Yes, you can.
You can even force someone to buy your house if you prove certain things, just like any other lawsuit. Unlike other lawsuits however, such as car accident cases for example, here you don’t sue for money, you sue for equitable relief. Equitable relief means, in fairness, the only thing a court can do is exercise its power to force someone to do something. When it comes to selling or buying real estate, the law calls it “specific performance” because the judge forces someone to specifically perform their obligations under a contract.
With homes in rural Connecticut and Upstate New York being so in demand now because of the pandemic, buyers and sellers in Litchfield, Fairfield, Dutchess, Orange and other counties are seeing an uptick in home prices. The average home value has increased by 3-5% since March, because people are moving out of the cities and into the country. And this means people are getting into bidding wars and will do anything to get the home of their dreams (and get away from cities during the pandemic).
What Do I Have to Prove for Specific Performance?
For a court to force someone to buy or sell real estate, the person suing must show that the contract “is made according to the requirements of law, and is fair, equitable, reasonable, certain, mutual, on good consideration, consistent with policy and free from fraud, surprise or mistake.” All real estate contracts have to be in writing and signed (the law is called the “statute of frauds”) by the person who is trying to get out of the contract (the party being “charged” with refusing to perform). Often clients come to us with a contract that is signed, and unless the other party has an excuse for refusing to close on the sale, the client has a strong claim to force the other party to sell.
But if you go to court trying to force someone to go through with a real estate transaction, you must prove you have an enforceable written agreement signed by the other side. If you do not have a signed contract, a series of emails can suffice if the key terms (price and description) are in those emails. If you don’t have that sort of evidence, you can still enforce an unsigned agreement if you “partially performed” the agreement. For example, the buyer made a large down payment. The reason this can be enough even without a signed agreement is because the chance for fraud is low; meaning there is evidence of an agreement even if there is no signature. I mean why would someone make a large down payment without an agreement?
What If I Am the Buyer And Missed a Contingency Date?
If you are the buyer, you must prove that you were “ready, willing and able” to buy the property, regardless of what the seller has or has not done. The language used in the contract will be important as well. Let’s say, for example, the seller refuses to sell to you because you didn’t get the inspection done by the date specified in the contract. If your contract doesn’t say “time is of the essence” in getting the inspection done, then the law says you are still good even if you didn’t do it by that exact date. And you may be able to compel the seller to sell to you.
The key to winning these cases, or at least getting the upper hand, is to bring a lawsuit as fast as you can, because you can also record a lis pendens on the land records, effectively holding up any other potential sale, and hopefully force the seller to sell to you. You can also seek an injunction to keep the seller from selling to someone else until your lawsuit is finished.
If prices keep increasing, however, sellers may be willing to take their chances and back out of an agreement because of a higher offer. Often, the person making the higher offer, if they really, really want the house, will indemnify the seller if there is a lawsuit by the squeezed-out buyer. That means the higher bidder says, we will buy the house and if the losing bidder sues, we will pay a lawyer to defend you and to try to settle the case.
An important thing to recognize also is that even though Connecticut courts have slowed during the pandemic, these cases may move faster because they are heard by a judge. And Judge trials are moving forward even with the pandemic.
So don’t give up if you think you had a deal to sell or buy a home. Get advice from a lawyer that knows the law governing these types of cases.