What Is Earnest Money?

Natasha Khullar Relph
Natasha Khullar Relph

Jan 31, 2024

What Is Earnest Money?

When it comes to real estate transactions, the financial stakes are high for both buyers and sellers. To protect themselves, sellers often request earnest money deposits upfront from buyers to show their seriousness. Whether you’re a first-time home buyer or an experienced real estate investor, understanding earnest money will help you make informed decisions and protect your interests.

So, what is earnest money, exactly?

What Is Earnest Money?

Earnest money, also known as due diligence money or a good faith deposit, is a deposit made by the buyer in a real estate transaction showing their commitment to purchase the property. By providing an earnest deposit, the buyer demonstrates their serious intent while reassuring the seller of their commitment to see the transaction through.

Typically ranging from 1% to 3% of the home's sales price, the earnest money deposit is held in an escrow account until closing. It is a financial safeguard for the seller if the buyer reneges on the agreement. In such cases, the seller may be entitled to keep the earnest money deposit as compensation for any lost time and potential missed opportunities to secure another buyer.

One significant advantage of offering earnest money is the ability to strengthen your offer in competitive real estate markets. When multiple buyers are vying for the same property, an earnest money deposit can set your offer apart. Sellers are often more inclined to accept offers from buyers who have demonstrated their seriousness, especially in a seller’s market.

Moreover, the earnest money deposit can potentially lower the amount needed at closing. It is typically applied towards the buyer’s down payment or closing costs, reducing the overall financial burden during the final stages of the transaction.

What Is the Difference Between Earnest Money and a Down Payment?

Earnest money and a down payment are made by the buyer, but they serve different purposes and occur at different stages of the buying process:

  • Purpose: Earnest money is a smaller deposit made early in home-buying to indicate the buyer’s serious intent. A down payment is a larger payment made at closing to establish the buyer’s equity in the property.
  • Timing: The buyer provides earnest money shortly after the seller accepts their offer and the purchase agreement is signed. The buyer pays a down payment at the time of closing when the property officially transfers ownership.
  • Amount: The amount of earnest money is a small percentage of the home’s purchase price, often ranging from 1% to 3%. The down payment is a more substantial sum.
  • Allocation: The earnest money deposit is held in escrow until the transaction's closing. It is usually applied toward the buyer’s down payment or closing costs. The down payment is a direct payment made at closing and goes towards the property's purchase price.

How Much Earnest Money Should You Pay?

It often depends on the real estate market and the property's condition. A higher earnest money deposit is advisable in competitive housing markets with bidding wars. While the earnest money typically ranges between 1 and 3% of the purchase price, it can be as high as 5-10% in hot markets. Some sellers may require ongoing earnest money deposits during the due diligence process as a sign of continual commitment.

Earnest money is usually paid by certified check or wire transfer into an escrow account, held until closing. As a buyer, your real estate agent can help you facilitate the deposit. 

Is Earnest Money Refundable?

Earnest money in a real estate transaction is typically refundable if the process goes smoothly and the contract terms are fulfilled. However, if a buyer breaches the purchase contract or fails to meet deadlines, they may not get their earnest money back. If you’re purchasing a property, it’s essential that your real estate agent include provisions for an earnest money refund in case of unexpected issues, such as a low appraisal or financing problems.

Contingencies play a crucial role in protecting both buyers and sellers. These conditions must be met for the sale to be finalized and are typically outlined in the purchase agreement. Common contingencies include:

  • Home inspection contingency: If a professional inspection reveals that repairs are needed, buyers can back out or negotiate with the sellers for repairs or a lower purchase price. Here’s a thorough home inspection checklist to go through.
  • Appraisal contingency: If the home appraises for less than the sales price, buyers can cancel the deal and receive their earnest money back or negotiate a new price.
  • Financing contingency: If buyers don’t have pre-approval and cannot secure a mortgage loan, they can walk away and get their earnest money back. Buyers are usually given a specific timeframe to secure a home loan from a mortgage lender.
  • Home sale contingency: If buyers need to sell their current home first, they can back out of the deal and keep their earnest money if their current home doesn’t sell by closing.
  • Title contingency: A title search helps buyers ensure the home’s title is free of liens, judgments, or other legal issues. This contingency allows buyers to back out if any potential problems are found.

How to Protect Your Earnest Money Deposit

To safeguard your earnest money, consider the following:

  • Use an escrow account: Instead of giving your earnest money directly to the seller or real estate brokerage, opt for a trusted third party like a title company or escrow company. They will hold your earnest money in an escrow account until closing, ensuring its safekeeping.
  • Understanding contingencies: Familiarize yourself with the contingencies outlined in the purchase agreement. Be aware of the scenarios that allow both the buyer and seller to back out without forfeiting the earnest money. Make sure you’re comfortable with each of these contingencies.
  • Meet your deadlines and obligations: Stay on track with the responsibilities specified in the purchase agreement. Timely completion of inspections, financing, and other commitments is crucial to protecting your earnest money. Failure to meet deadlines may give the seller grounds to back out and keep the deposit.
  • Document everything: Write all terms, changes, and responsibilities within the purchase agreement. State who will receive the earnest money if the sales contract is canceled or voided. Ensure that both parties sign the contract and that any amendments are documented in writing and signed.

If you’re not yet ready to purchase a home but want to start investing in real estate, we’ve got you covered. At Arrived, our mission is to allow everyone to get on the property ladder. Through our platform, you can purchase shares of rental properties for as little as $100.


The opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security or investment product. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice.

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