THE ETHICIST
January 02, 2020

When owning a home on a golf course can come with unpleasant surprises

Wooden picture frame background

Illustration by QuickHoney

Joining a club has never been a terribly transparent, straightforward and unemotional process. Mix in multi-million-dollar real-estate deals, and what could possibly go wrong?

To that, a California couple says, Hold my beer.

Michael and Jenny DuBasso were contemplating buying a $2 million La Quinta retirement home within Tradition Golf Club’s gated community where Arnold Palmer not only designed the championship course but owned a vacation home and was a club member. That cachet­—and a guided tour of the facility by the club’s membership director—sold the couple on the home and what they presumed would be rubber-stamped approval for a social membership.

But after closing the deal in January 2016, the DuBassos submitted their application (and $27,500 initiation fee) only to learn that they had been denied membership for reasons the club wouldn’t disclose.

In a lawsuit they filed against the real-estate company that sold them the property and the agent who represented them in the transaction, the DuBassos said they never would have purchased the home if they knew that they wouldn’t get in the club—which is the social center of the neighborhood. “We felt like social pariahs in our own neighborhood,” Jenny DuBasso said in her deposition, adding that she became physically ill from the stress surrounding the situation.

Complicating the matter was the fact that the DuBassos signed due-diligence documents before the sale acknowledging that membership wasn’t under the sellers’ control and was independent of the home sale. Plus, the agent said she routinely included contingency language in contracts for other homes in the development—stipulating that the sale wouldn’t go through until the prospective buyers knew they were in the club—if the buyers requested it. An extra poke in the eye? The market value of the property declined $200,000 by July 2017, when the DuBassos filed suit.

Seems like an open-and-shut case of tough luck, but after the DuBassos’ lawsuit was thrown out because of the signed disclosure documents, the California Court of Appeals ruled in September that the case could be revived because the disclosure the DuBassos signed wasn’t enough of a warning that the couple could in fact be prevented from joining the club, and that the club itself hadn’t made that clear during the DuBassos’ tour.

Regardless of how it plays out—the DuBassos still own the property, and they’re still not in the club—the moral of this story for anybody thinking about buying in a golf-course community comes down to the words Ronald Reagan famously used about Russia’s nuclear program: Trust, but verify.

“Something like a club membership is just one element of the due diligence you should be doing if you’re buying in,” says Rob Harris, a real-estate attorney and mediation specialist who runs GolfDisputeResolution.com. “Beyond understanding how to get in—and out—of a club, what happens if the course closes? Will it stay green space or get turned into more houses? You have to closely evaluate all of the homeowners’ association, zoning and planning rules and ask lots of questions to stress test your understanding.”

Even if the DuBassos “win” the appeal (or, more likely, negotiate a settlement), it will just reinforce two lessons we all should have learned in middle school: People who are around only because of what you have, where you live or what you wear aren’t your real friends. And make sure you check your work before you turn it in.


ASK GOLF DIGEST

Q: A course I play has stopped using red, white and blue flags to indicate hole locations. Don’t we need to know front, middle and back? —Bradley Rotholz Avalon, Calif.

A: Different-colored flags and pin sheets seem to be on the way out, as many courses assume golfers use range finders or GPS. We’re not in favor of this trend. Physical markers might be old-fashioned, but they help speed play and, unlike certain gadgets, never run out of power or say they’re “buffering” as you wait for a distance.

Are you or someone you know involved in a tricky, amusing or just plain strange golf situation? Tell us about it, and the Golf Digest Ethicist might write about it in an upcoming column. To submit, describe your issue or send a news link to e-mail GolfDigest_Ethicist@discovery.com.


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