Whenever we’re writing up an offer for a buyer, invariably the one thing that generates the most questions is earnest money. What is it, why do I need it, how much, will I lose it – these questions almost always require a lot of discussion and education.
What is earnest money and why do I need it? The “book definition” of earnest money is: “A deposit paid by a buyer to a seller to demonstrate intention to complete the purchase.”
That pretty much sums it up. In Arizona real estate, earnest money is some amount of money, deposited in escrow, which helps show the seller that a buyer is serious. Normally, this deposit is applied to the buyer’s down payment / closing costs at close of escrow.
Without earnest money, and the possibility of losing it, there is nothing to stop a buyer from submitting offers on multiple properties. Without earnest money, there is nothing to stop a buyer from just walking away from a contract days or weeks after it’s been accepted and the seller has taken their home off the market. Sellers want and need to know that a buyer is serious about the offer on their property.
How much do I need? The simple answer is often, “the more the better”. The complicated answer (and one that’s virtually impossible to know in advance) is, “whatever it takes to make the seller know you are serious”. **Generally** speaking, 1% of the offer price is considered a reasonable amount. But like anything in real estate, there are no hard and fast rules. I’ve seen offers written with as little as $1 and as much as 100% of the sales price.
An example may be helpful here. Let’s say a seller gets two offers. They are identical in price, down payment amount, close of escrow date, etc. But offer #1 has a higher earnest money deposit than offer #2. Regardless of the true motivation of the buyers, the seller will most likely accept the offer with the higher earnest money amount. A significantly higher earnest money amount may even make a seller consider one offer over another even is there is difference is terms such as price, close of escrow, etc. Higher earnest money amounts signify to sellers that a buyer is serious and more likely to close the transaction.
Can I lose my earnest money? The short answer is yes. The complete answer is maybe. Again, generally speaking, your earnest money is “safe” unless you default on the contract. Should the seller default, your earnest money will be returned. In Arizona, the typical “inspection period” (or “due diligence” period) is 10 days. If the property you make an offer on doesn’t “pass” inspection, or if the seller declines to do requested repairs, the buyer can cancel the contract and get their earnest money back. There are also contingencies in the standard residential resale contract that a home must appraise for the asking price and the buyer must be able to secure financing. If neither of these contingencies are met, then generally earnest money is returned to the buyer.
Most earnest money is lost if the buyer backs out after the inspection period. In this case, the seller will almost always retain the buyer’s earnest money.
There’s nothing to be afraid of with earnest money. If you are serious about purchasing a home, you need to indicate to the seller you are serious. They’ll be taking what is probably their single largest asset off the market if they accept your offer. They need to know you are serious about completing the sale. That’s why a seller wants to see that you can get a loan, that you aren’t “fishing” with multiple offers, and that you aren’t going to back out at the last minute. A reasonable deposit helps reassure the seller you are serious about buying their home.