A Golf Course Community’s Big Variable for Retirees

Golf club memberships can often be a separate, and hefty, annual fee at golf communities. Here's some guidance before you tee up your retirement move to live on the links.

Golfer putting on a golf course with large homes nearby
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The dream of many retirees is a home in a golf course community, where connecting a shiny driver with a perfectly dimpled ball on a lush, green fairway is just another day in paradise.

But a golf club membership isn’t a given at these communities and sometimes comes with hefty fees.

It pays to understand just what exactly you’re getting. Some golf courses may be owned by the community, while others may operate as an entirely independent business. Because the attraction of these communities is often tied to the golf club, make sure your big green neighbor is financially healthy. If its business suffers, so could your home values.

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Golf club membership scenarios run the gamut, says Cathy Harbin, president of OnCourse Operations, a golf management company based in Paris, Tex. “It can be a developer owns the club and pays your membership for you when you buy a home lot or, through a promotion, they buy your initiation fee and the first few years of your membership,” says Harbin, a former vice president of golf for ClubCorp, which operates private clubs. “Or it can even be an optional situation, where you are offered a discount if you want to buy a membership. Of course, it can just be you buy the home separately, and the membership doesn’t have anything to do with your purchase.”

Generally, homeowners association fees and club costs are higher for private clubs, says Harbin. At Desert Highlands, a private golf course community in Scottsdale, Ariz., every homeowner must become a club member, says Joan Sykora, director of sales and member relations. That membership cost is a $75,000 initiation fee, and monthly HOA dues are $1,325.

At Ridgeview Ranch in Plano, Tex., where the community’s golf club is public, members get unlimited range balls and discounts on rounds of golf at certain hours—with the amount of times expanding depending on the monthly membership fees, $49.95 or $69.95. There’s no initiation fee and the HOA fee is a semiannual $254 with an extra $107 for one community neighborhood. On the downside, crowded play is more likely at a public club, and the courses may not be as challenging as a private club’s.

Still, membership fees may be the least of your problems if the golf club has financial difficulties. When the Sanctuary Golf Club in Beaufort, S.C., shuttered its doors in January 2019 and went into foreclosure, homeowners in the nearby Cat Island community had reason to fear the worst. Home values for communities with shuttered golf clubs can fall by more than 20% in an average economy, says Jeff Pinckney, a Beaufort-based part-time commercial realtor.

Cat Island residents were lucky because although the golf club was closed for about a year, it eventually found a new buyer and has since partially reopened, he says. As a result, home prices weren’t as affected.

Realtor Susan Akagi of Lakefront Living, On the Lake Realty, in Loudon, Tenn., says prospective buyers can get a better idea of how a community golf club is doing by talking to the club’s chief financial officer. A golf course that’s been around a long time often “gives a greater sense of stability,” she adds. Plus, most communities also include other amenities for family members who don’t play golf, which can help real estate values if something happens to the golf club.

Are the communities worth it? To 60-something Janis Killion, they are, and she isn’t even an avid golfer. She makes her home in the Pine Mountain Lake community in Groveland, Calif., which along with a golf course also offers a pool, tennis and pickleball courts, hiking trails and a private lake for boating and fishing. A broker associate who sells real estate there and a former school district assistant, Killion finds the community’s connection to nature fits her personality.

“Our children love to play golf and it makes it even better when they come to visit,” she says. “Even though I don’t play, I want to. And living in a golf course community means it’s ready when I’m ready.”

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Retirement Report