What Is A Default in a Real Estate Transaction or Contract?

what is a defaultDefault is a dirty word, but how many Silicon Valley home buyers and sellers understand what a it is?  Consumers often confuse the term default with cancelling the sale at any time – even backing out of a contract during the contingency period for a legitimate reason. Buyers cancelling during the contingency period is very easy to do in most cases and is very seldom a default.

Default is a strong word which refers to a failure to do something promised in contract or not doing it on time; we sometimes call it “non-performance”.  In the purchase agreement, buyers and sellers both make promises to do certain things within a certain time frame, so either one could potentially default.

Defaults don’t always cause the sale to not go through, but they can cause a delay and it may harm the other party – at the very least, not fulfilling the promises of the contract adds unnecessary stress and drama to real estate transactions, which are already, in & of themselves, stressful.

Home buyer defaults

For instance, the following items are areas where a buyer could default (not an exhaustive list):

  • not putting the initial deposit (good faith deposit) into escrow on time
  • cancelling the sale after removing all contingencies or without cause allowed by the contract
  • not removing contingencies on time (or possibly ignoring other deadlines)
  • not completing loan papers on time
  • not returning the signed disclosures on time
  • not bringing “good funds” to escrow in time for closing

Missing contingency removal deadlines may be a default.  For instance, the PRDS contract states on page 1 of that agreement:

BUYER’S  FUNDS:  Buyer  represents  that  all  funds,  including  deposits,  cash  balance,  and closing costs, will be readily available as “good funds” (as determined by Escrow Holder) at  the  time  of  payment.  Obtaining  these  funds  is not a contingency of this Contract.

The loan approval, though, may be indirectly tied to whether or not the buyer liquidates stocks or other accounts to provide the down payment.  What happens if the loan is fully approved except for the verification of this down payment?  The buyer’s job is to have the funds available so that obtaining them later does not cause a delay.  If a delay is caused because the buyer didn’t get the funds ready on time, that is a buyer default.

Not every default is an equally grave problem, of course.  In the case above, the buyer can go ahead and remove the loan contingency and continue to liquidate the down payment assets (which should have been done much earlier in the escrow).  BUT, if the buyer does not complete the sale due to a problem with getting those funds, his or her good faith deposit will be at risk via the liquidated damages clause because getting those funds is not a contingency.

Home seller defaults

Sellers, too, can be guilty of defaulting on contractual promises. Here are some areas in which a seller could default:

  • not moving out on time
  • not providing completed disclosures or reports on time
  • not having work done which was contractually required (such as pest work or repairs)
  • not keeping the power & water on for inspections and final walk through
  • not providing the loan payoff information, or any other required information, in a timely manner to the title company (escrow)
  • causing a delay in closing due to not signing off on time
  • refusing to schedule or attend a sign off to sign the closing papers

In Silicon Valley, there are two purchase agreement forms in use: the California Association of Realtors (CAR) contract and the Peninsula Regional Data Service (PRDS) contract.  Generally speaking, the PRDS & CAR contracts are similar on many points.  They are not so similar in the treatment of defaults, though.

What does the contract say about defaults?

Oddly, the CAR contract only mentions the word default twice, and in both cases the topic is a buyer’s default, first in the liquidated damages paragraph (25) and next in the other terms & conditions paragraph (27). (more…)