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Changing minds: off-the-plan contracts aren't as certain as you might think

By Tim O'Dwyer - posted Wednesday, 29 December 2010

After many years as a conveyancing solicitor I identified three immutable rules of real estate. The first is that salespersons move fast. The second is that solicitors move slowly. And the third, the reason for the first two, is that buyers and sellers alike can change their minds.

When real estate consumers - particularly buyers - change their minds part-way through contracts, their conveyancing solicitors are expected to change pace and play a different role. Suddenly our clients want us to be “contract killers.”


“How fast can you get us out?” ask clients, having second thoughts about yet-to-be-settled contracts. More buyers than sellers in these circumstances essentially want their lawyers to help them escape contractual obligations by locating and taking advantage of available loop-holes.

No worries if solicitors’ cold-footed residential buyer clients are within their 5 days cooling-off period. Simply pull the plug, have your clients pay the cooling-off penalty and everything is rosy. Tough luck for cold-footed sellers with no comparable rights at law!

What if the cooling-off period has already passed (or was waived initially), and there are no obvious ways out?

Many conveyancing solicitors, who prefer to remain comfortable “contract completers” (and not upset sources of referred clients), will decline the challenge. Anxious clients are often then passed to professional “contract killers”.

These sharp-eyed specialists speedily take clients’ instructions, review all the circumstances, consider all documents and correspondence then look for statutory loopholes, contractual let-outs and any other escape routes.

In recent years developers have increasingly found themselves facing purported terminations of crucial off-the-plan contracts. Only this month (December 2010) The Courier Mail reported on millionaire entertainment venue operator Harvey Lister’s bid to get out of a $9.28 million contract for a sub-penthouse in the $850 million Oracle two-tower complex on the Gold Coast, while days later the National Australia Bank appointed receivers for the development company involved. With multi-million dollar projects like this nearing completion, apparently binding contracts made years earlier are at risk of being undone by swift- and- sure- footed lawyers.


These frequently lethal legal eagles sometimes act for buyers whose financial circumstances, in some cases, have deteriorated. Many buyers, even from secure financial positions, discover their lenders are no longer willing to provide funds for the settlements of long-term contracts. Why? Because contract prices now exceed current market values. Such properties will be worth considerably less as settlements loom than when buyers first signed up. According to The Australian investors who bought into the Oracle have taken losses of up to $1million: “One Oracle apartment owner…was aware of people who had settled on apartments located on the 44th floor for $3.5million and had since sold for $2.5million.”

Then there are buyers with no funding worries, but who want out because other things have changed - such as relationships broken down or better investments coming up. The fate of more than a few developers’ contracts is ultimately determined by the courts, but it’s an uncertain business.

This year (2010) a buyer needed a Supreme Court order to escape a contract for an almost-completed fourth-floor unit on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast when the balcony views were more of roof-tops than rolling swells. She relied successfully on a special condition requiring “uninterrupted ocean views”. In another case the same Court believed developer Mirvac’s salesman over buyers of a luxury “Tennyson Reach” apartment who unsuccessfully alleged misrepresentations about anticipated “filtered or through-tree” Brisbane River views.

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About the Author

Tim O’Dwyer is a Queensland Solicitor. See Tim’s real estate writings at:

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