The Purchase Contract – Part 2

The Purchase Contract – Part 2

The Purchase Contract – Part 2  (Click Here for Part 1) Buyers and sellers often ask me “what’s customary for a home purchase contract?” or more simply “What do most people do here?” As a real estate attorney with many years of FSBO experience (my primary practice area), this blog post will explain the typical contract terms for parties without a realtor:

  1. The purchase price. Most people choose the ‘market value’ as the purchase price (note that the purchase price does not include closing costs). Market value is considered the amount that a reasonable seller is willing to accept and that a reasonable buyer is willing to pay for the home. Historically and today, reasonableness is measured by ‘comparable sales’. If the home is located in a city or suburban neighborhood (with lots of comparable sales around), then you can get a pretty accurate estimate of market value from Zillow, Redfin, etc. If searching yourself for comparable sales, keep in mind that the most important factors are square footage, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the age of the house. One of my favorite things about realtors is that they do ‘comparative market analysis’ (CMA) reports that help their clients accurately assess a home’s market value.
  1. Initial Deposit. The initial deposit (also called ‘earnest money’) is usually 1% of the purchase price. (In a seller’s market, where there are lots of potential buyers competing, sometimes this number is 3% or higher). Approximately 1-3 days after both parties sign the purchase contract, the buyer gives the initial deposit to the escrow company (by check or electronic funds transfer) for safe-keeping. This money counts toward a buyer’s home purchase (so for example on a $500,000 home purchase, after the buyer makes his initial deposit of $5,000, the remaining sum due at close of escrow is $495,000 at close of escrow). The initial deposit is refundable if the Buyer cancels within a contingency period.
  1. The Loan. Most buyers need a loan to purchase real estate, and most people use a conventional loan (i.e., a loan from Wells Fargo, Bank of America). The typical purchase contract will specify the loan amount and interest rate, so it’s helpful to know these upfront (otherwise you have to write ‘buyer’s choice’). Most buyers get a loan for 80% of the purchase price – for example, on a $500,000 home purchase, a loan for 80% is $400,000, so the Buyer’s lender pays $400,000 at close of escrow and the Buyer pays the remaining $100,000 out-of-pocket at close of escrow.
  1. The Interest Rate. Because the purchase contract requires the maximum interest rate that the Buyer would feel comfortable accepting, most buyers use the interest rate quoted by their bank (i.e. 4.5%) and then add one-half percent or so (i.e. 5%). The contract specifies the ‘maximum rate’ the buyer will accept, so buyer remains free to accept a lower rate (i.e., 2.5%) if Buyer can achieve it.
  1. As-Is Sale. Most sales are as-is, meaning that the buyer purchases the property in its current condition, and the seller will not perform repairs before close of escrow. Having an as-is sale doesn’t change the fact that buyer still has contingencies – so buyer can cancel the as-is sale within a certain amount of time (i.e., after buyer has done property inspections). Sometimes the property inspections reveal property damage, and the Buyer will negotiate with the seller for a contract amendment to give buyer a ‘repairs credit’ (i.e., $10,000) so the Buyer gets a price reduction on the as-is sale. And of course, the seller is still required to provide disclosures on an as-is sale. In this way, disclosures help both parties, because when an issue is disclosed, the buyer learns what he needs to know and the seller stays protected (i.e., the buyer cannot later come back and make a claim against the seller for nondisclosure). Disclosures are win-win!
  1. Contingencies. It is customary for the buyer to have two contingencies: (a) inspection, and (b) loan & appraisal.   The normal time period for these contingencies is 17-21 days. During the contingency periods, the buyer processes his loan application, reviews the preliminary title report from the title/escrow company, and also hires professional contractors (usually one home inspection contractor, and one termite inspection contractor) to prepare inspection reports. During these contingency periods, the buyer is free to cancel the contract and receive a full refund of buyer’s initial deposit. At the end of the contingency period, the buyer must decide whether to cancel the contract (cancellation) or go forward with the contract (release contingencies).
  1. Escrow & Title Company. It is standard to use an escrow & title company for real estate purchases/sales in California. Most people choose one of the big names in their area, such as First American Title, Fidelity National Title, Chicago Title, Old Republic Title, North American Title. Fees vary slightly from office to office – you can usually save a hundred dollars or so by calling ahead to get quotes from different offices.
  1. Close of Escrow Date. Typically, escrow closes within 30-days of both parties signing the purchase agreement. And it is common for the parties to work together if either side needs more time to complete the transaction (i.e., if Buyer needs an extra 10-more days to receive final loan approval (ie., commitment letter) from his lender, then the parties just sign a simple contract amendment allowing more time).
  1. Closing Costs. The parties normally pay closing costs according to the custom of the county where the property is located. Closing costs are miscellaneous expenses paid in escrow (i.e., escrow fee, title insurance, taxes). Nothing gets paid out until close of escrow. The parties are free to split closing costs according to local custom (which is normal), or 50/50, or any allocation desired. Here is a chart for California showing the custom of each county: And for a breakdown of average closing costs, please see my article here:
  1. Liquidated Damages & Arbitration. It is customary for the parties to initial the sections of the contract relating to ‘liquidated damages’ and ‘arbitration’. In a nutshell, these say that if the buyer cancels the contract after the expiration of a contingency period, then the seller can keep up to 3% of the buyer’s initial deposit. And in the event of any dispute, the parties will first try to mediate, then if that fails, they’ll submit their questions to an arbitrator (usually a retired judge or experienced attorney) to bring a final resolution.
  1. Disclosures. It is customary for the Seller to provide a Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement (TDS) and a Seller Property Questionnaire (SPQ). The other standard disclosures are generalized (i.e., Natural Hazard Zone Disclosure) or standardized (i.e., Carbon Monoxide Detector Notice), so they require little or no input from the seller. It is customary for a seller to utilize the assistance of a realtor or an attorney (like myself) to prepare the disclosure package. Some cities have specific disclosure requirements, like RECO in Berkeley or the 3R report in San Francisco, so it’s especially helpful to work with a professional here.
  1. Included Property. It is customary for buyers to request any home appliances (i.e., fridge, stove, washer/dryer) and other personal property (i.e., outdoor fountain, window curtains) that they would like to be included in the sale. If an item of personal property is not specifically listed as included in the sale, then it is excluded. By contrast, ‘fixtures’ (i.e., built-in cabinets, ceiling fans, plumbing) are not personal property, so fixtures are automatically included in the sale unless the parties specify otherwise. The standard contract includes lots of standard examples to help the parties meet their goals here.
  1. Contract Timeline. It is customary for the realtor (or attorney) to prepare a contract timeline after the purchase agreement is signed. The contract timeline is like a checklist that helps the parties track steps and key dates toward close of escrow.
  1. Contract Amendments. It is customary for the parties to use ‘contract amendments’ when new issues arise that require small adjustments to the purchase contract. Some common situations are: (a) buyer needs more time for the loan contingency so he can process his loan, (b) the loan documents are late so the parties need to extend the close of escrow date, (c) the contractor’s inspection report revealed some unanticipated damage, so the buyer would like to receive a certain dollar amount credit at close of escrow so that buyer can handle the repairs himself after close of escrow.
  1. Lease Back. It is not common for the seller to lease the property back from the buyer after close of escrow. However, when it is desirable for the parties to have this arrangement, it is customary for the realtor (or attorney) to prepare a standard lease-back form (or lease form) that specifies (a) the amount of time that seller can lease-back (usually 30-60 days), and (b) the rent and security deposit amount (usually rent is set at the market rate or else the buyer’s mortgage amount). Also, it is customary for buyer to pay real estate taxes and insurance during the rental term, and for seller to pay for all maintenance, utilities, and upkeep.

Greg Glaser, Attorney at Law
Serving all of California
(925) 642-6651
[email protected]

Flat Fee Packages Available for Buyers and Sellers Without a Realtor 


  1. This is the best single page I’ve seen on this! It’s all gold. Every California home buyer and seller should study it.

    In Arizona, however, our typical contract form is a little different, the inspection period is usually 10 days and the financing contingency doesn’t really end. I like the California contract better, it provides a bit more protection for the seller by having the buyer’s financing contingency end after 17-21 days.

  2. Thanks John, great comment! It’s also interesting that in California, our initial disclosures are due within 7-days of signing the purchase contract, so on a practical level for FSBOs this has the effect of leaving 10 remaining days on the table for the inspection contingency (which is the AZ standard upfront). By contrast, in agent-assisted sales (and also FSBOs listed on the MLS), the disclosures are completed at the time of listing, so that gives the buyer the fullest benefit of the 17-days under the contract.

    And yeah on a practical level, that 17-21 day loan contingency is the real difference between CA and AZ. Several years ago in California we had a box on our standard CA CAR form purchase agreement that we could check to allow us to easily make the loan contingency run through close of escrow (just like AZ does). But then the CA Association of Realtors removed the box, and I’m glad they did, because it was for a good reason: the goal of the CAR form is to strike a fair balance between buyer and seller. But if the buyer is free to cancel anytime with impunity (even the day before close of escrow), that does not exactly feel like a fair balance between buyer and seller, unless the parties negotiated for that term for some good reason. It is much better in the usual purchase to give the buyer the standard amount of time to remove the loan contingency, as this has the practical effect of shifting the burden to the lender to provide a loan commitment letter within 17-21 days, which is quite reasonable. And the added certainty this brings for all parties (and their families) is far outweighed by any small ‘benefit’ to the buyer in being able to cancel at the 11th hour.

    It would be nice to see a State-by-State comparison of standard purchase contract terms. And even then, we’d need a regional breakdown. In San Francisco for example, I have an entire separate set of forms to meet local customs!

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