Sizing up purchase deposits
In most states, it's customary, or required by law, for the buyers to include a good faith deposit when they make an offer to purchase a home. The deposit should not be given directly to the seller, but held by a trustworthy third party that maintains a trust account specifically for home purchase deposits, such as an escrow or title company, real estate firm or real estate broker.
The deposit can be in the form of a check made out to the third-party company or it can be wired into the appropriate account. The size of the deposit you make is usually determined by market conditions and local custom, except for specific types of sales, such as probate sales or sales of homes in a housing development where a minimum deposit is required.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Your deposit will become part of your downpayment if the sale goes through. Depending on how your contract is written, your deposit should be refundable if you are unable to satisfy a contingency, after exercising due diligence to do so. Your contract should include contingencies for inspections, satisfactory condition of title to the property, your ability to line up financing and the lender's approval of an appraisal of the property.
For example, if your inspections reveal defects that can't be satisfactorily negotiated with the seller, your deposit should be returnable if your contract provides for this. However, the deposit won't be released by the holder to either the buyers or sellers without a release signed by both parties indicating how to disperse the funds.
Be sure to check with a knowledgeable real estate attorney to determine who is entitled to the deposit if you back out for a reason that's not provided for in the contract. Real estate agents who aren't also attorneys cannot advise you on this issue. If you end up in a dispute, the deposit holder won't release the money to either party until the dispute is resolved.
How large a good faith, or earnest money, deposit you make will depend on several factors. In any case, your deposit should indicate your intent to abide by the terms of the contract and close the sale. There is usually no set amount required by law.
In California, where home purchase contracts can include a liquidated damages clause, deposits are often 3 percent of the purchase price. This clause puts a limit on damages that could be awarded to the sellers if the buyers don't close the sale.
If buyers and sellers agree to include this clause in the contract, state law limits the amount that can be awarded to the seller to 3 percent of the purchase price. In many areas of California, deposits tend to be 3 percent of the offer price, even if the contract doesn't include a liquidated damages clause.
Like most elements of a purchase contract, the amount of the deposit is negotiable. So, if you offer a $10,000 deposit on a $500,000 house, the seller might counter your offer and ask for a deposit of $15,000, which is 3 percent of the purchase price.
The deposit can be made in two steps. You could offer $5,000 as an initial deposit, and increase that amount to a total of $15,000 upon removal of contingencies.
In a hot seller's market, you might want to offer the full amount up front, or make a larger deposit than you would if you weren't potentially competing, to show your sincerity to the seller.
THE CLOSING: If you're buying a short-sale listing that might take two or three months for lender approval, you might want to keep the deposit to a lower amount so that you don't tie up more money than necessary for a long time period.