What every property investor needs to know about buying “off the plan” property

Open any weekend newspaper and you’ll see a large number of proposed new apartment projects being marketed before building has even been commenced and it may make you wonder – why on earth would anybody buy a property that hasn’t been built yet?

Plenty of people do, you know.

It’s called buying “off the plan”.

With our property markets on the move again, some investors are considering buying properties “off the plan” enticed by the advertising hype of stamp duty savings and so called “cheap” prices.

Others hope that by getting in today and settling on their properties in a few years time the value of the property will have increased and they will have turned a relatively small deposit into a substantial profit, all while avoiding those nasty holding costs.

In fact some never intend to settle their purchase hoping to sell the apartment for a profit on completion.

So does buying “off the plan” make good investment sense?

The answer is usually no.

house plan apartment

While a few investors have made money buying off the plan, the road is littered with many more who have regretted their purchase.

Frequently they’ve found the value of their property on completion is considerably less than they paid.

There are many other issues with buying off the plan, but before I explore them let’s first understand why projects are marketed this way.

While developers know they can get a better price for a completed property that buyers can see and touch and feel, today the lenders who are going to fund construction of the project insist a substantial proportion of units be pre-sold to ensure the viability of the project is underwritten.

Obviously the banks expect the developer to make a reasonable profit margin – and so they should.

This is built into the final price as is the substantial marketing budgets which covers the cost of those full-page ads in the papers and expensive glossy brochures produced for the project.

Add to this the generous selling commissions given to project marketers and incentives offered to financial planners and you can understand why the initial selling cost is inflated.

Remember, there is no such thing as a “free lunch.” 

If 10 -15 per cent of the project’s budgeted selling price is spent on marketing and selling costs, then the buyer must pay for this.

As the completion date for many high-rise inner city projects may be a few years away the inflated price can be buried in advertising hype such as “buy at today’s prices” and settle in two years.

The developers are counting on the fact that the longer the settlement period, the less chance you have of knowing if the final price will represent good value for money.

Looking back, many investors who purchased “off the plan” over the last decade found that the price they paid was way too high and on completion their properties were valued at considerably less than their purchase price.

Here’s a few reasons I would steer clear of off the plan purchases:

1. Too many fingers in the pie

I’ve seen far too many off-the-plan properties with large commissions built in for middlemen, marketing budgets and sales people, meaning the investor pays well over its true underlying value.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because you’ve been told a number of pre-sales have already occurred.

You’re likely to find many are at inflated prices to overseas buyers who are unable to buy established properties, have little knowledge of the local markets and have unique motivations for buying property in Australia such as a desire to emigrate in the future or place their money in a more stable country.

2. The banks won’t buy it!

Given that most loan approvals are only current for three months, obtaining a formal pre-approval for an off the plan purchase is a waste of time.piggybank

The problem is, currently we have 4 big banks in Australia and they each have a policy restricting their exposure to any one building; most won’t lend to more than 15% of the properties in a large complex.

This means that if there are 100 apartments in the building and you are the 16th person to approach the bank when the building is completed, they may decline your application and you’ll have to go chasing finance elsewhere.

And if they do lend for your purchase you may find because of the inner city postcode of your new high-rise purchase, they will lend at lower loan to value ratios, meaning you need a bigger deposit.

By the way… some investors who buy off the plan won’t be able to settle and will need to sell their property at whatever price they can achieve.

Unfortunately that’s what the banks will value your property at – the going selling price on completion – not what you paid for it.

Combine this with a lower loan to value ratio and you’re likely to need an even bigger deposit than you initially thought.

3. Low land to asset ratio

landing-page-backgroundRemember that old investment rule; land appreciates while buildings depreciate?

If you go by the book, you should aim for the highest land to asset ratio possible and aim to get as much valuable land under your apartment as you can.

However the developer wants the opposite and squeezes as many apartments on the site as they possibly can.

So essentially, the interests of the developer and you – the investor – are in direct opposition.

4. Investor imbalance

Most off the plan developments are sold to investors.

This means you end up with a building occupied by far more tenants than homeowners.

Fact is owner-occupiers tend to be far more careful when it comes to maintaining the building and enhancing the development’s long-term capital value.

By the way…it’s not much fun going to a body corporate meeting full of investors who are not keen on spending (or simply don’t have) money to maintain the building.

5. Too many too soon

Currently there is a looming oversupply of new apartments in some of our capital cities CBD’s and this glut of properties driving down prices poses a problem for investors relying on the value of their property to increase by the time it reaches completion.

According to new research from Knight Frank, there are 26,680 apartments currently under construction or on the drawing board in Sydney.

Now that’s going to change the supply and demand ratio!


In Melbourne there are around 12,600 new apartments coming out of the ground and the REIWA recently warned that there is an oversupply looming in Perth

Of course you’ll  be competing with all the other investors who are trying to rent out their new investments.

So an over supply of properties for sale and for rent means your investment will lack scarcity value, one of the factors that I look for to help increase the value of my properties.

6. Developer dilemmas

Did you know that many of the off the plan projects currently being marketed won’t get out of the ground?

Sure you’ll get your deposit back, but it means you’ve lost precious time with your money not working in the market.

On the flipside, when the developer completes the project don’t be surprised if they have made some amendments to the floor plans or substituted different finishes or fittings.

While they have the right to do so in the contract, you’ll usually find they changes are in their favour and not yours.

7. Rental guarantees are not as solid as you might think

Often developers will offer a rental guarantee to entice investors who might be more focused on their cash flow and worried about vacancies.

The problem is you pay for these rental guarantees in the purchase price, which is another cost that inflates the apartment’s already premium price.

And once the guarantee expires, the rental income reverts back to the going market rate which is usually lower than that offered in the guarantee.

What lessons can we learn from this?

Some of these problems could be avoided by buying from developers with a good track record and buying in buildings in prime locations, as there always seems to be a bigger demand for units in these buildings.


Also while buying off the plan has the potential for capital growth, if you bought a completed property it should also grow over the same 12 to 18 months you were waiting for your off the plan purchase to settle.

With a two or more year time-frame for the completion of most high-rise projects it is very difficult to predict what the future will hold so I feel you should receive a sizeable discount for all the uncertainty of buying off the plan.

There is uncertainty about what the property markets will be like on completion, what will the interest rate be then, will the standard of finish be as good as in the display unit or will the developer have cut corners and what will be built in the future alongside, behind, or in front of the project.

What appears to be a great view today may be totally blocked out in two years’ time.

To cover all these uncertainties, surely you should be buying at a substantial discount, but in reality you are usually paying a premium – therefore giving your developer your first couple of years’ capital growth (and he doesn’t deserve it).

What’s the alternative?

I prefer buying established apartments and to ensure I buy a property that will outperform the market averages I use a 5 Stranded Strategic Approach. I buy:

  1.  A property that will appeal to owner occupiers because they’re the ones that push up property values.strategy-design
  2. Below its intrinsic value – that’s why I avoid new and off the plan properties, which come at a premium price.
  3. In an area that has a long history of strong capital growth and which will continue to outperform the averages.
  4. I look for a property with a twist – something unique, special, different or scarce about the property, and finally
  5. A property where I can manufacture capital growth through refurbishment, renovations or redevelopment.

By using a strategic approach I minimise my risks and maximise my upside.

Each strand represents a way of making money from property and combining all five is a powerful way of putting the odds in my favour. If one strand lets me down, I have three or four others supporting my property’s performance.

Here’s what you can do about this…

If you want to take advantage of the opportunities our growing property markets will offer you now is a good time to consider your options.advice question confused

If you’re looking for independent advice, no one can help you quite like the independent property investment strategists at Metropole.

Remember the multi award winning team of property investment strategists at Metropole have no properties to sell, so their advice is unbiased.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned property investor, we would love to help you formulate an investment strategy or do a review of your existing portfolio, and help you take your property investment to the next level.

Please click here to organise a time for a chat Or call us on 1300 20 30 30.

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Also published on Medium.

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Michael is a director of Metropole Property Strategists who create wealth for their clients through independent, unbiased property advice and advocacy. He's been voted Australia's leading property investment adviser and his opinions are regularly featured in the media. Visit Metropole.com.au

'What every property investor needs to know about buying “off the plan” property' have 10 comments

  1. January 20, 2015 @ 12:33 pm Masud

    Hi Michael,
    It’s a very good piece of writing! and convincing too!


  2. March 11, 2015 @ 7:01 am Hamih

    Hi Michael
    Looking at this issue from a developer’s perspective – what if one is developin three towhouses and bank finance is contingent upon say selling one of them off the plan?

    I can see that from the bank’s perspective it means they will get some of the loan repaid at the end and therefore reduce the overall loan to value ratio at completion (noting that repaying part of the loan reduces the numerator and selling one of the three townhouses reduces the denominator, so the ratio might not reduce as much as you think).

    What is your advice to a developer who has to use this strategy in order to get the development off the ground? Market to an overseas investor who is only able to buy a new property under the Foreign Investment Review Board rules?


    • March 11, 2015 @ 7:07 am Michael Yardney

      I depends on your initial intent for the development. If you are developing to trade as a profit (very hard today) then you maximise your profits and sell to whoever will pay you the most. Unfortunately with a 3 townhouse development like yours it’s hard to justify the cost of a marketing campaign that will attract overseas investors. That leaves you with the local market (particularly owner occuipers) and they’re not as keen to buy off the plan


      • March 11, 2015 @ 8:11 am Hamish

        Thanks Michael. Makes sense – and yes as per your other Warren Buffet article today, we are looking at holding this over the long term and would very much prefer not to have to pre-sell.


  3. March 13, 2015 @ 11:41 am Mike

    Michael, this article focuses solely on apartments purchased off the plan. There are many opportunities to buy semi-detached or terrace style property off the plan in middle and outer areas of metro cities, that carry far less risk than CBD apartments. In fact, you can purchase property at a small discount, with likely capital appreciation, in a good suburb and get a new home or investment property in 18 months or less. These smaller developments usually have local agents and low marketing cost so there is no massive mark up for middle men. This is where you can get in front as a buyer. Well, that’s my experience and view. Thanks for helping buyers be aware and making informed decisions.


  4. December 18, 2015 @ 7:30 pm Glenn

    Michael, most off the plan apartment projects forecast the project cost and completion timeframe to attract Investors. Is there any evidence on how well projects perform in these areas in Australia? Do you have any advice on what budget and timeframe contingency Investors should plan for?


    • December 18, 2015 @ 9:15 pm Michael Yardney

      As I’ve suggested I’d avoid these investments – and this is even more important now than when i wrote this.
      No I have no data on what you requested


  5. May 6, 2016 @ 5:23 pm Dominic Wild

    Is it still possible to sign an off-the-plan contract and find there is a clause, which allows the price to increase on completion but with no mention of the opposite? The Victorian consumer body attaches riders to off-the-plan contracts to indicate they are not “fixed price contracts”. Is this also common here in WA? If so, does it require a lawyer to have a look at the contract?

    Dominic Wild


    • May 6, 2016 @ 5:38 pm Michael Yardney

      Dominic – please be careful – it’s not the right time to buy off the plan. head the warning of all the experts and don’t listen to sales people.

      With regards to your question – you should always have a solicitor check the contract – but yours – one YOU pay for – not theirs


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