As a real estate lawyer, I sometimes find that it's all about the details . . .
You've probably heard the oft told story about the poor chap whose house caught fire. His lawyer was consoling and said, “Shouldn’t be a problem. What kind of coverage do you have?” The poor chap answered, “Fire and theft.” The lawyer frowned. “Uh oh. Wrong kind. Should be fire OR theft.”
It’s usually told by people in a bar lamenting a tough day dealing with their lawyer (or somebody else's lawyer). They split hairs. They complicate things. They hinder rather than help get deals done. Most of us real estate lawyers really try to be different - really. But sometimes the devil really is in the details. So in many of these blogs, I relate some contract pitfalls that really do matter. They can cause all sorts of trouble, from deals falling through, late closings, or substantial monetary damages.
In this blog we’ll deal with . . . .
Holdback Terms: these are usually added to the Real Estate Purchase Contract as additional terms or even attached as an addendum. They’re designed to address a known issue that the Seller must deal with by a specified time and they’re generally designed to:
motivate the Seller to actually get the agreed upon work done; and
compensate the Buyer in the event the Seller fails to do so.
So here’s the problem: these wonderful and purposeful and often effective terms don’t often exist!
That’s right, the parties fail to address their mind to the issue and don’t even put any such terms in the contract. I’ve even heard it said by more than a few clients that they were told not to worry about it - that’s something the lawyers can deal with. While it’s true a good lawyer can work miracles on occasion, we aren’t always able to re-negotiate a contract that has already been finalizedf. And that’s what we are essentially asked to do in that situation.
"I’ve even heard it said by more than a few clients that they were told not to worry about it - that’s something the lawyers can deal with."
Here’s a scenario: The Buyer has agreed to pay $300,000 but the parties have agreed that “the Seller must clean out the garage [that is stuffed floor to ceiling with junk] by the Closing Date”. All conditions are removed. Both parties are bound to the terms of the contract. The Buyer’s lawyer will be obligated to submit the Transfer and Mortgage for registration and pay the purchase price on the Closing Date in order to get keys released. Then the Buyer takes possession and finds . . . . a lot of junk still in the garage.
The Buyer has two options:
He can sue for breach of contract. Nobody wants to have that headache.
Or he can get the junk out of the garage himself or pay to get someone to do it. Nobody wants that headache.
The simple solution would have been to add into the garage clean-up clause of the Contract some simple wording to the effect “ the Buyer’ s lawyer shall holdback the sum of $1000 [or whatever the actual cost would be to hire out the job]. Should the Seller fail to remove all items currently stored in the garage prior to noon on the Closing Date, the holdback funds shall be returned to the Buyer as full and final settlement”.
Note: If the Buyer really doesn’t want the headache of getting the job done, negotiate a higher Holdback (giving more motivation to the Seller to get it done).
When a holdback isn’t negotiated at the Contract stage prior to condition removal, there’s no leverage and the holdback negotiations are at risk of being less than optimal. The Seller can quite rightly take the position that the deal is done and there will be no holdback (the Seller will likely, however, promise that he’s bound by the Contract and will get it done -truly!).