courts are behind the clubhouse.        

    Residents seeking shopping or off-plantation entertainment must make at least a 30-minute round trip ride, although a big highway project promises quicker trips and many new retail stores in a few years. The nearest town, Edgefield, is within 10 minutes and is small and typically antebellum. Some hunters may know Edgefield as headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Foundation -- the bird, not the bourbon.  

    Mount Vintage is genteel, refined, remote and quiet -- an especially good choice if you are bringing your horse and your A-golf game, but not if you are looking for an active nightlife. For more information, contact on-site agent Geoff Wright at 888-271-3330.  The web site is www.mountvintage.com

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    The golf world turns its attention to Augusta, GA, this weekend, which is a mixed blessing for residents of the golf communities of Aiken, SC, just across the border.  The Augusta area can't quite handle all those attending the tournament; residents of Aiken's golf communities, which include Mount Vintage, Cedar Creek and Woodside Plantation, rent out their homes -- in some cases for thousands of dollars for the week -- to some of the more well-heeled among the Masters' attendees.  Suddenly, strangers appear on the courses and you can't just walk up and play at your own course.

    We've visited Aiken and, during Masters weekend, we'll recall our impressions of the town (it's charming) and the communities.  If you like horses, as well as golf, you might want to hoof it to Aiken for a visit at some point.

Thursday, 05 April 2007 05:04

One way to bet on Florida

    It is a good rule of thumb when investing to watch what the pros do.  Warren Buffet comes to mind.  So does Carl Icahn who, according to today's Wall Street Journal, is making the ultimate contrarian play:  He is trying to buy WCI, a builder and owner of hundreds of Florida condominiums, many of which are stuck in development and/or facing defaults by over-extended owners who, frankly, followed the advice of Mammon, the god of greed, not any expert.

    Icahn believes that the baby boomer generation is coming into its peak retirement years and that Florida still holds an attraction for them.  After all, you can't argue about the climate, unless you are in Miami in July, and many boomers feel the pull of nostalgia for the Sunshine State since that is where their parents retired. My folks spent a part of their retirement years in Lauderdale Lakes, and sitting in traffic trying to get back to their condo has caused me to have a different opinion of Florida.

    But if Carl Icahn is betting on Florida's condo market, who are we to argue?

    Yesterday's trip to the mailbox was eventful.  The new Zagat guide to America's Top Golf Courses arrived.  We were pleased to see a few old friends rated near the top of the list of the nation's best public-accessible courses.
    The Zagat guide gives all of us golfers the opportunity to be a rater, just like the guys at Golf Digest.  Zagat publishes its rankings based on four criteria -- the quality of the course, the facilities, services and perceived value - and also lists the average cost of greens fee.  
    Only two tracks rated perfect scores of 30 in the new 2007/08 edition -- the Pacific Dunes course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and the Whistling Straits course in Kohler, Wisconsin.  One of our favorites, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, finished at an overall rating of 29, joining such elite company as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black, Spyglass Hill, The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Kapalua Plantation on Maui.
    "Guide" is the operative word for the Zagat rankings. What accounts for a less-than-two-year old course in Connecticut, the well-regarded Lake of Isles North, rating the same as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and the others at 29?  Perhaps those who have played it need to justify the $200 they paid.  Also, Crumpin Fox, a much beloved course in Massachusetts that we have played, rates the same as Pinehurst #2 and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass (a score of 28).  Sorry.  Crumpin Fox's loyal following has either lost its collective mind or never played Pinehurst #2 or Sawgrass (we're betting on the latter).  
    Also of note are the highly rated courses in golf course communities we intend to visit in the coming months, chief among them the Oconee and Great Waters courses at Reynolds Plantation, in rural Georgia which pulled in a rating of 28.  Reynolds is just across Lake Oconee from Cuscowilla, the terrific Moore/Crenshaw layout we played last summer.  It rates a 27 in the Zagat guide but, trust me, it is at least as good as Crumpin Fox.
    The Zagat guide is $15.95 and can be ordered through the company's web site at www.zagat.com.  If you participate in next year's survey, Zagat will send you a free copy.  Details are at the web site.

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Seeing red: Cuscowilla's traps are mentioned in the latest Zagat guide.

Wednesday, 04 April 2007 06:43

Zillow fun, not very accurate

    Zillow.com is a great idea, a site where homeowners and potential buyers, as well as nosy neighbors, can get an up-to-date appraisal of values for most homes in the U.S.  In theory, Zillow does what your real estate agent is supposed to do, but without a contract or promise of commission.  But how helpful are its estimates?
    Our response is "not very," at least not yet.
    To arrive at a "Zestimate," or an appraisal of a specific home's value, Zillow incorporates previous selling prices, comparable selling prices in the area and all the niggling little details about individual homes (such as number of rooms, square footage, taxes, etc.).  Zillow falls short in that it can't get down to the level of granite kitchen counters vs. formica, or upgraded faucets vs. builders' basics.

    We've taken Zillow for test drives before and have found its results inconsistent, sometimes spitting out numbers for our neighbors' (and our) homes that seem realistic, and at other times going off the reality charts.  Not every home in America is in Zillow's database, and when we checked on a listing for our condo in Pawleys Island today, it was not there.  But our next-door neighbor's home, with the same layout and square footage as our unit but with less of a view, was Zestimated - at a whopping $493,000.  That is a good $175,000 more than what local real estate agents say would be a realistic fetching price for such a unit.  Mind you, Zillow does cover itself by including a range of values for the unit, in this case from just under $300,000 to the what-are-you-smoking top price of $780,000.   

    Our advice is to use Zillow just for hoots for now, but if you are planning on selling your house - or buying one, for that matter - you will still get the best estimate from a qualified real estate agent.


    Note:  GolfCommunityReviews has no marketing arrangements with any golf course communities or clubs.  We report what strikes our fancy and what we think will be of interest to our readers.
 
    The large golf resort community of Sea Trail in Sunset Beach, NC, just north of the South Carollina state line and North Myrtle Beach, has opened two additional neighborhoods -- SeaHorse Estates and Eastwood Bluff.  SeaHorse comprises 1/2 to 1 acre estate-sized lots located on the first three holes of the community's Rees Jones golf course.  The Jones course last year played host to a U.S. Open qualifying round.  Eastwood Bluff's three-story town homes are situated along the community's Willard Byrd golf course.  Byrd's courses typically include generously sized fairways and greens.  The town homes feature more than 2,300 square feet and a private elevator and garage.

    The courses at Sea Trail are accessible to the public but also accept memberships.  Those who maintain second-homes in the community can opt for a set number of rounds annually for a set price.  Fifteen rounds are just $510, and 150 rounds are $4,200, or less than $30 per round if you use them all.  We are still scratching our heads over Sea Trail's unlimited golf membership dues of $3,900, which represents a better deal than the 150 rounds rate.  We will ask about that when we take advantage of Sea Trail's reasonable $99 Real Estate Discovery Package, which includes accommodations and breakfast.  Their web site is a little stingy with prices on the new communities so give them a call if you are interested.  Contact Sea Trail at 800-338-9672 or visit the web site at www.seatrail.com .       

    If $99 a night seems reasonable, you might want to visit Brunswick Plantation in Calabash, NC, just down the road from Sea Trail.  An overnight stay is just $40 per night per couple (their literature does not indicate how long you can stay, but at that rate it could be cheaper than renting long term).  Brunswick's 1,750 acres include waterfront home sites, lakeside condos, furnished golf villas, and town homes with garages.  Its 27 holes of golf were designed by Willard Byrd (18) and Clyde Johnston (9).  Home sites are available from the $90s, homes from the $300s and town homes from $340,000.  The fully furnished condos start at $250,000.  The web site is www.BrunswickPlantation.com .  Telephone is 800-835-4533.

Sunday, 01 April 2007 19:00

Tell us where to go

    How often do you get an offer like that?  We are planning our upcoming research trips to visit golf course communities in some of the more popular areas in the southern U.S.  Here are a few of the areas we are contemplating:

    The Texas Hill Country, the area roughly between Austin and San Antonio, TX.

    The Southport, NC, area (north of Myrtle Beach, SC, and south of Wilmington).

    The Gulf Coast areas of Biloxi, MS, and Mobile, AL.

    Charlotte, NC.

    If you have specific communities in mind in any of these areas that you want us to check out, make sure we know.  We will do our best to visit and will report back on what we find.  To indicate your preference, or to suggest other areas we should visit in the future, simply register to the right (under the login area), then click on "Comments" at the bottom of this post and indicate your choice(s).
    Many thanks for visiting GolfCommunityReviews.
    "This isn't going to be over in a year.  Housing prices could be declining for years and years."  -- Robert Shiller, Yale University economics professor.
    "We don't think the market is in that bad of shape.  It's just not in as good shape as it was two years ago."  -- John Karevoli, analyst at DataQuick Information Systems.

    Both gentlemen commented for an AP story on the forecast for housing prices this spring.  Shiller, as some may recall, titled one of his books "Irrational Exuberance," borrowing from a term used by former Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in a speech in 1996 shortly before stock markets around the world plunged.
    "Nationally," the AP story said, "19 major metropolitan markets face a greater than 50 percent chance of housing price depreciation in the next two years, up from 11 markets a year ago," according to PMI Mortgage Insurance Company, which publishes regular predictions.  As has been the case for some time now, California and northeastern U.S. markets dominate the list, leading us once again to advise that if you have your sites set on a home in the south and you are going to use the value of your home in the northeast to pay for it, waiting for the markets to snap back may be a fool's paradise.  The gap in housing values north and south continues to widen.
    You can find a list of markets ranked by risk at USA Today.  No fooling.
    You have to go pretty deep into the list of metro areas with the highest rate of sub-prime mortgages delinquencies before you come to an area in the southeastern U.S.  The Wall Street Journal on Thursday (3/29) published a list of the 30 areas that suffered the highest rate of delinquencies in 2006 compared with the prior year.  Cities in California led the list, with Sacramento at the top with a 10.7% year over year increase.  We noted some surprising weakness in Massachusetts (blue collar Brockton had the third highest rate at 9.7%).
    Melbourne, FL, at #27, was the only area in the southeast to make the top-30 list, which was published in the print edition of the Journal.  On an extended list at the Journal’s online web site, other Florida metro areas were listed in the top 50, but you have to go all the way down to 59th place before you find a non-Florida city in the southeast, Danville, VA, not exactly a hotbed for golf communities.  The first southeast city, outside of Florida, that we consider to be a lure to golfers and/or retirees is 101st ranked Athens, GA, where delinquencies increased 4.33% year over year.  Athens is an up and coming university town that offers a vibrancy and range of living options we’ve come to expect from towns with a major university, in this case the University of Georgia.
    Cities in the Carolinas were much farther down the list.  The list is available at the Journal's online site.

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    After playing many golf community courses younger than our teenagers, it is refreshing to step back in time and play a classic course like the Farmington Club in Charlottesville, VA whose history, in at least one way, traces back to the 18th Century.  Just four miles from Thomas Jefferson’s own home at Monticello, the third U.S. President designed in 1803 two-rooms in an octagon shape as an addition to his friend George Divers’ plantation house in the Farmington Estate.  Today, the octagon serves as a grand side entrance and room for Farmington’s welcoming clubhouse.
    The surrounding neighborhood is Charlottesville’s richest and includes tidy little brick homes with three bedrooms as well as estates behind large iron gates.  Even the small homes sit on multi-acre plots of land.  Unlike in many newer communities, the houses do not intrude on the golf course, yet during our round we encountered an annoying number of out-of-bounds stakes marking the “back 40” of the properties.  It was the only even slightly false note struck during the round, which we played with HomeOnTheCourse subscriber Bob Harris, former dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. 
    The Fred Findlay-designed golf course was built in 1927, during the golden age of American golf course architecture, and although it underwent a late 1980s redesign by Buddy Loving, the layout oozes with 1920s cachet. The three nines at Farmington are not long, and they put a premium on shot making on virtually every play.  The nines are played in three combinations; the South/North combo, at 6,600 yards from the back tees, is the original 18 and the standard.  The East nine (2,862 yards) was added in 1965 and is of a different character, considerably shorter and easier than the other nines, but with tighter landing areas and smaller greens. 
    The North/South routing (rating of 71.6 with a slope of 128) is a course of modest elevation changes, some gentle and some sharp doglegs, and tilted fairways that force you to think about placement from virtually every tee box.  We noted that some fairways tilted rather dramatically, calling for shaping of tee shots if you wanted a short approach, but penalizing you if you overcooked the draw or fade even a little.  Farmington puts a premium on the short game, and its short-practice facilities are about the best we have seen.  They include a large practice putting green, a green for long pitch shots (up to 70 yards) and a chipping green that includes a well-groomed sand trap with a range of angles and slopes from which to practice.  100_2035.JPG
    Farmington’s driving range is fairly standard fare, and shorter than most at just 250 yards.  Modified golf balls are provided; they fly normally up to about 140 yards, but beyond that their launch distance is ratcheted back (we don’t understand the physics of it, but the ball didn’t exactly fly off the clubface).  The limited balls are fine for warming up but not for getting the “feel” of four-iron shots.    
    Farmington’s 1,200 members are a comfortable mix of working families in their 30s and 40s and retirees.  The amenities appeal to all; Farmington offers more sporting amenities than most other clubs, with 18 tennis courts (three indoor) that are well used by its members, a large swimming pool, and a well-equipped fitness center the equal of those in most new communities.  Locker room facilities and the dining room are what you would expect, which is to say they befit the overall traditional private club atmosphere.   The club’s dining facilities enjoy a solid reputation; the food we had at lunch was excellent.
    Initiation fees for a family (or couple) is $29,000, with monthly dues currently $400 per month.  You will need one member to propose you and two to second the nomination.  Homes in the adjacent Farmington neighborhood average around $2 million and don’t dip much below $1.5 million.  A viable alternative is Ednam Forest nearby, an established community with an eclectic mix of homes in a heavily wooded area and prices about 25% less than in Farmington.
    How many golf clubs can boast a clubhouse designed by a U.S. President?  You will need to make a few friends to sponsor you for membership, but take some courses at UVA and one of your professors could very well be a member.  But while you are waiting to be approved, the excellent, University of Virginia owned and managed Birdwood course is across the street.  For Farmington membership information, contact Membership Coordinator Clare Rannigan at 434-245-0684, or crannigan@fccva.com.

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There is a lot of history around, and even on, the course at Farmington.

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