Good Faith Estimate – Protecting Your Earnest Money

Protecting your Earnest Money Deposit starts before your offer is written.  I highly suggest you do the following, before going out to look at homes for sale. It’s a little unorthodox, but very effective.

1) Ask your lender to base your pre-approval on the current interest rate PLUS.  I’d say +.50% to +.75% at this time.  Use the higher number if the going rate is 5% or less at the time of the pre-approval.  If the going rate is 5% (rates move in 1/8ths) have the lender qualify you as if the rate is 5.75%.  Give yourself a little breathing room for rates to fluctuate while you are looking at property and making offers.  You don’t want the fact that rates are moving up, to stress you into making bad choices about other things, during the process.

Example: If you have salaried income of $95,000, you qualify for a payment of roughly $2,375 if the rate is 5%.  Take the $375 off for taxes and insurance, and make sure you check that $375 a month against the taxes on the house you make an offer on later in the process, and the amount the lender assumed as the taxes when doing the pre-approval letter.

After deducting RE taxes and Insurance, we are looking at a monthly payment for Principal and Interest of $2,000 which gives you a loan of $372,500 at 5% and a loan of $342,700 at 5.75%.  If you are planning to use an FHA loan, deduct $5,500 for the upfront MIP that you are likely going to finance, and that gives you a loan amount range of $337,200 to $367,000, depending on the interest rate at the time you lock it.  Add the 3.5% downpayment, and you are looking at a sale price of about $355,000 to $385,000.

Remember that your approval is based on a % of your gross income and you qualify for a monthly payment, not for a sale price.  So if you qualified for a house price of $385,000 (and the letter is absolute max within the lender’s assumptions), and they assumed taxes and insurance of $375 and the real taxes and insurance are $500, you no longer qualify for the sale price on your pre-approval letter. Likewise, if they used an interest rate of 4.875% and maxed out the price of home based on that rate, and rates are 5.125% when you lock, you won’t qualify at the sale price noted on your preapproval letter.

By asking the lender to use current rate PLUS  X when issuing the preapproval, you can worry less about rates fluctuating while you are busy trying to find the right house, and making the best deal.

These days, the very best deal OFTEN has RE Taxes higher than the amount assumed when producing your preapproval letter, making this issue of importance moreso now than it has been in the last 10 years. Plus lending guidelines are stricter, so a slight variance out of the assumptions can clearly make the difference between loan approval and denial, moreso now than in the last 3-5 years.

Make sure your pre-approval is based on a higher interest rate than today’s “going rate” and higher annual real estate taxes. The reason this is MORE important today is many people are buying short sales and foreclosures. The better the “deal”, the more likely annual real estate taxes are going to be higher than a lender will estimate as an area average for that purchase price.  So if you are Woo-Hooing about the fabulous price you just negotiated, it’s a good sign you need to check the ACTUAL RE Taxes against the lender’s original assumed monthly tax amount.

2) Get a Good Faith Estimate along with your pre-approval letter.  Before you even begin to look at property, you want to be sure you have the total cash you will need to close escrow.  While a Finance Contingency may protect you if Step 1) is done incorrectly, it will not protect you if you do not have the funds to close escrow.  If your loan is approved, but you can’t close because you don’t have the amount of money escrow tells you to bring to closing, the Finance Contingency will not protect your Earnest Money.

Again, this is a little unorthodox, but I have found this method to be essentially foolproof. So much so, that I have been able to guarantee that there will be no surprises at closing, unless the buyer elects to buy down the interest rate for reasons other than needing to do so to qualify.

Don’t just look at the bottom line monthly payment, interest rate and cash to close on your Good Faith Estimate (GFE).  Turn it into a “working” document by converting the format to the official HUD 1 you will see at closing.  This gives you the added comfort of seeing BEFORE you start looking at homes, exactly the same Closing Statement you will be facing the day you go to sign your closing papers.

Find a blank HUD 1 and print it out. I always do these numbers by hand in blue ink, so I can clearly differentiate it from the forms that come later in the process. I have seen many and varied formats for Good Faith Estimates over the last 20 years, but the final closing statement, the HUD 1, has been virtually the same from year to year and even from State ot State.

I just printed one out directly from the HUD website.   Always round the numbers up, and get the numbers directly from the source as much as possible.  I expect lenders to be absolutely accurate when “estimating” their own charges, so the lender fees on the Good Faith Estimate should be accurate. BUT when they are estimating 3rd party costs on the Good Faith Estimate, such as Title and Escrow charges and even County recording fees, I often find those numbers to be underestimated.  Remember to add the Home Inspection fee, which is almost never on a GFE.

Every time a sale closes, I double check the actual costs against my own original estimates. By getting your numbers directly from the source, and rounding up, you will not likely have any surprises at closing, in fact most often, the amount you need to bring should be less than you originally anticipated.

Always use worst case scenario when calculating your monthly payment and your Cash needed to Close BEFORE you go out looking for homes. This will insure that your real case scenario will always be brighter by comparison.

VERY IMPORTANT: If you do not have enough cash to close, that often means the agent needs to include a credit toward closing from seller to buyer IN THE OFFER.  So doing this after you are in escrow…is too late.

Often there will be changes DURING the process that can throw these numbers off. By doing the numbers yourself, by hand, as I do, the little red flags will pop up as changes are proposed during the process.

EXAMPLE 1:  Closing date is the 25th of the month, so the cash to close on your Good Faith Estimate has 6 days of interest at $55 a day = $330.00.

Two days before closing the seller asks you to extend close to the 11th of the next month instead.  These discussions happen all the time WITHOUT the buyer knowing that the $330 for 6 days interest will increase to 20 days at $55 a day or $660. In reality it costs you less, but for practical purposes it costs you more with regard to “cash needed to close”.  ALSO, often the lender doesn’t know the date was extended until they are sent the addedum changing the close date AFTER both the buyer and seller have signed agreeing to that change.  If they only locked the rate to the day of closing or until the 3rd or 5th of the next month, you could end up with a different interest rate by signing the close date extension, and in this period of volatile rates they will likely hold you to the HIGHER of the two rates.

Again, if you are buying a short sale or bank owned property, the extension of close date may not be something within your control. You can’t MAKE the seller close on a given day, regardless of contract provisions.  So being qualified from the beginning at a higher rate becomes a necessity vs. a preference, if you plan to close escrow.

EXAMPLE 2:  You receive your Good Faith Estimate and it says you qualify for a sale price of $300,000. It says your total costs will be $13,000 of which $5,000 is up front MIP, which will be financed.  Total cash needed to close is $18,500 and you have $15,000.

Two months later you make an offer on a property and it is accepted.  No one told the agent that the approval assumed the seller would be paying $3,500 toward the closing costs, and it is now too late to rework the agreement with the seller. Escrow fails for insufficient funds to close, and seller keeps the Earnest Money which is more than the $3,500 you needed to complete the transaction.  You don’t get the house AND you lose $5,000.

It is very important that you turn your Good Faith Estimate into a working document, and not just file it away as another piece of paper.  THE AGENT WRITING YOUR OFFER DOES NOT GET THE GOOD FAITH ESTIMATE, unless you personally give it to them, or instruct your lender to send it to them.  There are many assumptions made by the lender when producing a pre-approval letter.  If the real facts don’t match those assumptions at time of offer and acceptance, it will likely be too late to turn back the clock, and that can put your Earnest Money at risk.