How Both Contract Law and Consumer Law Are Derailing the Real Estate Auction System

Posted on September 10, 2013 by | 0 Comments
George Rousos

George Rousos

By George Rousos
Director
Industry Training Consultants
P: (02) 49 436110
F: (02) 49 436110
M: 0416 297197

e: george@itc.nsw.edu.au

Back in 2010 we received an enquiry about the real estate auction method in NSW and the sharp, deceptive practices that are sometimes used to enforce a contract. A consumer buyer, whom we spoke to, believed they were induced to enter into a contract at auction by misleading and deceptive conduct and was considering a civil action against the agent and vendor involved. After listening to their concerns we decided to invest some time, into completing a legal study of the real estate auction method, while obtaining some powerful legal advice along the way to substantiate the findings. This is what we found.

The Statute of Frauds, is an Act passed in England in 1677. What has this got to do with modern-day Australia? Well, back in the 17th century, the law of contract was beginning to take shape. In particular it was becoming possible to enforce executory (future) promises. The law of evidence, however, was still back in the dark ages. It did not allow anyone to give evidence to support their own case. It was possible to prove a case by simply getting 12 of your mates to come along and swear, for example, that so and so made a promise to pay some money. This laid the way open to make fraudulent claims by simply getting others to commit perjury on your behalf. The answer was provided by the Statute of Frauds which stipulated that certain contracts had to be evidenced in writing. Not all contracts – only a limited class of contracts.

To this day, the same statutory provision, re-enacted (or even still applying in their own right in NT and WA) in the States and ACT, governs at least contracts involving interests in land and one or two other contracts. Still, to this day, the legislation is referred to generally as the Statute of Frauds.

The Statute of Frauds has, it must be said, got a bad smell about it. It can be used as a technical defence to a contract claim. That is, it enables someone who has committed himself or herself to a contract to simply wriggle out of it on the basis that there is not a sufficient writing to satisfy the legislation. There is no merit, no plausible or understandable excuse for not performing; only a fortuitous, technical defence which would only be apparent to the person after they have talked to their lawyer.

The Statute of Frauds is invoked by a defendant in a breach of contract action. If the defendant can establish that the contract he has failed to perform is legally unenforceable because it has not satisfied the requirement of the statute, then the defendant cannot be liable for its breach. For example, suppose that a plaintiff claims that a defendant agreed to pay her a commission for selling his building. If the defendant can demonstrate that no commission contract was signed, the statute of frauds will prevent the plaintiff from recovering the commission.

The legal advice we received, would be of interest to many auctioneers’ in NSW and other states in Australia, but firstly we need to establish that a bid is, in effect, an offer of a price for the property being sold, and the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer the acceptance. Once the auctioneer’s hammer has fallen, the auctioneer has by implication the authority of the highest bidder to sign any memorandum on the bidder’s behalf embodying the conditions of the sale, such memorandum being sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Statute of Frauds and the Sales of Good Act. However, if a successful bidder for certain land at an auction sale refused to sign a written sale agreement, it would be difficult to enforce specific performance of an agreement to purchase the property under the Statute of Frauds .This is due to there being no expressed authority under auction laws in NSW and on the bidder’s register, which permits the auctioneer at the fall of the hammer to sign any memorandum or contract of sale on the bidder’s behalf.  Although, in the old case of Phillips vs. Butler [1945] 1 Ch 358, where a successful bidder declined to sign a contract for the sale of land at the conclusion of an auction, a judge ruled there was an irrevocable authority to sign the contract, due to evidence proving that both parties had finalised a contract and specific performance of the contract in this case was required.

However, this ruling to some may seem straightforward on its face, but not quite. The auctioneer’s authority to sign on the purchaser’s and if necessary, the vendor’s behalf, is only an irrevocable authority once the contract is final and both parties have agreed to be legally bound. Further to this, under contract law, for an agreement to be regarded as a contract, it must contain four essential ingredients: if any one of them is absent the agreement will not be legally binding. One of the essential ingredients of a contract is the ‘Intention of legal consequences’. The parties to the agreement must understand that the agreement can be enforced by law. For a contract to be binding, it does not have to expressly state that you understand and intend legal consequences to follow. For commercial contracts your intentions are presumed, for example, to be legally bound. The parties to a contract can decide not to be legally bound by the agreement – this must be clearly stated and is then an agreement that is not legally enforceable.

In NSW under the standard contract for sale of land the following warning statement is located on page 3 of the contract:

“IMPORTANT NOTICE TO VENDORS AND PURCHASERS

Before signing this contract, you should ensure that you understand your rights and obligations, some of which are not written in this contract but implied by law.”

This provision of the contract gives each party more freedom to further negotiate the terms of the contract before deciding to be legally bound. The negotiation stage of a contract would likely challenge and override the irrevocable authority to sign after the fall of the hammer. Furthermore, the principles of contract law require that consideration be given for the contract to be valid. Consideration means that something of value for example a deposit was given to the vendor by the purchaser.

Under auction conditions in NSW, it doesn’t state that all bids must be unconditional and at the fall of the hammer is forming of the contract. Surprisingly, there is such a thing called conditional bidding and this is permissible at auctions in NSW and in the other states aswell. It is advised that such information be disclosed to bidders prior to commencement of the auction; this not only will prevent allegations of mismanagement and fraud, but should also come as a timely reminder, that a successful bidder is not always a true unconditional bidder.

All estate agents should be aware, that all financial institutions have never operated in line with real estate auction conditions, therefore, any winning bidder who is still subject to a loan doc approval with the bank, should be given the courtesy and respect of their offer being made subject to finance. In other words, if the winning bidder was restrained from signing the contract under auction conditions, due to unavoidable circumstances relating to finance approval, the contract of sale, should therefore be entered into under private treaty conditions and not under the traditional auction conditions. The contract would need to include also, a seller’s warning statement and remain on the market until such time the contract is unconditional.

National Unfair Contract Terms Laws (part of the Australian Consumer Law)

One of the most significant reforms for New South Wales businesses and consumers are the provisions addressing the use of unfair contract terms in standard form consumer contracts, contained in Part 2-3 of the Australian Consumer Law (commenced on 1 July 2010 at the Commonwealth level.

This law has the potential to create a basis for a significant amount of litigation. The definition of ‘unfair’ adopted in Part 2-3 may cause uncertainty over the enforceability of contract terms which favour one party over another, providing all consumers additional grounds upon which to challenge and potentially avoid their contractual obligations.

While there have not yet been any instances of enforcement of the national unfair contract terms law, publications released by the ACCC give some indication as to what will be considered to be an ‘unfair term’ under these provisions.

A term of a consumer contract will be void if:

  1. the term is unfair; and
  2. it is a standard form contract.

A consumer contract is defined as a contract for the supply of goods or services or a sale or grant of an interest in land to an individual whose acquisition of the goods, services or interest is wholly or predominantly for personal, domestic or household use or consumption.

For example, a buyer acquiring an ‘off the plan’ apartment for investment purposes will not be a ‘consumer’ because of their reasons for buying. However, if it is for their own occupation the buyer will be a ‘consumer’.

The test for unfairness, under Sch 2, s. 24(1) of the Act and s. 12BG of the ASIC Act, states that a term of a consumer contract is unfair if it:

> would cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract and

> is not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the party who would be advantaged by the term and

> would cause detriment (whether financial or otherwise) to a party if it were to be applied or relied on.

All three limbs of the unfairness test must be proven, on the balance of probabilities, to exist for a court to decide that a term is unfair.

In light of the unfair contract law, businesses should prepare themselves and adjust the way in which they deal with individual consumers in the following ways:

  • be aware and take note of whether a consumer is purchasing for investment purposes or for their own personal use;
  • be willing to negotiate the terms of the contract with the consumer and keep detailed records of any negotiations;
  • obtain an acknowledgement from the consumer that they are aware of and understand any terms in the contract which may be seen to favour one party over another; and
  • have your standard form consumer contracts reviewed to ensure that their terms are not at risk of being voided for being ‘unfair’.

Finally, the law in NSW requires that an agent must also; act honestly, fairly and professionally with all parties in a transaction. An agent must not mislead or deceive any parties in negotiations or a transaction.

Silent Auction – The Alternative Method

Silent auctions are auctions held without an auctioneer. People place their bids on sheets of paper instead. They’re often used by charities to raise money, but actually can be a useful method in real estate http://www.wikihow.com/Run-a-Silent-Auction.

When there are multiple buyers under Private Treaty – converting to either a “Sale by Tender method (where buyers get one opportunity to put forward their most competitive offer and once the vendor makes their final decision on a specified time and date, the decision is announced) or “Silent Auction Method” makes perfect sense to avoid engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct.

As previously mentioned, the auction is “silent” in that there is no auctioneer selling the property and bids are written on a sheet of paper. After each pre-determined round, the agent announces the highest bidder. Bids continue to escalate in subsequent rounds. At the end of the final round, the highest registered bidder is the purchaser.

There are variations to Silent Auctions which may include sealed bids. The highest bidder pays the price he or she submitted. However, the capability of inducing bidders into error or refusing to disclose any competing bid relevant to the decision of the other party, would likely lead to an allegation of misleading and deceptive conduct. All agents must engage in full disclosure, but set pre-determine bidding increments at the start, to avoid non – genuine bidding on the day.

It is important to point out under the standard sales agency agreement, that services detailed in the agreement can be varied providing it is in writing and signed by both parties. Furthermore, the definition of an “Auction” under the Property Stock and Business Agents Act 2002 refers to the person who claims the property submitted for sale at a certain price is named by the person acting as auctioneer. As with silent auctions there is no auctioneer. This gives real estate agency businesses the flexibility to draft terms and conditions that are not based on the unnecessary and unproductive rules of public auctions – only laws applicable to contract law and consumer law.

In closing the purpose of this article is to alert all agents, with intention of preventing any future allegations and claims of fraudulent misrepresentation in tort, when facilitating the sale of a property at auction.

A RECENT COURT RULING:

Auctions — Did residential property bidder engage in misleading and deceptive conduct?

02 September 2013

This is an interesting decision from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia for its consideration of when the provisions of the Australian Consumer Law will apply to the sale of residential property.

Facts

The respondents were engaged in the business of property acquisitions for the purposes of deriving rental income. The first respondent was a company which was the trustee of a family trust and the second respondent was a director of the first respondent and a beneficiary of the family trust.

The second respondent attended the auction of the vendor applicants’ home in Western Australia. During the course of the auction, he placed a bid for $3.6m. He was the only genuine bidder at the auction.

As the reserve price had not been met, the auctioneer suspended the auction to consult with the vendor. After gaining approval to sell at $3.6m, the auctioneer recommenced the auction, inviting further bids. There were no further bids. The property was then knocked down to the second respondent. However, after the other potential bidders had left the property, he refused to sign the contract or pay the requested deposit asserting that he no longer wanted to buy the property.

When the respondents refused attempts at settlement, the property was placed upon the market again. Additional costs were incurred in respect of the marketing of the property. The property did not sell.

The vendor brought an application against the respondents for (inter alia) damages for misleading or deceptive conduct under s 18 of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

Section 18 of the ACL provides that “A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”.

The respondents countered that the matter involved the sale of a private house without any business character and was not conduct in trade or commerce for the purposes of the ACL.

Decision

The court held that the s 18 misleading and deceptive conduct provision did apply even though the matter involved the sale of a private house without any business character. It sufficed that the respondents were engaged in commercial activity (acquiring properties to rent out). However, despite the finding that s 18 applied, no damages were awarded because the vendor could not demonstrate that the loss incurred resulted from the respondents’ conduct.

Citation:Carter & Anor v Delgrove Holdings Pty Ltd & Anor[2013] FCCA 783.

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