Washington D.C. Homebuying and Escrow Process
- Washington D.C.'s homebuying process is similar to other states where a settlement agent (who is usually an real estate attorney or representative from a title company) is used to consummate the transaction and prepare all the closing documents.
- In Washington D.C., buyer and seller often consummate the transaction at the same closing (or 'settlement') table.
- The Washington D.C. area has its own environmental features that influence which inspections get performed, such as termite inspections.
Step by Step
Part 1: Disclosures, inspections, and title
These are the initial tasks once a buyer is in contract, and are most often done in parallel to Part 2: The mortgage process:
- An offer is accepted by the seller and a contract is signed and ratified.
- Concurrently, a deposit, or earnest money, is paid to an escrow agent, an attorney, or broker (never to the seller directly).
- The signed contract is sent to an attorney or title company to begin preparation of all work related to transferring and changing the title to the new owners and preparing the title commitment.
- The buyer reviews and signs off on any disclosures. These disclosures vary based on property type, but often include things like known flaws with the property, prior improvements or repairs, and potential environmental hazards. A standardized disclosure form is generally provided by the seller as an addendum to the contract and must be signed by both buyer and seller. Sellers may see making these disclosures as beneficial to themselves, and believe that buyers will build these pre-disclosed facts into the contract price (and thus sellers may be reluctant to provide any credits for these defects).
- The buyer elects to perform inspections on the property if agreed upon in the contract (in DC, there is generally a separate addendum that covers a series of possible inspections). Each of these inspections must be completed by a certain date, which is called the inspection contingency date as indicated in the "Addendum of Clauses" of most DC home buying contracts. The types of inspections vary by property type and situation (and locale), but in Washington D.C., a home inspector generally inspects the home first, and other inspections and tests can be ordered if revealed to be necessary by the initial inspection. A termite inspection is also often performed in Washington D.C.
- Based on the outcome of inspections, buyers may elect to walk away if something material is found. Or, they can ask the seller for repair work, closing cost credits, or a reduction in the sale price due to flaws that were uncovered. Sellers have three options: agree to all of the buyers's requests, offer a modified solution back to the buyer, or decline to make any amends. In response, the buyer can continue to negotiate, accept the seller's position, or walk away. All of this, of course, is done in writing (usually via a standard form).
- The buyer may also negotiate for a home warranty that covers major appliances from failure for a time period after the sale, typically a year.
Part 2: The mortgage process
For those borrowing to purchase their home, the mortgage process is usually the most stressful and opaque part of the transaction. It's best to start as early as possible and be ready to produce lots of documentation. The following is the general process in Washington D.C.:
- A buyer submits a loan application to their lender, either directly or through a mortgage broker. See a sample Uniform Residential Loan Application used in Washington D.C.
- Within 3 days, the lender sends a "Good Faith Estimate," or GFE, to the buyer that is a breakdown of estimated closing costs. The final costs are likely to deviate from this estimate. See a sample GFE at hud.gov.
- Before the buyer is ready to write an offer, a pre-approval with a lender should be acquired. The buyer sends a series of personal financial disclosures to their lender. These vary by situation, but the most commonly requested documents are:
- Several months of statements for each bank account a borrower holds (including any investment accounts)
- Several months of statements for any outstanding loans, lines of credit, or other liabilities. This can also include documentation of rent payments.
- Up to two years of tax returns, released to the lender via an authorization submitted by the buyer using IRS form 4506-T.
- Recent pay stubs and contact information for each borrower's employer. The number of pay stubs varies by situation.
- Any other disclosures that are material to a borrower's financial situation. This includes but is not limited to marriage licenses, divorce settlements, child support, liens, bankruptcies, or judgments. If there's something that affects how much money you have on hand that isn't shown by simply looking at your salary, be prepared to document it.
- Explanation of any credit inquiries
- Substantiation of any large deposits or cash gifts that aren't regular income. In some cases, a large cash gift may look similar to a personal loan by a friend or family member, and lenders will require gift letters from those that gave you the cash gift, stating that the gift was not a loan. They may also ask for itemized deposit slips. The exact amount that triggers this requirement varies by situation (for instance, a $1,000 cash gift may be material to a single borrower that makes $35,000/yr but may not be material to a borrower that makes $350,000/yr), so it's good practice to ask your lender if you suspect you might have a material cash gift or large deposit - so you aren't surprised by this at the last minute.
- Repeated and updated documentation of any of the above. Keep in mind: to a lender, anything can happen to a borrower's personal financial situation and credit during the escrow process. Thus, you may be asked more than once for the same type of document so that your lender has the most recent pay stubs, rent receipts, bank statements, or other disclosures that may change over time. Any material changes in these documents -or any element of your personal financial situation- may require the lender to reassess your eligability for the loan for which you've applied.
- The lender renders a preliminary approval decision, called a pre-approval. A pre-approval takes into account the entirety of the borrower(s)' financial situation but is contingent upon a satisfactory appraisal of the home being purchased.
- Provided all goes well with appraisal (and nothing changes in the borrower(s)' personal financial situation, a lender will issue a loan commitment letter, stating its willingness to fund the mortgage. While this is the 'final' approval, it's important for buyers to understand that commitment letters are always contingent upon there being no material change in your situation -or the property- as initially disclosed to your lender.
- The financing contingency (a.k.a. loan contingency) is removed by the buyer before the expiration of the financing deadline (also referred to as the loan contingency date) as defined in the contract, by sending a copy of their loan commitment or approval. If the buyer/borrower is unable to get this approval before the expiration of the financing deadline, the financing contingency automatically extends unless the seller provides written notice, after which a buyer has three days to respond with either a loan commitment letter, proof of their ability to buy the property without a loan, or election to walk away from the deal (without penalty).
- An appraisal is ordered by the lender or mortgage broker via a central directory of appraisers (often called an Appraisal Management Company or AMC). Choosing a specific appraiser is not possible, but a mortgage broker can reject an appraiser and ask for a new one. If the appraisal comes in lower than the purchase price, the buyer has until the appraisal contingency date to request a reduction in price from the seller. The seller generally has a set period of time to accept or reject the buyer's request. If the seller rejects the request, or that time lapses, the buyer can walk away from the contract without penalty.
- Homeowners' insurance is purchased (or substantiated, if the property being purchased includes homeowners' insurance as part of association fees or similar arrangements), and proof of homeowners' insurance is submitted to the lender.
Tip: As this process can be long, arduous, seemingly arbitrary, and is often critical to your homebuying transaction, try to prepare these documents (or at least figure out how to prepare them) in advance. Also, do not make any changes to your employment or credit until your transaction is complete (not just until you get a loan commitment letter). This means not switching employers even if it results in a higher income, as counterintuitive as that may sound. It also means not leasing or financing a car, opening a new credit card account, or anything else that can affect your credit report.
Part 3: The closing ('settlement') itself
The closing, or 'settlement' process itself general takes place at one table (either at the office of an attorney or title company), where buyers sign all documents related to their loan and the transaction itself. After all documents are signed and payments exchanged, buyers generally take possession of the keys unless a separate agreement has been reached to allow the seller to stay in the property for a period after closing. The detailed steps that make up closing are:
- As part of the prepartion for closing, the attorney or title company performs a title search (if they haven't already) to determine if there are any liens or assessments on the title. Provided the title is deemed 'clear,' the closing proceeds as planned and the attorney or title company issues a title commitment. All paperwork for changing the title / deed and title insurance is prepared, and a final closing date is confirmed with all parties.
- A final cash figure for what a buyer needs to bring to the closing in the form of a cashier's check is calculated. This is based not only on a mortgage's closing costs but factors like property taxes and utilities paid in to date by the seller.
- A final walkthrough (also referred to as a final inspection) will often be performed the day of or before closing to verify the property is in the same condition it was when the process began.
- At the closing, or settlement, table, the buyer (and seller) sign all closing documents, including the HUD-1 (see a sample HUD-1 here), and the final loan documents.
- The buyer pays the remaining funds in their downpayment to an attorney or a representative of the title company (who is present at closing, and sometimes called a 'settlement agent') via cashier's check.
- The representative from the title company or attorney will then record the transaction and deed with the appropriate municipality.
- The buyer receives the keys and, unless indicated differently in the contract, officially takes possession of the property.
This document is a community edited guide, is not legal advice, and is subject to changes, modifications, and may contain inaccuracies or out-of-date information. As with any important financial transaction, consult a real estate professional and/or an attorney. See our terms of service for more information.
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