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Major Hotel Chains Jump on Time-Share Bandwagon

Sales: Despite the change, potential problems remain, such as hidden costs and low--or no--resale value.

March 15, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

In the old days, if you were trying to steer clear of vacation time-share pitches, you simply avoided the street-corner stand in Cancun, the airport tout in Cabo San Lucas and the fast-talking telemarketer who interrupted your dinner. And you tossed away the breathless letter--five days in Florida and the Bahamas for a pittance!--from the company you'd probably never heard of.

But the time-share business has grown and changed, and so have the companies that are selling time shares. There are now more than 1,500 "vacation ownership" (a.k.a. time share) resorts in the U.S., and far more abroad. By the reckoning of one national survey, more than 1.7 million U.S. households, including 270,000 in California, own annual vacation-property "intervals" of at least one week, with another 120,000 or so buying in yearly.

All of which should help explain why, in the last 90 days, thousands of upscale California consumers have been looking at letters from the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in northern San Diego County.

Toronto-based Four Seasons, one of the world's most-admired operators of luxury hotels and resorts, has gone into the time-share business, and Aviara is its first project. Like its lodging brethren Disney, Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott, the company has decided that the potential profits and tie-ins with the hotel trade are so attractive that it's willing to venture into a business that many Americans associate with high-pressure sales practices, deceptive come-ons and a disappointing product.

"THIS LUXURIOUS GETAWAY IS YOURS FOR ONLY $249 FOR TWO PEOPLE!" trumpets the Four Seasons letter that reached this office. The catch is the "personalized presentation and tour of the resort club lasting approximately 90 minutes." It goes on to outline a two-night stay at the Aviara resort, a lagoon-side retreat in Carlsbad, featuring an Arnold Palmer gold course, that opened last August with brochure rates beginning at $305 nightly.

The offer, which is only available to those who get the Four Seasons letter, is aimed at homeowners with household income of at least $100,000 yearly. And like many time-share pitches for less salubrious properties, it comes with a sense of urgency: You must reserve your room within 15 days of getting your letter, and you must check in before April 30. If you buy a time-share interval on the spot, you get a set of Callaway golf clubs with leather bag.

But should you? The general idea of a time share is that you buy an interval of time at a certain resort--typically a week--of which you are assured year in and year out, as long as you keep up with annual fees and taxes. Developers often market time shares at $10,000 to $15,000, often financed through five- or 10-year loans at interest rates far above prevailing home-loan figures. Fees and taxes often add on another $300 to $600 yearly and can increase over time. Four Seasons sales director Kent Harrison says Aviara prices range from $19,900 to $24,900. Maintenance fees begin at $575 yearly.

Under most agreements, you can trade your week in one place for a different week there or a different week someplace else, provided you pay an intermediary company for arranging the deal, and provided that the time slot and the resort you want are available. The best customers for time shares are those who can confidently predict the vacation experience they'll want 15 years from now. The worst, and angriest, customers are those who have no idea what they'll want in 10 years but figure they'll be able to sell their interval at a profit if they find they're not using it.

In fact, reselling a time-share unit at any price is difficult. Search for "time share" on the Internet, and you'll find listing after listing of time shares worldwide for sale by the developer or owner at prices from $2,000 to $15,000 for a one-week interval. You'll also find pointed warnings about resale companies that ask for upfront fees and prey on the desperation of time-share owners who want to unload their burdens. A simple rule of thumb: If you're exploring a time-share purchase, use all the caution and deliberation and expert advice that you would use when buying a house. Get every promise in writing. And be suspicious of anyone who suggests otherwise.

Does the entry of big-name hotel companies mean that time shares are a better bet than they used to be?

"There's been a substantial change" in the quality of companies selling time shares, says Susan Henrichsen, a veteran consumer-affairs attorney in the California Attorney General's San Diego office. Henrichsen adds that these days, "I think it's less likely that when you go to a presentation, you'll endure a dreadful experience."

But she also warns that no time-share customer should ever count on being able to exchange his or her interval. And other consumer advocates still warn that time-share deals can be more complicated than they first appear, which may be why many sales representatives work so hard to talk customers into quick decisions.

"We still say that at this juncture, a time share is not an investment--it's an expense," says Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "It's unlike any other sort of quasi-real estate. Your chances of making your money back or making any kind of profit are nil. And that leads to Point B. If you like the idea of a time share, you're far better off buying a resale than buying an interval from the developer. . . ."

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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