As a member of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, I am asked annually to rate all the golf courses in the state. This year, ratings are required only for "public" golf courses that do not require a membership for access. I'll be filling out my ballot in a few weeks, but in case you are planning a trip to South Carolina to look at homes or for a golfing vacation this winter, here is how I rate the public golf courses of South Carolina, on a scale of 2 (Okay) to 5 (Outstanding); I have no ratings of '1' (Avoid) because I haven't played any truly awful courses in South Carolina in many, many years. Of course, much as I would have liked to, I have not yet played every course in the state.
Rating of 5 (Outstanding)
The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island Chanticleer at Greenville CC, Greenville May River Golf Club, Bluffton Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head Island Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Pawleys Island
Rating of 4 (Very Good)
True Blue Plantation, Pawleys Island Barefoot Resort, Dye Course, Myrtle Beach Rivertowne, Mt. Pleasant
Rating of 3 (Good)
TPC Myrtle Beach, Murrells Inlet Grande Dunes Resort Course, Myrtle Beach Barefoot Resort Love Course, Myrtle Beach Savannah Lakes Monticello Course, McCormick Wild Dunes Resort Course, Isle of Palms Cobblestone Park, Blytheville Country Club of South Carolina, Florence Coosaw Creek, North Charleston Heron Point, Hilton Head
Rating of 2 (Okay, Worth Playing)
Savannah Lakes Tara Course, McCormick Charleston National, Mt. Pleasant Dunes West, Mt. Pleasant Santee National, Santee Founders Club, Pawleys Island
The Heart of Taxes
Most states in the Southeast are tax-friendly, especially to retirees. But there are some differences in tax rates by state and, most certainly, by locality, that warrant the attention of folks with enough income to be concerned. (Of course, no worries if you choose Florida as it levies no state income tax. However, its property taxes, depending on locality, tend to be higher than those in the three other states we consider below.) Here are the highlights regarding taxes for North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida:
North Carolina Social Security income is exempt from North Carolina income tax assessment, and the state also exempts the first $2,000 from private pensions (more for government pensions). At the beginning of 2014, the state implemented a flat tax rate of 5.8 % for individual taxpayers. (It had been 7% on income under $60,000 and 7.75% on income over that level.) For joint returns, the top level of 7.75% begins at $100,001. The state sales tax in North Carolina is 4.75%; however, each county assesses an additional sales tax of between 2% and 2.75% (depending on the county). A state “use” tax is also levied on all out-of-state personal property purchases that would have been taxed if bought in North Carolina. Property taxes in North Carolina vary and are levied at the local level. North Carolina does not collect any inheritance tax; that levy was repealed effective during the 2013 tax year.
South Carolina Social Security income is exempt from South Carolina state income taxes. Up to $3,000 of pension income is exempt for taxpayers under the age of 65; those over the age of 65 can exempt $15,000 of retirement income. (Each spouse is entitled to the exemption if both collect pensions.) The state assesses a 7% levy on any taxable income over $14,251. Sales tax in the state is 6%, but 7% on lodging expenses. A few expensive items, such as boats, cars and airplanes, are taxed at 5% up to a maximum levy of $300. The purchase of unprepared food is assessed at 3%. Local governments have the freedom to assess an additional 1% if they require it for school construction or other projects. There is no estate tax in South Carolina. Local governments assess a 4% tax on the fair market value of primary residences in their jurisdictions. (Millage rates vary among the municipalities.)
Georgia In Georgia, the taxman giveth and the taxman taketh away. Social Security income is exempt from state taxes. Although single-filing Georgians pay a 6% income tax on any income over the $7,000 level, and married couples filing jointly over the $10,000 level, taxpayers from age 62 receive a nice break. Taxpayers from age 62 to 64 may exclude the first $35,000 of retirement income, and those aged 65 and older get to exclude up to $65,000. (Married couples filing jointly can each claim the exemptions up to the maximum.) Georgia state sales tax is 4%, with additional sales taxes added on by some local jurisdictions in the form of educational, special purpose, homestead and even Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) levies. Each county in Georgia levies its own personal and real property (real estate) taxes; personal property is anything owned that is not real estate. Some modest homestead exemptions are offered; for example, a person age 65 or older who resides in the state most of the year may claim a $4,000 exemption. There is no inheritance tax in Georgia.
Florida There is no personal state income tax in Florida and, therefore, retirees do not pay any tax on their retirement income. The state levies a 6% sales tax, with counties in the state levying an additional sales surtax on the first $5,000 of the purchase price. Without a state income tax, local governments rely on personal and real property taxes to fund local operations. Millage rates vary widely; those contemplating a move to Florida should ask their real estate agents to be clear about local property taxes. Property taxes in Florida are based on “fair” or market value of the property. A $50,000 homestead exemption is available to residents who meet certain requirements, including that their property is their primary residence. The first $25,000 in personal property value is not taxed. Like the other southeast states above, Florida requires no payment of inheritance tax.
To demonstrate the difference in property taxes north and south, we picked identical selling prices for homes in Livingston, NJ, where my wife and I grew up many years ago, and in Pawleys Island, SC, where we own a vacation home. We made sure neither sample home was in a gated community with amenities. The random price we chose was $449,000. In Livingston, a 3 bedroom, 1 ½ bath 1,452 square foot home on a small lot that was listed at $449,000 actually sold for $453,600. Property taxes in 2014 were assessed at $9,576. There are a number of homes in Pawleys Island listed at $449,000 but we had trouble finding one smaller than 3,000 square feet, let alone under 1,500 square feet. We chose a 5 bedroom, 2 1/2 bath house near the Founders Club golf course at 3,000 square feet that was listed in October and is still on the market. The property tax assessment for 2014 was just $878.73. I will be calling the Georgetown County tax assessor soon. The home next to Founders Club, about ½ mile from our condominium, is 50% larger than our condo in square footage, has its own lot, and is listed for probably 60% more than the current value of our vacation home; and yet we pay 2 ½ times more in property taxes…which just goes to show you it pays to attend to the details when searching for a home, even in the tax friendly confines of the Southeast.
The Home On The Course (HOTC) Awards for 2014
Tis the season for awards. In the spirit of the new year, here are the first annual HOTC awards, aka The Hotsies.
Most Confusing Strategy by an Uber-Wealthy Golf Community Developer Awarded to Jim Justice, Wintergreen Resort
The very rich are different than the rest of us; some seem confused about how to spend their money. With great fanfare just two years ago, West Virginia’s Jim Justice, who had previously purchased the famed Greenbrier Resort, bought the Wintergreen Resort, located about 45 minutes west of Charlottesville. The hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains were alive with the sound of rescue, since Wintergreen, suffering from financial problems and a coup de grace from a near snowless winter, was about to go under. Pairing the Greenbrier with Wintergreen and its 45 holes of excellent golf and a fully functioning ski area, must have seemed a natural to the promotional Justice. Immediately, he added to his reported $12 million purchase of the resort community by kicking in millions to upgrade the snowmaking capabilities and refresh the clubhouse on the mountaintop golf course. And then, midyear, he announced that Wintergreen was for sale. So far there are no takers primarily, we suppose, because few are as wealthy or as precipitous as Wintergreen’s soon to be former owner.
Most Construction Sounds Heard on a Golf Course Awarded to Ballyhack Golf Club, Roanoke, VA
As if Ballyhack is not a demanding golf course to play, in recent weeks the random sounds of chainsaws and hammered nails have filled the woods beside the swooping layout. A couple of homes under construction may not seem like a big deal, but compared to the no homes of previous years, it’s progress. Ballyhack was designed by Lester George who earlier attained fame in golf design circles with a similarly tough layout outside of Richmond at the Kinloch Golf Club. Ballyhack had big plans for selling lots and constructing homes around the periphery of the muscular layout, but the recession threw everything into a stall. Until recently, the only “homes” built were a string of golf villas that houses visiting members beside the finishing hole. (Most of Ballyhack’s membership is “national.”) Their exteriors are everything the golf course isn’t, which is to say plain, unassuming and nothing special to look at. But no serious golfer who gets the chance to take on Ballyhacks swooping fairways and yawning bunkers will care.
Wildest Hole of the Year Awarded to #15 at Mountain Park, Traveler’s Rest, SC
Gary Player's one-year old design for The Cliffs at Mountain Park is pretty tame, some might say "relaxed," with many of the modern touches, such as rough hewn bunkering and a few manmade grass dunes, that are unsurprising in golf designs of the last decade or two. But nothing -- not Player's other holes or any other course you might have played -- prepares you for the 15th hole, a par 5 that begins innocently enough from an elevated tee. (I played the hole at 518 yards.) A good drive that finds the fairway makes for a thorny decision for the layup shot because you face a tall, V-shaped tree at dead center of the fairway, just beyond the landing zone and about 120 yards from the green. Large mounds at front right and left of the green make for an awkward approach shot if you are left or right of the tree. Trees in fairways are signatures of Player rival Jack Nicklaus whose obstructions are best circumvented. This Player flora seems meant to be taken on directly, but the attempt to play through the slingshot-shaped limbs of the Sweet Gum tree could certainly turn a round sour.
Most Consistent Strategy by a Multiple Golf Course Owner Awarded to John McConnell, McConnell Golf Group
John McConnell’s strategy seems simple: Buy every excellent private golf course in the Carolinas that is available at discounted or even distressed prices. The former medical software company owner started with his hometown Raleigh Country Club, a Donald Ross designed classic surrounded by an aged neighborhood, and followed it up with a luscious stew of golf community courses – among them Treyburn in Durham, The Cardinal in Greensboro, Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point, The Reserve in Pawleys Island – and iconic layouts that bring a tear to the eyes of golf raters and serious players, like Sedgefield in Greensboro and Musgrove Mill in rural Clinton, SC. McConnell can’t pass up a classy bargain, and this year’s acquisitions were Brook Valley, an Ellis Maples design in eastern North Carolina, and the circa 1894 Asheville Country Club in western North Carolina, the owner’s third Ross course and his 10th in total. Members of one McConnell course have privileges at the others, making a home in one of the adjacent golf communities a potential lure for serious relocating golfers. If we had an award for Golf Membership Plan of the Year, McConnell would get that too. Wait ‘til next year…
Favorite Couple of the Year Awarded to a Couple from Ohio
I met a baby boomer couple at the wedding of a friend's son last March. The conversation turned to golf communities, and they indicated they were ready to move south from their home in Ohio. I ran through all the questions I typically ask a couple in order to qualify their interests, and it became clear that a home in Florida was in their wheelhouse. I thought Naples or Sarasota seemed to fit their interests, and by June they scheduled a visit to Naples. My agent there, Jeff Feldman, showed them around in May and then on a return visit in October. At the end of the trip, they bought a home, not in a golf community but near plenty of golf. When Jeff called to tell me about the sale, he indicated the couple also liked another home in the area and was thinking of putting in an offer. A week later they did, it was accepted, and within one week, they had purchased a home to live in and another one to rent out as an "investment." In Naples real estate, it has been a very good year for everyone.
Cheapest Golf Community Real Estate -- in a Good Way Awarded to Keowee Key, Salem, SC
Keowee Key on Lake Keowee in South Carolina could be forgiven if it had self-esteem problems. Just down the lake from the upscale Reserve at Lake Keowee and a few of the toney Cliffs Communities, Keowee Key is not top of mind for most folks looking for property on or near one of the cleanest manmade lakes in the east (created by planned flooding in the 1960s for hydroelectricity purposes). But eventually couples looking for a golf community that offers homes for sale facing the lake and priced, in some cases, at less than $400,000, will give Keowee Key a first and second look. The George Cobb designed golf course, updated a few years ago, doesn't have the modern touches of the Fazio and Nicklaus layouts up the lake, but like everything else in this community, it is understated and a bargain. (Note: A Duke Power plant three miles away undoubtedly tamps down prices.)
Biggest Jump in Golf Course Ratings Awarded to Mountain Park and Currahee Club, Toccoa, GA
The Golfweek representatives who rate courses for the magazine thought enough of the Gary Player layout for The Cliffs at Mountain Park (see above) that a year after its debut, it entered the Golfweek Top 100 list at a robust #43. Mountain Park “stands in bold contrast to the prevailing aesthetic of lush, heavily manicured parkland that otherwise prevails at this residential chain of seven Cliffs properties straddling the North Carolina/South Carolina border,” wrote Golfweek architecture critic Brad Klein. Golfweek’s raters went similarly gaga over the George Fazio design for Currahee Club in northern Georgia. I visited a week after the Golfweek raters made their second visit, and Currahee management was still agog at the anecdotal comments they received from the raters. They must have really flipped when they saw the 2014 Top 100 rating come in at #42, a jump of 20 spots on the list. I understand: The muscular golf course sweeps and swirls, with long carries across ravines and testy approach shots to tilted and elevated greens, just the kind of in-your-face layout some Golfweek raters seem to love. The golf course is not for the faint of heart, and I wondered how female and senior members might adapt to the requirements of the long carries. For me, the only disappointment is that you see nearby Lake Hartwell just a couple of times from the elevated fairways.
Too Big to Fail Awarded to The Landings, Savannah, GA
For some golf communities, size isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Consider the 42-year old Landings just outside Savannah, a 4,800 acre, 8,000 resident behemoth with six golf communities, virtually every other amenity and more than 100 social clubs for just about every hobby and activity you could think of. Many of those clubs are affinity groups, a chance for all residents from, say, Ohio, to get together and discuss the finer points of being a Buckeye or the deliciousness of beating Michigan in football most years recently. The Landings even maintains its own on-site real estate agency whose revenues add to the community chest and keep homeowner fees at a reasonable rate. The Landings ranks at the top of the financial stability scale.
Most Undiscovered Area for Golf Communities Awarded to eastern North Carolina
With the purchase of Brook Valley, a country club in underappreciated Greenville, NC, which is home to Eastern Carolina University and its well-regarded Division I athletics program, the McConnell Group of iconic golf courses in the Carolinas may have just put the area on the map for those seeking a golfing lifestyle in the Albemarle Sound area. One of our first circuits of 2015 will include a swing through the area, with stops at Albemarle Plantation in Hertford, NC, Scotch Hall Preserve in Merry Hill, Cypress Landing in Chocowinity and then Brook Valley in Greenville. (Although the golf course is under renovation and will not be finished before March.) We may also make a stop at Ironwood Country Club in Greenville if only to play a Lee Trevino designed course for the first time. (We will make sure to bring our left to right game.) It is about time this historic section of the South got some attention for its golf communities.
Comeback Golf Market of the Year Awarded to Naples, FL
Few markets took a recession hit to real estate much deeper than Naples did (think Miami, Las Vegas and, maybe, Phoenix, and you’ve got most of them). But as fast as the Naples market fell, that is nearly how fast it has recovered. As of the end of October, the number of closed sales increased 13% over the same period in 2013 and were the highest ever recorded in the market; and the inventory of listed homes was 10% lower than in October 2013 with just a 4 ½ month supply remaining (6 months is considered “in balance”). With some pride, I can report that our company added to the totals of homes sold when we assisted a couple from Ohio in the purchase of two homes, one for their use and one for investment purposes (see above). The average selling price of a home in Naples during the first 10 months of 2014 was a little over $500,000, the highest level since 2008 but still 30% below the highest mark ever in 2007. Therefore, substantial room for price growth remains despite the potential for a record year in 2014; and with developers rushing in to build new communities – including a golf community or two – and barring any economic cataclysm, we think a return to Naples’ high-priced glory days may be on the horizon.
If you have any questions or comments, please contact me. I value your opinions, and your input will help us communicate the most useful information for you and our thousands of other readers. To you and yours, have a happy, healthy and altogether wonderful new year. Thank you for your loyalty.