Let’s get this out of the way – the only essential terms for a real estate sale contract are the identities of the buyer and seller, the property in question, and the purchase price. Essentially, that is the law in California. Of course, the courts have found ways around the rule, but the trend of the law favors carrying out the parties’ intent once the court has determined that the parties had intended to make a contract. The courts will hear evidence of the parties’ intent to explain essential terms. (Okun v. Morton, 203 Cal. App. 3d 805) Sacramento real estate attorneys are occasionally asked about contracts in which all the standard details are left out, and asked how to enforce, or deny, the contract. When there is no time for payment specified, I always advise the “a reasonable time” is inferred, whatever that means in the circumstances. Such a situation was addressed by the Supreme Court when a tenant wanted to enforce a purchase option that was included in the lease.
In Patel v. Liebermensch, the tenants leased a condo in San Diego. The lease included the following purchase and sale option:
“Through the end of the year 2003, the selling price is $290,000. The selling price increases by 3% through the end of the year 2004 and cancels with expiration of your occupancy. Should this option to buy be exercised, $1,200.00 shall be refunded to you.”
The option contract did not specify the time or manner of payment, which the landlord claimed rendered the agreement unenforceable. The court of appeal decided that, while it might be reasonable in some circumstances to imply standard terms on these points into the contract, here it was not, because the seller contemplated conducting a 1031 exchange (which would have specific timing requirements) which involved serious tax consequences.
The Supreme Court disagreed, finding the option real estate purchase contract enforceable. The seller’s undisclosed intentions are not considered part of the contract.
It first noted that the equitable remedy of specific performance cannot be granted if the terms of a contract are not certain enough for the court to know what to enforce. (Civ.Code, § 3390, subd. 5)
In the absence of express conditions, custom determines incidental matters relating to the opening of an escrow, furnishing deeds, title insurance policies, prorating of taxes, and the like. “The material factors to be ascertained from the written contract are the seller, the buyer, the price to be paid, the time and manner of payment, and the property to be transferred, describing it so it may be identified.” However, the manner and time of payment may be determined by “reference to custom and reason when the contract is silent on the question, unless the contract includes seller financing provisions that are not sufficiently clear enough to protect the seller.”
The court concluded that, since time and manner of payment are terms that may be supplied by implication, they are not material elements that must appear in writing in every real estate sale agreement. What is for sure is that in a contract for the sale of real estate the delivery of the deed and the payment of the purchase price are dependent and concurrent conditions; the happen at the same time, and not without each other.
Civil Code section 1657 applies here to interpret of the contract: “If no time is specified for the performance of an act required to be performed, a reasonable time is allowed. If the act is in its nature capable of being done instantly–as, for example, if it consists in the payment of money only–it must be performed immediately upon the thing to be done being exactly ascertained. The purchase price is deemed payable upon delivery of the deed.
Thus, the case was sent back to the trial court to determine what a “reasonable time” for payment was. To determine this, the parties will have to have evidence from real estate professionals, testifying as experts, as to what a reasonable amount of time is standard in San Diego residential sales for escrow to close.