Deposits on Purchases of Real Estate

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A search I just noticed asked the question "Who gets the deposit if escrow falls through?"



The theory of the deposit is that here is an amount of cash that the buyer is putting up as evidence of their ability to consummate the transaction.



This is a good question. I've only dealt with real estate sales in California, so I'm going to deal with it from a California perspective. California is a widespread model for real estate practices (as New York is for insurance), but I can't speak to the specifics which states are and aren't following this model and to what degree.



Most of what happens in real estate sales contracts has a default, but is subject to specific negotiation. In other words, there's a standard way of doing it, but you can change that by negotiation with the other party. CAR has a specific set of forms that are encouraged, in order to make these questions somewhat more clear cut.



The standard here in California is that the purchase is contingent for seventeen calendar days, after which the buyer's deposit will belong to the seller whether escrow closes or not. From the time the contract is accepted by both sides, the buyer has seventeen days to finish all inspections, and to obtain a commitment for acceptable financing. If they call it off within those seventeen days, they get the deposit back. If the purchase falls through later than the seventeen days, the seller is usually entitled to the deposit, within limits. The seller can't just arbitrarily cancel the transaction on the eighteenth day and keep the deposit. The time specified in the purchase contract has to have expired, there must be evidence of bad faith dealing on the buyer's behalf - something.



Let me make very clear that the seller is indeed giving the buyer something when the purchase contract is signed. To be precise, the exclusive right to purchase that property for a certain amount of time. There are expenses of selling that they must pay and that they don't get back if you can't carry through, not to mention expenses related to preparing to move, at least potentially having the house sit vacant, etcetera. They cannot conclude a purchase contract with anyone else while the current buyer's contract is going on. If I'm selling, I insist upon retaining the deposit if the buyer can't carry though. If I were to be unable to consummate a purchase, I certainly understand that the seller will retain the deposit in most circumstances.



Now the escrow company won't just give the deposit to the seller. They are paid to be a neutral third party, to stand in the middle and make sure that everybody gets what everybody agreed upon, but it is not their place to settle a dispute. For that, you're going to have to go through whatever dispute resolution process is appropriate. This can be mediation, arbitration, the courts, or possibly something else. You can spend a lot of money fighting what the contract says, but in the end you can also expect to have to live up to it, and likely to pay the other party's costs as well as your own, so better not to fight something the contract says you should have done. The escrow company will often also charge a cancellation fee from out of the deposit, by the way. They do an awful lot of work, and if the transaction gets canceled for whatever reason, they do not otherwise get paid.



Probably the number one reason for failed escrow is loan providers leading borrowers down the primrose path. "I can do that," and no, they can't. Unfortunately, I've never seen anyone able to recover damages from a failed loan provider. So keep in mind the The Best Idea About Applying for a Mortgage, and apply for a back-up loan.



Now you can change the standard contract by specific negotiation. If you're a seller who wants to get the deposit no matter what on day 30, you can ask for that as a condition of the initial sales contract. In a hot market, this is easy to ask for and get, but in a buyer's market, you are likely to lose the buyer. If you're a buyer who doesn't want to lose the deposit no matter what, you can ask to put that into the contract you propose, but most sellers, even in a buyer's market, are going to tell you to take a hike somewhere else. No big deal if it was "Hey, let's make a bid on this and see how desperate they are!" A real problem if you fell in love with the property and just have to have it. Over-playing your hand in negotiations is as disastrous as under-playing, and I've seen people so intent on being Mr. (usually) Tough Negotiator that they diddled themselves out of an excellent transaction. In any case, being too sticky on the deposit is a good way not to get as good of a price as you otherwise might have. For a seller, you have this property and you want cash. You need somebody to agree to pay it - the cash is not going to materialize out of thin air. For a buyer, the whole idea is that this property is attractive to you for some reason, or you would not be making an offer. You are asking the seller to trust thousands of dollars to your ability to swing the deal as much as you are trusting their ability to deliver a clear title to a property without hidden defects.



Whether you are a buyer or a seller, once that contract is signed, you want to get cracking on whatever your obligations under it are. Get it Done. The alternative is that you're likely to forfeit whatever rights to the deposit you may have had if you had been prompt. Just because Things Take Time in Real Estate Transactions is no excuse for you to waste time. Wasting time is expensive for everyone, and one of the strongest signs of a sour transaction I know. Buyers and borrowers pay increased loan and other costs, sellers lose money from delay. This is equally true in refinancing, by the way. The loan you are quoted today does not exist tomorrow unless you act on it today. In summer 2003, when rates hit fifty year lows, many people were in no hurry. They insisted upon thinking, in the face of evidence and testimony to the contrary, that the rates would always be there, and they lost out. If rates go down after locking, a good broker can usually get you better rates. If they go up, you've got the lock. If rates go up and you didn't lock, you get the higher rates. Period.



But the deposit is definitely something that the buyer can owe the seller if the transaction falls through, and that's as it should be.



Caveat Emptor.

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1 Comments

vickie said:

What can a seller do to get the deposit when the buyer backed out after the time limit and just won't sign off on the money? My real estate agent is not helping at all. The real estate office was representing both the seller and buyer and I believe they don't want to upset the buyer and that is why they aren't pushing her to do the right thing. Thanks for any help,. Vickie



DM: They're not representing your interests in a fiduciary manner as demanded by the listing contract. Give me a few days to write on this. If you want to send me an email, I'll make certain you get the essay before it's published.

Please be civil. Avoid profanity - I will delete the vast majority of it, usually by deleting the entire comment. To avoid comment spam, a comments account is required. They are freely available, and you can post comments immediately. Alternatively, you may use your Type Key registration, or sign up for one (They work at most Movable Type sites). All comments made are licensed to the site, but the fact that a comment has been allowed to remain should not be taken as an endorsement from me or the site. There is no point in attempting to foster discussion if only my own viewpoint is to be permitted. If you believe you see something damaging to you or some third party, I will most likely delete it upon request.
Logical failures (straw man, ad hominem, red herring, etcetera) will be pointed out - and I hope you'll point out any such errors I make as well. If there's something you don't understand, ask.
Nonetheless, the idea of comments should be constructive. Aim them at the issue, not the individual. Consider it a challenge to make your criticism constructive. Try to be respectful. Those who make a habit of trollish behavior will be banned.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on July 27, 2007 10:00 AM.

How Can You Tell If A Buyer is Qualified? was the previous entry in this blog.

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