For 17 years, Helen and Marvin Kastenbaum lived for the weekends. At the end of each workweek, the Kastenbaums and their two children made the two-hour drive to their vacation home at Bryce Resort, built along the mountains in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
"We used to come here on Friday night no matter what time it was, and we would pour ourselves a drink and sit outside and listen to the silence," said Helen Kastenbaum.
In the past three years, the Kastenbaums transformed their weekend vacation home into a full-time retirement spot, and they say they love every minute of it.
For those who prefer skiing to surfing, 18-hole golf instead of miniature golf or hiking instead of sun-bathing, the Washington area has an abundance of mountains and lakes.
Within a 3 1/2-hour drive of the District of Columbia are hundreds of resorts and vacation areas that offer breathtaking views and plenty of activities year-round. They include the Appalachian mountain resorts of Maryland and Pennsylvania, rustic cabins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, upscale condominiums overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, as well as waterfront homes on the area's lakes and rivers.
In the last decade, the concept of a vacation home in the mountains or by the lake has changed as the luxury-loving baby boomers have emerged. Real estate agents who specialize in vacation homes, as well as resort operators, say the popularity of a rustic cabin in the woods has faded. Instead, vacation-home owners want year-round activities, such as skiing and golf, upscale restaurants and child care.
As investments, vacation homes vary widely. While trade associations connected to the real estate industry have predicted a boom in vacation-home ownership in the 1990s as baby boomers move into the age group that typically buys vacation properties, there's little sign of it so far.
The vacation-home market was hurt badly by the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which made it much more difficult to use the purchase of a vacation home as a tax shelter.
More recently, real estate agents and resort developers say sales have softened as ripples from the real estate slump in the primary-home markets have spread. And some fear that the Washington area's economic slowdown and increased gas prices will hurt sales even further.
"There's lots on the market out there keeping the prices depressed," said Ellen Burr, who, with her husband, Clint, runs the Resort Property Owners Association.
Here is a sampling of the types of mountain and lake properties available to Washington-area residents in the surrounding region:
To the south of the Washington area is Lake Anna, the third-largest lake in Virginia, which has attracted a growing amount of attention from vacationers and retirees who want to be closer to the Washington area than some better known retreats. The lake is about a 90-minute drive from the District.
The lake, with its 220 miles of shoreline, straddles three counties -- Spotsylvania, Louisa and Orange. The North Anna nuclear power plant sits at the west side of the lake.
According to Bryant Parker, owner-broker of Choice Realty Group Inc., prices vary widely. Lots on the waterfront cost about $100,000. Those with a water view average about $40,000 to $50,000, he said. There are also lots available further back from the lake that cost as little as $9,000 an acre.
Lots that also have a house usually run between $200,000 and $250,000 if they're on the waterfront, Bryan said, and those with a water view usually run between $150,000 and $175,000.
Development at Lake Anna suffered a blow recently when the lake's largest developer, Lake Anna Properties, lost its financing when its lender was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency in charge of cleaning up the savings and loan industry. Construction has slowed as the company searches for more financing, according to James Foote, president of Lake Anna Properties.
The Wintergreen resort, with its two golf courses, 25 tennis courts, 20-acre lake, 10 ski slopes, six restaurants and luxurious exercise spa, sits atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 40 miles south of Charlottesville. The 11,000-acre resort attracts vacationers from around the world.
Edward Spears, president of Wintergreen Development Co., believes that resorts like his will do well even if the economy slumps into a recession and gas prices stay high. He points to statistics showing that Americans are taking shorter but more frequent vacations, which he believes will benefit resorts like his that are closer to major cities than such huge resorts as Aspen, Colo.
Nonetheless, sales of home sites, condominiums and town houses have slowed in the last two years at Wintergreen, as well as at other resorts that cater to Washington-area residents.
Because of the amenities available, prices at Wintergreen are higher than at some other Shenandoah Valley-area resorts. Two- and three-bedroom condominiums range from about $150,000 to more than $300,000, while town houses cost $240,000 to $280,000. Lots, which range in size from one-third of an acre to six acres, cost $3,450 to $240,000.
Further north of Wintergreen is Bryce Resort, an 1,800-acre complex with a golf course, ski slope, tennis courts and pool, which has more of a down-home flavor. The resort is about a two-hour drive from the District, in Bayse, Va. According to broker Shirley Drechsler, efficiency condominiums on the ski slope start at about $40,000, while town house condominiums along the golf course cost about $90,000.
Houses scattered through the steep wooded hills overlooking the golf course start at about $80,000, although most cost more than $125,000, according to Drechsler. The most expensive house currently on the market is listed at $259,000, Drechsler said.
The Kastenbaums recently sold their original Bryce house to Jim and Ann Burge for $250,000 and have purchased a town house there.
In West Virginia, the focus is on gorgeous views and such leisure activities as canoeing, shopping and skiing. Cabins that cling to the mountains dividing Charles Town from its Virginia neighbor of Loudoun County offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
Further west are the West Virginia ski resorts, such as Canaan Valley and Snowshoe.
According to Long & Foster Realtors's Carol Snyder in Charles Town, there is a wide range of vacation homes at various prices. In Shannondale, a nearby mountain community that has attracted weekend vacation-home buyers, as well as retirees and first-time homeowners, prices start at $45,000 and range up to $269,000.
Alan Young, an Alexandria attorney who bought a three-bedroom cabin in Shannondale earlier this year, plays tennis, swims and goes canoeing on the weekends. "It's great to get away from the rat race," he said.
In Maryland, vacationers head to the western part of the state for skiing, golfing and boating.
Deep Creek Lake, which sits in the Appalachian mountains near McHenry, Md., is about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Washington. According to real estate agent Bill Weissgerber of A&A Realty, the area has attracted increasing numbers of vacationers from the Baltimore-Washington area in the last 10 years since the completion of Route 48, which runs into Interstate 70 in Hagerstown, Md. Route 48 is now being widened and will become Interstate 68 next year.
Several resorts are clustered around the lake, which has 65 miles of shoreline. Wisp Resort, which is a few miles north of the lake, has 23 ski slopes, a golf course and an indoor swimming pool. The Blakeslee, at the southern end of the lake, has an indoor swimming pool, a yacht club and tennis courts.
Lakefront lots start at about $125,000, while lots farther back from the lake start at about $20,000, Weissgerber said. Oddly, waterfront lots with older houses on them sometimes cost less than undeveloped lots. Houses farther back from the lake start at about $70,000.
Buying Resort Property: Considerations, Pitfalls
Here are some tips from the Resort Property Owners Association and other experts on buying resort property:
Carefully consider what you want to use the property for. If you plan to rent out the property to assist with the costs of owning it, then you need a resort with lots of amenities (such as golf courses, pools, tennis courts, playgrounds or ski slopes) in order to attract renters.
But if you plan to retire on the property and don't need the rental income, "you may not be interested in a lot of renters going in and out," said Ellen Burr, who runs the Resort Property Owners Association with her husband, Clint.
Check who will manage the resort. On the whole, the Burrs said, resort developers are not experienced at actually running the resort. Ideally, the resort should be run by a firm or individual experienced in resort management.
Find out who will own the resort's amenities. It's usually either the homeowners' association or the developer. If the developer owns the amenities, it means the property owners don't have control over them. For example, one developer of a golf course community in the Chicago area has decided to sell the golf course. Homeowners who bought expensive houses lining the golf course are scrambling to raise the money to buy the course so that other development won't be allowed.
Make sure the amenities aren't too expensive to maintain. If the developer plans to turn the amenities over to the property owners at some point, the property owners may find they can't afford to keep up lavish extras. For example, property owners at one resort discovered that the fresh flowers that they were presented with were actually costing the resort more than $300,000 a year, which they were paying for in increased assessments.
Check the resort's bylaws. If you decide not to buy a membership in, say, the resort's golf course, make sure that subsequent buyers of your property aren't also forbidden from buying membership. Some resorts preclude subsequent property buyers from buying memberships if the charter property buyer does not purchase the membership.
"It could seriously affect your ability to sell," said Ellen Burr. Conversely, make sure that if you're buying resale property, you aren't forbidden from buying into the amenities.
Beware of time-share resorts. They're common at some resorts but often aren't worth the money. Typically, a customer pays anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000 in order to use a resort property one week out of the year. They are enormously profitable for developers, but often a waste of money for buyers. They're also almost impossible to resell.
John Capowski, who has conducted investigations of time shares for the Maryland Attorney General's office, said that in most cases, it's cheaper to open a savings account with the money that you would have purchased a time share with and pay for an annual vacation with the interest.