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    The internet and low-fee brokers have put a bit of a scare into traditional real estate brokers over the last few years.  Now the big name brokers are fighting back with creative techniques quite unusual for the former "protected" class.  Good for them...and those of us hoping to sell a house in the coming years.
    We first learned about the new approach from C.B. Johnson, our real estate contact in Wilmington, NC.  Johnson, who leads the Fine Coastal Living Team under the Keller-Williams banner, recently introduced his "No Strings" listing program .  Its most attention-getting feature is a 0% commission if you sell your home before he does.  How can he do it?
    "I know I will sell it faster than the owners will," says Johnson, "because I won't take an overpriced listing."  If the owner lists with Johnson, sells the home before he does but wants the Jonhson team to write and process the contract, the fee is just 1%.  If the owner lists a home with Fine Coastal Living and the team procures the buyer, then the commission is 4%, a couple of points below the customary commission rate.  If some agency other than Fine Coastal finds the buyer, the commission is 6% total.
    Almost as impressive is that the homeowner may cancel the listing at any time.  All it takes is a phone call and two days to yank the listing from the Multiple List Service.
    The idea is not unique, although not yet widespread.  Bruce Hardie, an agent in Spokane, WA, offers an identical service called the "Hassle Free Listing."
    Whether hassle free or no strings attached, look for this kind of creativity to spread.  Lucky us.

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Saturday, 24 February 2007 18:00

Quote of the Day: No thanks

"They put in PGA-type bunkers (sand traps).  Look, the average age of the golfer here is 78. The average handicap is 20 or above. We're not good golfers..." 
-- 73 year old John Reppert, a golf-playing resident of Rossmoor, a Walnut Creek, CA, "active retirement" community.  Developers spent $2 million on golf course improvements only to find some of its members quit because the course was too difficult.  (Source:  The San Francisco Chronicle)
    Given that an aging population puts stress on a state's ability to provide services, and that the converse is probably true -- that a state with more young persons is less burdensome and more vibrant -- we thought we'd take a look at the 2000 U.S. Census data of populations in those states that have significant inflows of retirees.  Here they are:

                                    Age by states

                           %65+        <18            18 to 65

Arizona             12.8            26.6            60.6

Florida              17.6            22.9            59.5

No. Carolina    12.1            24.7            63.2

So. Carolina     12.6            24.1            63.3

Georgia               9.6            26.0            64.4

Virginia              11.4            24.1            64.5

Tennessee        12.6            23.3            64.1

Alabama            13.2            23.9            62.9

Texas                   9.9            27.7            62.4

Nevada              11.3            25.7            63.0
    An article we are writing about Porters Neck Plantation Country Club in Wilmington, NC, and one we received in an email from our friends at Golf Vacation Insider got us thinking about the true definition of a private club.
    Porters Neck, which has been available for public play for a few decades, recently raised its greens fees by about 60% to over $100 and its initiation fees for new members to $30,000.  Last year, the members commissioned more than $1 million of work on the Tom Fazio golf course and added two tennis courts.  The club is also in its second go-round with Creative Golf Marketing, a firm that specializes in raising the membership rolls at private clubs (Porters Neck has even enrolled in CGM's 180-course "Private Club Network," which provides access to all the courses for members of clubs in the network).  Put all that together and the club is signalling its intention to be members-only.  Yet when asked if they plan to go private, Porters Neck officials say, “We’ve always been private.”  What they mean, they explain, is that they have always been “privately owned.”  Come on:  Private means members-only, not the opposite of municipally owned.
    The emailed article from Golf Vacation Insider describes how non-members can gain access to the “private” Gallery Club in Tucson where Tiger et al are competing in the Accenture Match Play Championship this weekend on the club’s South course (as we write this, Tiger has just lost to Nick O'Hern).  The North and South courses, according to GVC, alternate days when they are open to public play; in other words, on a day when the South is private, the North is public, and vice versa. That’s great for us golfers traveling in the Tucson area but, by definition, the club is not private.
    Like the word “unique” – how unique is very unique? -- privacy should never be qualified. That’s why we would outlaw the meaningless but ubiquitous term “semi-private” in favor of the more accurate “public access.”
    Of course, as always, we invite alternate views.  Just register or sign in and leave your comment here...on our semi-private blog site.


    At the Wintergreen Resort, you can ski and play golf, sometimes on the same day.  Located in Nellysford, VA, about 35 minutes from Charlottesville, Wintergreen is one of those hybrid resort/residential communities where the transient and permanent exist in peaceful harmony. 
    At 11,000 acres, Wintergreen is huge, with mountain real estate accounting for about 2,000 acres and the Stoney Creek community in the valley below sitting on 3,000 acres.  The rest will remain natural forever thanks to an arrangement in 1994 between Wintergreen’s owners and the Wintergreen Development Company.  The result, the Wintergreen Nature Foundation, maintains a full-time staff of six, supplemented by many volunteers from Wintergreen.  The Foundation promotes a wide range of activities, including wildflower reseeding efforts, workshops and nature walks on the community’s 30 miles of marked trails, some of which link directly to The Appalachian Trail.  Mountain bikers have use of 24 separate trails, mostly near the ski slopes.100_1990
    At Wintergreen, the core recreation activities are skiing and golf.  Wintergreen’s mountain top area is warm and inviting, with a Euro-village style lodge just steps from the resort’s 24 slopes, more than half of them lighted, and from the clubhouse and pro shop for Devil’s Knob, an Ellis Maples 18 hole layout that inspires awe, some fear and a little loathing.  Opened in 1977, the course provides the views you’d expect from a mountaintop, but some crazy rolls and cliff hanging lies as well.  Many local golfers prefer the two original nines of the 27 holes at the Stoney Creek course at the bottom of the mountain, which is open year round.  It is not uncommon in January and February for Wintergreen’s hardiest sportsmen and women to ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon.
    The Shamokin and Tuckahoe nines at Stoney Creek are the combination most favored by members.  Rees Jones laid out the Shamokin and Monaccan nines in 1988 and added the Tuckhoe 10 years later.  The routing is clear and without surprise, with only one or two blind shots from the tees and no gussied-up landscaping.  The greens, which are well trapped, roll fast and true with many undulations, yet we didn’t scratch our heads once over a misread break. The first hole on the Tuckahoe nine starts from a dramatically elevated tee to a generous fairway framed by traps on the right and a huge lake at greenside right.  It forms a beautiful and intimidating tableau from the tee box.  A decade ago, Golf Digest named Stoney Creek one of the top 50 resort courses in the U.S.
    With a grand smorgasbord of activities at Wintergreen, the community offers a dizzying array of membership plans.  A fee of $17,000, 80% of it refundable when a membership is resigned and reissued, opens up the resort’s amenities on a “cafeteria-style” basis that includes not only golf, but also tennis, skiing, fitness centers, pools and access to the community lake.  For example, you can buy unlimited golf for $4,000 annually, or unlimited golf, tennis and snow sports for $4,350, a bargain.
    Housing options are high and low in Wintergreen in terms of both altitude and price, with nice golf course lots in the ½ to ¾ acre range for under $200,000.  Count on an average of about $175 per square foot in construction costs.  A few of the most expensive homes, some with impressive views, top $1 million but the median price is close to $600,000.  Town homes rarely exceed $500,000, but a new top-of-mountain luxury building, called The Summit, will provide large condos and spectacular views for around $1 million.
    Life at some remove from a sizeable town (Wintergreen is 40 minutes from Charlottesville) demands a few modest accommodations.  At 15 miles, it can seem a long way to a supermarket, and some Wintergreen residents take coolers on their weekly grocery expeditions.  And although Wintergreen’s residents and resort guests co-exist quite peacefully, the full-timers tend to arrange their recreation schedules accordingly, opting to play golf and ski on weekdays rather than the more heavily trafficked weekends.  Given the incredible amount and variation of the natural land in Wintergreen, its residents are more than happy on weekends to take a hike.

Bottom Line:  Wintergreen’s residents share the community’s ample number of amenities and 6,000 acres of unsullied natural space with more than 100,000 resort guests a year, yet there is plenty of room for all.  If you don’t require the cosseted life of a private country club community, Wintergreen’s range of year-round activities, fine variety of golf courses, reasonable real estate prices and beautiful views could put you on permanent vacation.

    Today the golf course view.  Tomorrow the woods.  That could be the fate for some in the U.S. northeast, midwest and elsewhere who want to move south in the next few years but are determined to ride out the current real estate slalom and hang onto their primary homes.   
    PMI, the Private Mortgage Insurance Company, knows something about risk, and every year the company publishes a “risk index” which sizes up the potential for decline in major housing markets.  The latest index was released in late January.  Not surprisingly, the riskiest markets are on the west coast, with Sacramento leading the way with a 60.4% risk of declining home values.  The riskiest non-California market is the Nassau-Suffolk Counties area of Long Island, with a 60% risk factor.  Contrast that with the Charlotte, NC, area with a 9% decline potential, or San Antonio with a 7.5% risk.  That’s quite a spread for those considering moving south in a few years, and maybe it argues for taking your lumps now rather than later.
    Financial advisors are always preaching about conservative portfolios of investments as you approach or enter retirement.  The mantra is to reduce your risk, and being of a certain age ourselves, we can’t argue with that.  But it seems the same advice might apply to housing, no?
    Consider this.  Your home on Long Island (or wherever) is not appreciating and isn’t likely to for the next few years, according to many sources.  That gated golf community you’ve had your eye on in the Charleston area is appreciating at close to 10% annually and seems likely to continue to do so as more and more baby boomers head south.  How much risk do you want to take that next year your primary home may appreciate enough to keep up with the appreciation of the house you want to buy in a few years down south?  And if you are still waiting five years from now, will you have to settle for, say, a wooded view rather than a lake view?
    For the adventuresome, housing futures, which trade pretty much like stock market futures, may be an intermediate strategy, especially if you live in one of the 10 markets you can bet on (or against).  For more information, a simple Google search by the term "housing futures" will provide some information.
    In the spirit of full disclosure, we own shelter in Connecticut and, with one child three years from college, we have a convenient excuse not to take our own advice.  Out of impetuous dumb luck, we bought a condo near the coast in South Carolina seven years ago.  So we have some yang to go with the yin of a soft market in the Hartford area.  But three years from now, as empty nesters, the view from here will be very different.

Photos by L. Gavrich
    You win some and lose some.  Castle Bay developer Randy Blanton apparently convinced the state transportation authority in North Carolina to build the Highway 17 bypass just on the other side of his property near Wilmington, rather than directly through it.  He had no such luck with the utility company whose high- tension poles and wires ruin the landscape on an otherwise visually interesting and playable links style layout.
     Blanton, we learned, had hired an architect from Raleigh to build the owner’s dream course, based on the Scottish links he had come to love on visits across the pond.  Not Scottish enough, it turned out, and Blanton decided to build it himself.  He included dramatic mounding on and around the fairways, mindful that the just-outside Wilmington location wasn’t exactly the old sod.  Not too many pot bunkers, but the greens are large, fast and quite undulating and we found them in fine condition.  Fortunate not to wind up above any pin positions, we nevertheless dropped a few at the back of the greens and couldn’t hold them within 10 feet of the cup.  Like a true links course, trees are few, although they do frame the backdrops (unfortunately houses do as well, but thankfully not on every hole).
    We had a true links experience on a cold November day.  The wind blew hard, gusting to 30 mph at times; we gave up on keeping the cigar lit by the second tee.  On one of the par 3s, which looked pretty routine to us, we left three straight shots short of the green; unfortunately there was a pond in front.  Castle Bay looks gentle, but when the wind blows, it is anything but.  There is also enough well placed water on the course that, even when gentle zephyrs blow, a hook or slice can blow your round.  100_1119.JPG
    Okay, now for the bad stuff.  The course is overrun with high-tension wires that are everywhere, marring every view it seems and turning every opportunity to fantasize your way across the pond into disappointment.  If ever we wished for underground utilities, this was it.  And on a few holes, closely packed houses were lined up along the edge of the fairway, but at a safe enough distance across a stream.  The ridiculously reasonable greens fees –- less than $50 when we played –- offered slight compensation.  We left Castle Bay thinking more about what could have been than what was.  Still, if you are in the area of Hampstead, NC, stop by.  If you keep your head down –- before, during and after your swing – you’ll have a great round.
    Note about the housing:  Randy Blanton and his fellow developers originally offered seven basic models of houses between 2,400 and 2,600 square feet.  When early purchasers  opted for just two of them, they reduced the portfolio to just the two, one four bedrooms and one five, both with three baths.  The master suites are good sized, but the other bedrooms are smallish.  Both models have room for an office.  They don’t have formal dining rooms, but there is the capacity to redo the walls to build a formal dining area.  Every home has a view of the golf course.  Prices run from just below $400,000 and up depending on whether you order transom windows and other flourishes. Lots, which are not sold without a house on them, are no larger than 1/3 acre, and that gives the community a somewhat high-density feel.
    Castle Bay is located in Hampstead, NC.  For information about Castle Bay real estate, contact Susan Jarman at susan@susanjarman.com or (910) 313-0004.  For the golf course, contact (910) 270-1247.

    "We can...come up with cooler, more advanced products that will satisfy [subscribers] more."  ---  Mel Karmazin, Sirius Satellite chief executive, predicting consumer benefits from the proposed merger of equals with XM Satellite Radio (Wall Street Journal, A1, today).

    We are dedicated XM subscribers, and on those long drives through the south, XM is a great companion at every hour of the day (what a treat to listen to live Major League Baseball from the west coast at 1 a.m.).  Neither XM nor Sirius was likely to survive without a merger, and yet getting past the regulators will be tough.  We're pulling for them; if nothing else, perhaps the new company can push the PGA to put better announcers on the golf coverage (Channel 146 on XM).  Golf was not designed for radio coverage, to be sure, but they can do a lot better on the pauses between shots than the constant fawning over Tiger Woods. 
    Of course, we should always be careful what we wish for...
    Before our college visit to Sewanee, TN, last week, the University of the South warned us not to rely on our cell phones for communication, indicating that service in the town was “spotty.”  It reminded us of visits to dozens of golf course communities where, indeed, service was often unreliable.  We had no problem with service in Sewanee, but we did speak with others who could not raise a signal with Verizon and the other services (we use Cingular).  Advice:  If you are a big user of your cell phone, make sure you add that to your list of criteria when you check out a potential place to live.

Residents complained about poor cell phone service at The Cliffs at Glassy in rural South Carolina (35 minutes from Greenville).  Developer Jim Anthony responded by putting a cell tower in a flagpole at the very top of the 3/4 mile high community.  (photo by L. Gavrich)
Sunday, 18 February 2007 23:00

Amelia Island and north of Jacksonville

    We will be visiting Osprey Cove (Georgia), North Hampton and Queens Harbour (north of Jacksonville, FL) and Amelia Island the first week of March and selected communities north of Myrtle Beach later in the month.  If you have comments or suggestions for us in advance of these trips, please let us know.

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