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June 21, 2008 5:12 am

Home on the range

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It was in the spring of 2007 that Anne Hurst, a Florida real estate agent, first saw The Oaks equestrian community in the countryside near her Lake City home. After attending the ground-breaking ceremony, her mind was made up. “This is where I want to live,” she recalls telling her husband.

“It was like Disneyland for me,” says Hurst, a former professional horse groomer in her native England.

Equestrian living has become increasingly popular with wealthy buyers attracted to rural landscapes combined with luxury residences and the amenities found in private golf communities. Their reasons for choosing this lifestyle are varied, but follow two themes: horses and open space.

Equestrians and non-riders – even golfers – say they would rather watch horses than golf carts whiz by their kitchen windows. Horses symbolise luxury and provide a connection to times past.

The idea of building homes around horses is not new. But a sophisticated approach has caught on, particularly in the south-eastern and western parts of the US, and also in Europe, South America and elsewhere.

While the US real estate slump has slowed equestrian projects in some areas, including California and Florida, developers say there remain plenty of wealthy homebuyers keen to invest in property. Jennifer Donovan, principal of Equestrian Services in Charlottesville, Virginia, says the subprime mortgage crisis is about primary homeowners, whereas buyers of equestrian residences may own two or three homes.

“It is actually a great time to get really good deals,” says Donovan, whose firm, which she co-owns with her husband Michael, joins with housing and resort developers to design and manage their equestrian operations.

At a minimum, equestrian developments have a community barn staffed with instructors, riding rings and trails. The sites, one to 10 acres and more, typically border open space. Amenities may include restaurants, shared event space, concierge services, fitness and spa facilities, sporting and social events and lakes or streams for fishing. Barns and other facilities in top-tier equestrian communities exhibit quality design finishes on a par with country clubs.

Equestrian living is becoming more popular, especially with baby boomers heading toward retirement and “the good life”. Similarly, young parents are attracted to the simpler lifestyle where horses and land provide a powerful antidote to their technology-stressed city life, and where children can spend more time outdoors. Some buyers inclined toward “green” living favour pasture lands over water-intensive golf courses, says Donovan.

Horse owners, for their part, gain an amenity that just may beat all others: someone else cleans the barn.

“You’ve got everything right there,” says Hurst who, with her husband Tim, is building a home in The Oaks. Six years ago, the couple sold their horses and a rural home because it felt isolated. By contrast, The Oaks retains its rural setting but is a short drive to major highways and into town.

The couple had originally eyed a two-acre lot, but decided on four and a half acres should future owners want to build their own barn – a smart move for resale.

“For me, it’s a new lease on life,” Hurst says. “It just took my heart away.”

That sentiment is echoed elsewhere. Nine years ago Stan Lent learnt about plans for the Santa Lucia Preserve outside Carmel, California. After touring the land with his wife Robin, Lent recalls her saying: “This is what I’ve been looking for all of my life.”

“It feels like Montana in California,” Lent says, yet it is close to family and friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. A full-scale equestrian operation is one of the neighbourhood’s draws, but more compelling for Lent, who is a keen golfer, is the Tom Fazio-designed golf course.

At 20,000 acres, the Santa Lucia Preserve is larger than the island of Manhattan, but only 2,000 acres can be developed as the remainder is a nature preserve. Homes and facilities, including ranch and golf clubs, five-star restaurant and guest quarters in a historic and renovated old ranch house, are designed in a Baja hacienda style.

Lent, a dentist, and his wife were the project’s first residents in 2001, and here their hobby of real estate investing turned into a second career. Lent has built and sold three homes in the area. The return has been good, he says, but the personal and spiritual rewards of living in “The Preserve” far exceed any financial benefit.

“When I’m not selling real estate, I’m golfing, hiking, mountain-bike riding,” he says. “I’m enjoying the sense of community. The Preserve has attracted people I like to be with ... people who like the outdoor space.”

Lots range from five to 75 acres, so “social life is as much or as little as you want it to be”, he adds.

There is often a strong sense of community between homeowners and riders – particularly in developments where the barn and trails are used by equestrians who live outside the neighbourhood. While the equestrians gain access to top-notch facilities and programmes typically funded by developers and homeowners’ dues, residents savour the surroundings.

Done right, such neighbourhoods acquire what developer Bob Gray calls “a sense of place”. At High Prairie International Polo Club in Douglas County, Colorado, residents will be able to watch polo matches on fields that longtime polo player Gray, president of The Gray Group, is building together with equestrian training facilities.

He has amassed about 2,000 acres – half of it open space – next to the Colorado Horse Park, a regional hub for equestrian sports. Bike and horse trails will run throughout the property and connect to more than 100 miles of county trails. He is banking on horse park events and the “panache of polo” to draw affluent buyers to High Prairie, where all 55 home sites offer big-sky views of the Rocky Mountains. Prices for homes will start at about $1.5m on 2.5-acre lots.

While High Prairie has positioned itself around polo and the Cartier set, other equestrian communities, such as American Ranch in Prescott, Arizona, have adopted a “western” ranch theme tied to the allure of the American cowboy.

Developer m3companies has capitalised on a popular resort trend – family vacations at high-end “dude ranches” – with the added twist that enthusiasts can now live year-round at American Ranch.

Meanwhile, Brad Dicks, developer of the The Oaks in Florida, which is the first O’Connor Signature community, says branding can communicate credibility.

This is usually because a famous name is attached to the property – much the same as Jack Nicklaus has done with golfing communities. In the case of Equestrian Services in Charlottesville, the firm is partnering with Olympic equestrians Karen and David O’Connor and John Lyons, dubbed “America’s Most Trusted Horseman”. Donovan says the riders are only putting their names on developments that meet a stringent set of criteria for amenities, safety and professionalism.

“The riding programmes are approved and developed by the namesakes themselves,” Donovan says. “They come annually and teach a clinic.”

Prospective buyers should look at the resale value of homes in equestrian communities that have been around for some time. For example, home prices at the Ford Plantation, an 1,800-acre community on the Georgia coast, 18 miles from Savannah, have appreciated by an average of 25-30 per cent over the 10 years since the project opened, says Lisa Andrews, Ford’s president of sales and marketing.

In the Santa Lucia Preserve, sales have averaged just under $1,000 a sq ft in the past 20 or so months. However, Stan Lent notes that only a handful of the 60 homes built to date have been resold. A five-bedroom Arthur Valdes-designed hacienda that Lent built and sold three years ago for $4.5m is now listed at $6.75m.

As equestrian communities proliferate, buyers may wonder if, like golf communities, they will reach saturation, threatening resale values. While that might be a possibility, high-end equestrian communities and their residents enjoy an advantage over their golf-course counterparts – untouched land seldom falls out of favour.

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