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Ouch! 3 Times You Can Kiss Your Earnest Money Refund Goodbye

January 8, 2020

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The earnest money deposit—the cash you as a buyer offer to essentially call dibs on real estate—is one of the most important and misunderstood parts of the home-buying process.

Depending on location, home buyers can expect to put down anywhere from 1% to even 10% of the real estate purchase price as earnest money. (In some highly competitive markets, buyers are making even larger earnest money deposits in an effort to stand out.)

An earnest money deposit tells a seller that the buyer is serious about closing. Without earnest money, buyers could theoretically make offers on multiple homes, essentially taking them off the market until the buyers decide which one they like best.

Don’t worry—the seller isn’t going to run off to Aruba with your cash. Earnest money remains in an escrow account or with the title company until the real estate sale closes. And, if everything goes off without a hitch, that earnest money is transferred from escrow and put toward the buyer’s down payment and closing costs. So you can’t lose earnest money put up in good faith, right?

Not usually. However, earnest money is occasionally forfeited. Watch out for these three scenarios where the buyer’s earnest money could end up financing the seller’s trip to Aruba.

1. You waived your contingencies

In highly competitive markets, it’s becoming more common for buyers to waive contract contingencies regarding real estate financing or an inspection. You might be tempted to do the same—a hefty earnest money deposit without contingencies will make you more attractive home buyers. But putting down earnest money also comes with serious risks. You guessed it: You might lose your earnest money deposit.

The financing contingency guarantees that you’ll get a refund for your earnest money if for some reason your mortgage doesn’t go through and you’re unable to purchase the house. The inspection contingency allows you to renegotiate the price or demand repairs if serious defects are found during the inspection, or even back out of the real estate and get a refund of your earnest money.

If your contract doesn’t have such buyer protections and you run into trouble with the inspection, you won’t be able to get your money back from escrow if you abandon the deal. Most experts recommend that you not waive the inspection contingency, unless you’re planning on tearing the property down.

As for the mortgage financing contingency, waiving your right to cancel may be the only way to compete with all-cash buyers. But you have to be absolutely sure that you’ll be able to get approval from your bank. It’s not unusual for loan applications to fall through, even when the buyer had a pre-approval letter.

“I strongly encourage my clients to obtain a conditional approval before signing a noncontingent contract,” says Ivona Perecman, a New York City real estate broker and lawyer. “Otherwise, it may turn out that the bank that pre-approved you will not give you financing or offer a lot less worse terms and, consequently, you may lose the earnest money deposit.”

2. You ignored the timeline outlined in the contract

Your real estate contract usually sets a specific time frame in which you’ll need to secure financing, get the home inspection, have the house appraised, and be available for the closing. Generally speaking, as long as you’ve made a good-faith effort to adhere to the timeline, sellers will grant a reasonable extension if a lender drags its feet or there are other extenuating circumstances that delay things.

However, in some cases sellers may include a “time is of the essence” clause in the contract. Watch out for this phrase in your paperwork—it means the closing date for the sale is binding. If you can’t make it to close the real estate transaction on time for any reason, you as the buyer have breached the contract and could forfeit your earnest money.

3. You got cold feet

If you have a change of heart about the home you’re buying—but there’s no problem with the property or the financing—you likely will not get your money back.

“If a buyer changes her mind and was able to request the down payment be returned without consequence, then the whole idea of a contract would no longer be worth much,” says Marc Kaufman, a real estate attorney with Wexler Lehrer & Kaufman in New York City. “One party cannot simply walk away and default on a whim.”

The earnest money deposit serves a protection for the sellers when they think they have a buyer and take their home off the market. If late in the game the buyers decide they no longer want to make the purchase, the sellers get to keep the earnest deposit as compensation for the time and money they have to spend on listing their home again and looking for another buyer.

When it comes to real estate, a case of buyer’s remorse could be even more painful than a lost deposit. To avoid both, really make sure the home you’re bidding on is “the one.”

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Do You Get Your Earnest Money Back If You Can’t Get a Mortgage?

October 29, 2019

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After you make an offer on a house and it’s accepted by the seller, you’ll be asked to put down an earnest money deposit to show your commitment to this purchase. But while you might be gung-ho to move ahead, the deal could still fall through if you can’t get a mortgage.

Which begs the question: If financing fails to happen, do you get that earnest money back?

In most cases, yes—that is, if you take a few precautions. Here’s more on how to protect your earnest money during the home loan process.

Mortgage pre-approval

It’s best to find out if you can get a loan—and how much—before you start house hunting. That alone could help you protect your earnest money.

Here’s how it works: You approach a lender and explain that you’re ready to go house hunting. The lender asks you for details about your finances—usually copies of your pay stubs, tax returns, and the like.

The lender then comes up with an amount it’s  willing to lend you to buy a house. This process is known as a mortgage pre-approval.

Getting pre-approved for a loan will help you when it comes to choosing a home that’s within your price range. That way, you won’t put down earnest money on a house only to find out the bank isn’t willing to lend you enough to buy the place.

Financing contingency

Another way to protect your earnest money is to include a financing contingency in your real estate contract. Basically this means that the purchase of this property depends on your getting a loan first. If a loan can’t be secured, then you won’t buy the house—and can take back your earnest money.

A real estate attorney can help draw up a contract with contingencies that protect you and your earnest money, says Scott Browder, broker in charge at Wilkinson ERA Real Estate in Charlotte, NC.

If there’s no contingency, you are out of luck—and the seller will get to keep that earnest money.

The lender appraisal process

The lender appraisal process is another place where things can get tricky. Your bank may have said you’re qualified to take out a loan large enough to cover the cost of the home you want to buy, but to ensure its money isn’t at risk, the bank will send an expert known as an appraiser to the home to evaluate just how much it’s worth.

If the bank’s appraiser doesn’t feel the house is worth as much as or more than the agreed-on asking price, the bank may not approve a loan that large, even though you were pre-approved.

If that happens, there are a few options: The seller can lobby for another appraisal, which will hopefully increase the amount the bank is willing to loan. A buyer can put up a heftier down payment. If either option is manageable, you’ve saved your earnest money!

If neither option is possible and you must walk away from the deal, you may still be able to hang onto that earnest money if your financing contingency states you need a loan of a certain amount to buy the house. That way, if your loan amount falls short, you can cut your losses and keep your earnest money.

How to protect your earnest money deposit

If your loan is large enough to cover the costs, you should be all set, right? Well, usually, says Browder. But even with a pre-approved loan, a buyer can still be denied financing as the closing date nears, especially if the buyer has major financial changes such as a job loss or a credit score decline.

Browder is quick to warn his clients not to make any big purchases or any drastic moves that could affect their credit score between mortgage pre-approval time and the closing of the real estate deal.

“There is one final credit check right before closing,” Browder says, “so no buying furniture or anything for that matter!”

That final credit check could cause financing to fall through late in the game. Once again, if you have a contingency in place that covers a loan falling through, you should get your earnest money back. But if the contingency isn’t there, you’ll lose that money.

The post Do You Get Your Earnest Money Back If You Can’t Get a Mortgage? appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

Earnest Money Deposit vs. Down Payment: What’s the Difference?

August 22, 2019

Earnest Money Deposit vs. Down Payment: What's the Difference?

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When you buy or sell a home, you get used to hearing words you’ve never heard before. The mortgage lenders and insurance agents who help you through the process will throw around so much real estate jargon, somewhere along the way you might wish you had brought a dictionary—or maybe a translator.

Two rather vague but very important terms for buyer and seller alike are “earnest money deposit” and “down payment.” Both have to do with cold, hard cash, but what’s the difference? Here’s your cheat sheet on earnest money deposit vs. down payment.

What is earnest money?

Earnest money—also known as an escrow deposit—is a dollar amount buyers put into an escrow account after a seller accepts their offer. Buyers do this to show the seller that they’re entering a real estate transaction in good faith, says Tania Matthews, an agent with Keller Williams Classic III Realty in Central Florida.

Another way to think of earnest money is as a good-faith deposit that will compensate the seller for liquidated damages if the buyer breaches the contract and fails to close.

How much is a typical earnest money check?

Earnest money deposits usually range from 1% to 2% of the purchase price of a home—depending on your state and the current real estate market—but can go as high as 10%. If a home sales price is $300,000, a 1% earnest money deposit would be $3,000.

The buyer’s financing can also dictate the amount of an earnest money check. For example, if a buyer makes a cash offer, the seller may request more earnest money to show a true “buy-in” from the purchaser, says Matthews. In that instance, the seller of a $300,000 home might want a 3% deposit (or $9,000) versus the 1% deposit for an offer financed through a mortgage.

In any case, the seller can either accept, reject, or negotiate the buyer’s suggested earnest money amount, says Bruce Ailion, a Realtor® with Re/Max brokerage in Atlanta.

The earnest money deposit process

Earnest money deposits are delivered when the sales contract or purchase agreement is first signed. They are often in the form of the buyer’s personal check.

The check is held by the buyer’s agent, title company, or other third party (but never given directly to the seller) and is sometimes never even cashed, says Brian Davis, co-founder of SparkRental.com.

If the check is cashed, the funds are held in an escrow deposit account. The money will be shown as a credit to the buyer at closing and will offset part of the down payment amount or closing costs.

So here’s the real crux of the matter: If a prospective buyer backs out of the deal, the seller might be able to keep the earnest money deposit.

Matthews advises sellers to comb through the contract to see if they can take legal action. But keep in mind that if the buyers back out for any reason allowed by the contract or purchase agreement, they are legally entitled to get their earnest money back.

What is a down payment?

down payment is an amount of money a home buyer pays directly to a seller. Despite a common misconception, it is not paid to a lender. The rest of the home’s purchase price comes from the mortgage.

The money you put down can come from the buyer’s personal savings, the profit from the sale of a previous home, or a gift from a family member or benefactor.

Down payments are usually made in the form of a cashier’s check and are brought to the closing of a home sale or wired directly from the buyer’s bank.

Typical down payment amount

The exact amount of a down payment is often determined by the lender in relation to the overall loan amount. The minimum down payment required by mortgage lenders is 3% of the house’s price, and a 20% down payment is recommended by real estate agents.

Your purchase contract offer generally states how much you intend to put down, and a seller may be more likely to accept your offer if you are putting more money down.

But that’s not to say you have to put down 20%. After all, that’s a large chunk of change to have on hand, especially for first-time home buyers.

Be aware that the down payment is not all you need to buy a house. You also need to budget for closing costs, appraisals, and other expenses when you purchase real estate.

Is a 20% down payment mandatory?

For decades, a 20% down payment was considered the magic number you needed to be able to buy. It’s an ideal amount, but for many people it’s not realistic. In fact, many financing solutions exist, so you can consider that myth busted.

“Putting [down] less than 20% is OK with most banks,” Christopher Pepe, president of Pepe Real Estate, in Brooklyn, NY, told U.S. News & World Report.

Of you’re putting down less than 20%, however, there’s a catch. You will probably have to also pay for mortgage insurance, an extra monthly fee to mitigate the risk that you might default on your loan. And mortgage insurance can be pricey—about 1% of your whole loan, or $1,000 per year per $100,000.

Still, nothing compares to the feeling of owning your own home, so if you have your heart set on buying, there are options out there to help you achieve your dream of homeownership.

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The Earnest Money Deposit: How It Helps Buy a Home

July 4, 2019
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What is earnest money? Depositing earnest money is an important part of the home-buying process. It tells the real estate seller you’re in earnest as a buyer, and it helps fund your down payment. The earnest money check is typically cashed and held in a title company trust account, or in the broker’s escrow account. You get a receipt from your brokerage when you hand in the earnest money.

Without the requirement of earnest money, a real estate buyer could make offers on many homes, essentially taking them off the market until they decided which one they liked best. Sellers rarely accept offers without the buyers putting down earnest money to show that they are serious and are making the offer in good faith.

Assuming that all goes well and the buyer’s good-faith offer is accepted by the seller, the earnest money funds go toward the down payment and closing costs. In effect, earnest money is just paying more of the down payment and closing costs upfront. In many circumstances, buyers can get most of the earnest money back if they discover something they don’t like about the home.

How much should you put down in the earnest money deposit?

The amount you’ll deposit as earnest money will depend on factors such as policies and limitations in your state, the current market, what your real estate agent recommends, and what the seller requires. On average, however, you can expect to hand over 1% to 2% of the total home purchase price.

In some real estate markets, you may end up putting down more or less than the average amount. In a market where homes aren’t selling quickly, the listing agent may note that the seller requires only 1% or less for the earnest money deposit. In markets where demand is high, the seller may ask for a higher deposit, perhaps as much as 2% to 3%. Your real estate agent may recommend that you are more likely to win a bid if you give the seller a large deposit. In fact, the seller may be willing to negotiate on the purchase price a little if you make a bigger good-faith deposit.

On the other hand, you may not want to put too much earnest money down. Coming up with that much money, and losing the use of it for weeks or months before the sales contract closes, may not be the best use of your cash.

However, you may wind up having to do some paperwork for your mortgage lender, and the bank may want to verify the source of the funds for larger deposits of earnest money. It won’t be a problem if you can show that you’ve had the money for at least 60 days.

When do you make an earnest money deposit, and who holds it?

In most cases, after your offer is accepted and you sign the real estate purchase agreement, the contract stipulates that you give your deposit to the title company. In some states, the real estate broker holds the deposit.

Always check the credentials of the title company or real estate broker taking the deposit, and verify that the funds will be held in escrow. Never give the earnest money to the seller; it could be difficult or impossible to get it back if something goes wrong.

After turning over the deposit, the buyer’s funds are held in an escrow account until the home sale is in the final stages. Once everything is ready, the funds are released from escrow and applied to your down payment.

Can you get your earnest money deposit back?

If the deal falls through, a small cancellation fee is usually taken out of your earnest money deposit, but the remainder remains in escrow. Whoever holds the deposit determines whether you should get the earnest money back under the terms of the purchase and sale contract. Make sure that the purchase agreement covers how an earnest money deposit refund is handled.

To be on the safe side, make sure the purchase agreement contains contingency addendums that stipulate how a refund is handled (e.g., an inspection contingency protects the buyer if the real estate fails a home inspection). Buyers can also usually get their earnest money back if they find problems with the property, or if they are unable to get title insurance.

A financing contingency ensures that the earnest money is refundable and the buyer can get out of the transaction if he cannot get financing. Keep in mind that a pre-approval from a lender does not guarantee a borrower can get a loan at mortgage rates he can afford. Even if a buyer has a good credit score and is pre-approved for a mortgage loan, the lender can still turn him down  based on unforeseen factors such as the appraisal amount being too low. In such cases, a standard contingency allows buyers to renegotiate the purchase contract, or get their money back.

Updated from an earlier version by Laura Sherman.

To learn more, head to realtor.com/mortgage

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Do You Get Your Earnest Money Back at Closing?

June 24, 2019

Can I Get My Earnest Money Back At Closing?

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Do you get your earnest money back at closing? If you’re buying a house and planning to finance the purchase with the help of a mortgage, the question is bound to come up. The short answer is: You don’t usually get your earnest money back at closing.

But hold on! Sometimes earnest money is returned at closing. What? Read on to find out what happens to your earnest money at closing.

What is earnest money, anyway?

So you’ve heard the term “earnest money” thrown around during the purchase process, and you’re not quite sure what it means? Sometimes called “good-faith money” or a deposit, earnest money is a sum that home buyers put down when they make their offer on a house, to show they’re committed to the purchase.

Earnest money (typically about 1% to 2% of the amount you plan to pay for the house) is put down by a buyer within five days of an offer being accepted by a seller. The money is then deposited into an account by an escrow agent.

Maybe you’ve heard it called “going into escrow“? That’s because the escrow officer will set the earnest money aside while you continue the steps of buying a house, such as getting an appraisal so your bank will approve the purchase or sending a home inspector to the house to ensure there are no reasons you should back out of the deal. They can’t touch that money during that time, and neither can the seller!

Do I get my earnest money back at closing?

If the appraisal comes through at a price that makes your lender happy, and the home inspection doesn’t turn up anything alarming, eventually you’ll get to closing—the end of the home-buying process—when you pay the seller and walk away with keys to your new castle.

This is when your escrow agent is going to pull your earnest money out of escrow. What happens with it next is typically dependent on the sort of earnest money that was put down, says Keith Lucas, broker and owner of the Charleston Real Estate Company, in Charleston, SC.

If you put down cash (which is nearly always the case), the earnest money is traditionally applied to closing costs or toward your down payment—the portion of the sale price that buyers pay on their own in conjunction with a mortgage.

But there are times when you might get the earnest money back. Maybe you have secured a loan with no down payment required, such as a Veterans Affairs loan or a mortgage backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If that happens, the earnest money will be applied to closing costs instead of down payment. If there’s money left over after the closing costs are paid, you will get the surplus back.

But sometimes the earnest money isn’t actually money at all.

Wait a second. How can there be money that isn’t, well, “money”? It turns out, sometimes that good-faith deposit can just be something of “good and considerable value.”

“There are cases where a watch, car, boat, real estate, or precious metals have been used as an earnest deposit,” Lucas says. “In that case it might be returned to the buyer or liquidated by the seller and put toward the purchase price at closing.”

Bottom line: Even if you don’t get your earnest money back at closing, don’t worry! That big chunk of change you put down at the beginning of the home-buying process hasn’t disappeared. It’s been used to help pay for your brand-new house.

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What Is Escrow? How It Keeps Home Buyers and Sellers Safe

February 21, 2019

What Is Escrow

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What is escrow? In real estate, an escrow account is a secure holding area where important items (e.g., the earnest money check and contracts) are kept safe by an escrow company until the deal is closed and the house officially changes hands.

Escrow is also a contractual arrangement in which a third party—usually the escrow officer—maintains money and documents until the deal is done.

How escrow works

The escrow agent is a third party—perhaps someone from the real estate closing company, an attorney, or a title company agent (customs vary by state), says Andy Prasky, a real estate professional with Re/Max Advantage Plus in Twin Cities.

The third party is there to make sure everything during the transaction proceeds smoothly, including the transfers of money and documents. Escrow protects all the relevant parties in a real estate transaction by ensuring that no funds from your lender and property change hands until all conditions in the agreement have been met.

Along the way, proper documentation is filed with the escrow agent or the escrow company as each step toward closing is completed. Contingencies that might be part of the process could include home inspectionrepairs, and other tasks that need to be accomplished by the buyer or seller. And every time one of those steps is completed, the buyer or seller signs off with a contingency release form; then the transaction moves on to the next step (and one step closer to closing).

Once all conditions are met and the transaction is finalized, the money due to the sellers is transferred from your lender to them. Meanwhile an escrow officer clears (or records) the title, which means the buyer officially owns the home.

How much does escrow cost?

That varies—as well as whether the buyer or seller (or both) pays—with the fee for this real estate service typically totaling about 1% to 2% of the cost of the home.

The earnest money deposit

Earnest money—also known as an escrow deposit—is a dollar amount buyers put into an escrow account after a seller accepts their offer. The escrow company will hold onto that money for the duration of the transaction.

Another way to think of earnest money is as a “good-faith” deposit into an escrow account that will compensate the seller if the buyer breaches the contract and fails to close.

Can you borrow earnest money from your lender?

Earnest money can be borrowed from your lender, but there are certain rules involved. First-time buyers are most likely to need to go to their lender for their earnest money. Your lender will ultimately count your earnest money as part of the down payment on the house.

What is an escrow account?

When you make your monthly payment to your lender, part of it goes toward your mortgage and part of it goes into your escrow account for property taxes and insurance premiums such as homeowners insurance or mortgage insurance. When those bills are due, your lender will use the funds in your escrow account to pay them.

How escrow protects you

Escrow may seem like a pain, but here’s how it can work in your favor. Let’s say, for example, the buyer had a home inspection contingency and discovered that the roof needed repairs. The seller agrees to fix the roof. However, during the buyer’s final walk-through, she finds that the roof hasn’t been repaired as expected. In this case, the seller won’t see a dime of the buyer’s money until the roof is fixed. Talk about a nice safeguard!

Sellers benefit from escrow, too: Let’s say the buyers get cold feet at the last minute and bail on the transaction. This may be disappointing to the seller, but at the very least, buyers have typically ponied up a sizable chunk of change for their earnest money deposit. This money, often totaling 1% to 2% of the purchase price of a home, has been held in escrow. When buyers back out with no legitimate reason, they forfeit that money to the seller—a decent consolation for the sale’s failure.

Escrow, in other words, is the equivalent of bumpers on cars, keeping everyone safe as they move forward in a real estate transaction. Odds are, no one’s trying to swindle anyone. But isn’t it nice to know that if something does go wrong, escrow is there to cushion the blow?

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