A recent search engine visitor asked:
Who gets to keep the earnest money a real estate deal falls through?
My answer: While I’ve talked in the past about the cost of a failed house deal, I’ve never really dealt directly with the issue of earnest money. In case you’re not aware, the whole point of earnest money, which a prospective buyer typically pays to the seller when they make an offer on a property, is to ensure that the buyer is serious, and intends to go through with the deal. Thus, if the buyer backs out of the deal, the seller gets to keep the earnest money. If the deal goes through, the funds are applied to the purchase at closing.
Of course, there are possible exceptions, like when the buyer makes their offer contingent on securing financing, the outcome of the home inspection, etc. But for the most part, if a deal falls through and it’s the buyer’s fault, the seller keeps the cash. Of course, the seller could also try to sue for ‘performance’ (i.e., to make the buyer honor the contract) but the most common thing to do is pocket the earnest money and put your house back on the market.
This is something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to accept an offer on your home… If the prospective buyer offers a relatively small amount of earnest money, they might not be as serious as you had hoped. In that case it’s probably a good idea to ask for more in a counteroffer. Around here it seems that ~1% of the offer price is standard. From the seller’s perspective, more is always better (and vice versa for the buyer).
This article is part of my Money Q&A Series.