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Escrow: What it is and how it works

What we'll cover

  • What an escrow account is and why might you need one

  • The different types of escrow accounts

  • How escrow accounts can be used during homebuying 

Buying a home often means learning a new language, and escrow is one term you're likely to hear quite a bit. You can take some of the hassle out of homebuying when you know what mortgage escrow means and how the escrow process works.

What does escrow mean?

In general terms, escrow means an arrangement in which an asset — usually money — is held by a third party on behalf of others who are involved in a financial transaction. This third party is called the escrow holder, escrow officer or escrow agent and can be an individual (usually an attorney), or an entity such as a bank, title company or mortgage lender.

Illustration titled buying a home. The depiction is money transferring from a home buyer to an escrow account to a seller.

When buying or selling a home or another piece of property (like  vacant land ), it’s common to have an escrow account. When money is “in escrow” neither side can touch it until the transaction is complete.

How do escrow accounts work?

An escrow account is essentially a special savings account that holds escrow funds both prior to and after the purchase of a home. The amount of money that you’re required to pay into an escrow account when buying a home can depend on several things including:

  • The home’s purchase price

  • Expected homeowners’ insurance payments

  • Property taxes

An escrow officer or agent is responsible for making sure funds held in the escrow account are distributed accordingly – including earnest money (an up-front amount that goes toward your down payment ), along with the remainder of your down payment and closing costs, typically.

Types of escrow accounts

You might have two different types of escrow accounts depending on your homebuying situation: one before and one after the purchase.

Escrow account for homebuying

Once you enter into a purchase agreement with a seller, one of the first things you may have to do is offer up an earnest money deposit. This can be thought of as a sign of good faith that you plan to follow through on buying the home.

Your earnest money is held in an escrow account, which can be established by the seller’s  real estate agent  or your agent. These funds will remain in the escrow account until closing, then it’s handed over to the seller.

Note: An earnest money deposit isn’t always refundable. If a buyers backs out of a deal, the distribution of funds to either the buyer or seller will be contingent upon mutual terms outlined within the contract.

Escrow account for taxes and insurance

Prior to closing on your new home, you may need to prepay a portion of your homeowners insurance, property taxes and  private mortgage insurance , if applicable. Those funds are deposited into an escrow account managed by your mortgage loan servicer.

After closing, your mortgage servicer can continue collecting money to pay for these regular homeowner-related expenses and other costs on your behalf. Part of your monthly mortgage payment goes into the escrow account for that purpose.

Illustration titled monthly mortgage payment. The depiction is money transferring from a homeowner to an escrow account and then being dispersed between property tax, homeowners insurance and private mortgage insurance.

Your mortgage servicer should provide you with a yearly escrow analysis statement, which will show:

  • How much you’ve paid into your escrow account for the year

  • How much has been paid out for homeowners’ insurance, property taxes and/or private mortgage insurance

  • How much your insurance and taxes are likely to increase or decrease for the coming year

The escrow analysis can tell you if you have enough money in escrow to cover what’s due or whether you have a negative escrow balance. In that case, your mortgage payments may have to increase to account for the shortfall.

Who manages an escrow account?

It’s the escrow holder’s job to manage funds held in an escrow account until a particular condition or set of conditions has been met. The conditions are typically documented in an escrow agreement. In exchange for this layer of transactional financial security the escrow agent is paid an escrow fee, which can vary depending on the amount of the transaction.

What does an escrow account not cover?

The funds held in mortgage escrow accounts will not pay all expenses associated with buying and owning a home. For example, homeowners association dues, utility bills and maintenance costs are not collected and held in escrow accounts. You’ll also be responsible for one-time tax assessments or supplement tax bills.

Don’t be confused by mortgage escrow

If you’re a  first-time homebuyer , the escrow process is probably new territory for you. But escrow serves an important purpose in getting you from Point A to Point B. Not only can it protect your financial interests, but escrow can make paying certain costs associated with owning a home easier.

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