Living like a millionaire, if only for a week - The Buffalo News

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Living like a millionaire, if only for a week

It’s the one week a year we get to live like millionaires.

That’s how my husband describes our annual ski trip to Snowbird, Utah, where we’ve owned a timeshare in the Cliff Club since 1998. It’s tough to disagree.

The views alone are worth a million bucks.

Located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, at a base elevation of more than 8,000 feet, the Cliff Club offers sweeping views of both the surrounding Wasatch Mountains and the sprawling Salt Lake City suburbs below.

Sometimes at twilight, north-facing slopes and peaks are bathed in alpenglow; it’s the skiers’ equivalent of the green flash that sailors watch for at sunset. When it happens, we’ll stare out the windows, transfixed, until the scene fades to black.

Even if you’re staying in a condo that faces the canyon, those same mountain views can be enjoyed from the roof-top saltwater hot tub and lap pool of the Cliff Spa. Or from comfy seating areas on each floor of the soaring glass-walled atrium that connects the Cliff Club with the rest of the Cliff Lodge, which has traditional hotel accommodations.

Spa facilities, which can be used for free by timeshare owners, include a steam room, saunas, solarium and fitness center. And whether you’re staying in a condo or hotel room, all guests have access to the ski locker-room, through which you pass for ski-in, ski-out mountain access.

But Snowbird doesn’t have the expansive dining, shopping or nightlife options of other ski resorts. In Utah, those options can be found on the other side of the Wasatch Range in Park City, which is less than an hour’s drive.

Our trips are all about the skiing – the steep runs, wide-open bowls and deep powder left behind from storms that roll in, lake-effect style, from the Great Salt Lake.

Each year, we invite family or friends to join us. For many of them, it’s been their first trip to Utah.

After our plane lands in Salt Lake City, we shop for a week’s worth of groceries and assorted beverages, then leave the rental cars in Snowbird’s parking ramp. For entertainment, sometimes we bring along a DVD of a ski movie or we venture downstairs to watch the one being screened in the Cliff Lodge that week.

As far as we’re concerned, there’s really no reason to leave Snowbird once we’re there.

Our path to timeshare ownership didn’t follow the stereotypical course of developers luring potential buyers to resorts with dirt-cheap weekend trips and holding them hostage during high-pressure presentations lasting several hours.

We were lingering in a mountain restaurant that afternoon in February 1998, well after the lunch crowd had returned to the slopes or called it a day, when a young man approached us. At the very least, we reasoned, our reward for taking a tour of the new condo units and listening to the sales pitch would be gift certificates for a restaurant meal and shopping at a store that features apparel and souvenirs emblazoned with the Snowbird logo.

Plus, we weren’t particularly eager to return to the place we had rented that year in Sandy, a Salt Lake City suburb at the base of the canyon. It was an apartment in a duplex off a dirt road, where the neighboring property was littered with vehicles perched on concrete blocks.

Immediately after arriving, my husband had to jerry-rig the door lock and frame, which had been shattered during an apparent break-in. He remembers that the sand-laden rug felt gritty underfoot, and I’ll never forget the scorch marks on the sofa crammed up against a space heater in the sparely furnished living room.

Meanwhile, the tour of the two-bedroom, three-bathroom model condominium in the Cliff Club revealed California king beds, queen-sized leather sleeper sofas, a fully equipped kitchen and a dining/living area – all decorated and accessorized in Mission style, as well as a private hot tub on one of the three balconies. Common laundry facilities are available for owners in the unit we bought; a slightly more spacious – and expensive model - has in-unit laundry and a larger kitchen.

We were hooked.

Our approximately 1,140-square-foot unit, which sleeps 10, cost $23,500 for a deeded ownership, plus $250 for closing. Our usage period is during the ski season – from early December until mid-April – with the exception of the weeks during which Christmas and New Year’s fall.

We initially financed the purchase through Snowbird - with 15 percent annual interest and a term of seven years. Shortly after returning home, we secured a low-interest home equity line of credit and immediately paid off Snowbird’s loan; a couple of years later, we owned it free and clear.

Instead of buying from the developer, as we did, the prevailing wisdom is to wait for units to show up on the secondary market at a fraction of the cost. How many years would that have taken? We didn’t want to forego vacations for the wait.

The fly in the ointment is the annual maintenance fee.

Between 2010 and 2014, maintenance fees increased an average of 5 percent a year, from $731 to $880, according to data provided by American Resort Development Association – a trade group representing the timeshare industry, from developers to the people who buy them.

During that same period, our annual fee increased a little less than 5 percent a year. But it started out at $515.15 in 1998 and the 2015-16 bill was $1,435.03 – averaging out to almost 10 percent a year.

Howard Nusbaum, president of ARDA, offered this perspective on maintenance fees: “What would it cost me if I was going to rent?”

I have asked that question and found prices of $4,900 or more for a week.

Touche.

Deadbeat owners who fail to pay their maintenance fees are among the reasons our assessments keep increasing, the Cliff Club Home Owners Association has explained in its annual newsletters.

Those fees pay for property taxes and reserves for furniture and common-area expenses, which have yielded many upgrades through the years. This past February, we were thrilled to find a large set of new cookware; a few years ago, the kitchens were totally remodeled.

Snowbird, the resort, constantly is upgrading its facilities, too.

This season, a proper lodge finally opened on Hidden Peak, where a small, crude wooden building had been the only option for bathroom or warm-up breaks. During the past decade, lifts have been upgraded and added; a tunnel was drilled through the mountain, allowing skiers and snowboarders to glide through aboard a conveyor belt into Mineral Basin.

There’s talk now of expanding Snowbird’s terrain and adding two more lifts.

Like most timeshare developments, the Cliff Club participates in exchange programs with other resorts across the globe. There are annual membership and exchange fees, however, so after our free trial membership expired, we didn’t renew.

On the few occasions when we didn’t make the annual trip or it was just the two of us, we put our unit, in whole or in part, into the Cliff Club’s rental pool.

Snowbird claims a 30 percent commission, and there also are housekeeping and rental fees. We deposited our entire unit in the rental pool for the 2014-15 season, but our income didn’t even cover the maintenance fee.

And, no, we’re not going to risk an Internet rental to someone who might trash the place at our expense.

I’ll admit tha after buying the timeshare, we briefly suffered the same kind of buyers’ remorse that comes with many major purchases. It didn’t help that I couldn’t pick up a newspaper or business magazine without seeing articles critical of the timeshare industry.

All these years later, it’s pretty much the same story.

“Some of it is our colorful past,” said Nusbaum, the trade association president. He noted that back in the 1970s, there were no laws or consumer protections. Now the timeshare industry is highly regulated, he added.

“Vacations aren’t financial investments,” Nusbaum said. “[(A timeshare’s] value comes from use – not from flipping them. It’s really about going on vacation and having space and time to really relax.”

Maintenance fees aside, we’re happy to be relieved of the anxiety of where we’ll stay during our annual ski trip out West. And we know that even though the Internet has helped tremendously with vacation planning, staying in a ski-in, ski-out property at a resort like Snowbird never will be inexpensive.

We didn’t buy our timeshare as a real estate investment, for rental income or to swap for visits to other resorts, domestic or abroad. We consider it a very valuable asset, but it’s not about the money.

It’s about time shared.

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