From Spotlight: Reviewing Offers & Negotiating

What You Need to Know Before Accepting — or Rejecting — an Offer

It’s not always about the money (except when it is).

Offers: Which One Is Best for You and Why illustration
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The day will come when you receive an offer, or multiple offers, for your home. And it will be a wonderful, joyous, do-a-happy-dance day.

When that day comes, you’re going to face a question you may not have previously considered: How do you know if an offer is the best one for you?

Your listing agent will be a big help here. They will understand and help you suss out the merits and faults of an offer because — believe it or not — it’s not always about price.

One buyer’s beautifully high offer might not look so good at some point. For example, you may discover it’s contingent on your moving out a month earlier than planned. Or, conversely, you may prefer speed over price, particularly if you’re moving to a new city. 

Your listing agent will have a sense  of what you want financially and personally and can help you determine whether the offer at hand satisfies those goals. 

Before the first offer rolls in, here’s what you need to know about the offer evaluation process. That includes the main factors that should go into making a decision — accept or reject? — with your agent.

5 Important Things — Other Than Price — to Consider When Evaluating an Offer

Want to fetch top dollar for your home and walk away with as much money in your pocket as possible? Of course you do. You’ve gone through the time-consuming process of setting your asking pricestaging your home, promoting your listing, and preparing for open houses. And you should be rewarded for your efforts.

Your first instinct may be to just pick the highest bid on the table. But the offer price isn’t the only thing worth considering.

When vetting offers, evaluate these five areas in addition to price:

#1 Earnest Money Deposit

One important consideration is the size of the earnest money deposit. The EMD is the sum of cash the buyer is offering to fork over when the sales agreement is signed. This shows the person is serious (i.e., “earnest”) about buying your home. The money, which is typically held by a title company, will go toward the buyer’s down payment at closing.

A standard EMD is 1% to 2% of the purchase price of the home, according to®. (So, that would be $3,000 to $6,000 on a $300,000 house.) If a buyer tries to back out of an offer for no good reason, the seller typically keeps the EMD. Therefore, the higher the earnest money, the stronger the offer, and it can hit 10%, reports®.

#2 Contingencies

Most offers have contingencies — provisions that must be met for the transaction to go through. If the transaction falls through, the buyer is entitled to walk away from the deal with their earnest money. Contracts with fewer contingencies are more likely to reach closing and in a timely fashion.  

Here are five of the most common contingencies:

  • Home inspection contingency. This gives the buyer the right to have the home professionally inspected and to request repairs by a certain date. The time frame is typically within five to seven days of the purchase agreement being signed. Depending on where you live, you may be required to make home repairs for structural defects, building code violations, or safety issues. Most repair requests are negotiable, though, so you have the option to haggle over which fixes you’re willing to make.
  • Appraisal contingency. For a mortgage lender to approve a home buyer’s loan, the home must pass appraisal — a process during which a neutral third party assesses the property’s value. The appraisal verifies the home is worth at least enough money to cover the price of the mortgage. (If the buyer can’t make their mortgage payments, the lender can foreclose on the home and sell the property to recoup all — or at least some — of its costs.) Generally, the home buyer is responsible for paying for the appraisal, which typically occurs within seven to 14 days of the sales contract signing.
  • Financing contingency. Also called a loan contingency or mortgage contingency, a financing contingency protects the buyer in case their lender doesn’t approve their mortgage. The loan contingency period is typically contracted to last 30 to 60 days and must be agreed on by the buyer and seller in a purchase contract
  • Sale of current home contingency. Depending on the buyer’s financial situation, their offer may be contingent on the sale of their home. Usually, buyers have 30 to 90 days to sell their house before the sales agreement is voided. This contingency puts you, the seller, at a disadvantage because you can’t control whether the buyer sells their house in time. 
  • Title contingency. Before approving a mortgage, a lender will require the borrower to “clear title” — a process in which the buyer’s title company reviews any potential easements or agreements that are on public record. This ensures the buyer is becoming the rightful owner of the property. It also protects the lender from ownership claims over liens, fraudulent claims from previous owners, clerical problems in courthouse documents, or forged signatures.

These contingencies are standard for most real estate sales contracts. There’s one exception: the sale of current home contingency. This is typically used more often in strong buyer’s markets, when buyers have greater leverage over sellers. 

That said, contingencies are always negotiable. (The caveat: Mortgage lenders require borrowers to have appraisal financing contingencies, or they won’t approve the loan.) It’s your call about what you’re comfortable agreeing to, and your agent can help you make that decision.

#3 Down Payment

Depending on the type of mortgage, the buyer must make a down payment on the house, and the size of that down payment can affect the strength of the offer. In most cases, a buyer’s down payment amount is related to the home loan they're taking out. Your chief concern as a seller, of course, is for the transaction to close. And for that to happen, the lender has to approve the buyer’s mortgage.

Generally, a larger down payment signals the buyer's financial wherewithal to complete the sale. The average down payment in 2023 was 8%, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. Some mortgage products, such as FHA and VA loans, allow for even lower down payments. 

If, by chance, the appraisal comes in higher than your contract’s sale price, the buyer with a higher down payment would more likely be able to cover the difference with the large amount of cash they have available.

#4 All-Cash Offer

The more cash the buyer plunks down, the more likely the lender is to approve their loan. That’s why an all-cash offer is ideal for both parties. The buyer doesn’t have to fulfill an appraisal contingency — whereby their lender has the home appraised to make sure the property value is large enough to cover the mortgage. Nor does the buyer have to comply with a financing contingency, which requires them to obtain mortgage approval within a certain number of days. As always, having a sales contract with fewer contingencies decreases the ways the deal can fall through.

#5 Closing Date

Settlement, or “closing,” is the day both parties sign the final paperwork and make the sale official. Typically, the whole process — from accepting an offer to closing — takes 30 to 60 days. 

Some transactions, such as those involving government-backed loans from FHA, VA, and USDA, may take closer to 60 days because of the additional buyer paperwork.

Three days before closing, the buyer receives a closing disclosure from the lender, which they compare with the loan estimate they received when they applied for the loan. If the buyer’s loan estimate and the closing disclosure differ materially, the buyer must review and approve those amounts before the closing can happen. But this is rare.

Whether you want a slow or quick settlement will depend on your circumstances. If you’ve already purchased your next home, for instance, you probably want to close as soon as possible. On the other hand, you may want a longer closing period — say, 60 days — if you need the sale proceeds to purchase your new home.

First-Time Buyer is presented by The National Association of REALTORS®

When Should You Make a Counteroffer?

Depending on the circumstances, you may be in the position to make a counteroffer. But every transaction is different, based on the particular market conditions and your home. In some cases, you can be gutsy with your counteroffer. In others, it might serve your goals better to go along with the buyer’s demands. Your agent can provide helpful insight about when and why a counteroffer will be the right thing for you.

For instance, you may be in a seller’s market, meaning that homes are selling quickly and for more than the asking prices. If so, and you received multiple offers, your agent may recommend that you counteroffer with a higher amount than you would have made in a buyer’s market. 

If you choose to write a counteroffer, your agent will negotiate on your behalf to make sure you get the best deal for you.

A caveat: In many states sellers can’t legally make a counteroffer to more than one buyer at the same time. That's because sellers must sign a purchase agreement if a buyer accepts the new offer.

Related Topic: Sell a Home: Step-by-Step

When Does an Offer Become a Contract?

In a nutshell, a deal is under contract when both parties agree on and sign the buyer’s offer (or seller’s counteroffer). At that point, the clock starts ticking for the home buyer’s contingencies — and for the sweet moment when the cash — and the home — is yours.

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