Option contracts are contracts in which the offeror, or promisor, is limited in their ability to withdraw or rescind a contract. An option contract is an important element of a unilateral contract. Traditionally a unilateral contract is only formed when the action under consideration is completed. This is an issue because it provides no protection to an offeree who has completed the partial performance of the contracted action before the offeror withdraws the contract under discussion.
An option contract transforms a unilateral contract into a bilateral one because it provides some guarantee to any party providing agreement to the contract that their actions will receive compensation. The compensation may begin immediately after the action is begun or may only come into effect once a significant portion of the work is completed. The party which has engaged an action leading to the partial performance of the contract may be able to claim detrimental reliance upon the belief that the offeror would provide payment.
For instance, Mike hired Steve to paint the walls and ceiling of his room for $100. Mike told Steve to leave after Steve had finished painting the four walls and was in the middle of painting the ceiling.
Under a traditional unilateral contract, Steve would not be entitled to any of the $100 because the money was provided as consideration for the completion of the task. Steve, however, could compel Mike through promissory estoppel to compensate him for the partial performance of the task. Steve undertook the actions under a detrimental reliance that Mike would allow him to complete to task.
Option contracts are usually found in real estate. Real estate option contracts exist primarily for the benefit of the buyer. The buyer in a real estate option contract is allowed time to secure financing, to arrange for a contractor to examine the land, and to investigate relevant zoning laws governing the property.
Real estate option contracts do not oblige the buyer to grant agreement to the seller's offer. Agreement in real estate contracts can be withheld by a buyer looking to make money off the land. Real estate option contracts often have a short period of time before the terms laid out in the contract lapse.