When Allison Broadbent and her husband, Chris, were shopping for a home in 2002, they happened to go into a development with a golf course and they happened to go into a house overlooking the course.
“When we looked out back, we thought: ‘Wow, this is beautiful. This is so relaxing. This is what we would like,’ even though at the time we didn’t know that was what we wanted,” she said.
They ended up buying a house along a fairway, although at another community, Belmont Country Club in Ashburn. Since then, Chris has become a frequent golfer. Allison and their three children (one each in eighth grade, high school and college) have taken up the game to varying degrees. But golf is only part of what the family likes about living there.
“For me, a lot of it is that I love action, people around me, just seeing life,” Allison said. “A wooded lot is wonderful, but I’m not one who can sit and stare at birds. It’s just so enjoyable to be able to go out, sit out back and watch people go through. You see everyone outside playing, being happy, having a good time.”
Demand for golf-community living helped fuel the increase in golf courses from 12,846 in 1990 to a peak of 16,052 in 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation, a trade association. However, the net number has dropped each year since, and by the end of 2010, the count stood at 15,890.
“There was a huge growth boom, largely driven by real estate, where golf courses were constructed as an amenity to sell real estate with very little concern over whether the golf course on its own could survive as a business,” said Greg Nathan, senior vice president of NGF in Jupiter, Fla. “They were going to sell the lots and sell the homes and maintain the golf course at a very high level during the period of sell-in, and once all the homes and the lots are sold, they’re gone.”
During the recession, all types of golf communities proved to be vulnerable, from the most exclusive gated enclaves on down, said Henry DeLozier, a principal with Global Golf Advisors in the firm’s Phoenix office. The firm analyzes and advises golf-centered developments.
Locally, for example, with sales faltering and a promised clubhouse unbuilt, in 2009 the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain sold its stake in the ultra-high-end Creighton Farms development near Aldie, in Loudoun County, to Southworth Development, a Massachusetts-based developer. Creighton Farms’ centerpiece is an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course — with a golf initiation fee of $45,000. Lot sizes go as high as six acres in the community and, before the change in ownership, starting prices exceeded $2 million. Although the real estate is still decidedly high-end, the new owners have added some smaller homes to their menu. The Nicklaus Village section introduced in March offers “cozy one-acre lots,” according to the marketing material, with homes starting at 3,200 square feet and prices starting at $1.05 million. Clubhouse construction is scheduled to be finished in September.
“Developers have a tendency to be incredibly effective sales and marketing folks. They fill up their club, they sell off their residential property, then hand off the community to people who may or may not be sales and marketing experts,” DeLozier said. “It’s only when the community becomes troubled that folks start asking people like me what went wrong, and we say you vanished from the market for 12 months, 36 months.”
However, Nathan said dozens of courses have continued to open each year, more than half of them part of a housing development. “It really is still the driver for the courses that will open,” he said.
For many potential buyers, access to a course is a secondary consideration.
“The reason people want to be in these neighborhoods is that they’re looking for the lifestyle,” said Chuck Valenta, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Ashburn, who cited the communities’ clubhouses and social activities as important amenities. “You’re mingling with people in similar types of jobs and businesses and networking,” he said.
Golf course communities also typically have features such as community pools, tennis and basketball courts, playgrounds, restaurants, walking trails and security. For homeowners who don’t know the difference between a 3-wood and Tiger Woods, the course represents green space that will stay that way, and their home along the fairway is a good spot for watching nature.
Golf-course living remains in demand even though some communities nationally — and locally — have struggled in recent years. Lori Gough, associate broker at Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Annapolis, said that in South River Colony in Edgewater, where she lives and does much of her business, the average time from listing to sale over the past 12 months was 93 days, at an average sale price above $900,000. “Ninety-three days on the market for million-dollar houses, that’s nothing,” she said. “If you do an analysis for other areas, it’s significantly longer at that price point.”
“The minority of buyers insist on a golf-course view. It’s not a hot button for most,” Gough added. “The majority of my buyers don’t need to be on the course. They just want to be in the community. Aesthetically, it has a huge attraction.”
Avid golfers do make up a subset of golf community shoppers, though. Many of them are experienced home buyers. They might have lived in other golf communities, and they often have strong, specific preferences, said Jim Crawford, an agent with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Fairfax.
“They tend to be very particular about the lots; they tend to be particular about the layout of the house on the course. Sometimes they’ll actually settle for less of a home, where they’ll give up square footage, as long as everything else fits their needs.
“They like the views, but at the same time they like privacy. They don’t like the golf balls coming through their back yard or through their plate-glass windows. Or they don’t want to be right on the tee where they can’t have breakfast outside in their pajamas on a Sunday morning,” he said.
DeLozier said the two groups providing most of the future demand for golf community living will be younger families, especially those with two incomes, and baby boomers who are cutting back on the work side of the work-life equation but looking to remain active. Although they may have differing preferences, “successful clubs do not view those markets necessarily as mutually exclusive. The top-performing communities are finding innovative ways to balance the needs and expectations of each audience,” he said.
Allison Broadbent says that in her leisure time, if she’s not playing tennis or pursuing other activities, she often can be found watching the players pass by, greeting them and studying their shots.
“I don’t care if they traipse in my back yard,” she said. “If you are someone who doesn’t like anyone walking near your yard or your flower bed, you’re not going to like it. For me, I love it.”