What is escrow? In real estate, an escrow account is a secure holding area where important items (e.g., the earnest money check and contracts) are kept safe by an escrow company until the deal is closed and the house officially changes hands. Escrow is also a contractual arrangement in which a third party—usually the escrow officer—maintains money and documents until the deal is done and escrow is closed.
How escrow works
The escrow agent is a third party—perhaps someone from the real estate closing company, an attorney, or a title company agent (customs vary by state), says Andy Prasky, a real estate professional with Re/Max Advantage Plus in Twin Cities.
The third party is there to make sure everything during the transaction proceeds smoothly, including the transfers of money and documents, and to hold assets safely in an escrow account until disbursement.
Escrow protects all of the relevant parties in a real estate transaction, including the seller, the home buyer, and the lender, by ensuring that no escrow funds from your lender and other property change hands until all of the conditions in the agreement have been met. Along the way, proper documentation is filed with the escrow agent or the escrow company as each step toward closing is completed.
Contingencies that might be part of the process could include home inspection, repairs, mortgage approval, and other tasks that need to be accomplished by the buyer or seller. And every time one of those steps is completed, the buyer or seller signs off with a contingency release form; then the transaction moves to the next step (and one step closer to closing).
Once all conditions are met and the transaction is finalized, the closing costs are paid and the money due to the sellers is disbursed from your lender. Meanwhile an escrow officer clears (or records) the title, which means the buyer officially owns the home.
How much does escrow cost?
That varies—as well as whether the buyer or the seller (or both) pays—with the fee for this real estate service typically totaling about 1% to 2% of the cost of the home.
The earnest money deposit
Earnest money—also known as an escrow deposit—is a dollar amount buyers put into an escrow account after a seller accepts their offer. The escrow company holds the money in an escrow account for the duration of the transaction.
Another way to think of it is as a “good-faith” deposit into an escrow account, which will compensate the seller if the buyer breaches the contract and fails to close.
Can you borrow earnest money from your lender?
Most home buyers come up with cash for escrow and deposit it into the escrow account from their own funds. The payment amount is small compared with the cost of the home and the loan, and the home buyers may not even have a mortgage lender yet when they make an offer on a home.
However, earnest money can be borrowed from your lender, but there are certain rules involved. First-time buyers are most likely to need to go to their mortgage lender to make this escrow account deposit. Your lender will ultimately count the deposit toward closing costs and the down payment on the house.
How escrow protects you during the real estate buying process
Escrow may seem like a pain, but here’s how it can work in your favor. Let’s say, for example, the buyer had a home inspection contingency and discovered that the roof needed repairs. The seller agrees to fix the roof. However, during the buyer’s final walk-through, she finds that the roof hasn’t been repaired as expected. In this case, the seller won’t see a dime of the buyer’s money until the roof is fixed. Talk about a nice safeguard!
Sellers benefit from escrow, too: Let’s say the buyers get cold feet at the last minute and bail on the transaction. This may be disappointing to the seller, but at the very least, buyers have typically ponied up a sizable chunk of change for their earnest money deposit. This money, often totaling 1% to 2% of the purchase price of a home, has been held in escrow. When buyers back out with no legitimate reason, they forfeit that money to the seller—a decent consolation for the sale’s failure and the expense of making mortgage payments and other expenses while the home was off the market.
Escrow, in other words, is the equivalent of bumpers on cars, keeping everyone safe as they move forward in a real estate transaction. Odds are, no one’s trying to swindle anyone. But isn’t it nice to know that if something does go wrong, escrow is there to cushion the blow?
What is an escrow account on a mortgage account?
When a homeowner makes monthly payments to the mortgage servicer, part of each payment goes toward the mortgage and part of it goes into an escrow account for payment of property taxes and insurance premiums such as homeowners insurance or mortgage insurance. When those bills are due, the escrow service uses the funds in the escrow account to make payment to your insurance company and to the county for property taxes.
If more money accumulates in your escrow account from monthly payments than is necessary to pay property taxes and insurance, the mortgage company sends you a refund check, and may lower your monthly mortgage payment. On the other hand, if insurance premiums and property tax expenses go up, your mortgage holder may send you a bill for the difference, or raise your monthly loan payments.