2002: Real Estate - Procuring a piece of Pebble

By Chris Lewis

Pebble Beach, Calif.

Pebble Beach’s aura of exclusivity is well merited. Only 5,000 or so fortunate souls boast addresses on the 5,200-acre patch of golf paradise bordered on the east by California State Highways 1 and 68, and on the west by the cool, blue Pacific. Because of water-use restrictions, new homes rarely rise from the ground. As a consequence, the local real estate market is tighter than a military man’s bed sheets.

The lack of available properties is only one impediment to decamping to Pebble’s slice of Northern California golf heaven. Many of its homes – most notably, the mansions that gain so much television time during its annual four-day infomercial, the AT&T National Pro-Am – are worth upward of $20 million.

Another is Pebble’s relative geographic isolation. Within driving distance of only three metropolitan centers (San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose), and with limited commercial air service, Pebble stands at a significant remove from most of civilization – which, of course, is why sea otters flock to its frosty coastal waters.

Nevertheless, new homeowners – 200 annually, by most counts – continue to make their way past the sentried gates at either end of Seventeen Mile Drive, and into the Beverly Hills of American golf. Surprisingly, not all are as wealthy as Jed Clampett. Or even Bobby Clampett. Comely homes in The Forest – neighborhood slang for the district – sometimes can be had for less than $1 million.

Premier properties, on the other hand, are far pricier. During the dot-com boom, homes on the so-called “front line” – the 45 residences that overlook the ocean and the Pebble Beach Golf Links, and Pebble’s other 29 waterfront abodes – approached the $30 million mark. Since that boom went bust, asking prices have dipped only slightly.

Likely the most distinctive aspect of Pebble’s real estate market is the strange game of hide-and-seek that, at its upper reaches, often defines the process of matching prospective sellers and buyers. As a rule, the most attractive homes never are actually listed.

“With those sellers, the preference is for discretion,” says Mike Canning, an agent for The Mitchell Group, a Pebble Beach real estate firm. “These sellers don’t want overt exposure of their properties.”

Recent deed purchasers confirm that assertion. Buying in Pebble Beach was “very different from the buying experiences we’ve had elsewhere,” says Sharene Virnig, who, with her husband, purchased a contemporary oceanfront home just off the fifth hole at Spyglass Hill 21⁄2 years ago. “We went five or six weeks looking on our own, but we couldn’t find anything. But it wasn’t because there wasn’t availability. You have to find someone” – a local agent, that is – “who knows where the availability is.”

The final piece of the relocation puzzle, securing a membership at one of Pebble’s tony private clubs, requires even more stealth. For all but the best-connected new arrivals, Cypress Point is out of the question.

“It’s the kind of place,” says one insider, “where asking how to become a member is the surest way not to become a member. The fact is, you may be more likely to get proposed as a member if you don’t own a home at Pebble Beach.”

More open, by reputation, is the vastly underappreciated Monterey Peninsula Country Club, where 14 of 36 holes play toward, from, or along the ocean. The local wisdom is that new immigrants can more or less expect to be welcomed at MPCC – eventually. It usually takes two to four years to compile enough geniality points to be offered a social membership; full membership offers typically ensue a year or two later. Now that Silicon Valley’s heyday has come and gone – and along with it, its influx of price-inflating vanity buyers – Pebble Beach homebuying seems more possible.

“Once you get off the ocean, things are actually pretty reasonable,” says Rex Jobe, a Texan who bought a second home about a half-mile inland from the Pebble Beach course about four years ago. “Prices are comparable to what people are paying for prime lots in other vacation spots.”

Not that Pebble Beach suddenly has turned into a buyer’s market.

“Homeowners here can afford to sit on properties forever,” says Jan Williams, a broker working out of the Coldwell Banker storefront across from Pebble’s first tee. “Most of the time people will leave their houses empty if they don’t get their price.”

Even when they are transaction-ready, Pebble homeowners are notoriously cagey. Sellers have been known to hike discussion-opening figures if they perceive that buyers are especially eager. If that seems tantamount to a Not Welcome mat, there’s little a prospective Pebble-dweller can do about it. It’s just another of The Forest’s inconveniences, standing right alongside its expense, its country club standoffishness and its detachment from the rest of the world.

Still, few would argue that those drawbacks outweigh the benefits, and that the chance to live the Pebble Beach dream isn’t worth putting up with some initial chilliness.

Just ask the sea otters.

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