A Slice of Paradise
Instead of owning a second home outright, more people are sharing the cost to get all the benefits
(MONEY Magazine) – You've always dreamed of owning an apartment in Paris or a house in Aspen. Then reality sets in: Taking care of a home that's thousands of miles away is no small thing. You could hire a local caretaker to keep an eye on things when you're not there, but that requires hiring a local caretaker, which isn't easy. And if something does go wrong, such as a burst pipe, it's now your problem to find le plombier in Paris--even if it's 4 a.m. and you're in bed--in Chicago. Even if you're not so far away, having paid for your getaway, you're now obligated to spend every vacation there. Time-shares used to be one option, if you wanted a week in Myrtle Beach, but there's now a new way to own your dream: fractional-ownership plans and destination clubs. Both give you the space and seclusion of a private home without the responsibilities of actually owning one. Maintenance and upkeep are taken care of by the management company. All you have to do is show up. Read on to find out how, in some cases, the sweetest home can be someone else's.
So who is this really for?
Destination clubs and fractional-ownership plans don't make much sense as a replacement for the annual family vacation, but they can be an alternative to buying a family vacation home. They're a way to gain regular access to a luxurious private residence in a highly sought-after location (as is the case with a fractional) or a way to spend time at fancy properties that are scattered across the globe (which is the basis of destination clubs). In both cases you're forfeiting the rights of total ownership of the property, but then, you're also not taking on the responsibilities, which is the whole point.
What's the difference between destination clubs and fractional-ownership plans?
The biggest difference: equity. You get it with fractional ownership. You don't (usually) with a destination club. In most destination clubs, you pay a one-time membership fee as well as annual dues (fees can cost upwards of $195,000, while dues start at around $10,000). Once you've bought in, you can stay at any of the club's properties that are located around the globe. The club manages the property, so maintenance, housekeeping and concierge services are often included. If you decide to cancel your membership, you get all or some of your original fee refunded (more about that later).
In a fractional-ownership plan, you're buying a share of a residence, so you get to use it only part of the year, which is expressed as a fraction. Because each company defines its fractions according to seasonal demand and other factors, pay attention to the number of days, not the fraction. An eighth of the year is 46 days, but at the Ritz-Carlton Club in Jupiter, Fla., an eighth is 35 days. Because it's actual property, in many states you can often get a mortgage to buy a share, and if you sell at the right time, you may even make a profit. (The fractional industry discourages people from buying fractionals as an investment, which is a good idea, since their performance in the real estate market is less certain than that of traditional properties). Fractional sponsor companies are responsible for maintenance, housekeeping and other services, which are covered through the annual dues that you pay in addition to the purchase price.
Fractionals sound suspiciously like time-shares. Are these a bunch of rip-off scams?
Smart question. Did you get burned on some beachfront condo deal back in the early '80s? The truth is that "fractional ownership" is just a fancy way of saying "time-share." As you pointed out, "time-share" has such a sleazy ring to it that the industry avoids that word at all costs. There are some significant differences, however, between the time-shares of the '70s and '80s and the fractional plans of today. For starters, many time-shares used to be run by fly-by-night operations that were around just long enough to clean you out. Fractionals are run by companies such as Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, which aren't the swindling type. The other thing about time-shares is that if you wanted to trade weeks, it wasn't easy, since the place could be shared by as many as 52 groups. Most fractionals are limited to no more than 14 owners per property, so reserving a block of time is easier. And the properties themselves are different. Instead of some condo slapped together for the next spring-break rush, fractional plans feature homes that, on the market, would often cost millions of dollars.
What if I want to get out of the club or plan?
Every club has a way for its members to recoup some, if not all, of their initial membership fee. If you own a fractional, it's simple: You can just sell your share to someone else (though some fractional companies impose a fee if you don't sell it through them). With destination clubs, it gets a little trickier: Some clubs will return 100% of your original payment. Others will return 80%. (You may be wondering why these clubs demand such a big up-front payment if they're willing to return most of it when you leave. The answer is that they need the capital to buy properties for their collection. By the time you terminate your membership, the logic goes, more people will have signed on, providing new sources of funding.) One of the newer clubs, BelleHavens, will return 80% of whatever is the current value of your membership. Since fees rise from year to year (Exclusive Resorts, for example, charged $150,000 in 2003; a membership today costs $395,000), you could conceivably turn a profit.
Okay, but destination clubs still seem pretty steep. Why would anyone spend so much on this?
Think of it this way: You pay Exclusive Resorts $395,000 to join and an additional $25,000 every year, which entitles you to 60 days at any of the club's 200 properties. At some point you're going to cancel your membership and get $316,000 back (it should be noted that you are taking that money and basically lending it, interest-free, to the club operator). If you held on to a membership for 10 years, you would have paid a total of $329,000 in dues and fees, or almost $33,000 a year. Since you get 60 days each year, that comes to just under $550 a night. Not chump change, but not insane if you consider that $550 gets you a four-bedroom villa in, say, St.-Tropez that has a value of $3 million. "If you've done all the traveling you'd like to do, then buying a place is a better option," says Harry Morgan, a radiologist who has been a member of Exclusive Resorts since 2003. "But I'm not thinking about getting out. Maybe if I felt like I'd traveled enough, if that ever happens."
So what kinds of places are available?
Destination clubs such as Exclusive Resorts (former AOL chief Steve Case's latest venture) and Tanner & Haley have more than 30 locations in their portfolios. The variety ranges from apartments in Paris, London and New York to villas in Tuscany and the south of France to oceanfront homes in the Caribbean. Each location often has more than one property, so more than one member can be in a location at one time. Fractional-ownership plans have fewer locations to choose from (though you are able to trade weeks within their network of properties or affiliated hotels). Fairmont's Heritage Place has locations in Acapulco and Telluride; the Marriott Grand Residence Club currently has properties in Lake Tahoe and London. On the other hand, some fractional owners don't mind the limited selection. Former Cleveland Brown Mike Pruitt bought into the Ritz-Carlton club in St. Thomas in 2003, and he hasn't thought twice about it. "They'll rent it out for you if you want, but I've always used my 21 days a year," says the self-professed "old guy" of 51. "Nobody else has even had a chance to use it yet."
How hard is it to book time there?
Both fractional plans and destination clubs pride themselves on how easy it is to reserve time at your preferred location. Perhaps it's not so much pride as good business sense. If too many people are allowed to join, spots get filled too quickly and too often. Customers, in turn, become frustrated and quit their membership. That's why caps are strictly enforced. Many destination clubs guarantee members that they will be able to get time at their preferred destination for a certain number of days (usually between 14 and 35, depending on how much you pay). After that, members may purchase extra days on a "space available" basis for an additional fee. With fractionals, it's simple: If the company is selling 1/12 shares in a home, there can be only 12 members, so crowding is limited. "We were in Tuscany [at a destination club villa on Salvatore Ferragamo's estate] and were in one of two houses that were around a courtyard," recalls Morgan. "I never saw anyone."
We looked at three different residence options in Jackson Hole, Wyo. for around $400,000. Here's how they stack up.