You’ve heard about it, been asked for it; you may have even written a check for it. What exactly is earnest money, though, and why do you need it when you buy a house?
Earnest Money FAQ
- What Is Earnest Money?
When buying (or leasing) a home in Scottsdale, you will be asked to put up a good faith deposit to secure your position in the transaction. This consideration is known as an earnest deposit.
- How Much Is It?
Earnest deposit amounts are negotiable. The amount of the deposit is one of the terms of the purchase agreement over which buyers and sellers may haggle. In my experience, a typical earnest deposit on a resale transaction is approximately 1-2% of the total sales price. Builders may require higher deposit amounts for brand new construction (largely due to the costs incurred to build your home). Banks may also require more on REO/foreclosure properties (because they are the spawn of Satan).
- When Do I Pay It?
If you are following the standard boilerplate terms of the current AAR (Arizona Association of Realtors) purchase agreement, your earnest deposit is due upon the agreement being accepted and signed by all parties.
- Who Holds My Deposit?
In nearly all cases, your earnest funds will be held by an escrow company, the neutral third party responsible for transferring ownership from the seller to the buyer. The company employed to hold these funds is another term of the purchase agreement that you negotiate with the seller. Earnest money can also be held in the trust account of one of the Real Estate brokers involved in the transaction, but this eventuality is primarily restricted to the rental arena these days. If you are buying a house, you can pretty much take it to the bank that you will be dealing with an escrow company.
- Is This Extra Money That I Have to Pay in Addition to My Down Payment and Closing Costs?
This is a common misconception. The answer is no, this is not “extra money” that you are being charged. It is a portion of your total closing funds that is simply due up front. Upon closing, your earnest deposit will be applied towards your down payment and/or closing fees.
- What Form Is It Paid In?
Typically, a personal check made payable to the chosen escrow company will suffice, though some opt to wire funds to the escrow company instead.
- Can I Get My Earnest Deposit Back?
This is a loaded question, but yes, there are scenarios in which you can typically retrieve your earnest deposit. Assuming you negotiated the sale using the current AAR purchase agreement, you do have a few outs. First, you have an inspection period (usually 10 days, but negotiable). If you are not satisfied with the condition of the property, or the seller refuses your repair demands, you can withdraw from the transaction and have your earnest money refunded. Of course, this presumes that you have not agreed to any changes in the standard terms of the contract (such as purchasing “as is”, agreeing to non-refundable earnest money, etc).
Under the standard provisions of the contract, you can also get your earnest money back if your loan is declined (after your diligent effort to obtain one under the stated terms) or the home doesn’t appraise for the purchase price (unless you are paying cash as there is no appraisal/financing contingencies to fall back on). Once again, though, and I can’t stress this enough, the terms you negotiate with the seller can alter these provisions.
- What If My Deposit Turns Out to Be More Than I Owe at Closing?
Let’s say that you are employing a 100% financing vehicle, like a VA loan. Let’s also say the seller has agreed to pay for the majority of your closing costs. If the remaining costs owed by you at closing are exceeded by your initial earnest deposit, you are entitled to a refund of the excess deposit.
- Can I Lose My Earnest Deposit
Yes, you most certainly can forfeit your earnest deposit. As the purpose of this deposit is to demonstrate good faith to the seller and invest you in the successful completion of the transaction, your deposit can be forfeited to the seller as damages if you breach the agreement. Failure to close escrow, or backing out of the deal for any reason other than allowed for by a contingency to the agreement, is a surefire way to kiss your deposit goodbye. In the event that you wish to cancel a transaction, be sure to carefully review the terms of your contract with an attorney.
- Who Decides If the Buyer or Seller Gets the Earnest Money if There is a Dispute?
The escrow company that holds the deposit is charged with interpreting the terms of the contract, and has the authority to release the deposit to the party deemed NOT to be in breach of the agreement. Say you, as the buyer, decide that you aren’t comfortable with the neighborhood’s governing covenant’s, codes and restrictions (CCRs). You inform the escrow company (in writing) of your wish to cancel the transaction. The seller objects, claiming that you did not exercise your right to cancel in a timely fashion. You had 5 days from the receipt of those documents to withdraw from the purchase contract, but did not inform the escrow company of your intentions until day 7. Therefore, the escrow company decides in the seller’s favor, and releases the earnest money to him/her as liquidated damages for your breach of the agreement.
Have any additional questions regarding the role of earnest money in a Real Estate transaction? Ask away in the comment section below (or shoot me a private message if you prefer) and I will do my best to address them.
* It should go without saying that the above is not intended as legal advice. The general explanations may not directly apply to you. As every purchase contract is unique, the internet is not a reliable source for answers to questions regarding your specific agreement. Consult with your agent and/or attorney PRIOR to the execution of your purchase contract to fully understand the terms and protections afforded you.