Part I – Builders Review of Purchase Agreement
Virginia has experienced several years now of a declining residential real estate market, marked by periods of low sales, high inventory and declining prices. Note that recently the prices and inventory have stabilized, but certainly activity has slowed again now that the federal tax credits for homebuyers has expired. Given the current state of the residential real estate market, many buyers experience remorse and attempt to terminate their purchase agreements and receive a full refund of their deposit from the seller.
Unfortunately for home builders, many of their “form” purchase agreements were drafted before the current downturn — at a time when sellers held all of the negotiating advantages — and the resulting agreements were so one-sided in favor of the sellers that some Virginia courts have held them to be unenforceable. While there are many steps you can take to protect yourself in the event existing purchasers are insisting on a return of their deposit, it also would be prudent to take preventive steps now to make sure your form contracts fully comply with Virginia law to protect you going forward.
Briefly listed here are the most commonly cited reasons used by disgruntled purchasers in their attempts to terminate their executed agreements, with suggested contract provisions for each of these scenarios. Part I of this post will address lack of mutuality and provisions relating to the deposit, and Part II will address the Interstate Land Sales Act and other minor issues. Please feel free to contact me for a more detailed discussion of these important issues.
Lack of mutuality
Many dissatisfied buyers argue they have the right to terminate their agreements with a full refund of their deposit because the signed agreement lacks “mutuality.” Mutuality, in this context, simply means that a valid contract requires promises and obligations from both buyer
A buyer’s typical remedy upon a default by a seller is to either sue for damages or ask for specific performance. This way, when developers attempt to limit buyers’ remedies they run the risk of making the contract unenforceable. Developers need to be careful that their form purchase agreements don’t go too far in taking away the rights of buyers and limiting any obligations on behalf of sellers.
In fact, a Virginia court recently held a purchase agreement to be unenforceable for lack of mutuality because the buyer had no right to sue for specific performance. The buyer’s sole remedy was a refund of the deposit. It is interesting to note that in its decision, the court suggests that the contract would have likely been deemed enforceable if it had provided for interest to be earned on the deposit.
Some suggest that your form purchase agreement should not expressly limit the buyer’s remedies after default by the seller. In Virginia, if a real estate contract is silent regarding the buyer’s remedies, then the buyer has all of the remedies allowed under law including the right to sue for specific performance.
For preconstruction sales, however, you should provide for specific performance only when the property is constructed. Also, as mentioned above, as an alternative you may want to consider providing for interest to be earned on the deposit.
Deposit as damages
Your purchase agreement should make expressly clear that in the event of a default by a purchaser, the seller’s right to retain the deposit is in the form of liquidated damages and not as any form of penalty. Damages considered to be a penalty will likely not be held to be enforceable. We can offer suggested language for the provision dealing with seller’s remedies after a default by purchaser.
We will continue this discussion in Part II next week.