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A home can be one of the biggest single purchases you’ll ever make in your lifetime, so it’s important to be sure that everything goes right. No matter how much research and diligence you put into the process, something may come up after you’ve already put in an offer on a house. If that happens, you might find yourself wondering if you can back out of a house offer.
Whether you find something wrong with the home you’re buying, can’t get funding for your purchase, or you’ve simply changed your mind, you have some options if you need to withdraw your offer. We’ll also cover some of your legal questions and show you how to avoid unnecessary penalties.
Understanding contingencies for buyers
Many home purchase contracts today will include contingencies, or allowed conditions in which the buyer may back out of the transaction with minimal or no penalty. Make sure you withdraw or renegotiate the contract within the agreed-upon timeframe.
Two common contingencies in home purchase contracts today are inspection contingencies and appraisal contingencies.
Nobody wants to pay market value for a fixer-upper, but you can’t always tell that a home needs repairs. For that reason, home purchase contracts often include a home inspection contingency.
This contingency allows home buyers to renegotiate or back out if a home inspection report finds issues with the property. This clause typically has a time limit of 10 to 14 days. If you can’t get the results of the inspection before the time is up, you can try and get an extension from the seller. That’s beneficial, because it allows you to back out of a home offer whether the home inspector only finds a small defect, like a minor roof leak, or uncovers a more serious issue, like asbestos or black mold.
Some buyers will waive the home inspection contingency as a way to make their purchase offer more competitive, especially if there are multiple buyers lined up. That can be risky, especially if you’re on a tight budget. You may wind up buying a home that you can’t afford because it requires tens of thousands of dollars in repairs.
Home appraisal contingency
In general, you don’t want to spend more on a home than what it’s actually worth. You can find out how much the house you’re planning on buying is worth by getting an appraisal. If you’re taking out a mortgage, the lender will most likely require an appraisal.
A home appraisal contingency allows a buyer to back out of a home contract if the property they are buying does not wind up being as valuable as originally believed. If the home doesn’t “meet appraisal”, which means it isn’t worth as much as you had agreed to pay, the home appraisal contingency clause will allow you to back out of the transaction. This helps protect you from overpaying for a home or finding yourself with a mortgage that’s worth more than the value of your home.
The buyer typically pays for the home appraisal. If you’re buying a home with cash, you can hire your own appraiser. If you’re taking out a mortgage, your lender will be the one to hire an unbiased appraiser.
As a buyer, you also have the option to waive the home appraisal contingency, especially if you want your offer to be more appealing to the seller. However, if you need a mortgage to buy the house, your lender may refuse to approve the loan if the property appraisal is lower than the price. Or, it may be willing to still finance the home, but will require you to put down a larger down payment.
Acceptable reasons to back out of a home purchase
There are times when it might be necessary to cancel a home purchase contract and back out of the transaction. Depending on the situation, you might even be able to keep your deposit and avoid paying a penalty to the seller.
You have an option period
Sellers in some states may offer an option period to buyers. If written into the contract, this option period gives the buyer a number of days to back out of an accepted purchase contract without losing their earnest money deposit.
To get an option period, the buyer will usually need to pay a non-refundable fee. The fee is typically somewhere between $100 and $500. With an option period, though, the buyer can back out of the purchase at any time before the temporary term ends, without a reason and without any penalty.
The buyer can back out of the purchase any time before the period expires, even if it’s just because they’ve changed their mind about the house.
Penalty: There is no penalty, and you don’t need to even give a reason for backing out if you’re within a valid option period. However, you’ll usually have to pay a fee to get an option period.
The appraised value was too low
Few buyers want to pay more for something than it’s worth. Even if you are willing to pay more for a property than its appraised value, your lender might not lend you the amount you need to buy the home.
You might want or need to back out if the home’s value turns out to be significantly less than you were going to pay.
Penalty: If you have a home appraisal contingency clause in your purchase contract, backing out within the agreed-upon time frame will not result in a penalty. If you don’t have that clause, you can lose your deposit.
The inspection didn’t go well
Sometimes, houses have hidden issues that the buyer didn’t know about, which is why a home inspection is always recommended. If your inspection report comes back with big or costly concerns, you are well within your rights to back out of the deal or renegotiate the purchase price.
If you and the seller can’t agree on a new price, or if the necessary repairs are too overwhelming, there is no shame in walking away from the transaction.
Penalty: If you have a home inspection contingency clause in your purchase contract, and are able to back out before that expires, you will not incur any penalties. If you choose not to have that contingency clause, you can lose your deposit.
Your loan wasn’t approved
If you can’t afford to buy the home without a mortgage, and your lender doesn’t approve the loan, you won’t have much choice but to back out of the home offer.
There are many reasons a home mortgage may fall through, including:
- Your financial situation changed.
- The home didn’t meet appraisal.
- Your debt-to-income ratio was too high.
- Your down payment wasn’t large enough.
- Your credit score was too low.
- You didn’t meet the lender’s requirements.
If your funding falls through, that’s an understandable reason to back out of buying a home. You may even have a financing contingency in your contract that will protect you if you don’t get the money you need to purchase the house.
Penalty: Depending on your state, the timing, and the details of your contract, you may lose your earnest money deposit.
When can you back out of buying a house?
In summary, here’s when you can back out of a home purchase offer, and what it might cost you.
Before your offer is accepted
Most purchase offers have an expiration; if the seller doesn’t accept your offer before that time (or accepts another offer instead), your offer dies on its own. If you find a better property or simply change your mind, you can also file to rescind your offer before it is accepted, without penalty.
Backing out with a contingency
Once your offer is accepted and the purchase contract is signed, you are bound to the terms of the agreement. However, you can still back out without penalty if you paid for an option period or have either an inspection or appraisal contingency. Just be sure to back out before the contingency expires.
Backing out without a contingency
You can also back out after your offer is accepted if funding falls through. If you don’t have a contingency to protect you if that happens, you’ll most likely lose your earnest money deposit and, in some cases, be subject to other penalties, however.
If you back out for any reason and are not covered by a contingency, you’ll most likely lose your deposit.
Consequences of backing out of a home offer
Look, life happens. There are many reasons why you might need to back out of a home offer. You might have found a better home, aren’t willing to make repairs required on a property, have an unexpected financial problem, or just changed your mind.
Backing out of an offer can cause problems for you. For example:
- It could cost you money. Backing out of a home purchase after you’ve already signed a contract can cost you your earnest money deposit. If you’ve already paid for a home inspection or appraisal report, those fees won’t be refunded.
- It could cost you time. Backing out of a home purchase contract can mean lost time, especially if you haven’t already found a replacement property. This might mean higher home prices, fewer homes on the market, and different mortgage rates.
- Your mortgage preapproval could run out. A mortgage preapproval is as close as you can get to qualifying for a mortgage before you’ve actually chosen a home. They typically last for 90 days.
- The seller could sue. Depending on the terms of the contract, the seller may be able to sue you for backing out. That rarely happens, though, and the seller will typically just keep the deposit as damages.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Can the seller withdraw an offer on a house?
A seller can back out of a purchase contract, but not always without penalty. Sellers can withdraw their offer if it’s for a reason covered by a contingency. For example, a seller might not be able to find a home in time to move out, or might change their mind during an attorney review period. If the seller cancels the contract for a reason not covered by a contingency, they might be sued and forced to either sell the house or pay damages to the buyer, and they may also be forced to pay the real estate agent compensation in some circumstances.
Can you back out after inspection?
If you have a home inspection contingency clause, you are typically able to back out of your home purchase offer if there are issues with the property that weren’t previously disclosed by the seller. As long as you withdraw your offer before this clause expires, you can usually walk away without paying a penalty.
Can you back out before closing?
Once your option period has expired, you won’t typically be able to back out of a home purchase after signing the contract unless it’s covered by a contingency. If you do back out for a reason not stipulated in the contract, you’ll most likely lose your deposit, and the seller could theoretically sue you, although it’s not common.
How legally binding is an offer on a house?
In some states, you can make a non-binding verbal offer on a house. However, once both parties have signed a purchase agreement, it is fully, legally binding. If you want to back out of a contract, you might have to pay a penalty, depending on the terms of the contract. A contingency clause can allow you to back out of a contract without paying a penalty to the other party.
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