When Mitch Steller first moved into his house on a lush 117-acre golf course in Southern California, “this was like the Garden of Eden, having a golf course in my backyard,” he said.
Today, his Poway, Calif., home overlooks dry, dead grass in place of a once-verdant fairway. The golf club closed in 2017. “The fairways are brown, the greens are gone, the buildings are being vandalized,” says Mr. Steller, a 70-year-old maritime-management consultant.
Forty years after developers started blanketing the Sunbelt with housing developments built around golf, many courses are closing amid a decline in golf participation, leaving homeowners to grapple with the consequences. People often believe a course will bolster their property values. But many are discovering the opposite can now be true—and legal disputes are erupting as communities fight over how to handle the struggling courses.
“There are hundreds of other communities in this situation, and they’re trapped and they don’t know what to do,” says Peter Nanula, chief executive of Concert Golf Partners, a golf club owner-operator that owns about 20 private clubs across the U.S. One of his current projects is the rehabilitation of a recently acquired club in Florida that had shut one of its three golf courses and sued residents who had stopped paying membership fees.
More than 200 golf courses closed in 2017 across the country, while only about 15 new ones opened, according to the National Golf Foundation, a golf market-research provider. Florida-based development consultant Blake Plumley said he gets about seven phone calls every week seeking advice about struggling courses, from course owners or homeowners’ associations. He said most of those matters end up in court, and predicted that the U.S. is only about halfway through the number of golf-course closures that will eventually occur.
When a course closes, prices for nearby homes typically fall about 25%, Mr. Plumley said. Prices can plummet 40% or 50% if a contentious legal battle arises, as potential home buyers balk at the uncertainty accompanying litigation.
When Pal Nancy and I were returning from Bangor, Maine, to Greenwich in 1983, the Sunday River ski resort was belly-up, and slope-side condos on the abandoned property were going for $15,000. The bet was, of course, whether new owners would appear and reopen the place. If so, the value of those condos would soar; otherwise, they would drop to nothing. I was convinced that Sunday River would reopen, and was oh-so-temped to buy in, but moving to Greenwich, even then, was quite a hurdle, and had we taken on debt to gamble on a ski condo, we’d be stretching our resources to the limit: unlike today’s 30-year-old whiz kids, our pockets were shallow. In any event, we didn’t make the trade, and aren’t I sorry now.
But my point is, Sunday River would have been a fling at a real estate play, with any exposure limited to what was flung at it. Buying a primary residence, with important money, for a price supported on what could be an ephemeral feature: small, private college, ski resort, golf course, what-have-you, can be disastrous.
Just ask those WSJ buyers.