Contracts are at the heart of buying and selling real estate. This is because, by law, no real property can legally change hands (with the exception of a lease lasting less than one year) except through a written contract. This law is called the “Statute of Frauds.”
In order to be legally binding, a contract must contain certain basic information. First, it must explicitly name the parties involved in the deal. Failure to do this may make the contract impossible to enforce. Secondly, the specific boundaries of the subject property must be listed accurately, and with enough exactitude as to be easily identified. “By the long rock wall with a big oak tree at the north end,” unfortunately isn’t sufficient for the contract to be binding. Third, the purchase price for the property in question must also be listed and decided upon before the contract is signed, not after. Depending on the contract, it may also need to include such facts as closing date, the terms of the mortgage (if applicable), and information about the title of the property (amongst others).
Provided that a contract has all of the necessary information, the form that the contract takes contains a great deal of leeway. The contract could be many documents pieced together, some terms legibly scribbled on a napkin, or even an email chain (provided, of course, that they are sufficiently connected and that the required signatures can be proven genuine—a subject of no small amount of controversy). There is even one exception to the Statute of Frauds: in some cases an oral recitation of the contract may pass muster, provided that is obvious that all parties’ actions explicitly refer to the deal.
Hopefully, this tidbit of legal theory will help put the contract process into context. With any more specific questions, we would always recommend contacting a legal professional.