Many time share owners stuck trying to sell their time shares

For Stacey Udell, a Craigslist ad enticing her to own a piece of property in the Bahamas for $3,000 was too good to pass up.  The accountant from Cherry Hill, N.J., jumped on it, and became one of 6 million Americans who own a time share, shared vacation property that owners get to stay in for a week or so each year for life.


Four years later, the thrill of ownership is gone. Her family has yet to use the one week at Atlantis Harborside Resort she bought, and the contract has become a nagging financial burden at a time when a lousy economy is squeezing her home finances.

Udell is back on Craigslist, this time as a seller wanting to be free from the mandatory annual fees that sustain her ownership. Her bill for 2010 totals $1,650, up 20% from last year plus a $250 charge to make up for “the deadbeats who have abandoned their time shares,” according to Udell. “I can’t deal with the hassle anymore.”

Udell is joining a rising chorus of time-share owners who are fed up with mortgages and burdensome payments that they think render little or no return. With ironclad contract terms, high annual fees and aggressive salespeople, time shares have always been controversial. But this economic downturn has been particularly nasty for the industry. It’s killed the easy credit that was the lifeblood of developers and forced would-be customers to think twice about signing a life-long financial commitment for something they’d use only a few days a year.

Sales are down. Resort development has come to a standstill. Mortgage defaults are rising. Thousands of salespeople and maintenance staffers have been laid off. Customers are flooding the resale market, where some are trying to unload contracts for as little as $1.

Meanwhile, scams that target desperate owners are skyrocketing, triggering enforcement actions from state attorneys general throughout the country. The number of consumer complaints about time shares received by the state of Florida, which is home to a quarter of the industry, doubled in 2009 to more than 2,500, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“We were always ‘the engine that could’ for the (tourism) industry, but now we’re the red-headed stepchild,” says Howard Nusbaum, CEO of American Resort Development Association, or ARDA, an industry trade group. “We’re going through a tough period.”

There were 1,630 time-share resorts in the USA as of 2008, with 40% of them concentrated in Florida, California and South Carolina, according to ARDA. About 7 million time-share contracts are currently held by owners in the USA. The average price in 2008 was $20,150.

Sales drop, defaults rise

Since they were created in the 1960s, time shares didn’t have a down year until 2008, when sales dipped 8% to $9.7 billion, according to ARDA. They plunged 40% more in 2009 to about $6 billion and will likely remain flat in 2010, Nusbaum estimates.

Time-share mortgage defaults rose each quarter in 2009 compared with 2008, ARDA says. In the third quarter of last year, 2.9% of time-share mortgages went into default vs. 2.2% in 2008. About 8% of time-share mortgages were in default as of 2008. Maintenance fees have grown an average of 12% a year since 2005.

Large hospitality companies, already hurting from empty hotel rooms, are retreating. Wyndham Worldwide, the largest time-share operator in the USA, saw sales fall 51% in the first nine months of 2009 to $756 million. It has closed some sales offices and cut 4,000 jobs since late 2008.

Marriott International’s time-share sales fell 38% in the first nine months of 2009 to $445 million. It also wrote down $752 million of its time-share resorts’ value, and it said it would discontinue construction of new properties and would convert some to other types of properties.

Nancy Lehenky, a Marriott customer, wishes she could walk away from the $60,000 mortgage she took on last year for a two-week interval at a resort in Palm Desert, Calif.

Lehenky and husband David, who run Flathead Distillers, a vodka distillery in Montana, pay $1,100 a month for the mortgage and $2,000 a year in taxes and fees. While they were able to afford the payment when they bought it, her husband has since been laid off and their decision to open the distillery has forced them to tighten spending. Lehenky particularly regrets having paid full retail price rather than shopping for a resale. “Had I known what was coming in the future, I’d have held off,” she says.

Lehenky asked Marriott to take the contract back last year. The company refused.

ARDA’s Nusbaum says industry woes can be traced largely to developers no longer being able to package mortgage debt as asset-backed securities sold to Wall Street.

Developers have historically lent directly to customers. Cash back from investors on the sale of bundled mortgages was used to build more resorts. The mortgage-backed security market all but vanished in the 2008 financial crisis, and the industry has had to halt most new construction and cut back on free cruises, air tickets and hotel rooms given as incentives for customers listening to a sales pitch.

Westgate Resorts, one of the largest operators in the industry, had a record year in 2009 with about 2,200 new rooms/suites, says Mark Waltrip, COO of Westgate. This year, it’ll open none. The company halted construction on “10 to 12” properties that have already had groundbreaking, he says.

Remorseful buyers

The industry contends that customer satisfaction remains high and that demand hasn’t waned. ARDA says 50% of buyers already own another time share. And the percentage of people who buy a unit after sitting through a sales pitch remains unchanged at about 10% to 15%, Waltrip says.

Unlike other hospitality or real estate industries, time-share operators dictate much of consumer demand by providing incentives for people to come directly to resorts or to sales-pitch sessions, ARDA’s Nusbaum says. “No one wakes up in the morning and says they’re going to buy a time share. They come in and get compelled by the product. It’s an emotional buy,” he says.

Summers Doonan, an American Airlines flight attendant in Orlando, knows all too well about the allure of a sales pitch conducted next to a resort pool glistening in the Florida sun. She and her former husband, Brian, were invited in 2007 to a free weekend at Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort in Cape Canaveral and sat through a sales pitch. They walked out with a one-week contract that cost them $18,000. “We were suckered in, and we fell in love with it,” she says.

Having divorced last year and now on unpaid leave from her employer, Doonan wants to sell it. She never got to use her week, because it fell in October when her kids are in school.

Trying to exchange it for other weeks or for time at other resorts, which was her original intent, proved to be a lot more competitive, difficult and expensive than she was led to believe, she says. On top of $1,150 in taxes and fees every year, she pays $90 a year to belong to an exchange club and faces another $200 fee each time she wants to trade. She and her husband have agreed to split paying for the fees until it’s sold.

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“Both of us are tight. I have three kids I’m trying to raise as a flight attendant,” she says. “It was a rash decision. You’re surrounded by beauty and the excitement of it all. (Salespeople) are definitely charismatic.”

Brian Rogers, who runs the Timeshare Users Group, or TUG, an online forum for owners, says the growing number of disgruntled, but more informed, customers combined with the financial crisis that has forced developers to cut spending will result in changes in how the industry is run.

The number of ads by owners looking to sell on Rogers’ website is 25% higher than a year ago. About half of the people on his website want to sell their time share, he says. “More people are trying to get out. Some find it difficult even when listing their time share for a single dollar.”


That is not comforting news to Udell. She’s listed her week in the Bahamas for $4,300 on Craigslist, TUG and other sites, but hasn’t gotten any offers. Her husband, Craig, is changing his career to be a teacher and earns a fraction of what he made before, and her family can’t afford annual vacations without going further into debt. “Going on a vacation like that would be living beyond our means,” she says.

‘Scams’ in resale market

Sensing desperation, fly-by-night hucksters are cold-calling and mailing owners with promises of a quick sale for an upfront fee as high as $5,000.

Udell says she’s been bombarded by such solicitations. “They make it very tempting,” she says. “One company guaranteed (it) can sell for $20,000. I hung up on him.”

Doonan, the flight attendant, paid $600 upfront with a reseller, which has listed her unit for $18,000 on its website and printed fliers that she’s never seen.

TUG’s Rogers says he knows of no resale company that can guarantee an owner a sale. Customers, he says, should never pay resellers any upfront fee. “They’re so masterful at their pitch,” he says of resellers. “It’s a scam on top of a scam on top of a scam.”

Florida is a hotbed of time-share scams. The state’s attorney general, Bill McCollum, sued two related companies in November, that have allegedly collected more than $4 million monthly in fees from owners who were solicited via Internet advertising and telemarketing calls.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants — including Universal Marketing Solutions, Creative Vacation Solutions, owner Jennifer Kirk, and Kirk’s brother, Scott Kirk — collected “advertising and/or marketing fee(s) for time-share resale services via a series of false and fraudulent misrepresentations.”

The defendants required “hundreds of consumers” to pay $1,500 each and said they “would market and/or advertise their time share in an attempt to resell it, when in actuality the time share was merely placed on a website, to which no Web traffic was directed.” The defendants also “made blatant misrepresentations … (that) they could definitely sell their time share within a certain time period.” Calls to the companies weren’t returned.

“The secondary market doesn’t have the protections (that are in the primary market),” says Nusbaum of ARDA, which issued a statement applauding Florida’s lawsuit.

Despite their flaws, time shares still have legions of loyal fans. Linda Moore, a property manager in Thorofare, N.J., uses her weeks in Florida as her winter home. She bought her first week at Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort several years ago, and has steadily added to her portfolio by looking for deals in the resale market.

She bought another week in early January for $575 and now owns more than 10 weeks there. “I had people come in and say, “This is a tremendous view,” and I’m saying, ‘Yeah, and it’s all mine.’ “

Via USA Today