Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

April 7, 2017

When Buyers Change Their Minds

By David Reiss

The Wall Street Journal quoted me in When Home Buyers Change Their Minds (behind paywall). It opens,

The offer was accepted. The mortgage was approved. What happens when the buyer gets cold feet and wants to back out of the deal?

Jason Michael faced this issue about 18 months ago when he listed his three-bedroom home in St. Louis. Mr. Michael, a 36-year-old public-relations executive, asked $130,000 for his home and accepted an offer for $127,000. The buyers posted a $1,000 deposit of “earnest money,” completed inspections, negotiated repairs and were approved for a mortgage.

Then they told Mr. Michael that they had found another house and didn’t want to move ahead with the purchase.

While the contract allowed Mr. Michael to pocket the deposit if the buyers defaulted, they refused to authorize their agent to release it. Only after Mr. Michael threatened to sue did they surrender the $1,000.

“My agent had said that people don’t back out of house purchases—that this won’t happen,” Mr. Michael says. “But now I approach it as if the buyer can back out until the very last minute.” He ultimately decided to rent out the house.

According to an online survey of 2,241 adults conducted for finance website in January, home-buyer’s remorse isn’t uncommon. Nearly half (49%) of homeowners who responded said they would do something differently if they had to go through the process again. Broken down by age group, 61% of Generation Xers (the mid-1960s through the 1970s) and 57% of millennial homeowners (born in the early 1980s through about 2004) indicated they had regrets. Many wished they had bought a bigger home or saved more money before buying.

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Here are a few things to consider if you might want to back out of your real-estate contract. Buyers and sellers should consult a qualified real-estate attorney for advice.

• Craft carefully. Rather than having a mortgage contingency allowing you to obtain a mortgage “at prevailing rates,” specify that the mortgage rate can be no more than 4%, for example. Or, consider making the contract contingent on the mortgage actually being funded by the lender. “This extends the contingency all the way to the closing,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate.

• Sharpen your negotiation skills. Even if you can’t back out legally, try to negotiate a reduction or return of the deposit with the seller. In a market where prices are rising and the homeowner can get a higher price for their home, there might be a chance to come to terms.

• Remember the broker. Even if the seller lets the buyer off the hook, he may still be liable to the broker for the commission. Contracts state that the commission is due when the broker finds a ready, willing and able buyer. Many brokers will work with the seller in this situation, Mr. Haber says, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.


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