Larry Schlesinger | 1 July 2013

Eight potential pitfalls to watch out for when you buy off-the-plan

Eight potential pitfalls to watch out for when you buy off-the-plan

Investing in an off-the-plan apartment is a popular option for property investors particularly in capital cities like Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne where apartment developments are a dime a dozen.

Investing in a new apartment can be significantly cheaper than buying an existing house or apartment, plus you can take advantage of tax depreciation benefits. However, there are major potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks, which you should be aware of before you sign a contract and pay your deposit.

Here are eight to keep in mind:

    • Settlement period won’t be long enough

    Uncertainty about when settlement will be required can be a major and costly headache for investors. Once registration of title has occurred, developer will usually require settlement to take place as soon as possible, which can be as early as just 14 days under many contracts of sale. This can be a wholly inadequate period, says Rob Balanda, a partner at Gold Coast based law firm MBA Lawyer. This may mean having to apply for an extension, which if granted can attract high penalty rates of up to 20%. He suggests asking for a more reasonable time for settlement of say 30 days from the registration of the title when signing the contract. “You will usually get it too because the developer is keen to make the sale to you then,” he says.

      • You may not be satisfied with the end product

        When you are buying off the plan, you are purchasing something that has not yet been finished and relying on sketches, plans and artist impressions. The finished product may not match these projections. Carolyn Chudleigh, a partner at law firm Holding Redlich, says the best way to protect yourself from a nasty shock is to check every detail on the sale contract, particularly regarding the finishes. “Most disputes arise from a buyer not being happy with the end product. The best way to avoid this is to be aware of exactly what all of the finishes should be,” she says. Chudleigh recommends looking at the schedule of finishes for all parts of the property, including floor coverings, colour schemes and kitchen appliances. “Know everything about the interior, down to how many power points there will be in every room. All of this can be negotiated before exchange of contracts and should be included specifically in the contract if you want to be able to enforce performance against the vendor. If a contract is skinny on detail, there may be little room for complaints at the end of the day,” she says.

          • You may need to find extra cash if valuation comes in lower at settlement

            Lenders will only give conditional approval to finance an off-the-plan purchase, subject to a future valuation. When the unit is complete in 12 to 24 months time the lender will then get a valuer to value the unit. If the unit is valued at less than the purchase price (the market may have fallen in this time) the lender will finance a lesser percentage of the purchase price leaving you with the shortfall to make up. “ If you can’t find the short fall and can’t settle the purchase, then of course you will be in breach of your obligations under the Contract and the very least that will happen to you is that you will forfeit the deposit,” says Balanda. The developer could also sue you for any loss incurred from the re-sale of the unit.

              • Rental guarantees may be misleading

              Rental guarantees offered by developers may seem tempting but they should be treated with a fair degree of suspicion. Investors should always do the numbers to see if they really stack up. Buyers’ agent Catherine Cashmore warns against buying into a development that is offering a rental guarantee because “it is always factored into the sales price, and once the guarantee expires, the unit’s yield will revert back to market forces”. Cashmore says current rental guarantees are in the order of 5% to 7%.If an investment has a gross return of 6% and the developer guarantees $300 a week rent that would put the purchase price at $260,000. But if the market rent is in fact $250 a week, the property is really worth $218,000. This would have you paying 19.2% over the market value. The developer only has to pay $5,200 in total over two years to guarantee the $300 a week rent and the company would pocket $42,000 – or $36,800 net – on the sale price.

                • You may be buying the wrong type of apartment for the area

                  Buying the wrong property type off the plan for an area can result in poor re-sell values and/or a struggle to find tenants, says property investor and blogger Cameron McEvoy. “You may find a tenant quickly, but they may not be willing to pay the desired rental rate, if the property is not their ‘first choice’ for that area.” He suggests three remedies for this: firstly, get to know your potential area and do this in several ways: use online tools to study the demographic breakdown of your chosen area and develop a ‘persona’ of who is most likely to be living there, secondly, take a walk in the area, buy a coffee at the local cafe, and people so you can learn about the inhabitants of a particular location and thirdly, look at recent sales on real estate sales websites to see what sells and talk to local estate agents.

                    • The area becomes oversupplied with other off the plan developments

                      Scarcity creates value. If there are three or four other off-the-plan developments set to be completed in the next couple of years with similar features and targeted at the same demographic as your development, an oversupply situation could develop. You risk depreciation in value, struggling to find tenants or having to lower your rent to secure new tenants. “First up, understand that by buying off the plan you are doing the developer a big favour, says finance journalist and Channel 7 Sunrise host David Koch. “Developers are keen to start selling off the plan early seeking as many pre-commitments as possible because it will please their bank manager when they try and finance the development.” The key is to do your research and find out what other developments are planned for the area and what units they will have and their price points.

                        • Fees and costs you have not factored in may reduce your return

                          Having factored in costs like mortgage fees, stamp duty, land taxes and legal fees, off the plan buyers may find there are other costs once they settle and rent out their apartment. “Quarterly strata fees and the body corporate structure should also be factored into the purchase, says 1300HomeLoan managing director John Kolenda. “Make sure you can afford to cover these fees and, of course, make sure you do a final inspection and to make sure any defects were fixed before settling as the developer is obliged to repair any defects,” he says. Make sure you have a comprehensive list of all the fees and costs you are likely to incur once the apartment is completed.

                            • The developer may go bust or there may be delays

                              While there are laws to protect buyers if a developer goes bust  (a number of high profile large building groups have collapsed in recent times) or they take longer to complete the project then agreed to, you may have to go to court at your own cost initially to recoup your investment. “A developer going bust or producing a substandard product can drag on for years through the courts and, while the law is there to protect you, it’s costly and it will be at your own expense to fight initially – this is a sad, but very true, fact about our legal system,” warns James Buyers Advocates.