Understanding the Legalese in a Real Estate Purchase/Sale Agreement

Understanding the Legalese in a Real Estate Purchase/Sale Agreement

As a real estate attorney, I help home buyers & sellers daily with their transactions, and I’m often asked to explain all that legalese in the standard purchase/sale contract::

  • As Is Sale – This means the Buyer is purchasing the Property in its current condition, whether that condition is damaged or pristine or anything else.  In other words, the Seller does not have a duty to fix anything before close of escrow or after close of escrow, unless the Seller expressly agrees in writing to fix something.  Technically, every sale is ‘as-is’ unless the contract specifies in writing otherwise.
    • Note 1: Even with an ‘as-is’ sale, the seller is required to provide written disclosures of material defects and relevant property history.  Here’s a tip for sellers: if you’re unsure whether something is ‘material/relevant’, you should disclose it, because anything you disclose cannot later be used against you in the event your buyer wishes to make a case for non-disclosure of material facts. Disclosure is your friend – it’s win-win.
    • Note 2:  Buyers still do inspections and keep inspection contingencies for ‘as-is’ sales.  Indeed, if the inspection uncovers serious issues (i.e., major termite damage), then often the buyer will request a contract amendment that gives the buyer a price reduction (or $ credit) to help the buyer pay for the needed repairs after close of escrow.  However, the seller is not required legally or contractually to agree to do repairs, and the buyer is also not required to close escrow (i.e., the buyer always has an inspection contingency to cancel unless they have already waived it), so the parties simply negotiate some form of arrangement if they would still like to continue with the purchase/sale.
    • Note 3: Technically ‘As-Is’ refers to the point in time when the buyer signed the contract for purchase.  So if the property was clean and the ceiling had no holes when the buyer signed the contract, then the seller needs to make sure the property is clean and the ceiling has no holes on the date for close of escrow.
  • Closing Costs – These are the costs or expenses that are typically associated with finalizing a real property sale.  They generally include escrow fees, title insurance, County transfer taxes, HOA fees, home warranty insurance, and home inspection costs.  They are itemized on a ‘estimated statement’ provided by escrow at the conclusion of escrow.
    • Note: You can ask escrow to provide you an estimated statement before you begin an escrow process. It helps you shop around for the best deal among escrow companies.
  • Contingency or Contingent – This means “it depends upon.”  The word is used in a legal sense to describe a ‘necessary event’ or ‘deciding event’ in the purchase/sale agreement, such as the buyer receiving loan approval from the buyer’s lender to go forward with the sale.   A contingency is typically used to benefit one party – for example, an inspection contingency benefits the buyer because it gives the buyer freedom – if the buyer exercises his contingency, then the agreement is terminated, he receives a refund of his deposit, and escrow is cancelled.
    • Note 1: The customary contract contingencies for home sales are (a) 17-days for inspections & other investigation such as title history, (b) 17-days for an appraisal matching the purchase price, and (c) 21-days for loan approval from the buyer’s lender.  In the typical contract, the buyer is free to cancel before expiration of any of his contingencies, and he receives a full refund of his initial deposit.
    • Note 2: the standard contract is not harsh or strict.  It automatically extends from day-to-day the contingency time periods (i.e., extending beyond the 21-days for loan approval) until the seller actively gives the buyer a written “Notice to Perform” document that requires the buyer to either release the contingency promptly or cancel the contract.  The reason for this leniency is simple: the standard contract encourages negotiation that can salvage transactions; it does not force a buyer’s hand to cancel, unless the seller actively wants to force the buyer to decide immediately whether to cancel or go forward.
  • Deed – The deed is the official record of who owns the property, and the original copy is held by the owner.  It is usually 1-3 pages long, and a copy is recorded at the County where the property is located.  Deeds are usually prepared by an escrow company.  There are multiple forms of deeds, but in real estate sales the customary deed is called a “grant deed”.  The deed specifies the manner in which the Buyer owns the Property, such as “Community Property,” or “Individually, as her Separate Property”, or “As Trustee for the Marshall Family Living Trust.”
    • Grant Deed – A grant deed contains the Seller’s promise that he (1) has not conveyed the same property (or any right, title or interest in the property) to any person other than the Buyer; and (2) the Property is presently free from encumbrances not otherwise disclosed by the Buyer.  This is the standard deed used for California home sales.
    • Quitclaim Deed – transfers to the buyer whatever rights and interests the seller has in the property.  When the seller is married but owns the property as his sole property, then title companies often ask the spouse to sign a quitclaim deed.
    • Warranty Deed  – These are the same as a grant deed, but contain the following additional promise by the Seller:  if any 3rd party later claims an interest in the Property relating to an encumbrance not previously disclosed by Seller, then the Seller will hire and pay an attorney for the Buyer in order to defend the title.   Warranty deeds are not very common in California, simply because grant deeds are so effective.
  • Down Payment – Not to be confused with the Initial Deposit (see definition above), the down payment is the money that the Buyer pays from Buyer’s own bank account (out-of-pocket) for the property at close of escrow.  The downpayment is the purchase price plus Buyer closing costs, minus the loan amount and minus the initial deposit.
  • Encumbrance – An encumbrance is a legal right or obligation attached to the property.  An example of an encumbrance is an easement.  Essentially, an encumbrance occurs whenever somebody (other than the property owner) legitimately claims some right in the land.  For example, if the property owner takes out a mortgage, then the lender will have a deed of trust on the land.  The deed of trust is an encumbrance.  Another example — if the utility company has a right to run telephone wires over the land, it would be an easement, which is an encumbrance.  Virtually all properties on the market have encumbrances.
  • Financing – Financing is money (or the process of obtaining money) from a lender, typically a bank.
    • Note: the term ‘seller financing’ refers to the process by which the seller acts like a bank to the buyer.
  • Initial Deposit This is also called “earnest money.” It is the amount the Buyer must pay at the signing of the agreement in order to begin the escrow process.  It goes toward (offsets) the purchase price.   This money will be refunded if the sale does not go through, assuming the buyer cancels within a contingency period.
    • Note: The initial deposit 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).
  • Joint escrow instructions – These are written instructions that appear in the purchase agreement, and also the escrow company will have their own separate instructions.  They are essentially boilerplate written directions specifying how the escrow company will process and complete the sale for the parties.
  • Parties – This refers to the buyer and seller.
  • Personal PropertyThis is movable property that does not automatically get sold with the house.  For example, the bed in the master bedroom is personal property that the seller will take with them when they move-out.
    • Note: it is customary in home sales to include some items of personal property in the sale (i.e., appliances (stove, fridge, and/or washer & dryer), cans of paint in the garage, outdoor fountain).  Often the parties will only list the big items (i.e., appliances), and then they just verbally figure it out between themselves.
  • Preliminary Title Report –  In the typical transaction, the buyer obtains a preliminary title report from the escrow company, which will specify who owns the property, and whether there are any liens (mortgages), easements, or other restrictions (encumbrances) limiting anybody’s use and/or ownership of the Property.  It is a very helpful document because it shows the title history, including the seller’s current mortgage that will be paid off at close of escrow.  A preliminary title report is not an insurance policy.  It is what comes before an insurance policy is issued.  In a legal sense it is only an offer by the title insurer to issue a policy of title insurance, and may not contain every item affecting title.  At close of escrow, the preliminary title report is turned into an insurance policy, which means the title company is guaranteeing that the information on the document accurately reflects the title history of public records.  So if the title company made a mistake in checking the public records, then the title company will pay money and lawyers to fix it.
  • Property Accessories – Little things that are attached or that come with the land or home, such as the curtain rods and curtains, and the garage door remote control.  Compare Property Improvements (below).
  • Property Fixtures –  This is a legal term for things that are physically attached to the property and which cannot be removed from the property without damaging the property in some way (or basically requiring a handyman/contractor to remove).  Examples include:  ceiling fans, wall light switch coverings, built-in microwave.
  • Property Improvements – These are large things attached to the land or home.   For example, the home is an improvement on the land.  And the refrigerator is an improvement on the home.  Compare Property Accessories (above).
  • Purchase Price – this is the price of the Property agreed upon by the Buyer and Seller, excluding any closing costs).
    • Note: 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 most primarily measured by ‘comparable sales’.

Greg Glaser, Attorney at Law
San Francisco Bay Area – Northern California
(925) 642-6651 — [email protected]
Flat Fee Packages Available for Buyers and Sellers Without a Realtor


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