The Functions of an Escrow

November 4, 2023

Learn what escrow is, the escrow process from opening to closing, and tips from a top Raleigh-Durham agent for smoothly navigating real estate escrow.

Buying or selling a home usually involves an escrow process to facilitate the real estate transaction. As a homebuyer or seller, having a solid grasp of how escrow works is key to navigating your deal efficiently and reducing stress.

As an experienced real estate agent in the Raleigh-Durham area for over 15 years, I've guided countless clients through the escrow process. In this comprehensive guide, I'll explain everything you need to know about real estate escrow and provide tips to make the escrow process smooth for your next home sale or purchase.

What is Escrow in Real Estate?

An escrow account is a neutral third-party account held by an escrow company or escrow officer. During a real estate transaction, the buyer deposits funds—and the seller necessary documents—into the escrow account. This protects all parties involved until the terms of sale are fulfilled.

The escrow company acts as an impartial "referee" to manage the exchange of money for title once all sale contingencies are met. This guarantees the buyer doesn't relinquish funds unless ownership transfers to them—and the seller doesn't sign over the property until payment is secured.

In essence, escrow creates a protective buffer allowing the real estate transaction to proceed securely and smoothly. Instead of buyer and seller exchanging money and documents directly, the escrow holder coordinates based on the sale agreement.

Key Benefits of Using Escrow

While escrow may seem like extra hassle, it offers significant safeguards for buyers, sellers, and lenders in a real estate transaction.

For buyers, escrow:

  • Protects your earnest money deposit and down payment until ownership transfers
  • Ensures you don't pay the full amount unless all terms like inspections are met
  • Guarantees you receive legal title once funds are disbursed at closing

For sellers, escrow:

  • Secures your proceeds from the buyer's lender before releasing the home title
  • Verifies the transaction is compliant before ownership transfers
  • Reduces liability if disputes arise over the property or payment

For lenders, escrow:

  • Minimizes risk that loan funds are misused or misappropriated
  • Confirms all stipulations are met before releasing mortgage payouts
  • Guarantees lien position on a property with title transfer

Bottom line—everyone can breathe easier knowing a neutral third party manages the money and paperwork.

The Role of an Escrow Holder

While escrow may seem complex, an experienced escrow officer or escrow company handles the entire process quickly and correctly.

As a neutral third party, the escrow holder's core responsibilities include:

  • Holding deposit money from the buyer in a secure escrow account
  • Managing all documents like property deed, title, and keys
  • Paying fees/commissions owed to real estate agents or attorneys
  • Transferring final funds to the seller at closing
  • Recording ownership change from seller to buyer

At no point do funds or documents transfer directly between the transacting parties. Instead, the escrow company acts as an unbiased overseer to distribute everything according to the purchase agreement.

Think of them as a referee ensuring adherence to the contract terms before money or property changes hands between buyer and seller. This protects all involved.

Overview of the Escrow Process

While every real estate transaction differs slightly, most follow the same general escrow process from opening to closing:

Opening the Escrow Account

After finding a home and signing a purchase contract, the buyer deposits earnest money with the escrow company to open escrow. This "good faith" money reserves the property for the buyer.

Along with the earnest money deposit, the escrow officer also receives a copy of the fully executed purchase contract dictating all terms and contingencies. This functions as the roadmap guiding the escrow process until closing.

During the Escrow Period

During escrow, the escrow company fulfills all tasks allowing the transaction to progress towards closing:

Title search - The escrow officer orders a title search to verify legal ownership and uncover any liens or encumbrances on the property. If issues arise, the purchase agreement stipulates the process to clear title before closing.

Loan processing - If obtaining mortgage financing, the buyer submits all required paperwork to their lender. The lender works through underwriting and approval.

Contingency removal - The buyer removes all contingencies per the contract like financing, inspections, or appraisal. This signifies their intention to move forward with purchasing the home under the terms of the purchase agreement.

Fee/payment collection - Additional funds from the buyer, seller, or lender are collected for closing costs, commissions, liens, taxes, etc. All parties receive an estimated settlement statement outlining the anticipated financials.

Closing the Escrow

As the transaction nears the finish line, the escrow officer prepares to close once all contract stipulations are fulfilled:

Documents finalized - The deed and title transfers to the buyer are drawn up according to the purchase contract.

Final funds deposited - The buyer deposits the remaining amount owed. The lender provides the agreed-upon mortgage payout.

Ownership transfers - The escrow company files the appropriate deeds and records title under the buyer's name. Ownership officially changes hands.

Funds disbursed - Settlement checks are issued paying outstanding fees, commissions, liens, etc. per the settlement statement. Excess funds are returned to the buyer.

Keys released - Once recording is confirmed, the escrow holder authorizes the release of property keys into the buyer's possession.'s official! Escrow closes and the transaction completes. The buyer takes ownership of the new home.

7 Key Steps in the Escrow Timeline

While the escrow process varies based on each real estate transaction, I recommend my clients anticipate these seven milestones as they navigate the escrow timeline:

1. Open escrow account - Buyer deposits earnest money and necessary paperwork to open escrow

2. Order and receive title report - Escrow officer orders and reviews title search on the property

3. Submit paperwork and disclosures - Buyer, seller, and lender submit all required documentation

4. Remove contract contingencies - Buyer completes inspections, appraisal, financing, etc. to remove contingencies

5. Final verifications before closing - Escrow officer verifies all terms and conditions are met for closing

6. Close escrow - Documents are signed and recorded, funds disbursed, keys released

7. New owner takes possession - Escrow closes and homeownership officially transfers

While the duration varies based on factors like financing status, 30-45 days is average for completing escrow once under contract.

Complex title issues or lender delays may extend the escrow period. Good communication is key to keep things moving forward efficiently.

How Escrow Safeguards Your Transaction

As evidenced above, escrow plays a critical function facilitating secure and efficient property exchanges between buyers and sellers.

With so much money changing hands, real estate transactions carry inherent risk of miscommunication, disputes, or worse. Unforeseen issues like undisclosed defects, title problems, or change of plans can swiftly derail deals.

Escrow mitigates these issues in several key ways:

Securing deposit money - By holding the buyer’s deposit in a separate escrow account, these funds are shielded in case of disputes over the property, payment, or other glitches during sale proceedings.

Verifying adherence to contract - Acting as an impartial overseer, the escrow holder ensures all stipulations like inspections, disclosures, title transfers, etc. occur per the purchase agreement before advancing the transaction.

Managing ownership transfer - Escrow coordinates the legal recordation and transfer of property title from seller to buyer only once the transaction completes fully.

Distributing final payments & commissions - Instead of buyer paying seller directly, escrow disperses all outstanding payments to the appropriate parties simultaneously upon closing. This guarantees compensation is secured for agents and liens before ownership changes.

Providing an impartial referee - As a neutral third-party, the escrow company has no stake in favoring the buyer or seller. This prevents disputes from derailing deals. The escrow officer simply executes the mutually agreed-upon contract.

In summary, escrow significantly reduces risks by ensuring adherence to the purchase agreement and guaranteeing funds are appropriately disbursed once contract obligations are fulfilled. This protection gives buyers, sellers, and lenders valuable peace of mind.

Tips for Smoothly Navigating Escrow

For first-time home buyers and sellers, escrow can feel intimidating. Rest assured, an experienced escrow officer smoothly guides you through each step—my job is to help you understand the process!

As your agent, I'll work closely with the escrow officer to advocate on your behalf and answer all your questions.

Here are my top tips for clients to keep escrow rolling smoothly:

Review documents thoroughly - Carefully read any documents like purchase agreements, disclosures, title commitments, etc. and immediately flag any questions. Waiting can cause delays.

Submit paperwork/payments promptly - Return requested items like inspection reports, signed disclosures, updated statements etc. as soon as possible to prevent hold ups.

Maintain open communication - Notify me immediately if issues arise so I can coordinate quickly with the escrow officer and prevent delays.

Anticipate final funds - Remember to have funds for closing costs and down payments ready. As closing nears, the escrow officer will request the necessary remaining balance.

Plan ahead for new expenses - Be proactive budgeting for upcoming homeowner expenses like utilities, HOA fees, moving services, maintenance. This eases the transition to new home ownership.

Double check closing documents - Before signing final papers, carefully verify all figures match the estimated settlement statement you previously received. Flag any discrepancies.

Following these best practices will help your deal proceed as efficiently as possible. Don't hesitate to lean on me as your agent and liaison anytime you have questions during escrow!

Why Choose Tim Clarke Team for Your Escrow

As the Raleigh-Durham area’s #1 real estate team for nearly 20 years straight, my team and I have specialized expertise to provide exceptional guidance for clients throughout the escrow process.

Over the years, I’ve personally negotiated thousands of real estate transactions and collaboratively closed over 3,500 escrows. That’s unparalleled experience you can count on!

With deep knowledge of the local market and extensive agent networking, I can also leverage our relationships with lenders, escrow officers, and other pros to expedite the escrow process and overcome any surprises that pop up.

My team takes pride in our stellar communication and attentive client care every step of the transaction. We take the complication out of escrow by walking you through what to expect, answering all your questions in simple terms, and addressing issues promptly if they arise.

You can rest assured you have an expert real estate advisor by your side before, during, and after escrow closes!

As your agent, I'll make sure...

  • You get clear guidance explaining escrow from start to finish so you feel empowered, not overwhelmed.
  • We anticipate hurdles proactively troubleshooting to prevent delays.
  • You've got an advocate resolving any disputes quickly and fairly.
  • Communication flows freely so you feel informed and at ease through one of life’s biggest financial decisions.

My decades of experience combined with our concierge-level service give you invaluable peace of mind during the escrow process.

Are you looking for a real estate advisor to maximize value and minimize hassle on your next home sale or purchase? I'm here to help every step of the way! Contact us today to find out how my team can expertly guide you through your next escrow. Here's to a smooth transaction and happy new chapter in your dream home!

Tim M. Clarke

About the author

17 years as a Realtor in the Research Triangle, Tim seeks to transform the Raleigh-Durham real estate scene through a progressive, people-centered approach prioritizing trust & transparency.

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