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If you are buying privately (no real estate agent)

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There are a number of important things to know when you buy property without an agent (agents hate this!). Purchasing property is a complex process, and what I've written here is not complete. It does not, for example, include all the disclosures the seller must make, or explain how to assume or pay off the existing liens on the property. This is merely a quick guide to help you in a purchase you plan to make, and is intended to help keep you from making the worst mistakes.

  1. Everything must be in writing. In a real estate contract, you have to put what you intend to do on paper. Oral agreements are not binding in real estate, and even if they were, it's very hard to prove what was said.
  2. Use an escrow company. An escrow is a "stakeholder." They collect money from you, and deeds from the seller. They have no responsibility for any contract, and will do as you instruct, unless it's something that creates liability for them or is illegal. An escrow is essential, unless you REALLY know what you are doing (in other words, you are an experienced real estate broker). The reason is that it keeps everyone honest. Escrow won't close until all the terms of the contract have been fulfilled, or the escrow receives permission in writing from all parties to act without fulfilling them all (usually in the form of an addendum which buyer and seller sign). That way, you know your contract has been fulfilled when you finish the transaction.
  3. Get title insurance. Title insurance provides you with the certainty that the seller has given you the whole story on the liens on his property, including such things as judgments, taxes, spousal support or child support, mortgages, and the like (it's fairly common for a seller to "forget" that he's not paid the real estate taxes for several years--and you have to pay them if you buy the property without them being paid through escrow).
  4. Be sure you see monthly statements for all the loans on the property, if you are going to assume them or start paying on them without assumption. The title report (called a "prelim") will provide you with this information, as well as any unpaid taxes, liens, or judgments.
  5. NEVER give cash to a seller in exchange for a deed, unless you are CERTAIN you know what's owing on the property, and who actually owns it. A common recent scam is for people to pretend they own property, sell it to you for a ridiculously low figure, and then walk away, leaving you with a phony deed and no ownership of the property. This is fraud, of course, but your money is already gone. This is another good reason to use an escrow, and investigate the deeds on the property by getting a title report and a title policy.
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