Country club living always signifies prestige. It suggests the good life: upscale residences with views of acres of manicured green space, socializing at well-appointed clubhouses, unlimited golf at your doorstep.
That high-end ambience still exists, but the trend today is toward more affordable golf course communities built around public courses.
The new Bowes Creek Country Club in northwest suburban Elgin is the latest entry in that category. The 18-hole golf course, laid out on gently rolling terrain, is scheduled to open in late September, according to Michael Lehman, director of golf and head pro.
The project is unique because it is a joint effort of Toll Brothers, which will build 931 homes at the 616-acre site, and the city of Elgin, which will manage and maintain the course.
Some homes already have been built at Bowes Creek, which offers four-bedroom single-family houses with 2,000 to 4,300 square feet starting in the low-$400,000s, and low-maintenance townhouses with 2,000 to 2,300 square feet priced from the mid-$200,000s. It also has a separate active-adult enclave with ranches and townhouses priced from the upper-$200,000s to the mid-$300,000s.
The Bowes Creek opening is surprising because the golf course community boom slowed down years ago and planning for future golf developments has been stalled by the current state of the economy.
"I don't see new ones being built in the next five years," said real estate analyst Tracy Cross. "There have been a lot of problems with country clubs because of the recession."
But golf developments planned and started before the housing downturn continue to sell. Cross listed the top three as the Hawthorn Woods Country Club in northwest suburban Hawthorn Woods, Bowes Creek in Elgin and Mill Creek in west suburban Geneva.
"Having a golf course gave builders a competitive edge. But in the early 2000s, housing sales were humming along so builders didn't need golf to set them apart," said Cross, president of Tracy Cross and Associates in Schaumburg.
He added that new golf projects tailed off for other reasons, too. "Changing tides have put more emphasis on family-oriented activities, the cost of golf has increased and the popularity of the game has remained stable or downward in recent years."
It costs more to live on a golf course. Cross estimates that houses in a gated community cost close to 40 percent more than similar residences elsewhere. "A $350,000 house might be $500,000 on a golf course," he said.
But there's still a demand for country club living. Just ask Jim and Pat Kehoe.
When they started looking for a new house, golf was not a priority. Now it is. That's because they moved in June to a two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot ranch at the active-adult section of Bowes Creek. They're looking forward to the opening of the golf course.
"I used to play golf a number of years ago," said Jim, a retired Chicago firefighter who had lived in the city all his life. "We've already joined the golf club. And we've both taken golf lessons."
They had their garage extended four feet to make room for a two-seater golf cart. "It can also be driven on the streets to go to the activity center and clubhouse," he said.
The 9,000-square-foot active-adult clubhouse has a media room, library, billiards room and space for parties. Besides golf, recreation options include a swimming pool, tennis courts, bocce ball and a putting green.
Because the golf course is so convenient, Jim thinks they will play three times a week.
Barbara and David Schwab also are ardent golfers.
"We wouldn't have moved here if it didn't have a golf course," said Barbara Schwab. "We play at least twice a week."
The Schwabs and their four children live in a four-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot house on the golf course at Hawthorn Woods Country Club.
Built by Toll Brothers, the private country club was planned for 479 single-family homes and 113 townhouses. The centerpiece of the community is the 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature golf course and the 21,000-square-foot clubhouse.
"The clubhouse caters to families. My kids love the pool and we play tennis," Barbara said.
Their house is on the sixth fairway. "We picked the lot for the view. It's fun to watch the golfers go by," she said.
Premiums for golf-course lots at Hawthorn Woods range from $25,000 to $125,000, according to Nicole Gardiner, senior sales manager at the development. Starting prices range from $390,000 to $490,000, and lot sizes are a third of an acre to three quarters of an acre, she said.
Still, not all golf course residents want to live on the course.
"Some people want more privacy. They don't want strangers walking in their backyard," said Jack Sorenson, president of U.S. Shelter Group.
"You would think that people would like looking at the open space of a golf course, but some don't want to be too close to a fairway," Sorenson added.
Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Associates in Schaumburg, traced the history of golf developments.
"Golf was hot in the 1980s, but courses were overbuilt. When golf fell out of vogue, some golf community developers tried to cut deals with local park districts to take over the courses. But living on a public course is not the same as being on a private course," he said.
Hovany explained that builders used golf courses as a sales tool to sell homes. A newer trend is to leave large parts of master-planned communities as open space with wetlands and parks.
"Golf course developments can create instant communities in the middle of nowhere," Hovany said. "It's all about prestige, but the real issue is whether people will pay a premium to live on a golf course."
A recent survey in Kane County found that affluent respondents were interested in golf course communities, Hovany said. "But put a lake in a housing development and interest jumped even more. People preferred water to golf."
Even so, golf developments continue to thrive.
In terms of number of homes, the largest golf course community in the Chicago area is Sun City Huntley. Planned for 5,000 homes, the Del Webb retirement development still has some 500 homes for sale.
Of Mill Creek's 800 acres, 45 percent is open space, including 36 holes of golf. Developed by Shodeen Homes, it offers single-family homes starting at the lower-$300,000s in the Tanna neighborhood. Larger single-family homes in the Oakmont neighborhood start in the upper-$300,000s for 2,378 to 3,035 square feet. Besides the country club lifestyle, the master-planned community has its own on-site schools and stores.
Another golf course community selling new homes is the Midlane Club in north suburban Wadsworth.
J. Lawrence Homes is offering single-family homes priced from $249,900 to $339,900 with 2,019 to 3,354 square feet and two to four bedrooms.
Besides the 18-hole golf course, Midlane has a driving range, community clubhouse, swimming pool and fitness center.
Hovany estimates that only about 20 percent of those living at a golf community actually play the game. But many more love the wide-open views of grass and woods. It's just another excellent way to go green.