Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Join the club

In the cooling Spanish market, a home on a golf course makes investment sense, finds Karen Robinson of The Sunday Times

Three years ago, when they were planning the development of a swathe of Andalusian hilltop with Mediterranean views, the chaps at Sotogrande did not ?try to reinvent the wheel?, explains sales director Michael Norton. They had ?a simple formula: a golf course?.

Sotogrande, of course, has form for this kind of thing, going back to the very dawn of the transmogrification of the Costa del Sol into the Costa del Golf. There are more than 40 golf courses between Malaga and Gibraltar, where the climate means that a game in the sunshine is a possibility just about year-round, and at least half a dozen more are in the pipeline. Long a byword for upmarket golf and homes, Sotogrande already had the world-class courses of Valderrama and the Real Club de Golf Sotogrande, plus Almenara and La Cañada, when they started work on their latest project, La Reserva.

Norton explains the relationship between the generously irrigated 18 holes ? where the bunkers are filled with dazzlingly bright marble chips instead of sand ? and the property that borders them.
?The trick here was to make sure that the villa plots on the front line were 3,000 to 4,000sq m. The maximum ?buildability? allowed on the plots is 25%, so we won?t end up with big houses on small plots. The golf is not overpowered by the real estate, and the real estate is not dominated by the golf.?

A villa at La Reserva could cost up to ?3m (£2m), once you?ve bought the plot and constructed your house, but you?d be into ?gold taps? at that price level, says David Vaughan, of Sotogrande?s UK office. Although these days the ostentatious signs of wealth are more likely to be a home cinema and a walk-in fridge.

There is a cheaper option: Los Cortijos de la Reserva, an enclave of 30 villas and 46 town houses close to the opulent new clubhouse, where a two-bedder starts at about £340,000 and the priciest four-bed villa is about £930,000. It?s no accident that these properties have all been clustered together rather than dotted around the course: it gives seriously upmarket buyers a sense of space and exclusivity that translates into higher values.

All buyers at La Reserva have a guaranteed right to apply for golf club membership: up to ?60,000 (about £41,000) for the one-off debenture and £1,700 a year in fees. The club allows the equivalent of two hours? green fees a day for non-members (there?s a large non-members area of the clubhouse), which means anyone buying to let in Los Cortijos can offer golf on the doorstep, along with the Sotogrande central reservation system that can book slots at its other courses.
?Now that southern Spain is seeing a cooling in the market, the worst-hit will be unplanned developments with no facilities,? says Tim Hodges, of property finder County Homesearch International Spain. ?Spanish property is still a good long-term investment, but you have to stick with quality. Golf is an investment bonus because it gives you winter rentals as well as summer.?

The La Cala Resort, three miles inland from Mijas Costa, has two golf courses and is building a third, along with surrounding properties ? ?That?s the downside,? says Hodges. ?There?ll be building for a few years? ? but the upside is that it?s an established venture with its infrastructure in place, and none of its 1,000 acres have been sold off to other developers. ?It?s not a speculation,? says Hodges.

James Reid, a retired financial director with an enviably deep toffee-coloured tan, lives full-time at La Cala in a semi-detached four-bedroom villa with pool on the development?s south course. He paid £660,000 for the house ? which came fully furnished, as it was the show home. ?I never get tired of the scenery,? he says. ?It?s like having your lawn mowed every day.? And he has found that his golf, for which he pays annual club fees of £1,250, has improved since he moved to La Cala.

Reid already owned a three-bedroom penthouse on the development, which cost him about £250,000 two years ago, and he plans to rent it out through a golfing holiday company in Britain.

Hodges and I inspect the show home of Real Altavista apartments, one of the latest developments in the La Cala master plan for an eventual 2,000 properties, where the cheapest three-bed apartment sells for about £280,000. Hodges is impressed: ?This is the middle market, but the middle market is moving up in standards and quality. It?s like a hotel fit-out? ? he indicates the marble floors and well-crafted wardrobes ? ?and if you?re buying with rental in mind, that?s what you want. And there is stuff to do: golf, riding, tennis. A spa is being built. This will hold its value.?

Occupying a similar niche in the market to La Cala is La Quinta, established for 17 years, with three or more years of construction to go to complete the building programme before it moves on to the next-door tract of scrubby hillside overlooking Puerto Banus. It has 27 golf holes, a five-star hotel and services to suit residents and holiday renters ? and five other golf courses are within five minutes? drive. The resort markets golf holiday packages using owners? apartments for accommodation.

As well as the resale market, new apartments are available in La Quinta Suites, 42 two-bedders scheduled for completion in November 2006, and in Buenavista, 52 two- and three-bedders that should be ready a few months earlier. Prices start at £254,000 at the Suites and £375,000 at the larger, more lavishly specced Buenavista (underfloor heat, ?intelligent? wiring, a laundry room that sends a ?flood alert? to your mobile phone).

Although the Costa del Sol?s golfing bonanza has been driven by northern Europeans? apparently insatiable appetite for the game, the sport is popular with the local people, too. Compared with the subdued atmosphere of some palatial Costa clubhouses, the 19th hole at Antequera Golf has the hallmarks of ?real Spain?: garrulous members comparing scorecards in an atmosphere thick with tobacco smoke and the smell of good, strong coffee.


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