The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and in particular Canberra, offers an almost unrivalled standard of living and lifestyle. Its open landscape City plan facilitates ease (and speed) of travel throughout the Territory and provides generous access to restaurants, cafes, parklands and the rural hinterland making it one of the most highly rated and liveable cities in the world. Yet when you look at buying a stake in the ACT, you’ll be confronted with a somewhat different form of “land ownership” compared to that of its neighbours New South Wales and Victoria, namely leasehold.
The ACT’s leasehold system applies to all land in the Territory, other than National Land. Under the leasehold system, all land is owned by the Commonwealth and leased to residents of the ACT, meaning that all commercial, residential, rural and community title land is owned and leased by the Commonwealth and managed by the ACT Government. The terms of this leasing arrangement are set out in what’s called a ‘Crown Lease’.
But the system, in practise, is not so alien. The Crown Lease sets out the terms and conditions for the “owner’s” (the “lessee”) use and occupation of the land, including the right to exclusive use and enjoyment of the land during the term of the Crown Lease. This is not so different to the manner of land use control exercised by state planning authorities, such as a “Council”. The Crown Lease however, dispenses with the often politicised approaches that can occur through Council approval processes.
Before entering into a “Crown lease”, there are some points to consider:
Ordinarily, the term (or length) of a Crown Lease in the ACT will be 99 years. So, although the money you’re coughing up for your house may not buy you the land, you will be buying the right to use the land for the term of the Crown Lease. For most purposes, there is no practical difference between the use of the Crown Lease in the ACT and other title systems in Australia, a Crown Lease can be sold, mortgaged or devised under a will.
Although most residential Crown Leases in the ACT are granted for a term of 99 years, the term will not be renewed upon your purchase of the Crown Lease. You will instead acquire the balance of the term of the Lease.
Upon expiry of the term of the Crown Lease, provided that the land is not required by either the Territory or the Commonwealth and the terms of the Crown Lease provide for a renewal, you may apply for a renewal of the Lease. The first renewals are approaching and there is every political and social reason to expect that these leases will be seamlessly renewed; in fact, many Crown Leases have already been renewed for valuation or sale purposes, as mortgagees often require that you apply for a renewal if the term of the Crown Lease is set to expire with 25 years.
When considering buying vacant land in the ACT, you should seek a copy of the Crown Lease as it will contain development conditions and construction timeframes. You can also check the Lease and Development Conditions Register. This will allow you to see building, lease and development conditions prepared for the blocks – the Environment and Planning Directorate must approve these conditions.
For new blocks of land, or areas that are still being developed, Crown Leases will not be issued until all necessary services, roads and other civil works around the area are completed. In this instance, you will not become the registered owner of the land until the works are complete and the Crown Lease has been granted and registered at the ACT Land Titles Office.
As you will not be the registered owner until the Crown Lease has been granted, you may find it difficult to borrow money from a bank or other financial institution, and will not be able to build on the land, until the Crown Lease is granted. In most instances, a specimen (or draft) Crown Lease will be attached to a Contract for Sale to assist you to determine what you are buying and to obtain finance (where necessary).
The rent to be paid by an owner (or lessee) under a residential Crown Lease will be 5 cents if and when demanded (no demand has yet been made), but some, and typically commercial or rural leases have substantive land rent. Such leases are subject to payment of an annual land rent charge billed quarterly; however, lessees have the option of paying weekly, fortnightly, monthly or quarterly.
As the lessee under a Crown Lease, you can sell your interest in the Crown lease provided you have complied with all building and development conditions contained in the Crown Lease, or you must otherwise obtain consent from the relevant Minister to the sale of the land.
In short, if you are looking to buy real estate in Canberra under the modern land ownership leasehold system and get a new Crown Lease on life, consider the points above and seek advice as to your rights and obligations. If you’ve finished this article, and are still wondering about the strange land laws of the ACT, please contact the team at BAL Lawyers, as we can answer any questions you might have regarding leases in the ACT.
First published by Capital Express.