A Right of First Refusal (ROFR) is the right to match an offer to purchase a seller’s property. ROFRs can be found in different types of documents relating to both real and personal property. Often, they are contained in leases, giving the tenant a ROFR to purchase the leasehold property. They are also used in shareholder, partnership and operating agreements giving “partners” the ROFR to purchase each other’s interest in the entity.

ROFRs often have a chilling effect on a seller’s ability to sell property, particularly real estate. Potential buyers won’t put forth much time, effort or due diligence in looking at a property knowing that an offer could be matched and the property sold to the holder of the ROFR. If a property is very desirable, a potential buyer might have to overpay in order to discourage the ROFR holder from exercising.

Generally, ROFRs require that the holders close on the same terms as set forth in the offer. Therefore, if a seller receives an all cash, no-contingency deal, the holder would have to close without financing and with no contingencies. Sometimes this will also work to the potential buyer’s advantage. While the price might be attractive to the ROFR holder, the terms of the offer might make it difficult, if not impossible for the ROFR holder to close.

Usually, the event that triggers the ROFR is a “bona fide, 3rd party offer” duly accepted by the seller. What constitutes a bona fide 3rd party offer? The easy, legal answer is an offer made by an unrelated 3rd party purchaser who purchases the property for valuable consideration that is inducement for the entering into a contract without fraud or deception.

I recently had a tenant ask me to analyze a situation relating to a ROFR. The tenant had completed its 10 year initial lease term and the 1st year of its 5 year renewal term. There were 4 years remaining on the lease. The landlord had received an unsolicited offer to sell the building from an unrelated 3rd party. Though the landlord had not intended to sell, landlord was inclined to accept and forwarded the offer on to tenant with a note saying that landlord would pass on the offer if tenant would agree to purchase the property at the end of the lease term for a price that was $200,000 less than the current offer.

Needless to say, the tenant was confused. To make it more confusing, the offer was full of contingencies. The first major contingency was that the buyer had to get 3 adjacent properties under contract and then simultaneously close with this property. So, the contract was intended to be a property assemblage and this was the 1st of 4 parcels that the buyer had made an offer on. The other major contingency was re-zoning and site plan of the assembled property. However, the contract did not describe the intended use or the required approvals. My primary question was whether we even had a bona fide contract that triggered the ROFR.

The biggest problem was that tenant’s ROFR required that tenant respond in 15 days and close within 45 days thereafter. Given that the buyer’s contingencies had not yet been satisfied and that there was no possible way that they could be satisfied before tenant would be obligated to exercise the ROFR and then close, the contract was not yet ripe and therefore, not a bona fide contract for which tenant’s ROFR had been triggered. Until the buyer satisfied or waived the contingencies, the buyer had not obligation to close and therefore, the buyer was not a bona fide purchaser.

Further, landlord’s action in advising the tenant that it would reject the offer and enter into a different purchase agreement with tenant indicated that landlord had not accepted the contract and was using it as a method to force tenant to purchase the property using the ROFR. Landlord wanted the best of both worlds – 4 more years of cash flow via rent, and a guaranteed buy out at the end of the term. Landlord could not get either of these through the contingent offer but had to accept the offer when tenant rejected the offer and put landlord on notice that the offer was not bona fide. This could come down to a shoving match if and when the proposed buyer satisfies its contingencies and attempts to close.

Lesson learned? Make sure you understand the triggering event of the ROFR before signing a lease whether you are the landlord or the tenant. Any ambiguity in an offer can be exploited and delay the exit strategy for one side or the other.

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