Earnest Money

It is a payment settled by a homebuyer for a seller to prove their honest intentions of purchasing the seller’s house

Author: Osman Ahmed
Osman Ahmed
Osman Ahmed
Investment Banking | Private Equity

Osman started his career as an investment banking analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners where he spent just over two years before moving into a growth equity investing role at Scale Venture Partners, focused on technology. He's currently a VP at KCK Group, the private equity arm of a middle eastern family office. Osman has a generalist industry focus on lower middle market growth equity and buyout transactions.

Osman holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Southern California and a Master of Business Administration with concentrations in Finance, Entrepreneurship, and Economics from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Reviewed By: Himanshu Singh
Himanshu Singh
Himanshu Singh
Investment Banking | Private Equity

Prior to joining UBS as an Investment Banker, Himanshu worked as an Investment Associate for Exin Capital Partners Limited, participating in all aspects of the investment process, including identifying new investment opportunities, detailed due diligence, financial modeling & LBO valuation and presenting investment recommendations internally.

Himanshu holds an MBA in Finance from the Indian Institute of Management and a Bachelor of Engineering from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology.

Last Updated:November 22, 2023

What is Earnest Money?

Earnest money is a payment settled by a homebuyer for a seller to prove their honest intentions of purchasing the seller's house. Also referred to as a "good faith deposit," this money is essential in hot real estate markets to show a buyer's seriousness towards buying the seller's property.

When purchasing a home, sellers will likely ask for earnest money to withdraw their houses from the real estate market. The amount of the good faith deposit is agreed upon when the seller and the buyer sign the purchase agreement. 

The agreed-on amount varies depending on several variables. These variables are related to the demand for the property. If demand is high, the seller will likely ask for a high amount of earnest money since they can accept several offers. 

On the other hand, if demand is low, the good faith deposit amount would likely also be low. In this case, a home seller wouldn't pressure a homebuyer since they have limited offers for the house.

Generally, the amount ranges between 1% and 3% of the property's cost in cold markets or between 5% and 10% in hot markets. It can also be a sole payment between $5,000 and $15,000. 

However, it is always crucial to seek advice from real estate experts in identifying the amount of the good faith deposit.

Key Takeaways

  • Earnest money is a payment made by home buyers to home sellers to prove their honest intentions of purchasing a property.
  • The payment amount is decided in the purchasing agreement.
  • Earnest money is paid in the form of an escrow deposit payable to a third party (the escrow agent).
  • Suppose buyers decide to step out of the deal, basing their decision on contingencies not stated in the contract, or miss any deadline stated in the agreement. In that case, sellers reserve the right to keep the earnest money deposit.

How Earnest Money work

Home buyers pay earnest money to ensure a property is reserved for them while the property is being inspected and appraised. This money is paid right after the purchase agreement between the buyer and seller is signed.

The agreement includes:

  • Conditions and contingencies on purchasing the house.
  • The amount of the earnest money deposit.
  • Other information regarding deadlines and the property in general.

After signing the purchase agreement, the homebuyer deposits the amount in an escrow account. The account is payable to an independent third party called the escrow agent.

1. Escrow account

An escrow account is a legal account owned by an independent legal party.

The homebuyer pays the account, but it is only payable to the escrow agent. Money in escrow accounts is released to sellers when conditions and contingencies included in purchase agreements are met.

2. Escrow agent 

An escrow agent is an independent mediating party between the home seller and buyer. Such agents can be title, law, or real estate firms. The buyer usually chooses them after the seller agrees.

Their main role is conducting title research, ensuring conditions and contingencies are met in a purchase agreement and closing the escrow account when the purchase terminates.

After paying the money, inspecting and appraising the house takes place. Based on the process results, buyers either decide to proceed in the purchasing process of the property or step out of the deal.

If the purchase takes place successfully, the money will be paid to the seller and will go towards the price and the closing costs of purchasing the property.

On the other hand, if the deal fails to take place, the money in the escrow account will either be returned to the buyer or the seller, depending on the reason behind the annulment of the deal and the contract signed by both parties.

When do buyers return earnest money?

Purchase agreements include contingencies and conditions on a house purchase. If the buyer's reasons behind stepping out of the deal are backed in the agreement, the money deposited in the escrow account may be returned.

It is crucial to mention that each condition and contingency mentioned in the agreement comes with a deadline. Thus, the buyer should meet the deadlines successfully to see their deposited money returned.

Reasons buyers step out of a deal include:

  1. Undesired inspection results: If the house is inspected before the deadline mentioned in the agreement and the results do not meet the buyer's requirements, the buyer reserves the right to step out of the deal and withdraw the money previously paid.
  2. Overpriced houses: if the house's appraisal shows that it deserves less than the stated price on the purchase agreement, buyers get to keep their money and not purchase the home.
  3. Financing difficulties: If the buyer was unable to secure the required financing to purchase the house, they get to withdraw the escrow deposit and break the deal.

Note: These conditions are mostly included in purchasing agreements with a deadline. If they are omitted, the buyer cannot withdraw their money. Also, even if they are included, but the buyer cannot meet the stated deadline, they may be subject to losing the good faith deposit.

It is important to note that when sellers decide to break the deal, the buyers will certainly withdraw their money.

When do sellers keep earnest money?        

Sellers tend to keep the earnest money deposit when buyers decide to step out of the deal for reasons not mentioned in contingencies in the purchase agreement or when they fail to meet certain deadlines.

For instance, if the buyer decides to step out of the deal due to a new noisy project nearby, knowing that neighborhood conditions are not clearly stated in the purchase agreement, the seller may keep the good faith deposit.

Alternatively, even if the house does not pass inspections, the seller would keep the money if the inspection results are generated after the stated deadline on the agreement.

When the buyer does not support their claim and leaves the deal just because of a change of heart towards purchasing the house, the seller keeps the good faith deposit.

Protecting Your Earnest Money Deposit

To ensure the return of your good faith deposit, you need to take the following steps:

1. Ensure including clearly written contingencies in the contract

Make sure to include contingencies that let you out of the deal when needed. Such contingencies may include damaged or overpriced houses or the buyer's inability to raise funds to afford the house.

You need to remember that the buyer can never back their claim for leaving the deal for reasons not explicitly mentioned in the contract.

2. Take responsibility for deadlines

You need to meet the deadlines mentioned in the purchase agreement to be able to withdraw the earnest money when stepping out of the purchase. Thus, watch deadlines and come up with reports to back your claim before they pass.

Also, make sure you ask for realistic deadlines in the purchase agreement so you do not miss any.

3. Never hand the good faith deposit directly to the seller

The good faith deposit should be paid in the form of an escrow account managed by an independent party. Make sure not to give the money directly to the seller since they may refuse to hand it back in cases of conflict.

Also, hire trustworthy, independent, and legal escrow agents who are not biased towards any of the parties.

 Audited and researched by Mohamad El Hayek | LinkedIn

Reviewed and edited by James Fazeli-Sinaki | LinkedIn

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