Buy a Golf Home, See the World with No-Cost Lodging
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As vacation homeowners struggle to decide whether to rent out their place to strangers or to use it solely for their own enjoyment, they might consider a third alternative –- exchanging it for a week at a time or more with other homeowners around the world. Thousands of owners, especially those with residences in popular destinations, have used “home exchanges” to enjoy a golfing lifestyle in many U.S. and overseas locations. I can testify personally that the process works very well.
In 2009, I exchanged two weeks at our Pawleys Island, SC, condo for two weeks at a cottage just one mile from the Crail Golfing Society, with 36 holes on the east coast of Scotland that face the North Sea. The Balcomie Links opened for play in 1895 and Craighead, a more modern layout circa 1998, was designed by architect Gil Hanse of 2016 Olympic Games fame. No money changed hands in the exchange, and my wife Connie and I have become good friends with George and Dorothy, the owners of the Crail cottage, also a second home for them. (They live in Glasgow, 90 minutes away.)
I spent a first week in Crail with my son, who was a collegiate golfer at the time, and we played not only the Balcomie Links course (Craighead was closed for renovations) but also the Old Course at St. Andrews, just 8 miles from Crail, and others of the area’s fine links courses. Last year, my wife visited Crail with me and was wowed by the charm of the fishing village; as a non-golfer, she even enjoyed the 18-hole walk following our friends and me around the Craighead layout.
A few organizations manage these home exchanges for a small annual registration fee. The one we used initially and that I will use again for our next exchange is HomeLink, a network of local businesses in 22 locations around the world. Though independently owned and managed, HomeLink Organizers are members of the international group’s board of directors and coordinate activities across boundaries.
“Skype has become a very effective tool for both our HomeLink Organizers and Members alike,” says Katie Costabel, who owns and runs the U.S. operation with her husband Karl. Although HomeLink Organizers typically attend their annual destination meetings together, the ability to communicate face to face via Skype helps to deal with organizational issues on an ongoing basis.
Those who register with the organization do so through their in-country HomeLink organization but they have access to all listings worldwide. Katie indicates that the U.S. organization has nearly 2,000 members, not so large a group that she and Karl can’t provide personal service and answers to questions that arise. Worldwide, HomeLink boasts 9,000 members, which means that is at least how many homes are available for exchange, as many members offer more than one home for exchange. Of course, not everyone wants to visit every place in the world, but I have received requests from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and locations around the U.S. to consider an exchange.
I understand that security issues might be on the minds of anyone casually considering a home exchange. I confess they were on my mind as well in 2009 when George of Glasgow contacted me through HomeLink. My anxieties were assuaged by the fact that George and Dorothy had exchanged a few times prior and it was clear during our exchange of emails and one subsequent phone call that the couple would take as good care of our condo as we do. Apparently, we satisfied them of the same about their cottage. As it turned out, our condo was as if untouched after their two-week stay.
HomeLink is always looking for new members and Katie & Karl are offering readers of Home On The Course a special, three-month free trial membership, during which time you can list your home at the site and contact other members worldwide to arrange an exchange. (Please note: If you are successful, you will be asked to join at a special discounted rate for Home On The Course subscribers.) Even if you don’t yet have a home to exchange, you can survey their entire website as a visitor to get an idea of what types of homes in what locations are available for exchange. If you are looking to purchase a vacation or permanent home in an area that might be popular with overseas exchangers, you will get to know what they are looking for, and where. It could help with your decision to buy a home at the coast or in the mountains or on a lake.
Both Carolina states have ample coastlines, but when it comes to top-rated golf courses, North Carolina golf course developers saved the best for the west whereas in South Carolina, they saved the beasts for the east. At least that is how the golf raters on the two state panels see it.
The golf ratings panels in both states recently released their 2017 rankings of the best golf courses open to the public. On the North Carolina list, you have to go all the way down to the #11 slot to find a coast-located links, in this case the layout on Bald Head Island. Tiger’s Eye, one of the half dozen excellent public courses that thread their way through the Ocean Ridge Plantation golf community in Sunset Beach, weighs in at #14, and the Currituck Club, on the Outer Banks, holds down the #20 position.
Down in South Carolina, the panel identified the best 30 courses on a regional basis and listed them alphabetically, indicating only the top golf course in each region. But, by far, the Low Country Region (comprising Hilton Head and the Bluffton/Beaufort area) and the Grand Strand Region (Myrtle Beach plus the area north and south) contributed the vast majority of top layouts. The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island and Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head were #1 in their respective regions and have perennially finished #1 and #2 in the overall statewide rankings, often trading places. Every traveling foursome’s favorite in the Myrtle Beach area, Pawleys Island’s Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, topped the long list for the Grand Strand.
Tied for the top spots in the Upstate Region of South Carolina were two collegiate layouts, The Furman Golf Club in Greenville and The Walker Course at Clemson. Orangeburg Country Club, a classic layout in the town of the same name, easily won honors for the Midlands Region.
Back in North Carolina, the panel ranked the top 100 courses public or private, as well as the top 50 “you can play.” On the overall list, the famed Pinehurst #2, revamped a few years ago by the celebrated team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, held the top position in the state, followed by Grandfather Golf & Country Club in Linville, Mountaintop in Cashiers, Old North State Club in rural New London, and Pine Needles in Southern Pines. (Mountantop is new to the list.) Quail Hollow in Charlotte, site of this year’s PGA Championship, held down the 6th spot. On the public course list, seven of the top 10, led by Pinehurst #2, were within a short drive of Pinehurst. Linville Golf Club (#6) in the mountains and the university courses Finley at Chapel Hill’s University of North Carolina (#8) and Duke in Durham (#9) interrupted the string from the Sandhills region.
Scotch Hall Preserve, Merry Hill, NC, #13 on the North Carolina Panel’s top 50 courses open to the public. Scotch Hall is a golf community near the town of Edenton.
The private Treyburn Country Club in Durham, NC, ranks #34 of all layouts in the state. The Tom Fazio layout is at the heart of a community of homes with an average selling price between $400K and $500K.
Tidewater Golf & Country Club in Little River, SC, is one of the top 30 courses you can play in South Carolina according to that state’s golf panel. Located just north of Myrtle Beach, the course is surrounded by homes and water.
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
Making Sure that Golf Home is Right for You
In the March edition of Home On The Course, we discussed how to conduct effective research when beginning the search for a golf community home. If you missed the article, contact me and I will send it to you. In this edition, we start at the point that you are planning your visit(s) to the golf communities you have targeted; if all goes well on that visit, you could become the proud owners of a vacation or retirement home on the course.
Will You Act Your Age or Not
Some folks did a great job of raising their kids, but that was then and this is time, they feel, to surround themselves with people their own age. Or is it? We won’t belabor the point here, but many age-restricted communities put the accent on “restricted.” For example, grandchildren can only visit for a certain number of days each year. And in at least one community I read about, a 10-month old infant was “evicted” from her grandparents home after circumstances forced their daughter, the child’s mother, to live there. (The grown daughter was permitted residence.)
Most age-restricted communities require that at least one spouse or partner be over the age of 55. But the reality is that most golf communities in the Southeast are substantially composed of retirees by the very nature of their locations. For example, in remote locations such as McCormick, SC, home to the sprawling golf and lake community Savannah Lakes Village, almost all its 2,000-plus residents are into their post-retirement years. There is virtually no industry or other centers of employment within miles and, therefore, few young families and schools. Even in the more populated coastal towns in and around Myrtle Beach, for example, young parents are just starting to build their careers and family lives and do not have the financial resources to pay the comparably higher prices in an organized community, nor the golf fees to join the club. Therefore, residents of most of the many golf communities in the area rarely see a school bus come through or hear the squeals of toddlers splashing in the pool (except, perhaps, during summers when grandma and grandpa have visitors).
In short, you can satisfy your need to be around mature adults in an atmosphere of restrained exuberance even without signing up for the restrictions of a 55+ community. And for those energized by being around young people, target golf communities near urban areas that attract upwardly mobile careers and families.
Representing Your Interests Locally
When it comes to working with a local real estate agency, you have two ways to go; either work with the agency on site in the community, if the community maintains its own real estate office, or identify a local independent agency that knows the local golf community scene. There are benefits to both approaches, and a downside or two.
A real estate agent working for the developer or homeowner’s association inside the gates of a community almost always sells only properties in that community. Their mission is to sell you a home inside the gates; this, on the face of it, could cause them to oversell their communities. I work with a number of on-site agencies and can say, with confidence and experience, that I have not had any negative feedback from customers who felt pressured in any way to purchase a home from one of these agents. On the contrary, the agents I’ve worked with over the last 10 years tend to refrain from comparing their apples to the oranges of other local communities. What you get when you work with an on-site agency is specialized knowledge of that community and direct answers to any questions about financial conditions (see below), golf membership fees, activities and the overall lifestyle inside the gates. By the ethics of the real estate industry, and in most cases by law, a real estate agent is not permitted to provide fake answers to your real questions.
In a few cases, an on-site agency only promotes homes they have listed inside their community, not all the homes on the larger local MLS database. In other words, in rare cases, if you ask to see a listing of all homes for sale in a community, the on-site agency might only show you those for which they get a seller’s commission. This is rare, but before you visit, make sure to ask if the homes they sell comprise all the homes available in their community.
An independent agent not affiliated with a particular golf community lists all properties on the local MLS and can show you properties in all the local communities. They really don’t care where you purchase. (But, of course, they want you to buy a home through them.) They are free to be more open about comparing one community to another based on your requirements and preferences. I have established a network of local professionals I trust in most of the popular golf community areas of the Southeast; where I have not established a relationship, I interview agents in behalf of clients who ask for my assistance. Contact me for more information on this.
In summary, you should be confident in the professionalism and objectivity of agents both inside and outside a golf community. Just know that those inside can, in almost all cases, only sell you a home located in their community.
How to Discover the Essence of a Community
Any community proud of itself should be happy to show off what they have to any prospective buyer. Most high-quality communities make it easy and financially reasonable to check them out through what are ubiquitously known as “Discovery Packages.” Typically three days and two nights in duration, you pay a reasonable fee to essentially become a member for a few days, with access to the clubhouse, the golf course and other amenities, and overnight accommodations, most often on the property but in cases where rental inventories are small or non-existent, in a local hotel or bed and breakfast.
I am often asked by clients “How will we know if the people in a community will like us…or we will like them?” I always feel tempted to ask, “Well, how likable are you?” but the more politic answer is to suggest taking advantage of a discovery package. The on-site real estate agency or the membership director will arrange for you to play golf with other members, eat in the clubhouse with them and engage in other activities as you see fit. By the end of three days, you will know how you fit in and what your future neighbors are like. In truth, I have never heard a couple say that people in the community they moved to were impossible or even difficult to live with. Do they have different attitudes about politics and social mores? Yes, but likely so do your neighbors down the street where you live now.
One other thing to keep the anxiety level about relocation to a modest level: Most communities in the South are composed of residents from somewhere else, many of whom had the exact same anxieties you may have about blending in. They are sympathetic and will do what they can to make you feel comfortable, not only during your “discovery” phase but after you move in.
A Few Key Questions to Ask During Your Visit
Over the course of a visit to a golf community you have targeted, you will ask a whole bunch of questions. (If not, you have wasted your time.) Here are a few that you should definitely address:
What are the amounts of the financial reserves for the HOA and country club? Every organization must maintain a “rainy day fund” for unplanned events. For golf communities, these include hurricanes, clubhouse fires, mudslides and numerous other acts of God. We hope these never happen but, if they do, we want to know that our community has enough in reserve to get by. Well-run clubs and communities keep at least 6 months worth of expenses in reserve, many of them a year's worth or more.
Who owns/runs the golf club? Just because a developer built a golf club 30 years ago to attract home buyers doesn’t mean that developer, or those who bought the club in later years, are compelled legally to keep it as a golf course –- unless the original covenants indicate it will always be a golf course. If the members of the club who live inside the gates of the community purchased the club from the developer years ago, then they are responsible for keeping the club sustainable; only a vote of members could give up that right. This rarely happens since members understand that the value of their real estate is tied to the quality of the community’s golf course (or courses). In short, ask to see the original covenants governing the golf course.
What is the prospect of member assessments? Some golf clubs that suffered during the 2008 recession found it necessary to ask their members to help sustain the club financially through extra assessments (above and beyond normal dues payments). Other communities are coming to an age at which the golf course, especially greens, clubhouse and other amenities require renovations or a complete redo. (The Landings outside Savannah, which passed its 40th anniversary a few years ago, will be replacing one of its three clubhouses and adding other facilities in the next few years, for which they are asking their residents for either a one-time lump sum or an assessment added to their monthly dues for the next 10 years.) These assessments are not developed frivolously but typically have the buy-in of a large majority of residents. You should not be intimidated by the prospect of assessments, but you should be aware of what might be on the horizon.
How close will I be to important services? It is generally true that real estate prices in golf communities are inversely proportional to their distances from thriving urban communities. (Upscale communities like The Reserve at Lake Keowee and most of The Cliffs communities are the exception because they are loaded with deluxe amenities.) You can purchase for a very reasonable price a nice lakefront home in a community like Savannah Lakes Village or Keowee Key in rural South Carolina, but if you covet nearby shopping or a long string of excellent restaurants within a half hour, consider communities closer to Greenville, Charleston or other fair-sized cities. The same goes for those with health issues who require good doctors and a hospital within a half hour. Assess your lifestyle requirements carefully and then do the research to determine whether the elements of that lifestyle will be within reach, literally.
What kind of program to handle bugs? This may seem trivial, but I have personal experience with the issue. Some members of my family are reluctant to re-visit us at our Pawleys Island, SC, vacation home because, during a family reunion there in 2001, mosquitoes were a problem. Of course, that was the only time in the 17 years we have owned the condo there that the bugs were frustratingly annoying. There is a spraying program throughout the year and it has done an excellent job of tamping down the problem (although, in truth, going for a walk at dusk can be an issue on some damp nights). Bugs are ubiquitous in the Southeast, especially near the coast, and it is a good idea to ask the locals about any bug problems and to ask the leaders of the HOA in the community you are visiting how they address the issue.
The Private Golf Club: Worth the Expense?
There are both tangible and intangible reasons for paying comparably higher initiation fees and dues to join a private club inside the community you choose. I count among the tangible reasons the generally better maintenance of the course, the ability to get to know your fellow members more quickly than you would at a course with a lot of outside play, the quality of the club’s staff (assuming an experienced and involved general manager and board) and, at least in theory, the better care taken of the golf course by members who have a vested interest in conditioning. (Brutal truth: Most transient golfers do not repair ball marks, replace divots and otherwise care about someone else’s golf course.) The intangible reasons for joining a private club are the way you will be treated comparable to a public club; I can’t put a price on it, but I like it when the guys at the bag drop say “Hey Mr. Gavrich, good to see you back at Pawleys Plantation.” To be fair, Pawleys Plantation is actually a semi-private club with lots of vacationing golfers on the fairways; at peak times, the club sets aside tee times for its members but, occasionally, I have not been able to get out on the same day I call. Still, I like the hint of a private club atmosphere, and the added revenue helps maintain my course.
Some couples will find it impossible not to select a private club if they fall in love with a community at a good distance from other clubs, private or public. Savannah Lakes Village in rural McCormick has two excellent courses that cost nothing to join and charge only a nominal fee to play each time. You’d have to drive more than 35 minutes to come to the next nearest golf course (except for a state park course of modest quality across the road from Savannah Lakes). Every resident of the community is de facto a member since HOA dues pay for membership; serious golfers who play a few times a week can pay extra dues for the year and play as much golf as they want without any green fees. Contrast that with, say, the private Greenville Country Club in the South Carolina city of the same name. Their two layouts, about three miles apart, are among the best in the Southeast, with the Chanticleer course perennially listed in the top 5 in the state. Joining fees were around $25,000 when I last looked, a fair buy-in for two superb golf courses and country clubs.
The Argument for Playing Public Golf Courses
Although a private club membership may speed a couple’s integration into the social life of a golf community, there are myriad other ways to do that through clubhouse events (for which only a social membership will be necessary), other activities (pool, fitness center, social clubs) and just the old-fashioned neighborhood way of stopping to chat with fellow residents when you are out for a walk. If you intend only to play a couple of days a week, or less frequently, a private club with the dues to match may not be financially appropriate. Make an assessment of the public golf courses in the area you have targeted and play an inspection round or two. If they suit your game and your pocketbook, you may have found a viable alternative to joining a club. In many areas, especially in the wake of the recession, clubs have been gobbled up and merged into low-cost, multi-course memberships; spend a couple of hundred dollars a year and you can play as many as 22 courses, as it is in the Myrtle Beach area, at deeply discounted prices.
Some Notes for Vacation Home Seekers
Those looking for a vacation home in a golf community face a major decision, which is whether to rent it out when they are not using it or keep it available for family, friends and last-minute decisions to fly down for a long weekend. If you intend to use your vacation home for most of the peak season, why go through the hassle of being a landlord for the months when most people won’t be interested in visiting, and when your rental income will be much lower? Be mindful also that unless you have a friend living close to your vacation home who can clean up after guests leave and arrange repairs for you, you will pay a local agency anywhere between 25% and 40% of your rental income to manage things. Don't forget the cost of extra insurance as well.
However, some locations that are magnets for vacation home owners have dual peak seasons and afford those wishing to both use and rent out their homes an opportunity to have the best of both situations. Take the Myrtle Beach area, for example. The months of February through May and September through November tend to be popular with golfers from the northern U.S. and Canada looking for a jump on the golf season in early spring or an extension of the summer season in the fall. The summer months in the Myrtle Beach area, however, tend to be a magnet for beach-going families for whom golf may only be a tangential activity. If you intend to use your vacation home near the beach in a place like Myrtle Beach for just a few weeks a year, the rental income potential is positive.
Finally, for globe-trotting couples or those who want to be, a vacation home offers another impressive benefit –- a house exchange, an arrangement in which you swap a stay at your home for the use of someone else’s home, cost free, at hundreds of locations in the U.S. and around the world. I’ve done it, and in the accompanying story at left, I explain how you can too.
Larry Gavrich Founder & Editor Home On The Course, LLC