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How the term Escrow Relates to Your Real Estate Transaction

Home Buying, Facts About Escrow

You'll probably hear the word escrow many times during your home buying transaction, and the term can be confusing, because it is used to describe different events that take place before and after the real estate settlement, the day of closing when the property becomes yours.

Let's take a look at the definition of the term escrow and the different ways it comes into play during your home buying transaction.

Escrow: Documents or something else of value, often money, held by a neutral third party in order to be used at a later date to fulfill an obligation.

Escrow During the Home Buying Process

    Earnest Money Deposits

    If you are buying a home, your first exposure to escrow was probably associated with the earnest money deposit that accompanied your offer to purchase the house. That money likely went into someone's trust account, where it will remain in escrow, protected by that neutral third party, until it is credited to you when the transaction closes (or is dispersed in other ways if the transaction fails to close).

    Escrow Agent

    You'll hear the term escrow used to describe the title company, attorney or another person who is hired to handle your closing transaction. That person is often called an escrow agent, because she maintains all documents and funds related to the transaction until the day of closing.

    Lender Escrow Accounts

    The term escrow is used again to describe accounts your lender sets up in order to pay your home insurance and property taxes when they become due. Remember the initials PITI? You saw them when the lender calculated your projected monthly payment. Those letters stand for the components of each payment:

    • P, Principal
    • I, Interest
    • T, Taxes
    • I, Insurance

    Tax and insurance bills are typically sent directly to your lender. Both of those bills are paid annually, but most lenders require you to pay 1/12th of the annual bill each month. The lender deposits the partial payments in an escrow account, where they'll accumulate until it's time to pay your taxes and insurance the following year.

    You'll begin funding your your escrow accounts by making a payment into them at closing.

RESPA Guidelines for Escrow Accounts

The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) includes laws that all lenders must follow when funding and managing your escrow accounts.

RESPA does not require borrowers to maintain an escrow account with their lender--lenders make that decision. The laws do regulate the maximum amounts that a lender can require a borrower to maintain in an escrow account.

Escrow Account Cushions

Lenders can require borrowers to keep a cushion, or excess, balance in their escrow accounts to cover unanticipated increases in the following year's tax and insurance bills.

The cushion cannot be more than one-sixth of the total amount paid out of the account each year. That usually amounts to two months of escrow payments. Most lenders now require that borrowers fund their escrow accounts to the maximum amounts.

Must lenders pay interest on money held in escrow accounts? RESPA does not require lenders to pay interest, but some states do.

What if my lender doesn't pay my taxes on time? The lender should pay your taxes on time if your mortgage payments were paid on time. The lender must pay any penalties assessed to you for late payment. If the lender refuses, you can file a formal complaint with RESPA.

What should I do if my lender doesn't pay my hazard insurance and the policy is cancelled? Lenders are required to make payments on time if your mortgage payments were on time. Contact the lender immediately and fax a copy of the insurance bill, making sure it is sent to the correct department. Talk to an attorney if you incur damages due to the lender's failure to pay.

Some people opt to pay the past due premium to make sure their coverage isn't terminated, then deal with the lender to get it back.

What if my lender requires me to keep too much money is escrow? Ask your lender for an explanation if it requires that you keep an escrow cushion that equals more than the 1/6th excess funds mentioned above. If their response to you isn't satisfactory, file a complaint with HUD.

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