1. Which part of the country is best for me?
Options are (literally) all over the map. To narrow down your choices, decide what amenities you most value, says Mitch Barry, 53, a retired software developer from Phoenix, who, with his wife, Christy, visited more than a dozen golf communities in the west before buying a home at Pronghorn in Bend, Ore. For the Barrys, climate and course quality were key factors. Pronghorn offered year-round play on two revered layouts, a private Tom Fazio track and a Jack Nicklaus resort course. "We're both golf junkies," Barry says. "And with all those great holes, we figured we could play all we want and never get bored." The accessible location—25 minutes from the Redmond, Ore., airport and a three-hour drive from Portland—was also appealing.
2. How much golf home can I afford?
A good way to crunch the numbers is to look at how mortgage lenders do the math. In assessing how much home they think you can afford, they weigh your annual income and your assets against your liabilities and obligations (auto loans, credit card debt, child-support payments) as well as your overall credit rating. Looking to keep up with your neighbors? Consider this: American homeowners spend an average of 15 percent of their monthly income on their mortgage, according to Amy Bohutinsky, chief operating officer of Zillow. Since the size of that mortgage depends on your interest rate, it's worth shopping around for a loan. "Many people spend all that time looking at pictures, finding just the right place, then going into drawn-out negotiations that, at best, may save them, say, $5,000 on the sale price," Bohutinsky says. "But actually, the terms of your loan will have a much greater impact on how much you wind up spending on your home."
3. How do I know I'm buying into a community that's trending up?
To start, research who's behind the project; learn about their track record and reputation. Do they have a history of success, or have they left behind a trail of failed projects? Look for a developer who continues to add amenities without waiting for real estate sales to fund them—that's a sign of financial health. And don't just speak with sales reps. Talk with homeowners and golf club members and ask them for their unvarnished feedback.
4. Will living on a course with a brand-name architect up my home value?
Yes, but not as much as it once did. Before the Great Recession, the Golden Bear was a golden goose. Golf communities with Jack Nicklaus-designed layouts frequently commanded 12 to 20 percent premiums on their homes, says Dan Collins of IMI Living, a luxury real estate marketing firm. Other A-list architects, like Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones Jr., also provided a healthy boost. Today, the designer's name still matters, but priorities have shifted. "Conditioning of the course and the service and amenities around it have become as important as anything," Collins says.
5. Is a golf membership included with the purchase of my home?
"That's the exception rather than the norm," says Jim Matoska of Red Earth Corporation. In many communities, the golf club is run separately from the surrounding real estate. Further complicating matters, some communities have been turned over to the property owners, which means that the club and the real estate are owned by separate entities, too. If you expect a golf membership to be bundled into your home purchase, you may be disappointed.
6. Are different kinds of memberships offered?
Yes. Many clubs have an assortment of membership options that go by different names depending on the club (resident-members vs. owner-members; full-time members vs. part-time members). But they're not as commonly advertised as they once were, says Red Earth's Jim Matoska. "Clubs only have so much inventory, or memberships, that they can sell, and there is a number that it takes to operate the club at the level to meet member expectations," Matoska says. "So discounting memberships for those who are not there as much may be a great thing for the individual buyer, but not a great business plan for the overall health of the club."
7. What fees can I expect to pay in a community?
Along with your membership dues and food and beverage minimums, plan to pay a homeowner's association (HOA) fee, which can vary wildly. A community that offers private roads, security and well-maintained public areas generally commands a higher HOA. Assessments may come as a community ages, and because certain climates accelerate wear and tear, location matters. Ideally, an HOA should mitigate such costs by factoring repair and maintenance into the annual budget, so lump-sum assessments should not be the norm. Other fees include charges for guests, carts and caddies.