For sale: vacation fun in the sun for $13,000 and a 30-year commitment

The offer: a chunk of the good life, jet-set style, at middle-class prices. The five couples waitiing in a trailer in the desert town of Indio, Calif. -- near Palm Springs and a couple of highway hours from Los Angeles -- have been drawn out to the area by the promise of a chance to win a moped, amid-sized car, or a stereo, among other things.

When each of them has had an individual tour of Indian Palms Country Club, they are ushered into another trailer this one buzzing with talk, a salesperson with each couple at a table.

The atmosphere transmits a feling that at every table deals are being made. The implicit message is that you too will make a deal, unless you are too pigheaded to manage your affairs properly. There is almost no way to escape this scene without rudeness or embarrassment, short of signing a contract.

For sale are two weeks in the sun -- golf, tennis, and swimming -- every year for the next 30 years. For $13,000 (if your weeks are in prime season) and yearly maintenance fees, time in a vacation condominium is yours to use, trade, sell, or will to your heirs.

The staff manager asked a reluctant couple if they were ready to start saving their money. They were not convinced. "That's funny," she said calculatedly, "most people are at this point."

And people are buying. The time-shared condominium industry is on the threshold of becoming a $1 billion-a-year business this year -- up from $50 million a year in 1975. Some 450,000 Americans now own time in resort condominiums -- up from 40,000 as recently as 1976.

In the process the young industry is fast forming a character of its own. The styyle has developed from the "land in Arizona," hard- sell school of real estate sales, although the time-sharing industry is in general quite legitimate.

Some sales teams ring bells at tables where sales are made and shout for one more unit to be crossed off the list -- a ploy designed to put fire under the feet of hesitant buyers. Some outfits offer free dinners at ex pensive restaurants or junkets to their condominium site in exchange for listening to their pitch.

Some of these practices have given rise to consumer complaints, according to Alan Schlaifer, senior attorney for land sales at the federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC is monitoring reports that sales teams are "forcing people to sign things without giving them time to think about it" and using other aggressive tactics to lure customers to sign the dotted line.

Sometimes, Mr. Schlaifer points out, even reputable, conscientious developers are represented by fast-talking salespersons.

One owner of a week-in-Utah ski resort admits that under the high-pressure sales pitch, "we probably weren't doing our clearest thinking at the time." This couple now intends to sell their Utah week. They anticipate no problem in getting back the cost of their investment.

But industry observers, including Schlaifer, warn against buying into a time- sharing project for the investment value, rather than simply because one plans to use and enjoy it. The resale potential of these units, once they have aged a little, is still unknown.

Moreover, the high-pressure sales approach does not characterize the entire industry. At tristram's Landing, for example, a higher-priced development on Nantucket Island, Mass., the approach is low-keyed -- no off-island advertising, 30 to 35 percent of the business comes from referrals, and 30 percent of the buyers come back to buy a second three-or four-week time block.

Captran Inc. in Florida, which has build 13 such resorts since 1975 and is franchising eight more, claims 40 percent referral business.

Still, as a rule, a top-heavy 40 percent of a developer's costs for a time-sharing project are in marketing expenses.

Marketing can mean the success or failure of these projects, because each unit must be sold as many as 50 times (for those that are sold in one-week blocks). And every resort location, with the possible exception of Hawaii, has off- season time blocks that are hard to sell.

"If you miscalculate in marketing you can wash out completely," says Carl Burlingame, publisher of the independent monthly magazine resort Time Share Today.

But entrepreneurial risks aside, sales have "virtually doubled each year" for the last several years, according to Mr. Burlingame, and the recession seems to be making little impact.

A key appeal to buyers of time-share units is the prospect of trading your time slot for someone else's in another part of the country or the world. Exchange networks -- chiefly Resort condominiums International and Interval International -- arrange one-time trades. A vacationer with rights to a spring week in San diego, for example, could take the week in September on the french riviera, depending on which network he subscribed to and how worldwide requests balance out.

The time-sharing idea originated in the French Alps during the 1960s, when hotel reservations were so hard to make that people began to actually buy rights to rooms for certain days of the year. The concept hopped the Atlantic during the recession of the early 1970s, when Florida condominiums were sitting unsold and their developers began looking for an angle to attract occupants.

Two kinds of time sharing have emerged: right to use and deede interval ownership.

"Right to use" contracts are basically longterm management contracts for reserved space in a condominium or hotel. It is transferable similar to real estate.

"Deeded interval ownership" is real estate. Owners pay property taxes, decide the property's maintenance contract, and generally have all the rights of condominium owners according to their percentage of both the space and the time owned.

The reviews are favorable so far. Buyers like what they get for the money, and developers get more money than on one-sale condominiums. Although the profit margins are said to be similar -- averaging about 15 percent -- all the dollar figures are higher.

Gordon Allport explains that a Hawaii condominium worth $260,000 fetched a total of $485,000 through time-sharing sales; yet the costs, especially marketing, were proportionately higher.

"But beyond profits," Mr. Allport says, "how many people can afford a $260, 000 unit?" A major advantage of the time-sharing system, he says, is that it makes resort condominiums available to more people.

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