My colleague Rona Fischman at the Boston.com Real Estate Now Blog had an intriguing question on the legalities surrounding accepting back-up offers. This question is especially timely with the rise of bidding wars in the Greater Boston real estate market. Rona asks:
I have been told that a back up offer cannot be presented to a seller because it is inducement to interfere with a contract in place (the accepted offer.) I have also been told that a back up offer must be presented, forthwith, like any other offer. Since I never list property, I don’t know which one is true. Can you give a legal and practical explanation for the blog?
Answer: I do not believe that merely soliciting and presenting a back-up offer can give rise to a legal claim for interference with contractual relations as long as the seller does not break the existing contract with the buyer. Moreover, I believe that real estate agents have a legal and ethical obligation to present to their seller clients all offers made on the property, but it is the seller’s preference whether or not to solicit back up offers once he has already accepted an offer.
What Is a Back-Up Offer?
For those who do not know, a back-up offer is an offer made after the seller has already accepted and signed an offer to purchase with a buyer, in the hopes that the first offer will fall through and the seller will select the back-up offer. It is the seller’s decision whether to accept back-up offers at all. Back-up offers are common in bidding wars where there is frenzied competition for a well-priced property. Most buyers who submit a back-up offer will continue with their home search because the probability that their back-up offer is ultimately accepted is usually a long-shot.
Unlawful Interference with Contract?
Rona is worried that accepting back-up offers could expose an agent to liability for interfering with an existing contract. I don’t think she has much to worry about unless the seller tries to cancel the existing deal without legal right.
In the real estate context, the requirements to make out a valid claim for unlawful “interference with contractual relations” are the following:
- There must be an accepted and signed offer to purchase between the buyer and seller which is sufficient to form an enforceable contract under Massachusetts law;
- The competing buyer (making the back-up offer) must have knowledge of the contract;
- The competing buyer must have intentionally induced or persuaded the seller not to perform its contractual obligations, i.e, not proceed with the transaction;
- The interference was improper in motive or means; and
- The plaintiff was legally harmed.
Under this legal definition, there is liability only where the seller unlawfully breaks the existing offer/contract with the first buyer. As a general matter, merely submitting a back-up offer (and not formally accepting it) will not support a legal claim because there has been no breach of the first contract.
A thornier question is what happens if the seller tries to wriggle his way out of the first offer in favor of a better offer? Those are the situations which often result in litigation and the filing of a lis pendens. I would advise any seller and their agent to consult an attorney before they try to break an offer or purchase and sale agreement with a buyer. On the other hand, if a buyer loses his financing and cannot proceed with the transaction, and therefore has defaulted on his contractual obligations, then it may be clear to accept a back up offer. It is always the prudent course to obtain a release and waiver from the first buyer before dealing with a back-up offer. I cannot stress this enough.
What Are Realtors’ Legal & Ethical Duties With Back-up Offers?
There are no specific legal rules surrounding back-up offers. The regulations governing real estate agents in Massachusetts provide that “All offers submitted to brokers or salespeople to purchase or rent real property that they have a right to sell or rent shall be conveyed forthwith to the owner of such real property.” If a listing agent is a Realtor©, they have an additional ethical obligation to “continue to submit to the seller all offers and counter-offers until closing … unless the seller has waived this obligation in writing.”
Back-up offers are on a slightly different footing than offers made while the property is still actively listed. I would say that if a prospective buyer makes an unsolicited back-up offer, that offer must be conveyed to the seller regardless of whether or not she has decided to accept back-up offers. The agent should not make the decision to decline an offer for the client. The seller may, of course, decide to not solicit back-up offers or to solicit them. Such a decision should be noted on the MLS. It’s always the client’s prerogative to solicit back-up offers. For agents, the safe practice is always to convey any offer which comes in, and to have the seller state in writing that she is refusing to accept back-up offers.
If you have any “war stories,” questions, or comments, please post them in the comment section below.