What is Earnest Money and How Much Do You Need?

When you’re about to make an offer on a home, your real estate agent will ask how much “earnest money” you’d like to put down. Earnest money is a type of security deposit, also known as a “good faith” deposit, made to the seller of a home. It represents your intent to buy the property by showing the seller you’re serious about purchasing the property. In most cases, earnest money can also act as a deposit on the property you’re looking to buy.  

This Redfin article gives an overview of what earnest money is, why you need it, and how much you may need, and how to protect the money once you deposit it. 

What is earnest money on this two story house

What is earnest money in real estate transactions?

Earnest money is the money you pay after a home seller has accepted your offer on a house and before closing on the home. Earnest money assures the seller that you as the buyer are acting in good faith, and it provides them with some compensation in case you back out of the deal without a valid, contractual reason. 

Once the seller’s agent is able to confirm that your earnest money has been deposited into an escrow account, the buyer and seller will enter into a purchase agreement and the seller’s agent will mark the listing as a pending sale — in effect taking the property off the market. At this stage, various inspections, appraisals, and possibly other contingencies you had in the offer contract move forward to finalize the sale. 

Who keeps earnest money if the deal falls through?

If the buyer backs out, the earnest money is paid to the seller. If the deal falls through due to something coming up on the home inspection that would be prohibitively expensive (like a cracked foundation) or any other contingency listed in the contract, the buyer gets their earnest money back. 

How much earnest money do you need to offer?

The buyer and seller can negotiate the earnest money deposit amount, but it typically ranges from 1% to 3% of the sale price, depending on the market. However, if you’re buying a home in a seller’s market (when there are more buyers than homes for sale), or bidding on a highly competitive home, the earnest money deposit might range between 5% and 10% of a property’s sale price.

Be sure to talk to your real estate agent about how much earnest money you should offer in the housing market you’re competing in. 

Do you need to pay earnest money? 

In the strictest technical terms, the answer is no – earnest money is not a requirement when you make an offer on a house. However, your offer likely won’t receive the seller’s serious consideration without putting a good faith deposit down of some kind. Earnest money can act as added insurance for both parties in the transaction.

How is earnest money paid and where does it go?  

In most cases, your earnest money deposit is paid to the escrow or title company, which holds it in an escrow account until the transaction closes. If you work with a real estate attorney, the deposit may be put into escrow there. You can pay this deposit with a personal check, a cashier’s check from the bank, a money order, or wired funds, depending on the terms of your contract. 

What does the good faith deposit count toward? 

Once the sale of the home has been completed, the earnest money you paid can be applied toward your closing costs or down payment. Alternatively, you can receive your earnest money back after closing. Because the sale went through the home sellers do not get to keep the earnest money deposit.

When does a seller keep the earnest money deposit?

If you fail to meet your offer’s contractual obligations, your earnest money could now belong to the seller.  Examples include:

  • After the due diligence period is over (usually a couple of weeks), you learn that the home sits in a flight path or near a refinery and you decide to walk.
  • You back out for any reason not listed as a contingency in the contract.
  • You cannot close on time, without a relevant contingency, and the contract has a “time is of the essence” term.

If you face any of these issues but still want to purchase the house, don’t give up. Have your agent get with the seller’s real estate agent. If you are upfront about the situation, the seller may extend the timeframe. 

Is earnest money refundable? 

As a buyer, you can reclaim your earnest money for a couple of reasons:

  1. If the seller doesn’t fulfill their side of the purchase contract. For example, if the home inspection found faulty windows and the seller agreed to replace them – but did not follow through by the contract deadline. That breach of contract allows a buyer to back out of the purchase and receive a refund of their earnest money. 
  2. If you have a contingency in place, and you have a reason related to that contingency to cancel the contract. There are a number of contingencies you can put into the contract and, if not met, you can walk away from the deal with your good faith deposit in hand.

Other examples of when your earnest money would commonly be refunded:

  • The title company finds a lien against the property. 
  • Your lender denies you the loan, but you have a financing contingency in your offer.
  • If your offer is contingent on selling your current home, but you are unable to do so after a given period of time.
  • If you have an appraisal contingency, and the home appraises at a lower rate but the seller won’t reduce the price of the home.

Having a contingency may also allow you to negotiate the terms of your contract. For example, you may be able to ask the seller to perform repairs or give a credit at escrow to cover the agreed-upon repair costs. Typically, a buyer and seller can negotiate a resolution so the sale can be completed.

What if a buyer can’t afford a good faith deposit?

Most sellers will not consider an offer without earnest money. Keep in mind, however, that it may be possible to negotiate a work-around. If you can’t afford an upfront earnest money deposit, let the real estate agent and seller know right away. If your purchase method and financing look solid otherwise, maybe the seller will agree to move forward with the sale. If you are serious about the purchase, you may be able to ask a family member or friend to assist with a gift or loan of funds for the good faith deposit. 

A word of caution: Before taking a gift, institutional loan, or getting a cash advance on a credit card for your earnest money, be sure to consult with your mortgage lender. Any new gift, bank loan or cash advance that leads to high credit card balances during your transaction timeline could be detrimental to your mortgage loan approval. This deposit is meant to secure the property, not put it at risk of losing it.

primary bedroom with sofa

Earnest money in action: Common scenarios

Let’s look at an example scenario of how earnest money may play out. Evan and Mia have listed their homes for sale in Washington, DC. Amelia is in the market for a new home and is interested in both properties and can’t make up her mind. In the event that both sellers require an earnest money deposit, three potential scenarios can unfold.

Scenario 1: The forfeited deposit

Because Amelia can’t decide which house to buy, she puts a good faith deposit down on both properties, prompting Evan and Mia to take their homes off the market. 

Later, Amelia decides to buy Mia’s house. Now, Evan needs to relist their home for sale all over again. Luckily, Amelia’s earnest money is Evan’s to keep because Amelia backed out, which offers some compensation for time and money lost while the home was off market.

Scenario 2: The early closing payment

After giving it some thought, Amelia decides to make a single deposit on Mia’s home and everything runs smoothly. On closing day, Amelia gets the keys and the deposit is put towards their downpayment.

Scenario 3: The failed contingency

Amelia makes a single deposit to Mia. However, during the home inspection, Amelia discovers the electrical wiring is not up to code and will be very expensive to update. Luckily, Amelia has a home inspection contingency in the purchase agreement and decides not to buy and gets the deposit back from Mia.

How to protect your earnest money deposit

Take the following steps to protect your earnest money against fraud or unjustifiable forfeiture:

  • Document Everything. A home is one of the largest purchases many of us will make. Make sure the contract clearly defines what amounts to cancel the sale and who ends up with the earnest money. Include any amendments to details like buyer responsibilities and timelines.
  • Use an escrow account. Instead of working directly with the real estate seller or broker, use a reputable third-party, such as an escrow company, legal firm, or title company. Ensure the funds are securely held within an escrow account and obtain a receipt.
  • Understand the contingencies. Familiarize yourself with the contingencies included in the contract, and double-check the contingencies that protect your interests are included. Do not sign a home purchase agreement that doesn’t have the clauses that protect you.
  • Fulfill obligations. Real estate purchase agreements typically establish deadlines to safeguard sellers. Honor these deadlines and be sure to promptly address inquiries, submit necessary documents, and meet inspection, appraisal, and closing timelines.

Earnest money is an integral part of most real estate transactions. Before signing a Purchase and Sale Agreement to buy a home, carefully review all contingencies, understand how much money you’ll need to pay, and know-how to successfully recover your earnest money if you need to back out of the sale.


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