What is a sunset clause in off-the-plan developments?

Essentially, a sunset clause is a condition included in some contracts of sale to protect the buyer and seller. It effectively puts a time limit on the contract’s validity

What is a sunset clause in off-the-plan developments?
What is a sunset clause in off-the-plan developments?

It's often written about in the media when talking about off the plan property - but what actually is a sunset clause?

Essentially, a sunset clause is a condition included in some contracts of sale to protect the buyer and seller. It effectively puts a time limit on the contract’s validity.

Use of the sunset clause is open to the buyer or the seller, and either party can choose to invoke the clause if the expiry date has passed. If settlement has not taken place by the end date included in the contract, both parties are legally entitled to walk away and the buyer would receive their deposit back in full.

While sunset clauses may exist to offer security and protection for buyers when purchasing off-the-plan, they don’t always pan out this way and can sometimes be manipulated, which is why being aware whether it is in your contract of purchase is crucial.

Buyers can get their money back should construction timelines blow out further than what was forecasted by the developer as per the contract.

However, while not frequent, but a much publicised practice, is developers pulling apartments back from buyers if they go over the agreed upon construction timeline. The allowance of this has seen developers drag their feet in the construction phase, so they can take the apartments back and re-sell them at a higher price than initially sold if the market has grown during construction.

That then unfortunately leaves the buyer without a leg to stand on. They will get their deposit back that they initially paid, and begin the hunt again, in a market where prices are potentially, 10, 20, or even 30 per cent higher than what they thought they were buying in to years earlier.

The breakdown

A sunset clause is generally used in one of two situations in off-the-plan developments.

Firstly, it is routinely included in off-the-plan property exchanges. In this context, the clause stipulates the date by which the developer must finish the project and that if it is not finished by the proposed date, the buyer is legally entitled to walk away from the contract and receive their deposit back in full.

Most of the time however, developments are finished well in advance of the outlined date, as developers often exaggerate the required timeframe to allow for delays.

Another time a sunset clause is often used is when a buyer makes a purchase conditional on the sale of their current home. The sunset clause is normally included here to protect the vendor, if the buyer fails to sell their current home within the timeframe outlined. In this context, a sunset clause protects the seller by offering them a way back onto the market, should the buyer take too long.

There are, however, cases where invoking the clause may be more difficult for one party than the other.

Legislation has been passed in some states to make it more onerous for building developers to invoke the sunset clause. In October 2015, the New South Wales Government legislated that a developer would require written consent from either the buyer or the Supreme Court if they wished to terminate the contract if the project was delayed. These changes have been made due to instances of some developers stalling projects when property prices skyrocket, backing out of contracts to then put the development back on the market at a higher price. The Victorian Government followed suit in 2018, preventing developers from using sunset clauses to intentionally delay building projects with the aim of exploiting buyers.

It is possible for two parties to come to a mutual agreement to extend the terms of a sunset clause.

Urban's advice

Be fully aware if there is a sunset clause in your contract. This should be discussed with your solicitor when signing the contract, and be aware of the construction date agreed upon in the contract.

As with all off the plan apartment development purchases, check the developers track record. It will be well covered if the developers has previously evoked a sunset clause and left previous buyers without their apartments.

While often as a buyer you will deal with the agent in charge of the sales, don't be afraid to call the developer if that puts your mind at east. They should have a website for the development with contact details.

At Urban we attempt to track every developer across Australia, and keep their track record on our site so buyers can see whether they have delivered previous projects.

Joel Robinson

Joel Robinson

Joel Robinson is a property journalist based in Sydney. Joel has been writing about the residential real estate market for the last five years, specializing in market trends and new developments across the country

Alison Warters

Alison Warters

Alison Warters is a property journalist for Urban, based in Sydney. Alison is especially interested in the evolution of the New Build/Development space, when it comes to design innovation and sustainability.

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Sunset clause Property Contracts

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