Feature With lush greens and wide open spaces, residential complexes on golf courses appeal to our need for a sanctuary.
Home on the range
"It's almost impossible to start the day feeling unhappy when I come down for breakfast and look out on that huge expanse of grass," says Carla Martin, whose front garden appears to flow seamlessly into one of Arabian Ranches' fairways.
Martin is one of a growing number of homeowners in the UAE who is living life on the green in the dry heart of the UAE. Surrounded by artful landscaping, well-watered lawns and gorgeous houses, golf courses aren't just for playing any more. "The Arab world has discovered golf in a big way," says Ian Mackie, the senior development manager at Aldar. "We see putting houses near courses as a real growth area for the UAE property market. There is a huge novelty in living so close to so much green space, and it's proving incredibly popular among buyers."
Mike Robson, of Cluttons estate agency, adds: "Residential golf developments have started springing up all over the place. "The established courses are in Dubai: the Emirates, the Montgomerie, Arabian Ranches and the Els Club. As they have all done fantastically well - proving popular with house-buyers and making developers lots of money - everyone is now joining in." Indeed, across the Middle East, 26 golf courses are under construction - the vast majority with houses and flats built around them. Fourteen of these are in the UAE - mainly Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but also in Ras al Khaimah, Ajman and Fujairah - with a dozen more in the pipeline.
The golf-residential complex is a child of the 1960s. This was when US developers first came up with the idea of building homes that enabled owners to watch the sport from the comfort of their living rooms. Europe soon picked up on the trend, and similar developments began mushrooming across the continent, particularly in southern Spain - Las Brisas in Marbella was one of the first - and Portugal's Algarve. In recent years, however, the concept has gone global: practically every country in the world has a golf estate, and even some unlikely countries - such as China and Cuba - are getting in on the act.
For developers, building the course is a big investment, costing an average of Dh50 million (US$13.6m), according to Cluttons, and signing up a big-name player to design the course can add an extra Dh7m-plus. Clearly this kind of money wouldn't be invested unless it raised the price tag of the homes. David Spencer, the chief executive of golf at Leisurecorp, says that a Dh1.8m home in a Dubai or Abu Dhabi development that did not have a golf course could fetch Dh2.4m if it did.
Recent research carried out by KPMG, the accounting and consulting firm, backs this up. "Golf has a proven track record in increasing the sales price," says Mark Sandilands, the manager of the firm's golf advisory services practice. "It also helps increase the speed at which houses are sold." A new KPMG survey suggests that more than 90 per cent of developers think a course adds at least 10 per cent to the value of a residential development. A study by the Golf Research Group in 2006 found that properties in developments where there was a Robert Trent Jones-designed course went up by a staggering 57 per cent in two years.
Scott Ferrell, the head of Gary Player Design, estimates that the Player brand drives property prices up by between 15 and 25 per cent. "If you're buying within a golf development designed by Gary Player, there's a certain comfort of expectation - that what we're going to deliver is going to meet your expectations. You're not rolling the dice with a home in this development." Practically every golf-pro-turned-designer - including Player, Sergio Garcia and Jack Nicklaus - is working in the UAE. Dubai has netted the biggest fish and signed up Tiger Woods to front a development there, which, when built, will include houses, a golf course, boutique hotel and a clubhouse. It is the first course the golfer has put his name to anywhere in the world.
With prices starting at Dh50m and rising to Dh200m, there are three types of property: villa, mansion or palace. The design of these super-deluxe golf pads is traditionally Arabic, with lots of wood and archways, and some come with landscaped gardens, complete with a fountain in front of the house. Another landmark project is the Dh40bn Jumeirah Golf Estates being developed by Leisurecorp in Jebel Ali. When completed, it will boast four courses: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, designed by Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Garcia and Pete Dye respectively. Fire and Earth are home to more than 1,000 villas, ranging from three bedrooms to six, priced from Dh3.5m, to Dh35m. Three-quarters will face the golf course and the remainder will front lakes or greenery; some villas will be made of brick, while others will use the stucco associated with more classical designs.
The buyers are mainly end-users. "I'd say 70 per cent of purchasers are buying to live here rather than as an investment," says Spencer. "A quarter of our buyers so far are from the GCC, and a quarter from the UK. The other 50 per cent are from the subcontinent, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa and Australia." In Abu Dhabi, Aldar's development on Yas Island features two 18-hole golf courses, close to the Formula One track now under construction. One will be a links course, designed by the eminent links specialist, Kyle Phillips. Property here will be high-end and low density: just 60 extravagant villas, half of which will have direct frontage to the golf course. The housing on the second course will mostly be in apartment buildings dotted around the greens and fairways. Each building will be between three and 10 storeys high, with apartments from one to four bedrooms.
Tourism Development and Investment Company is building two courses on Saadiyat Island, one of which is being designed by Player. A third of this beachfront golf course - the only one of its kind in the UAE - will have views over the sea, allowing golfers to do a bit of dolphin-spotting as they wait for their partners to tee off. Snaking around the course will be the luxurious villas and apartments, all with proximity to the beach. Few details have been released about the other course, which will be in the Wetlands area, with homes - most likely villas rather than flats - and a boutique eco-hotel.
"Designing a golf course within a residential development means the course is a bit more spread out, so more houses can get a view of it," says Ferrell. "Done well, it can add to the golf course - it's all about creating a balance between the course and the houses. We try to avoid situations where you have houses on both sides of the fairways - that's not good for golf, and it's not good for the homeowners."
Clearly, buying this type of property is not for the cash-strapped, though Dubai Properties, which has launched its first golf project, Mudon, is promising more affordable flats, alongside the more lavish villas. "It will be the only golf course in Dubai where you can live in a six-bed villa or a one-bed flat close to the course," says Haiyan Mujarkech, a spokesman for the developer. "Buyers who are more limited on budget can enjoy the lifestyle without paying astronomic prices."
The golf course homes will feature high-end villas, as well as more affordable courtyard villas further away from the course. Here, apartment blocks will offer views of the fairways. The development will be divided into five parts, each a re-creation of a major Arab city, all knitted together by the course. Golfers will be able to tee off in Cairo, reach Damascus by midmorning, lunch in Marrakech, drive their buggies to Beirut and enjoy one last swing in Baghdad.
The phenomenal demand for this type of property in the UAE has been driven mainly by expats looking for recreational facilities, according to Sandilands, of KPMG. "To date, the local population hasn't taken to the game," he says. "If you live in a golf development, you get to meet other expats, use the facilities and feel part of a community." By recreational facilities we don't just mean golf, either. Surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 per cent of buyers on the country's golf projects actually play the sport - the other 70 per cent buy for the facilities, lifestyle and greenery.
"It's a striking statistic," says Ferrell. "It's indicative of the lifestyle element to these golfing communities - it offers open space, and people buying a home within this type of project can expect to be surrounded by like-minded people." Clubhouses are on a different scale from elsewhere, with restaurants, bars, tennis courts and gyms commonly included, as developers try to out-facility each other. Mujarkech promises that the clubhouse in Mudon will be "the biggest ever built in the region. It's a castle - a big, Arabic castle". Aldar is boasting that its courses will outdo anything offered in Dubai, with the latest design innovations in both the course and its other facilities.
Some developers, such as Jumeirah Golf Estates, deed a single membership with each house sale, but not all do so. The best hope for some homeowners is that owning a property in the development will make it easier to get membership, which might otherwise be hard to come by. Susie Brinton, a British expatriate, recently bought a three-bedroom villa in Whispering Pines in the Earth section of Jumeirah Golf Estates for Dh3.5m. "I bought it because it is a green haven in a desert," she says. "It's quiet, with lots of space and scope for healthy living. It's also gated, so it's safe. It has turned out to be a good investment - the Dubai World Championship will take place here, which I imagine will mean prices go up too. I don't play golf, but the major plus for me is the wide-open spaces that the golf course provides. I can also tell friends that Greg Norman landscaped my back yard."