Vacant possession on completion explained

When selling a property, common courtesy dictates leaving it in good and orderly condition. However, is it a legal requirement? Can one, for instance, leave behind rubbish or your old furniture in the backyard?

Legal Responsibilities: From a legal standpoint, a seller is typically contractually obligated to provide ‘vacant possession’ of the property unless the contract explicitly states otherwise. Generally, this implies that the property should be free of the seller’s possessions and ready for the buyer to move in and enjoy without hindrance.

While there isn’t a strict rule, most sale contracts nowadays include provisions ensuring the property is left free of debris and personal items. However, the extent of this obligation varies. Leaving a set of forgotten plates is distinct from, say, abandoning a sofa in the garden.

If the property is not realistically ready for the buyer to move in, the buyer can formally notify the seller to remove their belongings and clear the property. If the seller refuses, the buyer might have the option to withdraw from the transaction or negotiate terms, including an allowance for removal or disposal costs.

The Sale Contract: The outcome often hinges on the terms agreed upon during the sale. In a standard residential sale, the Law Society’s Standard Conditions of Sale (5th edition) usually apply. These conditions obligate the seller to provide vacant possession on completion, and the Fittings and Contents form, part of the contract, specifies what stays and what goes.

If the seller takes fixtures or fittings they shouldn’t or leaves those agreed to be removed, legal remedies are available for the buyer. However, the practicality and cost-effectiveness of pursuing such claims need careful consideration.

Real-Life Scenarios: While most sellers leave their property in good condition, some exceptions exist, leading to interesting completion day anecdotes:

  • An eccentric seller decided to take all the internal doors from the house just before completion, leaving only the handles and hinges behind. The bemused buyer insisted the doors be returned.
  • In a bizarre turn of events, a seller accidentally left their elderly relative in the property. Imagine the surprise of the new homeowners when they discovered the unexpected houseguest upon moving in.
  • On one occasion, a buyer walked into their new house only to find the seller fast asleep in bed, completely unperturbed by the impending property transfer. It made for an awkward and unexpected encounter.
  • A peculiar incident involved a seller going a bit too far with removals. Upon moving into her new flat, a buyer discovered that the seller had taken out the peephole from the front door, leaving just a small hole to the outside world. An unforeseen alteration to say the least!

This article is intended for guidance only and does not constitute legal advice – 2024


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