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    Morgan Quitno, a research firm, publishes an annual list of the safest and most dangerous cities and metro areas in the U.S.  The southeast region appears to be among the least dangerous, relatively speaking.
    Of all 371 cities in the survey, Cary, NC, shows up as the 8th safest.  Cary is just west of Raleigh.  Coral Springs, FL, which is a half hour northwest of Ft. Lauderdale, comes in at #10; Roswell, GA, which is immediately north of Atlanta, is #18, and Port St. Lucie, FL #25.  On the "most dangerous" side, Birmingham, AL, is 6th, Richmond, VA, #15, Atlanta 17th, and North Charleston, SC, #20.
    Of the 344 metro areas surveyed, the safest in the southeast was Harrisonburg, VA (14), the only southeast town to make the top 25.  On the dangerous side, Florence and Myrtle Beach, SC, came in at 5th and 6th respectively, Charlotte/Gastonia, NC at #12, Macon, GA, #20 and Sumter, SC, at 24th.  The formerly overheated housing markets of Las Vegas, Miami and Phoenix all made the top 25 most dangerous as well.
    For the record, the safest town is Brick Township, NJ, and the most dangerous is St. Louis.
    If you want the rankings of all cities and metro areas, you'll need to purchase the report at Morgan Quitno's web site .

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Monday, 02 July 2007 08:50

Maggie Valley trying hard, succeeding

    Hardly a week goes by when I don't see some advertisement or other for The Maggie Valley Resort and Club.  The resort has been around for more than four decades but it went through some rough times.  Its scenic golf course, for example, had not ranked near the top among its Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain competitors.  New residential courses seemed to shove Maggie Valley further into the background.  But the resort community is now trying to get the word out that things have changed and that it is time for the rest of us to take another look.
    We believe it.  Our friend, Henry Lister, who runs the Off The Beaten Cart Path web site, took a look recently when he played the William Prevost designed course.  Henry was impressed by the improvements in condition over the three years since he lasted played it, and added:  "It passed my one true test...I wanted to play it again tomorrow."  You can read Henry's full review , and others from off the beaten path, at his web site.
    I am hoping to play the course myself this summer, and to explore the community that is expanding around the 1962 layout.  New cottages, luxury condos and a limited number of home sites are available.  The cottages feature 2,000 square feet, 3 bedrooms, porch, and exterior maintenance supplied by the developers, with prices starting in the $400s. Persimmon Pointe is the condo neighborhood, with 2 and 3 bedroom units averaging 1,600 square feet and with prices from the high $200s.  The 23 single-family properties in Scarlet Oaks range in size from ¾ acre to 2 acres and in price from the upper $100s.

Saturday, 30 June 2007 22:10

Right on 'cue in Asheboro, NC

    Golfers have to eat too, so today I take some liberties and offer a brief restaurant review.  Hang in there and you will see the connection to golf, however thin.
    The restaurant is Henry James Barbecue in Asheboro, NC, named not for the guy who wrote paragraph-long sentences we English majors hated, but rather for the two partners (first names Henry and James) who opened it in the mid 1970s.  The only literature Henry James Barbecue can claim is its no-nonsense menu, a wonderful piece of non-fiction that celebrates the almighty hog in all its slow-cooked goodness.
    After an overnight visit with good friends and excellent hosts, the Harrises, at their lovely Smith Mountain Lake home in Virginia, we took the inland route toward the coast, down US 220 into Carolina, around Greensboro and into Asheboro.  Henry James Barbecue is just two miles off the highway.  Our trusty bible, "Tar Heel Barbecue," said the magic words about the restaurant's chopped pork - "moist and lean with no fat" and a "fresh roast pork taste."  Barbecue is a guilty addiction for us, and any time good ‘cue can be made to sound healthy (no fat!), count us in.
    We ordered two large plates of the chopped and one large plate of the sliced.  Both were moist and lean as advertised.  The slices were kissed with a slightly sweet, slightly peppery vinegar sauce that defines North Carolina ‘cue (and for the record, not a speck of fat on them).  The chopped pork seemed positively infused with the same sauce.  Some will find the Henry James chopped pork a little too wet, but the pork taste came shining through for us, and the sauce punched it up even more.  We liked this marriage made in the kitchen.  
    Nowhere will you eat this well for the price; the large platters, which include outstanding cole slaw, french fries and hushpuppies, were priced at $6.95, and the portions were huge.  Those accoutrements were indeed as good as the barbecue.  The cole slaw was chopped, crunchy and very wet, with a nice tartness to it.  The french fries were cut from fresh potatoes, not frozen, and weren't greasy at all, even though they had a nicely firm exterior.  The hushpuppies, those marshmallow sized drops of deep fried cornmeal that are to Carolina barbecue what Burns was to Allen, were also greaseless.  Hushpuppies, for those unfamiliar with the treat, were so named by dog owners who found that the deep-fried morsels were a cheap way to silence their yowling dogs.  In many barbecue joints, they are an afterthought, but not at Henry James.
    The Henry James offers beef ribs, which we will try next time, as well as barbecued chicken.  Service at the counter where you order and pick up your tray of food was efficient and friendly.  The place is very clean and orderly, showing a pride that comes through in the cooking as well.  The restaurant has a deserved reputation locally; as we waited for our order at 2 p.m. on a 95-degree Saturday, the drive thru was handling a steady stream of cars.  For barbecue this good, any time is the right time.
    Now for the promised golf connection.  As we neared the restaurant, we came upon the 9-hole Asheboro Municipal Golf Course designed by none other than Donald Ross.  The course was built during the Depression (1935), most likely as a government project, and for years was unrecognized as a Ross course until the town's recreation director discovered the blueprints for the original course routing.  The slope is 123, the rating 34, and the greens fees $20, making it as great a bargain as The Henry James Barbecue Restaurant.  We plan to savor both on our return trip north next month.

Asheboro Municipal Golf Course, 421 Country Club Dr, Asheboro, NC.  (336) 625-4158.  Greens fees $20 weekdays, $22 weekends.

Henry James Barbecue, 2004 South Fayetteville St., Asheboro, NC.  (336) 625-1649.  Cash only.

    It is no coincidence that Pine Needles is the site this weekend for the women's professional golf championship, the third time the famed Donald Ross course has hosted the event.  The course shows up consistently at or near the top of the rankings for most women friendly courses.  Peggy Kirk Bell would have it no other way.
    Ms. Kirk is an icon of women's golf.  She and the legendary Babe Zaharias formed the first women's professional tour.  Kirk and her late husband Warren Bell purchased the Pine Needles property in the early 1950s.  At the time, the original course, built in 1927, was not in the best of shape, but the couple and a few other investors, including the former PGA pro Julius Boros, had a vision for the entire property.  They built a chalet-style clubhouse, then lodges that mimicked the clubhouse style, a pool, conference rooms and the modern accoutrements of a top resort (but always with restraint so as not to detract from the golf).  Kirk created one of the best teaching facilities in the nation, and concentrated much of her time instructing women.  
    The resort, with just 75 or so rooms, is small by golf resort standards; its guests like it that way and the return-stay rate is high.  With coverage on national television this weekend, those unfamiliar with the course will get a taste of classic Ross.  With Pine Needles and Pinehurst #2, the ultimate Ross course, just a few miles apart, the dedicated golfer can fashion quite a nice weekend of early-20th Century golf in the Sand Hills of North Carolina.
    As for real estate, the Pinehurst area offers a wide range of options on or near the golf courses.  Prices, which have held up nicely, range anywhere from around the $300s into the millions.  Pinehurst membership costs $40,000 and confers access to six of the resort's eight courses, including #2.  Dozens of other excellent courses are within a half hour.  

     You'll need to warm up on the irons-only practice range before you tackle the golf course at The Preserve at Jordan Lake near Chapel Hill, NC.  The Davis Love III course is a stiff challenge, right from its opening hole.  A short par 5 at just 492 from the men's tees (512 from the back), it is one of the toughest starters I have played, with a fairway that slopes severely left toward a creek and marsh area and then forces a second shot that must carry the same creek as it meanders across the fairway (and you better hit a power draw to position for a reasonable third shot).  The pin on the elevated green was rear right, behind a menacing trap.  We prefer our warm-up holes a tad less penal.100_2352patjlk2.jpg
    Later, have a Power Bar or two at the turn, because you'll need the energy on the par four 10th.  A dogleg right, it plays 438 from the men's tees (470 from the back) over a stream, with a trap guarding the inside elbow at 222 yards out from the tee box.  If you are fortunate to have hit a 250-yard drive down the left side of the fairway, only 180 yards or so remains to carry the stream that guards the front of the long, deep green.  That is a big "if," since the dog's leg is narrowest where good drives should wind up.  We won't easily forget number 14 either, a 500-yard par 5 that dares you to carry a long second shot (or short-iron third) to pin positions set beyond 30 feet of false front.  "False" is putting it mildly, since the front goes almost straight up.  We wondered if they throw a rope around the guy who cuts the green to keep him from tipping over.
    Players with handicaps of 13 or more shouldn't go near the men's tees (rating 72.7 and slope of 140), and many will suffer frustrations from the shorter tees (6,116 yards with a rating of 70.6 and slope of 128).  As for the tips at 7,100 yards (75.1 and 145), the scorecard recommends that routing for handicaps of 6 or less.   The 6-handicap may be a 10 after a few rounds at The Preserve.
    The community that surrounds the course has grown quickly since properties were first sold in 2002, the same year its golf course opened.  Lots average ½ acre, although some top one acre, with prices generally running from $150,000.  The developers maintain a list of four "preferred" builders who account for more than 90% of the homes built to date.  The Preserve is not gated and, for the time being, anyone can play the "semi-private" course by calling for a tee time.  
    The Preserve, which has no townhouses or condos, has a neighborhood feel to it.  Landscaping throughout is well maintained by the residents who are an equal mix of young professionals and "empty nesters," age 55 and older.  However, if you have done your job of raising kids and would like to be in the company of adults-only in your new community, there may be better options than The Preserve.  The young adults have produced a significant number of offspring.
    All the customary amenities are available on the property.  The fitness center is modern but small; more than the current two tennis courts may be needed at full build out.  For water aficionados, Jordan Lake is close, but we did not have a peek at it as we made our way around the golf course.
    The Preserve, which seems out in the country, is 30 minutes from mall shopping and 15 minutes from a supermarket and pharmacy, but commerce is coming closer every day; a few miles down NC Highway 64, the big handyman chains Lowes and Home Depot are both putting up stores.  The University of North Carolina Hospital is just 20 minutes away.  
    The Preserve at Jordan Lake is more like The Preserve Near Jordan Lake; the lake is actually across the road from the entrance to the community.  Nevertheless, the community is finding its audience.

100_2347patjlk.jpg

  The Preserve course is tough enough without pins tucked behind bunkers. 

Thursday, 28 June 2007 02:23

Austin defies gravity of housing trends

    A few areas around the country have so much to offer to so many that they defy the gravity (double entendre intended) of falling house prices and the reality of higher home inventories.  Austin, TX, is a prime example (as opposed to a subprime example -- sorry, couldn't resist).     

    Austin has been considered for decades one of the best values in retirement living.  Texas has no state income tax, and Austin is a huge-university town (University of Texas) with all that has to offer in the way of vitality, continuing education and a stable economy.

    Real estate reports in Austin indicate that May was good month.  Single family home sales were up 2 percent over the same month in 2006, according to the Austin Business Journal, the highest May ever.  The median price for a home, a reasonable $183,160, was up 5 percent year over year. 

    Although total listings were up 8 percent, houses were closing faster, at just 55 day, down 7 percent from May 2006.  Best of all for local homeowners, prices appreciated more than 10 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same quarter last year; that was double the national average.

    Real estate in the Austin area remains reasonbly priced; you can find a nice single-family home with golf views, three bedrooms and three baths for less than $400,000.

    Our real estate contact in Austin, a member of our growing network and a golfer, is familiar with all the golf course communities, private clubs and best neighborhoods in the area.  If you would like us to put you in touch with him, please let us know.  Remember there is no cost or obligation for you.  Later this year we will visit Austin for in-depth reviews of the golf communities in the area.

 

Wednesday, 27 June 2007 02:19

Roads less traveled

    Airline travel is becoming more inhuman by the week.  Computer malfunctions, toilet backups, cattle car seating are just the most notorious stories.  We used to fly back and forth to South Carolina from Connecticut, but we are doing that less and less (We lament the loss of Independence Air, which seemed to be doing almost everything right except making money).  It's too much work to find a seat at a halfway decent price, and no price is worth the inconveniences.

    For others who travel between homes north and south, or who vacation at southern golf resorts, driving isn't the worst option.  There are essentially three major routes south that we have used, and they all have their positives and negatives.  For convenience, I refer to them as:  The Inland Route; The I-95 Route; and the Ferry Route.

    The Inland Route is along Interstate 81 through central Pennsylvania and relatively short drives through small swatches of Maryland and West Virginia before the interstate moves through the states of Viriginia and North Carolina.  The positives:  generally clear sailing and nice views of the mountains.  The I-95 Route is the traditional one most folks take to Florida.  It is the most direct when you can avoid traffic in Baltimore, Washington and Richmond.  That's a big if; many veterans of the trip drive through the night to limit the chances of a two-hour stoppage (that's happened to us too many times during midday drives).  The most services -- restaurants, gas stations, etc. -- are along the I-95 corridor.

      The ferry and Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is a nice option but, like I-81, will cost you a few hours.  But what you lose in time you more than make up for in lack of stress.  The ferry from Cape May, NJ to Lewes, DE -- and vice versa -- will give you an hour to unwind outside your car.  And side benefits are that both Cape May and Lewes are charming seaside towns with cafes and shops that will provide a nice diversion if you are early for your ferry crossing.  There is also something to be said for the drive across (and under) the Bay, a $12 adventure that also chops off a good piece of geography on the road south.

    I head south on the I-81 route today.  In the coming weeks, I'll offer some ideas about golf courses and other attractions along these routes, each of which offer benefits and downsides.  Weather and traffic permitting, I may even get in a round of golf today in Virginia. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2007 13:25

Housing numbers disappointing...again

    Sorry, there is no real posting today.  I've been out on the golf course watching a 36-hole qualifier for the U.S. Junior Amateur held at the Golf Club of Avon in Connecticut.  Nice course in fine condition.  When we left an hour ago, it looked as if the qualifying number for four spots would be 142 or 143.  My son Tim shot 151, after a good morning round of 73.
    I was greeted at home by the latest housing numbers that were not only bad for May but the U.S. Department of Commerce also revised downward the jump in demand number for April (by about 50,000 homes).  The supply of unsold homes is up to about seven months worth.  Median price of new homes also dropped.

    Sales of "vacation," or "weekend," homes rose nearly 5 percent nationwide last year, up by a half million to 1.07 million, according to the National Association of Realtors, as reported in the Hartford (CT) Courant.  I'm not a big fan of the NAR's observations, which tend to hyperventilate on the optimistic side, but their numbers do seem to reflect reality.
    Across the nation, sales of primary residences fell 4.1 percent, implying that at least some folks are adopting a stock-market strategy of "laddering," buying what they think is a bargain second home whose value will rise later and take the sting out of a soft market for their primary home.  If the overall market snaps back, then they win both ways (something like a "double down" in blackjack).  This notion is backed by responses to the NAR survey; 34 percent of those who purchased a vacation home did so to "diversify" their investments.
    Not surprisingly, the share of vacation homes sold was greatest in the south, at 38 percent, followed by the west and northeast, both at 25 percent.  By far, the most popular type of vacation home is single-family (63 percent), followed by condos (26 percent).  Rural (29), resorts (24) and suburban (22) were the most popular locations for the homes.
    In a separate report on baby boomers, the NAR indicates that boomers plan to live in their current primary homes for a median of five more years and that only 5 percent of them already own at least one vacation home.  The migration south will continue.

    You can read the Courant's story here, although it has a Connecticut orientation.

    I can't remember PGA tour stops on one weekend at two courses whose routes I know.  But this weekend, I hit the daily double.  The PGA's Traveler's Championship is being played at the TPC at River Highlands, just 25 minutes from my home in Connecticut; the Nationwide Tour's Knoxville Open is at Fox Den in Farragut, TN.
    You couldn't ask for more contrasting courses...and communities.  I've reviewed Fox Den at this site on January 31, and you can read the review by clicking here .  In a nutshell, the Willard Byrd course, renovated by Bill Bergin a few years ago, is of the classic style, with subtle, more than dramatic, elevation changes, and water and sand only where they seem necessary to enhance the challenge as well as the view.  The surrounding community, not connected to the private course, is a little long in the tooth, with a number of homes reaching the point where some cosmetic and maybe even structural touches would help.  Real estate prices reflect the age and condition of the housing stock.
    River Highlands, which has been worked over by Pete Dye, Bobby Weed and others in the past, is in the top rank of courses in Connecticut and New England.  If you have been watching on television this weekend, you have seen its most dramatic elements, namely the Golden Triangle of holes that begins at the 15th, a short par 4 with a crowned green that is within a driver's range of the tee box.  The tee ball almost begs for the big stick since a lay-up leaves a delicate pitch shot or wedge anyway, to an unreceptive green.  The medium-long par 3 16th is all carry over a lake to a green that is not deep.  Hit the green and par is a possibility, depending on what contours are between your ball and the cup.  Miss the green and bogey is almost a certainty.
    Then there is #17, with one of the most intimidating tee shots in golf.  With that same lake on the right and a steep bank of gnarly rough on the left, a ball in the fairway is a must if you are to have any chance of clearing the water on your approach (and the closer the drive to the water the better).  After a successful tee shot, you almost feel relieved to be faced with a shot over water at around 150 to 160 yards to a back-to-front sloping green just beyond the lake.
    The community at the edge of the TPC is a mix of town homes and single- family dwellings on smallish lots.  They appeal mostly to empty nesters and young singles.  Views of the course are from on high - the homes are well above the fairways on the 18th hole and the 12th & 13th; these latter units look across the fairways and down to the Connecticut River.  Many units do not have views of the course but are a short walk to the clubhouse.  The community is small at just about 200 homes, with prices generally in the $500s to $700s range.  
    River Highlands offers a range of membership programs from around a $20,000 initiation fee, but one feature is especially attractive; membership confers access to all other TPC courses, which now number 26.  River Highlands is considered one of the best by the golfing professionals who return year after year (although tournament officials haven't figured out a way to lure Tiger, even when the sponsor was Buick).

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