Let’s say the information at one golf community’s web site piques your interest enough to consider a visit to the community. What is the most comprehensive and cost effective way to explore that community in person?
Most golf communities offer “discovery” packages that combine lodging, a meal or two, and access to the golf club and other amenities over a couple of days, and at prices you would be hard pressed to duplicate by arranging the visit yourself. In order to qualify, you must consent to a tour of the community with one of its salespeople but, in our experience, these are of short duration –- typically 90 minutes or so –- and the salespeople are savvy enough not to exert pressure. It is the best way to "discover" the community.
The following is a rundown of discovery packages in golf communities we can recommend. Because it is important to feel as if you are a member and resident during your visit, we are not including discovery packages that feature lodging in a hotel or inn off premises, although many fine golf communities do not have homes available to offer to discovery package guests. Contact me and I will be happy to identify other communities we recommend that feature discovery packages.
We have worked with the owners and salespeople in most of these communities and might be able to arrange for an extra or two to be thrown in with the package (or reduce the cost). Please contact me if you would like to visit and I will discuss with the community.
The Landings, Savannah, GA
It is not surprising that The Landings, one of the most comprehensively organized golf communities in the Southeast, offers one of the most comprehensive discovery packages over a choice of three or four days. At just $375 per couple, and given the size of The Landings and its six golf courses, we encourage you to opt for the four-day package. You’ll stay in one of the homes inside the gates of the 4,800-acre community only 15 minutes from the exciting city of Savannah. You’ll have the access of a member to all the amenities in the community, including golf, plus a narrated boat tour around the island and a “Savannah adventure.” Food is on your dime, but with access to The Landings’ clubhouses, you’ll get a good idea of what the chefs can produce.
Belfair/Berkeley Hall/Colleton River Plantation, Bluffton, SC
The big three of Bluffton, all the products of local uber-developer John Reed, go one step beyond many discovery packages by adding a clubhouse lunch to their offerings. It is an especially good idea to experience life as a member at one of these communities, albeit for only a couple of days, because club membership is mandatory with property ownership. Package prices vary a bit among the three multi-course communities but the features are virtually the same and include the lunches, on-site lodging in a golf cottage, golf each day, and access to tennis courts, fitness centers, golf practice areas and the clubhouses. Three day, two-night stays range from $450 to $675 per couple, depending on time of the year.
Reynolds Lake Oconee, Greensboro, GA
Reynolds calls its discovery visit a “lifestyle” package, but whatever you call it, it is a comprehensive introduction to one of the highest quality, multi-golf-course communities in the South, with a few extra goodies you won’t find in other packages. These include a two-hour pontoon ride on beautiful Lake Oconee, complimentary breakfast each morning, and a $75 credit good for dining, marina or merchandise. Two rounds of golf are also part of the package, but if that doesn’t rub you the right way, you can redeem the privilege for a $100 spa certificate at the on-site Ritz Carlton hotel (weekdays only). Accommodations are at a choice of the Ritz or a cottage condominium, and all the pools, tennis courts and fitness center are at your disposal as well.
The Cliffs, seven locations in NC & SC
The Cliffs, whose deluxe communities are located near Asheville, NC, and across the upstate area of South Carolina, including Lake Keowee, provides a discovery package for $495 that includes lodging in a Cliffs home (or alternately, a local partner hotel), a $100 dining credit at any of their clubhouse restaurants, use of the wellness centers, tennis, hiking trails, and kayaks and paddleboards at the Beach Club plus, of course, a round of golf for two at any of the community’s seven golf courses. Given a choice, I’d play either the Keowee Vineyards course (Fazio), the Walnut Cove course (Nicklaus) or the Mountain Park course (Player) about a half-hour from Greenville, but all Cliffs courses are always in peak condition.
Country Club of Landfall, Wilmington, NC
Okay, the discovery package at Landfall does not include on-site lodging, but the two hotels the club uses are located across the street from the community’s entrance and out on Wrightsville Beach, about 10 minutes away. That is a minor inconvenience given the price -– just $249 -- for the couple’s discovery package at this sprawling 45-hole golf community nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the historic, yet modern, city of Wilmington. Included in the two-night package is lodging, lunch and dinner in the clubhouse or other dining facilities on property, a round of golf each day on the Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye courses and access to the Drysdale Sports Center (as in Cliff Drysdale, former world champion tennis pro) that includes pool, tennis and fitness center.
If you would like more information about any of the communities listed above, or dozens of others we can recommend, please send me a note at email@example.com
Golf Community Web Sites Say Something About Their Communities
I wish I had a dime for every time golf community web sites used the phrase “Championship Golf Course.” What does that mean anyway, especially when the club championship is about the highest-level event ever played on the course? Ditto the come-ons “World Class Golf,” “Welcome to Paradise” and “Natural Beauty.” Such vacuous tags front and center on a web site are a bad introduction to a community and promise a Shangri-La that only exists in fairy tales.
Golf community prospects who start their searches on the Internet –- that is virtually everyone –- deserve more, much more. Most golf communities know this and are waiting, many of them with elaborately constructed web sites designed, ostensibly, to reflect the look, feel and lifestyle of the community. In that regard, they should emphasize details and dispense with the meaningless phrases.
Indeed, a golf community web site should have one goal in mind: Get you to visit. Golf community representatives I have spoken with over the years have indicated that, on average, one out of every five or six couples that visit their communities eventually purchase a property. Those odds are good enough to compel golf communities to spend a large chunk of their marketing budgets on their web sites and to develop discount-priced “discovery packages” for the serious customers. (See sidebar.)
No rational developer or real estate agency expects you to plunk down $300,000 or more after seeing a few photos and reading a few descriptions of a golf community. The trick for them is to be enticing enough to provoke the keen interest of couples looking to retire to a warm weather location, relocate for better job prospects or establish a family vacation spot. The best way to do that is with information, not puffery.
Some golf communities spend their web communication money wisely, others less so. After visiting hundreds of golf community and real estate agency web sites, I have seen the full gamut. Below, I provide some unsolicited advice on how golf communities can make their web sites more customer-friendly. Customers can judge the web sites they visit against these standards to assess whether any of these communities are worth a visit. (I am happy to discuss such visits and make arrangements.) Only a visit over a few days will convince you that the golf and “natural beauty” of a community comes close to matching the descriptions on its web site.
Be Forthcoming About Costs of Membership
No couple is going to buy into a golf community if they can’t afford the membership fees. And yet virtually no golf communities publish their club initiation fees and dues levels, forcing the prospective resident and member to find another source of information or call the community’s golf club for the details.
The monthly dues level is more important to a prospective buyer than is the initiation fee. Initiation fees alone should never stand in the way of moving to a particular golf community. Say that a couple has budgeted $400,000 for a home and $10,000 for an initiation fee, but the club in the community that attracts their interest charges $25,000. Because most people move to a golf community to both play golf and enjoy the social aspects of the club, customers should consider the initiation fee as part of the cost of the home; in the above example, buying a home priced at $385,000 or lower, instead of $400,000, would make up the $15,000 difference in the initiation fees. The slightly lower priced home may have every feature you want.
Dues levels are much more important because they are part of the overall carrying costs for a golf community home, along with taxes, homeowner association fees and utilities. And they can rise over time as the costs of maintaining the clubhouse, golf course and other amenities rise. Golf communities would do well to publish their current dues levels at their web sites rather than make prospective customers ask or, worse, not ask because they are frustrated with the lack of information and have moved on with their search.
Some golf community web sites tease you with an almost complete rundown of information on the club, but stop short of sharing anything to do with costs. Landfall, the well-organized coastal golf community near Wilmington that features 45 holes of golf by Dye and Nicklaus, is near the top of our recommendation list. But its otherwise helpful FAQ (frequently asked questions) section dodges the most frequently asked question of all –- “What are the costs?”
In some cases, it is possible to discover the initiation fees and dues from a source other than the developer’s web site. Daniel Island in coastal South Carolina is one of our favorite golf communities because, within walking distance or a two-minute drive, it encompasses all the day-to-day services that any family or couple would need. The Daniel Island Club is second to few in terms of golf -– 36 holes by Tom Fazio and Rees Jones –- and its proximity to a great American city, Charleston, just 15 minutes away. But the club does not publish its prices at the official Daniel Island web site. Membership there is not for the budget minded –- full-golf initiation fee for residents is $85,000 per family -- but a search for “Daniel Island club initiation fees” surfaces the web site of a local real estate agency called Daniel Island Property (DanielIslandProperty.com) and a rundown of the various membership categories (as of 2012), including prices. Of course, any customer seriously interested in a fine community like Daniel Island could phone the on-site real estate office, ask about membership fees and get a direct response. But many of us would rather make that call only once we intend to visit, after we have obtained all possible information from the community’s web site, including club fees.
Customer Takeaway: Don’t obsess about initiation fees unless, combined with the price of a home you like, they push you over your total budget for real estate and golf club. Focus more on the dues level as that will be an ongoing obligation and will determine if you can afford the lifestyle.
List Home Prices in Ascending Order
Most golf community (and real estate agency) web sites offer visitors the option to click to see the prices of homes for sale in ascending or descending order. But the default, for most, is descending order; that is, the highest priced home in the community is at top and the lowest priced is a long scroll away (or reached only after the clicking of a few additional buttons).
Virtually every community we have visited or researched, even those whose sweet spot for real estate is, say, $300,000, features one home or more for sale above $1 million. The risk of putting that $1 million home at the top and forcing $300,000 customers to scroll through the expensive homes to get to their price range is that they won’t; that top listing sets the tone for prices in the community, and it is not unreasonable for casual customers to assume either the homes are more expensive than they can afford or that the on-site real estate agency is trying to compel them to buy something above their price ranges.
The customers I work with know exactly what they can afford to spend for a house. The most enlightened communities highlight price ranges on their real estate listings home page. If prices range from, say, $400,000 to $1.3 million, the developer might feature buttons for homes priced $400K to $600k, $600K to $750K, $750K to $1 million, and $1 million+. Such an arrangement gives the customer full control of the search and gives the developer a better shot at converting a potential customer to a visitor, and eventually to a buyer. A second best approach is the let customers fill in their own price ranges, an option many golf community web sites feature.
Takeway: Home listings are the most important pages on a golf community’s web site (ditto for local real estate agencies that sell golf community properties). Expect them to be logically organized and easy to browse. If they aren’t, you may find that other aspects of the community are not quite organized.
Publish Overall Carrying Costs
I have some sympathy for expensive golf communities that don’t publish what it truly costs to live inside the gates. But like all key information, if it is important to customers, they will find it out eventually. Why make it hard for them?
I know of one (of many) Florida communities whose web site says nothing about carrying costs but encourages you to “download a fact sheet.” But when you try to download the fact sheet, you are asked to supply your name and address under a page headed “Request Fact Sheet.” This tactic, a cousin of “bait and switch,” is no way to start a relationship with a potential customer. Neither is offering the web site visitor a tab labeled “Membership” only to take you to a page with no details other than the email address and phone number of the membership director.
A friend in his 70s who lives in one particular east coast Florida club became burdened a few years ago with the overall carrying costs of club membership and home ownership in the community. He was paying homeowner association fees for the entire community, separate fees to his neighborhood association and golf dues that, in the aggregate, amounted to over $30,000 per year. (To save money, he recently opted for a social membership rather than a golf membership.) In all visible respects, this is a wonderful community with a well-tended golf course, a recently rehabbed clubhouse and an active group of members. But my friend tells me he expects to have trouble selling his house at a fair price. Those who might otherwise be interested understand the burden of the total carrying costs.
I would share the name of this particular community if it were an isolated example, but many golf communities, especially in Florida, assess fees that are not exactly visible from the start of the buying process. (I am happy to share the name of the community if you contact me.)
Takeway: Make sure you ask about overall carrying costs when you make your initial contact with a golf community. Or, better yet, ask me to do that for you.
Larry Gavrich Founder & Editor Home On The Course, LLC