After a series of well publicised instances of developers exercising their rights of contract rescission under ‘sunset’ provisions – the NSW state government moved to tighten guidelines restricting the ‘out clauses’ and were duly reinforced by the NSW Supreme Court’s first common law ruling under the new legislation.
Sunset clauses are common place in off the plan contracts of sale – being the contract of the sale for as yet unregistered lots (mostly new strata apartments or land sub-divisions). Often off the plan sales are agreed prior to the commencement of construction of a new development project and may even form a pre-requisite for funding of the project. The sunset provisions are included in the contract to essentially protect both vendor and buyer from being potentially locked into an agreement ad infinitum – that is; should there be a substantial delay in the developer being able to deliver the completed product; a date is agreed in the terms of the contract as the ‘sunset date’ and thereafter either party is able to rescind the contract and walk away from the agreement rather than being contracted to sell or purchaser forever.
In principle, the notion of a sunset clause seems reasonable; however certain cases involving developers exercising their rights to rescind following delays in completion have received waves of negative press which then have been viewed cynically by the NSW Government – in particular Victor Dominello, Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation. In particular there has been scrutiny of the Kaymet Corporation development in Wolli Creek and the Samadi Developments project in Surry Hills. In each instance, there were delays in completion and the developers each attested that rising costs had forced them to rescind their current contracts with a view to re-selling the same lots at higher prices. Their premise was that they could not afford to settle the off plan sales at the ‘old prices’ and needed to achieve the improved realisable values to cover their unforeseen inflated costs.
In each instance, there were delays in completion and the developers each attested that rising costs had forced them to rescind their current contracts with a view to re-selling the same lots at higher prices.
Whilst legal challenges were mounted by the off plan purchasers – the prevailing provisions relating to sunset clauses were deemed to be in favour of the developers. In the matter of Wang v Kaymet Corporation Pty Ltd  NSWSC 1459 – 34 of the 94 off plan purchasers launched a major class action against the developers. The original sales were entered into between November 2009 and April 2010 with Kaymet issuing rescission notices March 2013. The matter was heard in the NSW Supreme Court by Justice Stevenson and ruled upon October 2015. Estimates show that a Wolli Creek 2 bedroom unit was worth around $500,000 in 2009/10 and had appreciated to around $900,000 by late 2015. On this basis – Kaymet Corporation stood to increase its bottom line by some $13,000,000 by re-selling the apartments in 2015. Justice Stevenson found that the plaintiffs had failed to show Kaymet had been deficient in its duties. The net result was that Kaymet was allowed to rescind and the plaintiffs were burdened with around $1,000,000 in total legal costs. At the time of writing, Plaintiffs are ongoing with their class action against Samadi Developments.
To a large degree – the exposure to genuinely unforeseen costs or losses and extended delays were why the sunset clauses were originally created; however unhappy purchasers, and evidently Victor Dominello, view in certain instances the exercising of the sunset provisions as a grab for further profits by developers in a rising market. The suggestion is that off plan buyers have been exploited by some developers to get their projects ‘off the ground’ only to unceremoniously dump the sales when there is a big lift in profits available.
And so – what has occurred in response to Mr Dominello’s distaste for this scenario?
On November 17, 2015 the NSW Government passed the Conveyancing Amendment (Sunset Clauses) Act 2015 to provide further protections in favour of the purchasers in off the plan property contracts. The Act inserts Division 10 into the Conveyancing Act 1919 – “Off The Plan Contracts”. Whilst most property-informed parties are familiar with sections 66P to 66Y of the Act (dealing with definition of Residential Property and cooling-off provisions); Division 10 – 66ZL deals with the new rules for the exercising of a sunset clause by a Vendor and can be quickly outlined by reading subsection (3):
A vendor may rescind an off the plan contract under a sunset clause if the subject lot has not been created by the sunset date, but only if:
(a) each purchaser under the contract, at any time after being served with the notice under subsection (4), consents in writing to the rescission, or
(b) the vendor has obtained an order of the Supreme Court under this section permitting the vendor to rescind the contract under the sunset clause, or
(c) the regulations otherwise permit the vendor to rescind the contract under the sunset clause.
Subsection (4) outlines that the Vendor must provide notice of at least 28 days written notice to each Purchaser of their proposal for rescission and reasons why they need to rescind and what has created the delay in completion. Should an agreement be reached with a Purchaser – all is good. If the Purchaser declines to accept the request for rescission – the Vendor must apply to the Supreme Court to rule on the merits of its application. The Act outlines:
(7) In determining whether it is just and equitable in all the circumstances the Court is to take the following into account:
(a) the terms of the off the plan contract,
(b) whether the vendor has acted unreasonably or in bad faith,
(c) the reason for the delay in creating the subject lot,
(d) the likely date on which the subject lot will be created,
(e) whether the subject lot has increased in value,
(f) the effect of the rescission on each purchaser,
(g) any other matter that the Court considers to be relevant,
(h) any other matter prescribed by the regulations.
The Vendor may also be liable for any costs incurred by the Purchaser(s) attributable to the application to rescind.
These changes came into effect and will apply to any off the plan contracts entered into on or after 2 November 2015. In addition any off the plan contracts that have not completed, but were entered into before 2 November 2015 will also be captured.
Having addressed the essential drafting of the new legislation – focus then immediately turns to the common law/court interpretation and application of 66ZL(7). That is – how will the Supreme Court react to new applications for rescission?
The first test case has been Jobema Developments Pty Limited v Zhu & Others NSWSC 3.
The facts in brief are that a Purchaser (one of the Plaintiffs) contracted in December 2013 to buy an apartment off the plan in a new Hurstville development of 72 units offered by developer, Xycom. The sunset date for the registration of the strata plan (which occurs following completion and the granting of the project’s Occupation Certificate) was 31 December 2015. The Vendor’s right to rescind was qualified by the requirement to ‘use all reasonable endeavours to have the Strata Plan registered by the sunset date’. The court heard that Xycom, despite having DA consent, carried out very little construction work after entering into the off plan contract(s). In October 2014, Xycom on-sold the development site to Jobema Developments and this sale was settled in January 2015. The sale was subject to existing off plan sales – which were novated to Jobema. Some, but not all, of the off plan contracts had their sunset date extended. Jobema took an active approach to construction and by December 2015 the project was well progressed.
A new estimate for completion was set for mid-2017. Prior to the 31 December 2015 (ie sunset date); Jobema approached the Plaintiffs offering to extend the sunset date in return for agreeing to new, higher prices (on the basis of escalated construction costs). The Plaintiffs rejected the offer and Jobema duly issued Notices of Intent to rescind (in accordance with the new 66ZL(4) of the Act). The matter was presented to the Supreme Court’s Justice Black who ultimately found in favour of the Plaintiffs (the Purchasers). Probably the largest factor weighing against Jobema as developer was that despite their own best endeavours since acquiring the site – they were also burdened by Xycom’s apparent breach of the best endeavours covenant. Jobema had assumed all of Xycom’s obligations under the sales contracts. Justice Black was also concerned that only some Purchasers were offered an extended sunset date and others not. This practice brought doubt as to the legitimacy of the application. The court also responded to Jobema arguing that construction funding terms had deteriorated and that the new legislation had not been in effect when Jobema acquired the site by suggesting that each should be considered a “business risk”.
My own view on this is that the statute has not been fully tested in Jobema v Zhu as the project was adopted by Jobema following Xycom’s extended lack of endeavour to progress the site. The specifics of this matter are not generally applicable. It will be interesting to witness the court’s view in instances of genuine endeavour incurring serious and reasonably unforeseen negative circumstances.
Further, the NSW Governments new legislation has gone some way to endorse sunset clauses. The opportunity existed for sunset clauses to be outlawed altogether; however the passing of the statute in itself conveys that there is deemed a legitimate place for Vendor rescission. We now await a judgement in favour of rescission to provide more clarity on the judicial application of the legislation.
It will be interesting to see how the court views the Samadi matter given the heightened levels of negative publicity and new legislation. Whilst I remain impartial in any debate on ethics; it would seem to me that the ratio decidendi in both the Kaymet and Jobema decisions would suggest that Samadi had acted within the laws as they existed at the time. Kaymet reinforces this and Jobema’s application was denied partly on the basis that potential changes in legislation should be an assumed “business risk”. Surely this logic is a double-edged sword.
I will also be intrigued to watch whether clever legal minds devise some form of off plan ‘put and call’ style of agreement that operates outside of the Conveyancing Act and therefore may be drafted to essentially re-instate a form of sunset provision. Any such legal pact will also need to satisfy funders as being sufficiently binding.
Finally, whilst the new legislation will undoubtedly afford heightened protection for Purchasers and ideally elevate their confidence to commit to off the plan contracts – there may also become a subcutaneous penalty to Purchasers. Developers may simply factor in an additional margin of risk as insurance against unforeseen negative circumstances – that is that off the plan sale prices may simply become more expensive under the Sunset Clauses Law.
DISCLAIMER: this article is for general information only. It should not be construed as advice and no responsibility will be accepted for any reliance upon it’s detail or accuracy. The information contained herein has been gathered from third parties and readers should rely upon their own inquiries.