But the Seller Breached! When Should Due Diligence Fees be Refunded?

In today’s hot market, due diligence fees have become a significant consideration for both buyers and sellers. The commonly used NC REALTORS©/NC Bar Association Offer to Purchase and Contract (Form 2T) incorporates a due diligence period for which the buyer may pay a negotiated fee. Some brokers are encouraging their buyer clients to offer considerable amounts in due diligence fees to make their offer more competitive, and some buyers do so even against their broker’s advice. 

First, it’s important to note that the parties are not required by law or by the Commission to either use the form provided to brokers by their trade association or to include a due diligence fee as part of their contract. The parties are always free to have their own attorney draft a contract for their transaction or to choose not to offer a due diligence fee. Brokers should be careful to not imply otherwise.

The Commission has seen a major increase in complaints from buyers insisting they are owed a due diligence fee refund because a home inspection discovered an issue with the property which was not disclosed prior to going under contract. If a buyer is offering thousands of dollars in due diligence fees to secure a contract, they need to be fully aware that the fee is generally not refundable, even if the inspection reveals material defects in the property. The rights of a buyer during the due diligence period are the same whether they have paid $0, $100, or $100,000 in due diligence fees.   

Brokers should never lose sight of the goal: doing what is best for the client rather than getting a bad contract in place. A good broker will always be sure to take the time to clearly explain the risks to the buyer in paying any amount of due diligence money. A broker’s fiduciary duties to their client include loyalty, obedience, accountability, disclosure, and skill, care and diligence.  When a buyer has hired a broker for their expertise and assistance in making what frequently amounts to the largest purchase they’ll ever make, then the expectation is that the broker will be looking out for their best interests. 

A broker’s best practices include being well versed regarding the terms of a contract and educating their client on all of the ins and outs of due diligence, including the risks involved and when a fee is refundable.

The Due Diligence Period is designed to allow the buyer:

  1. a period of time to inspect the property and determine if they wish to accept it in its current condition
  2. the opportunity to request repairs and negotiate the repairs and costs with the seller,
  3. access to the property for any and all inspections, surveys, appraisals, etc. and
  4. the right to terminate the contract unilaterally prior to the end of the due diligence period for any or no reason.

It’s a common misconception that a seller has ‘breached the contract’ by failing to agree to pay the cost of repairs or for not disclosing a defect in the property. While the buyer may seek to negotiate repairs, the contract does not obligate the seller to make any repairs. The seller’s obligations under the contract Form 2T are in Paragraph 8 and only relate to repairs to the extent that the seller has agreed to perform them. Specifically, the contract requires the seller to:

  1. provide evidence of clear title and a General Warranty Deed and payoff of all existing liens with an affidavit regarding payment,
  2. pay ad valorem taxes, pro-rated property taxes and any late listing fees, confirmed special assessments, Owner’s Association fees and certain charges payable by seller, and any agreed-upon buyer’s expenses,
  3. provide access to the property for the buyer including working utilities,
  4. remove the seller’s personal property, garbage and debris, and
  5. perform all repairs that have already been negotiated and agreed upon by the parties.

If the seller fails to perform those obligations, thereby breaching the contract, then the buyer may be entitled to a refund of their due diligence fee along with any earnest money, and costs incurred performing their due diligence (see paragraph 23 for the remedies). 

The contract makes no guarantee as to the condition of the property and, under paragraph 4(d), states that the property is being sold in its current condition. Brokers should make buyers aware that the Residential Property and Owners Association Disclosure Statement is not a guarantee of the property condition. A seller’s answer of “no” or “no representation” on the disclosure statement does not mean that there are no problems or defects in the property, only that the seller is either unaware of a problem or has chosen to make no representation. A deliberate misrepresentation by a broker may result in disciplinary action. Similarly, a deliberate misrepresentation by an unlicensed seller could result in civil liability if a buyer chose to pursue a private civil suit. However, the Commission has no authority to award such damages. The bottom line? Brokers should advise their buyer clients early and often that they should not expect a refund of any due diligence fee they pay even if they are dissatisfied with the condition of the property. Brokers should do everything they can to ensure that their buyer-clients are well-informed and offer an amount of due diligence fee that they are prepared to lose.