Earnest Money

Earnest Money: Definition, Purpose & Examples

earnest money definition

What is Earnest Money?

Earnest money, also referred to as a good faith deposit, is a specific form of security deposit made by a buyer to show their serious intention and commitment to purchase a property. While its usage is commonplace, its implications can often stir confusion among first-time buyers and sellers. This article aims to demystify earnest money, explaining its purpose, the typical amounts involved, how it’s handled during the property transaction process, and potential risks and protections associated with it. By understanding the nuances of earnest money, both buyers and sellers can navigate the real estate market with increased confidence and awareness.

Key Points
  1. Earnest money is a deposit made by a buyer to show their serious intent and commitment to purchasing a property or entering into a contract.
  2. It is typically paid upfront and is a percentage of the property’s purchase price.
  3. Earnest money is often held in an escrow account by a neutral third party, such as a real estate broker or attorney.

Purpose of Earnest Money

The fundamental purpose of earnest money is to provide a clear signal of the buyer’s serious intention to complete a real estate transaction. By placing a portion of the purchase price in an escrow account at the outset of the negotiations, the buyer reassures the seller of their commitment to the deal.

Furthermore, earnest money serves as a form of protection for the seller. If the buyer breaches the contract or backs out of the transaction without a valid reason, the seller gets to keep the earnest money. This acts as compensation for the time the property may have been off the market during negotiations and provides a deterrent against insincere offers.

Conversely, earnest money also protects the buyer. If the buyer backs out of a deal due to contingencies outlined in the contract—such as failure to secure a mortgage, poor results from a home inspection, or the inability to sell their existing home—the earnest money is returned.

In essence, earnest money is a significant element of real estate transactions, serving as a safety measure for both buyers and sellers while reinforcing the gravity and sincerity of the process.

How Much Earnest Money is Required?

The amount of earnest money required can vary significantly depending on the real estate market conditions, the region, and the customs of the property transaction. Generally, however, it ranges from 1% to 5% of the purchase price of the home. In a competitive market, a buyer might offer more earnest money as a way to stand out among other buyers.

Some sellers may have a fixed earnest money amount they require, while others may be flexible. Real estate professionals, like realtors and brokers, often provide guidance on what would be considered a reasonable amount for a given market.

It’s also worth noting that the contract should clearly stipulate the conditions under which the earnest money would be forfeited to the seller or returned to the buyer. Buyers should ensure they fully understand these stipulations before providing the earnest money. Always consult with a trusted real estate agent or legal professional if you have any uncertainties regarding earnest money or any other aspect of a real estate transaction.

Is Earnest Money Refundable?

The refundability of earnest money depends on the specific terms of the real estate contract. Generally, the earnest money is held in an escrow account until the closing of the sale. At closing, it’s typically applied toward the down payment or closing costs.

However, there are certain situations where the buyer might be entitled to get the earnest money back:

  1. Contingency Clauses: Most real estate contracts include various contingency clauses, such as those related to financing, inspections, and appraisal. If a contingency in the contract isn’t met, the buyer can often back out of the deal and get their earnest money back. For example, if a home inspection uncovers significant problems, the buyer may choose to cancel the transaction and reclaim the earnest money.
  2. Seller Fails to Meet Obligations: If the seller doesn’t meet their obligations under the contract terms (for example, if they don’t make agreed-upon repairs or if they’re unable to provide a clear title to the property), the buyer may be able to cancel the contract and recover the earnest money.
  3. Mutual Agreement to Cancel: If the buyer and seller mutually agree to cancel the transaction, the earnest money is typically returned to the buyer.

However, if the buyer simply changes their mind or decides to back out of the deal for a reason not covered in the contract, they risk losing their earnest money. The specifics can vary widely, so buyers should thoroughly review and understand the earnest money and refund terms of their contracts before signing.

The Earnest Money Deposit Process

The earnest money deposit process is a critical part of the real estate transaction, providing assurance to the seller that the buyer is committed to the purchase. Here is a simplified overview of the usual steps involved in this process:

  1. Negotiation and Acceptance of Offer: After the buyer and seller agree on the terms of the sale, including the sale price and any contingencies, the buyer will make an offer. This offer is typically accompanied by an earnest money deposit to demonstrate the buyer’s seriousness and good faith.
  2. Deposit of Earnest Money: Once the offer is accepted, the buyer will deposit the earnest money into an escrow account. The amount is typically a percentage of the sale price, with the exact amount varying depending on the local real estate market and the specifics of the deal. This escrow account is usually held by a neutral third party, such as a real estate brokerage or title company.
  3. Escrow and Inspection Period: During this period, the property may undergo various inspections as required by the buyer’s lender or as negotiated in the purchase agreement. The buyer will also finalize their financing during this time. If any contingencies in the contract aren’t met, such as financing approval or satisfactory inspection results, the buyer may be able to back out of the deal and have their earnest money refunded.
  4. Closing the Sale: If all the conditions of the contract are met, the sale moves forward to closing. At closing, the earnest money deposit is usually applied toward the buyer’s down payment or closing costs. If the sale falls through due to the fault of the seller, the earnest money may be returned to the buyer.
  5. Non-Completion of Sale: If the sale doesn’t complete due to a fault of the buyer (for example, if they decide not to go ahead with the purchase for a reason not covered in the contract), the seller may be entitled to keep the earnest money as compensation for the time the property was off the market.

This process can vary based on local customs and laws, so it’s always a good idea for both buyers and sellers to consult with a real estate professional or attorney to understand their rights and obligations in the earnest money deposit process.

What Happens to Earnest Money at Closing?

At the closing of a real estate transaction, the earnest money deposit typically gets applied to the buyer’s costs. It plays a crucial role in finalizing the purchase and has a direct impact on the transaction’s financial aspects. Here’s what generally happens to earnest money at closing:

  1. Applied Towards Down Payment or Closing Costs: Usually, earnest money is credited towards the down payment or closing costs. This means it directly reduces the amount of money the buyer has to bring to the table at closing. In essence, it’s part of the purchase price that the buyer pays upfront to secure the deal.
  2. Refund: In rare cases, if the deal’s contingencies are structured in a certain way and they are all met ahead of closing, the earnest money might be refunded to the buyer at closing. This scenario is less common and would typically be outlined in the purchase agreement.
  3. Forfeiture to the Seller: If the buyer defaults on the purchase agreement without a valid reason covered by a contingency, the seller may be able to keep the earnest money. This provides some compensation for the time the property was off the market and the potential inconvenience or financial loss to the seller.
  4. Disputes: If there’s a disagreement between the buyer and seller about who is entitled to the earnest money—for example, if the deal falls through and each party blames the other—the funds will remain in the escrow account until the dispute is resolved. This could be through negotiation between the parties, arbitration, or a court proceeding.

The exact handling of earnest money at closing can vary by jurisdiction, the terms of the purchase agreement, and the specifics of the transaction, so it’s important for buyers and sellers to understand the terms of their specific contract and consult with a real estate professional or attorney as needed.

Potential Risks and Protections in Earnest Money Transactions

Navigating an earnest money transaction can entail various risks, but several protections are also available to both parties to ensure a fair and secure process. It’s important to understand these risks and protections to make informed decisions when participating in real estate transactions.

  1. Risk of Forfeiture: The primary risk for the buyer is the forfeiture of the earnest money. If the buyer fails to comply with the terms of the contract and does not have valid reasons as specified by contingencies, they may lose their earnest money deposit.
  2. Risk of Deal Falling Through: Sellers also face risks, particularly the risk that the deal may not finalize. Sellers usually take their property off the market during the contract period, and if the deal does not go through, they may have missed out on potential buyers.
  3. Escrow Protection: An escrow account safeguards the earnest money. An escrow agent, who is typically a neutral third party, holds the earnest money until the terms of the contract are met. This setup ensures that the earnest money is not prematurely or unjustly given to the seller or returned to the buyer.
  4. Legal Safeguards: Legal safeguards are in place to protect both parties. For instance, the purchase contract outlines the terms and conditions of the sale, and both parties must adhere to these terms. If either party breaches the contract, legal action can be taken.
  5. Contingencies: Contingencies offer protections for the buyer and give them the opportunity to back out of the contract under certain conditions without losing their earnest money. Common contingencies include the home inspection, financing, and appraisal contingencies.
  6. Real Estate Professionals: Real estate agents, brokers, and attorneys can provide guidance during the transaction process. They can help interpret contract terms, advise on fair practices, and mediate any disputes that may arise.

By being aware of the potential risks and protections involved with earnest money, buyers and sellers can better navigate the transaction process and protect their interests.

Examples of Earnest Money Transactions

To further understand the concept of earnest money, here are a few hypothetical scenarios illustrating its application in real-world real estate transactions.

1. Home Purchase with Full Contract Compliance

John and Sarah find a house listed for $300,000 that they wish to buy. They provide an earnest money deposit of $6,000 (2% of the home price) to show their seriousness and secure the contract. After successful inspections and securing financing, they purchase the house. The earnest money is applied towards their down payment at closing.

2. Contract Termination due to Failed Inspection

Amy provides $5,000 in earnest money for a home priced at $250,000. During the inspection, significant structural issues are discovered. The estimated repair cost is high, and Amy chooses to invoke the inspection contingency in her contract. The contract is terminated, and Amy gets her earnest money back.

3. Contract Breach by the Buyer

Peter and Helen provide an earnest money deposit for a condo. However, they decide to back out of the purchase for reasons not covered by any contingencies in the contract. In this case, the earnest money is typically forfeited and given to the seller as compensation for the time their property was off the market.

4. Contract Breach by the Seller

Chris offers earnest money on a property, but the seller decides to sell to another buyer who offered a higher price. Since the seller breached the contract, Chris would be entitled to get his earnest money back. Depending on the terms of the contract, he might also have grounds to sue the seller.


What is earnest money?

Earnest money refers to a deposit made by a buyer to demonstrate their serious intent to purchase a property or enter into a contract.

Why is earnest money required?

Earnest money serves as a form of assurance to the seller that the buyer is committed to the transaction and has a vested interest in following through with the purchase.

How much earnest money is typically required?

The amount of earnest money can vary depending on the specific transaction and local customs. It is usually a percentage of the property’s purchase price and can range from a few hundred dollars to a significant sum.

What happens to earnest money after it is deposited?

Typically, the earnest money is held in an escrow account by a neutral third party, such as a real estate broker or attorney, until the completion or termination of the transaction.

What happens if the transaction is successful?

If the transaction is successfully completed, the earnest money is typically applied towards the buyer’s down payment or closing costs.

About Paul

Paul Boyce is an economics editor with over 10 years experience in the industry. Currently working as a consultant within the financial services sector, Paul is the CEO and chief editor of BoyceWire. He has written publications for FEE, the Mises Institute, and many others.

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