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Scarcity of golf memberships rough on newcomers

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of June 22, 2023)

For newcomers to Vero who fall in love with the 32963 barrier island, one of the constraints on moving here at the moment is the long waitlists for golf membership at some of the top island clubs.

“The wait for golf memberships at Quail is eight to nine years and I think The Moorings is over five years now,” said Dale Sorensen luxury agent Cathy Curley.

“I haven’t had deals fall through because of interest rates or economic uncertainty, but clients aren’t buying in some cases because they can’t immediately enjoy the lifestyle they are used to,” Curley added. “When there is a shortage of club options, some people move on.”

“The club waitlists have affected the real estate market a little bit,” agreed Marsha Sherry, longtime broker at The Moorings Realty Sales Co.

“We try to find alternatives for clients – some clubs are offering different packages or limited membership – but I won’t say we haven’t seen some potential buyers move on, not just from The Moorings but from Vero because of waitlists.”

“I dealt with a lot of disappointment this past season from buyers who wanted to jump right into the club lifestyle,” said Premier Estate Properties agent Lange Sykes.

“There have been buyers for whom membership was such an important element of their decision that they decided to look elsewhere, where they could immediately plug into the lifestyle they desire.”

True, some of the island’s prestigious private communities – such as John’s Island and the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club – do not have waiting lists, where purchasing property comes with membership opportunities. But even there, scarcity of real estate inventory poses a problem.

As of Monday, John’s Island Real Estate had 18 homes listed and not under contract and broker Bob Gibb said there is no waitlist for new homeowners to join the club. “They have to be vetted, of course, as with any private club, but basically anyone who buys a property has access to membership.”

The same is true at Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, but as of Monday there was only one active real estate listing in the community, which doesn’t create much space for would-be golfers.

Club general manager Rob Tench says there were 15 non-resident memberships available at one time but “they are all gone.”

It is a measure of how desirable membership in a full-featured golf, tennis and beach club is that non-residents cheerfully paid $200,000 each to be part of the Orchid Island club’s elegant seaside lifestyle.

The lure of membership actually helps explain the lack of real estate inventory. Anne Torline, broker at Orchid Island Realty said the availability of a golf membership for homebuyers is “a major incentive” and part of her sales pitch. “It makes us very attractive to buyers.”

“A condo came on the market in Orchid recently, got multiple offers and went under contract in half a day,” recalled Curley.

A shortage of country club golf slots may seem like a caviar problem to many people compared to other difficulties life serves up.  But for buyers who have been club members in Connecticut or Chicago much of their adult lives, it matters a lot.

“They don’t want to wait years to play golf and tennis and socialize at their club,” said Curley. “They want to start meeting people and having fun.  Golf is a big part of social interaction in Vero and the waitlists is a major issue in dealing with high-end clients who want that lifestyle.

For the clubs themselves, the backlog calls on membership directors’ diplomatic skills and creates some frustration but basically is a pretty good problem to have – people waiting in long lines to pay up to $100,000 or more to join and start spending money on greens fees, lessons, meals, drinks, spa appointments and other club services.

The problem stems from several Covid-related factors, including the rebound in golf’s popularity since 2020 and the pandemic migration of remote workers and others seeking a less restrictive environment with more outdoor recreation opportunities that has flooded the Florida real estate market with more than 1 million new residents – and sparked intense competition for both houses and club memberships.

Compounding the influx – 1,000 people are still arriving in Florida each day – are two types of stasis. Housing inventory on the island is low because many homeowners won’t list their homes for sale because, with the low inventory, they don’t see a place to go that appeals to them.

In addition, many golfers – in a time of club scarcity – want to hang on to their club memberships.

“Since covid, people are not resigning,” said Michael Gibson, general manager at Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club just across the Barber Bridge on the mainland.

“They are not leaving. They’ve found a refuge where everybody knows their name and everybody knows their drink. Some of the older members paid $20,000 or $30,000 to join and the cost is two or three times that now so they don’t want to make a move. Clubs typically want turnover but right now we don’t have much. Our attrition rates are about half of normal.”

The good news is Vero’s mainland golf clubs are ready to welcome new residents with open arms, providing a temporary or permanent solution to the shortage of island memberships.

At least four private mainland clubs have golf memberships available for approved members, including Grand Harbor, which has every country club amenity imaginable, including a recently remodeled beach club on the island.

Gibson said the club has spent $11 million upgrading its two golf courses and other facilities in the past several years since members took over ownership. “We have sold almost 300 memberships in the past three years – about 60 percent to island residents – but we still have plenty of opportunities.

“We can handle another 100 golf members,” Gibson added. “I would love to have them. Anyone who is interested should contact the membership office.”

“Grand Harbor is a great option,” agreed Sykes.