There's never been anything terribly sexy about living in a golf community. Imagine cookie-cutter spec homes dotting yet another dull par 4 in Myrtle Beach, and you get the picture. Even if you like the game and are in the market for a vacation home, you may never have considered buying in one of these old-style resorts.
This is a phenomenon not lost on builders, who are out to change that - and the look of golf-course living. The new breed of golf community has a strong personality with distinctive architecture; loads of amenities, many catering to families; and a real sense of place.
The new choices include log homes on a Colorado mountain, sleek modern designs in Florida and estates managed by Ritz-Carlton in Virginia. Aside from the manicured 18 holes, there is barely anything recognizable from the typical golf club in these developments, which can come with round-trip airport transfers, concierge services (like club cleaning and dog washing), spas and stables.
"The classic model of houses ringing a golf course is dying," said John Kirk, an architect with the New York firm Cooper Robertson & Partners, who designed homes at WaterSound, a beachside golf community in the Florida panhandle. "Instead the golf course is like a big public green," he said, adding that "people want to be able to walk to the post office or to get their morning coffee."
Vacation home buyers continue to get younger - a median age of 47 in 2006, down from 52 in 2005, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors - as more families move in next to the retirees at golf communities. Developers have responded by offering more design options, holiday kids' clubs and summer camps and myriad recreational activities beyond the driving range.
But the question is whether there are enough buyers for these new golf retreats. "The long-term demographics are favorable," said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. "It would not be surprising if we saw the vacation market hold its own while the rest of the market declines."
Bernard Markstein III, a senior economist with the National Association of Home Builders, concurred, saying: "The vacation buyers are still there. They might be a little more cautious, but to some extent it's turning into a buyer's market. It might be a good time to buy a vacation home."
As tastes change, developers are willing to try just about anything to woo the new crowd. Here are two examples:
THE MEDITERRANEAN VILLA
The Gardens of Isleworth; Windermere, Florida; www.isleworth.com
"We kept hearing that people wanted to downsize," Lisa Richards, president of Isleworth Realty, said of the Gardens of Isleworth's new homes - averaging around 370m2 compared with the community's 800m2 houses. The Gardens' 30 Italian-inspired villas, which start at US$2.95 million, are built around private courtyards with features like sliding glass walls, landscaped fire pits, fireplaces, and water walls that blur the lines between indoors and out.
"We've lived in Isleworth for 18 years," said Dick Smith, 78, a retired automobile manufacturing executive, of himself and his wife, Jolene, 74. "But we wanted something smaller, so we sold and bought one of the Gardens."
Among Smith's new neighbors in the Gardens is Paula Creamer, the 21-year-old LPGA star. With Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara and other PGA players also among its residents, the Isleworth development, outside Orlando, is heaven for serious golfers.