Michael Sechrist feels stuck.
The 63-year-old planned to retire and build a home on his marshside lot in Belfair, a community he chose for its Tom Fazio golf courses and stunning entryway lined with oaks.
But the Indianapolis investment advisor had to put off retiring because of the recession. Simultaneously, his $140,000 lot sunk in value while he paid annual golf club fees of more than $13,000.
In January, he put the lot on the market for $1. So far no one is interested.
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"I'll give it away as a gift," he said. "I just want to be done."
Behind the gates of Beaufort County's premier golf communities, a handful of property owners like Sechrist who bought lots as investments are practically giving away their property.
At least 26 lots in golf developments -- some of the Lowcountry's finest pieces of land -- are on sale for $1. About 43 more are listed for less than $10,000, according to real estate databases.
But there's a catch: The lots come with expensive transfer fees and mandatory memberships that pay for golf courses, tennis courts and fitness centers. In 2014, those fees tacked on an extra $13,362 at Belfair, $15,870 at Berkeley and $16,275 at Colleton, in addition to initiation fees that cost as much as $19,000.
Real estate agents and community officials call the dirt-cheap lots a passing trend -- fallout from the downturn, when the real estate market and the golf industry tanked simultaneously. Eventually, demand will meet supply and prices will go up, they argue.
In addition, they say the $1 lots signal that there's never been a better time to buy discounted land in a golf community.
"If you're on the selling side, it's not a good time," said Gateway Realty agent Johnny Ussery, who sells greater Bluffton golf properties. "But if you're looking to buy, you just hit the lottery."
For now, the $1 lots trend shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, more are selling today than during the recession.
The listings pop up in the same exclusive communities. Nearly 90 percent of $1 lot sales since 2010 were in Berkeley Hall, Belfair and Colleton River Plantation in greater Bluffton, according to real estate databases.
Officials in those developments say it's mostly affected people who bought lots as investments pre-recession.
But property owners link the dismal lot values to mandatory club memberships.
Some sellers say property values won't recover until the membership requirement is changed. They say they are sick of subsidizing a golf course they don't use.
"The club is addicted to the stream of revenue that funds its projects," said Sechrist. "They won't let you out of it."
In 1989, with space dwindling on Hilton Head Island, developer John Reed turned his eyes to Bluffton.
He started Colleton River Plantation.
Five years later, he broke ground at Belfair.
Finally, in 1999, he developed Berkeley Hall.
The model for each was roughly the same: Designer golf courses linked to luxury real estate.
He styled memberships after Wexford Plantation and Long Cove Club, two Hilton Head Island private golf communities where membership is required.
Sales soared before the recession.
Eisenhower-era retirees swarmed the picturesque developments and gladly paid the membership fees, which gave them access to swank clubhouses and some of the area's finest courses. At Berkeley Hall in 2000, Reed held a lottery because there was so many prospective owners, who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for memberships.
"Folks would come in, buy a lot and spend $750,000 in one day," said David Hueber, former director of the National Golf Foundation. "There was a whole generation of people who had the notion that you can't lose money in real estate."
Then the bottom fell out, and a market that couldn't meet the demand for golf properties was suddenly oversupplied. To make matters worse, golf lost popularity across the country.
Hilton Head communities were largely insulated -- Long Cove and Wexford had enough club members to weather the crash, real estate agents said.
But in greater Bluffton, where developments were still growing, many owners who purchased lots as investments panicked.
Property values plummeted and some lots went on sale for $1. Agents were suddenly offered $5,000 bonuses if they could sell a $1 lot. In the past five years, 61 lots have sold for $1 at those three developments -- about 10 percent of sales overall.
Real estate agents aren't concerned.
They say the lots are usually less desirable properties and only make up a small portion of available land.
"The waterside and golf-course lots have been snatched up in recent years," Dick Datz of Carolina Realty Group said. "Once those are gone, prices will go up and the others will get bought."
More importantly, the lots are now selling to buyers who want to build right away, which bodes well for the developments' long-term success, according to community officials.
"Having a buyer come down and want to build today is a major change from 10 years ago," said Berkeley Hall general manager Adrian Morris. "Instead of an investor sitting in Maryland, you have a resident using the club. It's bringing a whole new demographic to the club."
'A BROKEN MODEL?'
But some $1 lot sellers attribute the cheap land to the communities' mandatory golf memberships.
Recession-weary buyers now know how quickly property can lose value. Spending extra money on a membership is a tough sell. The ripple effect lowers property values, they say.
"It's a broken model," said Ian Ford, a Charleston attorney whose firm represents clients in matters related to golf-course memberships. "It relies on people joining the club. But no one wants to join the club anymore."
Clubs have looked at changing the fee structure to boost property values and convince non-golfers to buy in. But most believe their elite status will attract enough golf-focused buyers.
At the height of the downturn, Colleton's board considered a tiered-membership system, which would have allowed owners to decide if they wanted golf, said former board president Robert Norton.
But the board decided too many members would trade down and not buy back when the economy improved. That would jeopardize Colleton's ability to cover the costs of a top-flight golf community, he said.
"When people go down the food chain they tend to stay down," Norton said. "We were under pressure but we decided to stick through it, and I think you're seeing results now. We didn't dilute our product, so we're still attracting an elite group of buyers."
Other communities are getting creative with memberships.
At Berkeley Hall, board members voted two years ago to offer 100 non-equity memberships. The new type of membership, offered to non-residents, allows a member to resign without selling the membership. It's been successful, said Morris. Two weeks ago, the board approved 50 more.
But he doesn't expect the development to stop requiring property owners to be members.
"How would you support a golf facility?" he asked, adding that changing the requirement would be unfair to owners who bought under one system.
Developer Reed, who has ceded control of his Berkeley Hall, Belfair and Colleton River developments to their respective homeowners boards, said the mandatory memberships are "something that should be looked at," especially when it relates to elderly members who can no longer use the facilities.
"As people get older, they can't play. We need to find ways for them to still enjoy their home and get their golf membership transferred," he said. "People will say, 'John, you're saying this, but you're the one who wrote it.' Well, there's some things I didn't know. You live and learn."
A group of Callawassie Island property owners are challenging mandatory membership in federal court.
The owners sued the island's private golf club and owners association for requiring new buyers to become members and refusing to let owners resign their memberships.
They argue the requirement that every property owner be a member is illegal.
That requirement has knocked down property values to the point that some cannot sell their lots even for $1, according to the lawsuit. Real estate databases show only one $1 island property for sale.
Other owners have filed for bankruptcy because they couldn't pay the fees, the lawsuit says.
In court filings, the golf club has said the owners signed a contract that laid out the terms they are now protesting. The club also argues that three state judges have ruled in its favor in lawsuits making similar claims.
"In every state court case that has addressed the issue to date, Callawassie Island membership program has been found to be in compliance with South Carolina law," club president Michael MacGee said in an email.
He said he does not believe mandatory memberships have caused property values to drop.
"We remain confident that as the real estate market continues to improve, so too will property values, not just on Callawassie Island, but throughout the Lowcountry," he wrote.
Ford, who represents Callawassie property owners against the club, said communities with mandatory memberships are running into trouble across the country.
Once-thriving clubs are hanging onto members to maintain revenue streams.
"You get into this weird position where you force people into a social club," he said. "Owners on the board believe golf is the lifeblood of the community. But they can't survive without everyone pitching in."
Walking away isn't an option, he said.
Those with mortgages on the lots would lose the property to foreclosure. In addition, failure to pay annual club dues could give the clubs grounds for legal action, owners have said.
Belfair owner Sechrist has asked the community's board to take his land.
Board president Karen Renshaw said such an action would favor one owner over the others.
"We have an obligation to all of our members to continue to be financially stable," she said. "We only have one membership type. If we were to favor a subset of our membership, we would be discriminating against the rest of our membership."
She added that all owners took a risk when buying property.
Sechrist said he understands the risk, but believes the community would accept his land back into its inventory if it wasn't for the annual dues he pays.
"The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the dues," said Sechrist. "That place is full of money thanks to people like me who live halfway across the country."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.