Adjustment of rates
An essential task in a conveyancing transaction is the adjustment, between vendor and purchaser, of liability to pay rates. Whilst this task is never simple, it is even more complicated in a rental situation where the lease may transfer responsibility to pay rates and outgoings to the tenant. Additionally, the entitlement to rent needs to be apportioned.
The first inquiry is to establish who is responsible for payment of the rates pursuant to the lease.
If the landlord/vendor is responsible for payment, then adjustments are made in the normal way:
if the rates are paid, the purchaser will allow the prepayment to the landlord;
if the rates are unpaid, the purchaser will draw a cheque from the settlement proceeds in payment of the rates and adjust on a “rates paid” basis. By this method the vendor pays the rates up to settlement the purchaser pays from settlement.
If the tenant is responsible for payment:
if the rates are paid, no adjustment is required;
if the rates are unpaid, the purchaser is entitled to be satisfied that any arrears of rates are paid at settlement.
This conventional way of adjusting on a “rates paid” basis means that the vendor pays pre-settlement rates and the purchaser pays post-settlement rates, but both parties may take the view that they would prefer that the tenant pays.
In respect of arrears of rates, the purchaser is entitled to insist upon deduction and payment of arrears at settlement and it is no answer by the vendor to this contractual entitlement that the tenant is responsible for payment. That is a matter between landlord (the vendor) and tenant and does not reduce the purchaser’s right to adjustment.
In respect of current rates, the purchaser is entitled to adjustment up to settlement day even if the current rates are not due and payable. If adjustment is on a “rates paid” basis the purchaser will effectively pre-pay the rates until the end of the current assessment. Whilst the purchaser will be entitled to recover those rates from the tenant pursuant to the lease, the purchaser might prefer to adjust on an “unpaid basis” where the rates are adjusted to the day of settlement only. This requires the vendor to pay (by deduction) rates until settlement but leaves responsibility for payment of future rates to be determined in accordance with the lease.
The vendor in this situation is exposed to a loss. Pursuant to the sale contract the vendor has had to pay any arrears, including part of any unpaid current assessment by way of adjustment of the purchase price. Whilst the vendor, as landlord, had rights under the lease to recover rates from the tenant, that right passes to the purchaser at settlement – s.141 Property Law Act.
The vendor therefore needs to issue recovery proceedings against the tenant before settlement, or include in the contract of sale a Special Condition addressing this situation. This might be an undertaking by the purchaser to repay to the vendor the amount of current rates deducted by the purchaser when and if, the tenant pays those rates or it might authorise the vendor to issue proceedings against the tenant in the name of the purchaser to recover unpaid rates. That the parties are entitled to contract out of the consequences of s.141 Property Law Act was established by Ashmore Developments P/L v. Eaton  2 Qd R 1.
Great care needs to be exercised in drafting such a Special Condition, as is evidenced by Brinca Property Management P/L v Yeo & Rambaldi  VMC 35.
All sales of real estate over $2 million made after 1 July 2016 will be presumed to be made by a foreign resident and therefore be liable to a 10% withholding payment unless the vendor obtains a Clearance Certificate from the ATO.
The ATO is concerned that foreign residents are not paying capital gains tax and has introduced a ‘withholding payment’ regime obliging purchasers to withhold and pay to the ATO 10% of the purchase price on account of the vendor’s CGT liability. To better understand this measure, I attending an ATO Information session.
I was greeting in the foyer by Person ONE who directed me to a line where, eventually, Person TWO checked my photo ID. and then directed me to an adjoining line where, eventually, Person THREE asked me to sign in. He then directed me to Person FOUR who invited me to take a seat in the foyer. Eventually Person FIVE invited me to join a group being escorted to the lift and we were shown into a lift, only to find that that lift did not stop at the right floor, so we returned to ground, changed lifts and, eventually, found ourselves on the eighth floor where we were meet by person SIX, who escorted us to the seminar room. We were advised that sanitary and sustenance facilities were available but that we would need to be escorted to those facilities by one (or perhaps more) of the large cast of escorts standing at the back of the room. As the level of participation of the escorts in those sanitary and sustenance activities was not disclosed, I spent a very uncomfortable 2.5 hours not willing to find out.
Despite the need for prior registration and this rigorous security campaign, there were not enough copies of the papers available for the 100 odd people in attendance – that does not bode well for all of these $200,000+ payments that are going to be pouring into the ATO from 1 July.
The most important aspect of the withholding regime is for vendors and purchasers to understand that ALL $2m+ transactions are subject to the tax UNLESS the vendor obtains, and provides to the purchaser, a Clearance Certificate. In the absence of a Clearance Certificate, the purchaser must deduct 10% of the purchase price and remit it to the ATO immediately after settlement. Failure to do so will make the PURCHASER liable to the ATO for the amount.
The key to the vendor obtaining a Clearance Certificate will be the vendor’s current registration with the ATO as a Australian resident tax payer. This places a premium on early consideration of the consistency between the name of the registered proprietor and the registered tax payer. If the vendor has tax records that PRECISELY match the title registration then a Clearance Certificate will issue on-line. This is expected to be 80% of the time. However, if there is a discrepancy between the name on the title and the name of the tax payer, the application goes off-line and delay will be inevitable while the vendor provides the ATO with additional documentation to align the registered proprietor with a registered Australian resident taxpayer.
Clearance Certificates will be available on-line from 27 June 2016, are valid for 12 months and may be used in respect of more than one property. Authentication is problematic.
If the purchaser does not receive a Clearance Certificate then the purchaser is obliged to remit the withholding payment and does so by completing a Purchaser Payment Notification on-line and receiving a Payment Reference Number allowing for payment on-line, at a Post Office or by mail. The ATO will issue payment confirmation to both the purchaser and the vendor.
Of enormous practical importance is the question whether the 10% withholding is to be 10% of ‘the price’, a relatively simple calculation, or is GST to increase the withholding and will adjustments effect the withholding? As presently advised, it appears that a flat 10% of the contract price will be acceptable but hopefully a Ruling will be available before 1 July.
Owner builder insurance
The current domestic building warranty insurance regime came into force 20 years ago and it remains largely a mystery to most property lawyers.
Donald Rumsfeld was referring to weapons of mass destruction when he made his infamous comment about “knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns” but he may just as well have been referring to the owner builder warranty insurance scheme that has plagued Victorian conveyancing lawyers for 20 years. Whilst insurance is generally a matter relating to the quality of a property and not a matter going to title, it is the draconian consequences of getting the insurance situation wrong that makes this issue one of the great disasters of conveyancing. Quality issues do not generally create a right of avoidance but failure by the vendor to comply with the owner builder insurance obligations does allow the purchaser to avoid, an outcome that can have disastrous consequences for the vendor’s adviser.
What is known about the scheme is that an owner builder who performed building works in the 6.5 years prior to the sale is required to include a Condition Report in relation to those works in the contract and (if the works exceeded $16,000) obtain warranty insurance. It is important to note that the obligation to provide the Condition Report is absolute and does not depend upon the cost of the works.
Known unknown – what works?
But knowing that the scheme applies to building works creates the first unknown – what building works trigger the obligation?
Section 137B(2) Building Act creates the requirement if a vendor “constructs” a building and the definition of “construct” (s.137B(7)) includes repair or alteration of the building. Clearly adding a room, for instance, would be construction and the requirement arises. But what about essentially cosmetic works that might involve work that could be described as “home handyman work”, such as retiling a bathroom or moving a doorway? Where do we draw the line?
A convenient threshold might be to differentiate between works that require a building permit and works that do not, although that arbitrary line is itself somewhat problematic. Essentially, substantial works require a permit and cosmetic works do not. But the Act, by contemplating an obligation even when a building permit has NOT issued, makes it clear that the requirement does relate to non-permit works and so we must presume that this unknown is in fact any and all works undertaken on the home – any repairs or alterations no matter how minor.
Unknown unknowns – when?
Harder still is the problem of determining when the works were performed.
By s.137B(7) the Act provides a series of alternatives for determining when the 6.5 year period, known as the “prescribed period”, commenced. Starting from the contract date, the vendor must look back either:
- 6.5 years and see whether an occupancy permit or certificate of final inspection was issued; or
- if not, then look back 7 years to see whether a building permit was issued; or
- if neither of the above, then look back 6.5 years to see whether the owner has certified that construction had commenced.
Works performed during any of those periods trigger the requirements. The first two alternatives are based on an objectively determined event but the third is a very subjective basis for determining the prescribed period and adds to the prevailing sense of unreality that surrounds the vendor’s obligations in relation to owner builder insurance.