Sign with confidence: How to ensure you have a sound off-the-plan contract

Sign with confidence: How to ensure you have a sound off-the-plan contract
Sign with confidence: How to ensure you have a sound off-the-plan contract

When buying a property – be it a detached dwelling or an off-the-plan apartment, it’s essential to make sure you have your legal documents drawn up correctly. Which is why getting legal advice early in the process is so important. 

Here’s what a sound off-the-plan contract should include: 

A reasonable cooling-off period

The cooling-off period affords the buyer time to change their mind. Once this period ends, the buyer is legally bound to buy the property. 

In NSW, new legal protections (which came into effect in December 2019) give buyers a 10-business day cooling-off period. This period is longer than the usual five business days for most properties. Buyers who change their mind will forfeit 0.25% of the purchase price. The cooling-off period can be waived or shortened, but only if the buyer’s lawyer or conveyancer provides a certificate to prove the buyer understands the consequences of varying the cooling-off period. This helps protect the buyer from exploitation. 

Make sure the cooling-off period in your contract is reasonable and in line with the legislation in your state. If the seller asks to shorten or waive it, give this a serious consideration first and talk to your lawyer or conveyancer about whether this is a good idea. 

The disclosure of key information by the developer

Your off-the-plan contract must include key information about the project such as proposed plans and specifications, a floor plan, a detailed list of fixtures and finishes, sunset clause dates, other conditional events, and draft by-laws.

Before signing the contract, ensure you have a thorough understanding of the plans and are satisfied with the level of disclosure. Make sure you have asked questions if you’re confused about anything listed in the plans. 

Remember that developers will almost always have a right to alter their plans, within reason, to complete the project. Make sure your conveyancer reviews the contract to make sure enough information has been disclosed and that only reasonable alterations are permitted. 

The ability to withdraw or be compensated if significant alterations take place

While the contract will require the property to be constructed in accordance with what is disclosed in the contract, developers usually have the right to alter things in certain circumstances. Those changes must be delivered at the same quality and must not materially prejudice the buyer. 

To mitigate the risk of the developer making alterations which substantially change the quality of the project and disadvantage the buyer, the contract should be very clear on warranties and inclusions. It should also give the buyer the right to withdraw and have the deposit returned to them or claim compensation. 

In NSW, for contracts entered into from 1 December 2019, vendors must notify purchasers of changes outside of what was disclosed, and which will adversely affect the use or enjoyment of the lot being purchased. Make sure you seek legal advice on the rules in your state. 

Other things to consider:

Building/apartment defects 

Other parts of the contract that require close review include how defects are treated. Ideally, it will be up to the developer to remedy defects prior to settlement. Your lawyer and conveyancer should review your contract to make sure you are protected. 

Deposits

You should also have a look at the rules in your state on who holds your deposit. In NSW, for example, deposits are held by the stakeholder (usually the real estate agent) and that money cannot be released to the developer before settlement. That protects the buyer in the event the developer becomes insolvent. 

Sunset clauses 

A sunset clause provides a deadline whereby if the property has not been completed in time then the potential buyer’s deposit is refunded, and the contract is cancelled. The problem is that the clause has been exploited by developers who were delaying completion of projects in order to cancel contracts and re-sell properties at a higher price in a rising market. 

In NSW, new legislation has been introduced which requires that developers seek the buyers’ consent before ending contracts using the sunset clause. Alternatively, the developer will need to apply to the NSW Supreme Court to justify terminating the contracts. Seek advice from your lawyer or conveyancer on the sunset clause in your contract and the rules in your state. 

For both property investors and potential new homeowners, the concept of buying off-the-plan is enticing due to its affordability and flexibility compared to buying an already existing property. However, it is important that you take all these considerations into account and seek legal/conveyancing advice before you sign the contract of your future home or investment property. 

Want to learn more about off-the-plan contracts? Leave a comment below.

Rolf Howard

Rolf Howard

Rolf is Managing Partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers. He has been in the legal practice since 1986 and a partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers since 1992. Rolf focuses on assisting clients to proactively manage legal responsibilities and opportunities to achieve competitive advantage. Rolf concentrates on business planning and formation, directors’ duties, corporate governance, fund raising and business succession. His major interest is to assist business owners and their financial advisers plan and implement strategies to build and exit from successful businesses.

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