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What is an escrow account and how does it work?

Learn how to use an escrow account to make your home buying process easier.

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Escrow refers to an arrangement in which a neutral third party receives, holds and pays out funds as spelled out in a contract. Though it’s used in a variety of financial situations, escrow accounts are commonly used in a real estate context to help manage payments for property taxes and insurance

What is escrow and how does it work? 

In real estate, escrow accounts are used for two main purposes -- to hold an initial payment for the property and to hold funds for property taxes and insurance.

When you’re buying a house, your mortgage lender may require an escrow account to hold funds for closing until the deal is finalized. Once you agree on a home price with the seller, your agent will collect earnest money -- a good-faith deposit that proves you’re serious about the home purchase -- from you and place it into an escrow account. How much earnest money is required can vary, but you’ll typically provide 1% to 2% of the home sale price.

What happens to your earnest money if the deal falls through?

When initially putting your money into escrow, you have a time window to change your mind (typically 48 hours) without losing your escrow money. As long as you meet the deadlines provided, you can get your earnest money back if the deal falls through. In addition, after the home inspection, you also receive a window of opportunity to review the inspection results and cancel the home sale without losing your earnest money. If you break the deal after a specified deadline, this money could go to the seller. 

Once you close on your home, your good-faith deposit becomes part of your down payment. On your closing day, you’ll add the rest of your closing costs to this escrow account. This money is then distributed to all parties involved in the home sale -- the seller, agents and any other players.

How homeowner escrow accounts work

After you buy your home, your monthly mortgage expenses may still be deposited into an escrow account to pay for holding tax and insurance funds. This money will be taken directly from your monthly mortgage payment. This money is used by the lender to pay insurance premiums and taxes whenever they are due. Typically, there must be more than two months of funds in the account, to minimize the lender’s risk and to make sure that the homeowner is capable of making the payments. The account is closed once the loan is settled.

Keep in mind that escrow accounts do not pay for any kind of homeownership costs. Utility bills and other property maintenance costs are not part of the escrow account.

Who manages an escrow account?

The escrow account is managed by a neutral third party or middleman -- usually the escrow company or escrow agent or even the mortgage servicer, depending on what you are using the account for. The escrow agent is often the same as the title agent who holds onto the deed until the sale is closed during the home buying process. After the sale of a house, escrow accounts are managed by the mortgage servicer responsible for collecting your mortgage payments and keeping their records. 

Who pays for the escrow account?

Since an escrow account benefits both the buyer and the seller, there is no hard and fast rule about who pays for it. The buyer and the seller may choose to split the fees or decide that one party bears it all. If the title provider or settlement agent is paying for the account, the fees could be rolled into the settlement fees or the title insurance fee. If the buyer fields the cost, escrow fees could be added to the mortgage payments, resulting in a higher payment every month. 

Just like earnest money, escrow account fees can range, but typically equal 1% to 2% of the home sale price.

Benefits of an escrow account

The most important benefit of an escrow account is the financial protection it offers the buyer, seller and lender. As a home buyer, you are assured that your money will return to you if the deal falls through. As a seller, you can have peace of mind that you will be covered if the buyer backs out in the middle of the deal. As a lender, you can be sure that you will not face financial loss regardless of the outcome of the deal.

For homeowners, the escrow account eliminates the need to come up with a lump sum amount to cover taxes and insurance. Spreading the cost over the year makes it easier to have the payments made on time. At the same time, you don’t have to keep track of the due dates of taxes and insurance premiums because they are being paid by your mortgage lender. 

Do you need an escrow account?

When you are buying a property, an escrow account is often a requirement by the lender and cannot be avoided, unless you are making over 50% down payment, have an incredible credit score or do not have a loan at all. While the benefits and peace of mind that escrow brings cannot be denied, there are certain downsides too. 

The biggest drawback of an escrow account is the higher mortgage rate, compared to what you would pay without escrow. You may also be charged a different amount for each payment because the rate of taxes and insurance premiums could rise and fall. The estimate of how much funds are needed in the escrow may not be accurate all the time, and you could end up overpaying.

It is not impossible to avoid an escrow. If you have enough savings to buy a house without a loan or pay off the mortgage with your own money, you can do without the higher costs of an escrow. Your annual income, credit score and your history of payments will determine whether or not you need an escrow account. 

Cynthia is a contributor to CNET.