Life along the fairway Developers building more golf course communities

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not too long ago, golfers were rich people who belonged to country clubs. Then someone had the bright idea of building homes around a golf course.

It was the birth of the residential golf community.

Today, real estate experts and golf course architects say golf communities are gaining popularity in Maryland and throughout the United States. Before 1990, there were seven such courses in the Baltimore area, according to Legg Mason Realty Group Inc. in Baltimore. The number has nearly doubled, to 13, and another six are planned to open by 1997.

The reasons are simple. Developers find the added amenity of manicured greens helps sell houses, and homeowners have someone else to take care of the back yard.

"The rule of thumb is that only about 35 percent of buyers are golfers," said David K. Wells, a senior associate at Legg Mason Realty Group who advises developers on building golf communities.

"Nongolfers buy for the extra open space. After all, you don't see a quarter-acre lot when you look out at your back yard. You see five acres of open space that's manicured, mowed and treed."

In addition, the Baltimore area trails the state and country in the number of courses. In Baltimore, there 4.5 holes per 1,000 golfers, below the state average of 7.1 holes and almost half the national average of 8.7 holes.

And the high cost of undeveloped land forces most new golf courses in Maryland to be built in golf communities.

"You can't buy 200 acres of land for a golf course at two or three thousand dollars an acre. It's more like $10,000 or $20,000 an acre," Mr. Wells said.

The solution? Team up with a residential developer, get the land for free and knock a million dollars or more off the cost of building a new golf course.

"It comes down to price," Mr. Wells said. "If a golf course developer pays more than a million dollars for the land and another six or seven million dollars to build the course, he must produce 40,000 to 60,000 rounds of golf a year to pay down his debt."

And that's not practical, he says -- especially in the first few years after a course opens. Even in underserved Maryland, the chances of a new course attracting 50,000 rounds of golf in the first year are low, especially if greens fees are priced high enough to cover the cost of both land and construction.

"That's why the development guys and the golf course guys partner up," Mr. Wells said. "One gets free land for a golf course, the other gets a course that helps sell houses."

While golf communities in warmer climates are mostly populated by retirees who enjoy hitting the links year-round, the typical golf community resident in Maryland is different.

"In Maryland, it's yuppies -- executives in their 40s and 50s who aren't buying their first house. In fact, it's often the last house they buy before retirement," said Brian Ault, a golf course architect and president of Ault, Clark & Associates. "It's the guy moving up."

Such a person is Ron Laczkowski, 44, a six-year resident of Wakefield Valley, a golf community of single-family homes outside Westminster in Carroll County that range in price from $125,000 to $300,000.

Located on open and wooded lots, houses sit on hillsides overlooking the manicured greens, ponds, woods and bunkers of 18-hole Wakefield Valley Golf Course.

"It's nice living along a golf course, and it looks nice, too," said Mr. Laczkowski, assistant principal at Westminster High School.

The Wakefield house is the second for Mr. Laczkowski, who lives there with his wife and two children. He moved from his first house in Westminster, and said he expects this house to be his last before retirement. "When the sun goes down, there's no one out there. Also, there's built-in security -- no one will try to get in your back window when there are people outside playing golf all day," Mr. Laczkowski said.

"And [Wakefield Valley is] a very stable neighborhood. Since we moved in, no one on our street has moved out. It's also quiet -- except on Sunday mornings, when someone misses a putt."

Status is another amenity offered by golf communities.

"A lot of it's prestige," Mr. Wells said. "Golf community homes are usually priced higher. And there's security -- most are well-maintained communities that may be gated and may have security guards."

As a result, living in a golf community usually isn't cheap. River Downs, a 500-acre, 130-home development under construction in Finksburg that incorporates a 6,500-yard, par 72 golf course, will feature custom homes ranging from $300,000 to $450,000 when the first of five phases open this summer. Homeowners can choose views of greens, lakes, bunkers or first-shot landing areas.

Yet Richard A. Moore, president of Gaylord Brooks, the developer of River Downs, is confident the new community will have no problem drawing middle- to upper-income professionals who want to enjoy the golf community lifestyle.

A 30-lot section at River Downs opened last year and more than 20 are sold, with several more awaiting settlement. "And the golf course hasn't opened yet," Mr. Moore said.

"There's a trend toward natural open scenery, but it doesn't do it as well as a golf course," he said. "We think a lot's value is enhanced from 25 to 75 percent. In the case of River Downs, it's 50 percent. Clearly, River Downs has enjoyed a markup in value and an increased sales pace because of the golf course."

Other builders are taking notice.

"A lot of developers are looking for that extra oomph," said Mr. Wells, of Legg Mason. "Most are willing to sacrifice land for a golf course to maximize their return. A golf course can shorten the sellout of a community by up to half. And since individual houses sell for a bit more, the developer can give up on density."

"The problem in Maryland is that golf courses are hard to get approved," Mr. Wells said, who notes that adding a golf course can delay development by a year or more.

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