“If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree” (Jim Rohn)

The upcoming festive season, with its mass migrations of happy holiday-makers to their dream destinations, has always been a busy time for both sellers and buyers.

In these hard times however, an increasing number of sellers are feeling pressured to accept offers well under their expectations, so cases of “seller’s remorse” are much more likely now than they have been for many years. The question is, just how easy or difficult is it for a seller to escape a sale agreement signed in haste?

Equally common no doubt are sales “subject to the sale of the buyer’s property” – for a specified amount and within a specified time period. That raises an important question – must the buyer’s transfer actually be registered in the Deeds Office within the deadline period, or is it enough that the buyer has signed a sale agreement of his/her property?

A recent High Court decision addressed both those questions, as well as two others relating to defences raised by a seller who changed her mind shortly after accepting the buyer’s offer (the judgment doesn’t say why she changed her mind, but the fact that a bank offered the buyers a bond of R3.9m suggests that the sale price of R2.6m may have been very low).

A serious case of seller’s remorse, and the 3 defences raised

In the case in question the seller had second thoughts shortly after accepting a R2.6m offer for her house from a couple who were married in community of property. When the seller then refused to pass transfer to the buyers, they asked the High Court to order her to do so.

Any one of the three defences put forward by the seller to the buyer’s claim could have sunk the sale, so let’s have a look at how the Court answered the three main questions they raised –

1. Does “subject to successful sale of the buyer’s house” required transfer?

The sale was subject to the “successful sale” of the buyer’s property within 60 days, failing which the sale would lapse. The buyers had indeed “sold” their house by entering into a sale agreement for it, and their buyers had taken occupation. But, so the seller argued, that was not a “successful sale” because actual Deeds Office transfer hadn’t been registered within the 60 day period.

Bad defence, ruled the Court, commenting: “I cannot think for a moment that the parties had the intention that the [buyers] were to find a purchaser for the property, that they had to sign a deed of sale after a purchaser was found, that possible suspensive conditions in that deed had to be fulfilled, and that the registration of transfer into the purchaser’s name, all had to take place within the limited period of 60 days only … I therefore find that the phrase ‘successful sale’ in the present agreement means nothing more than the successful signing of a deed of sale” (emphasis added).

On a practical note, both seller and buyer in any property sale should have their attorney confirm that the “subject to” clause specifies clearly what exactly is required. Is a signed sale agreement enough? Must all suspensive conditions have been met? Or must actual transfer have been registered? Provide enough time for your agreed requirements to be met, and cover scenarios like an unexpected glitch or delay in the buyer’s transfer (neither buyer nor seller wants to be in the position where a buyer can’t pay the purchase price when transfer is eventually tendered).

As a less important side note, the sale in this case was also subject to another suspensive condition. This was a “bond clause” requiring the buyers to obtain a bond within 30 days – which clause, held the Court, had been fulfilled by a bank informing the buyers in writing that their application for a mortgage loan was approved for a total amount of R3.9m, well over the required R2.6m.

2. Married in community of property – must both spouses sign?

The buyers being married in community of property, the seller argued that the sale agreement was invalid because only one spouse had signed it. Not so, held the Court, “both husband and wife have equal capacity to perform juristic acts and equal powers to manage the joint estate, which powers can in most cases be exercised without the consent of the other spouse”.

The Court found that this was not a case requiring such written consent (there are conflicting court decisions on this point so ask your attorney for specific advice if this question arises in your sale*), therefore the signing spouse “had full capacity to bind the joint estate by signing the Offer to Purchase without the written consent of the Second Applicant”.

*(Best practice of course is to avoid any possibility of dispute by getting both signatures wherever possible!)

3. Must acceptance of an offer be communicated to the buyer?

The seller claimed to have called her estate agent 30 minutes after signing the agreement, instructing her to withdraw it and terminating her mandate as agent. Thus, argued the seller, the acceptance of the offer was never validly communicated to the buyer and no contract ever came into existence.

Not so, held the Court. Although our law is that “unless the contrary is established, a contract comes into being when the acceptance of the offer is brought to the notice of the offeror”, no communication of acceptance was necessary in this particular case. The offer was headed “Offer to Purchase” (This constitutes an Agreement of Sale upon Acceptance by the Seller)” and it stated that “the Seller agrees to sell the immovable property, together with the improvements thereon, to the Purchaser whom purchases from the Seller on the terms and conditions as set out in this Agreement.”

The unavoidable inference, said the Court, was that the parties intended “that the mode of acceptance would be the signature of the First Respondent, and nothing more.”

“Signing in haste, repent at leisure”

Our law as a general rule holds you to your agreements, so sign a sale agreement and you will have an uphill battle getting out of it.

As always speak to your attorney before you sign anything. Proper advice upfront is the best way to avoid seller’s remorse (and buyer’s remorse for that matter), grey areas that risk dispute and litigation, and uncertainty over whether your rights are properly protected in the sale agreement.

[This article was originally published in the LawDotNews November 2019 newsletter. To view the full November 2019 newsletter please go to this link.]