No matter where you’re buying a home, at some point you’re going to find yourself deep in escrow. (Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it sounds.) What is escrow? In real estate, it has several meanings, but they all boil down to your house and your money being in a kind of limbo.

Escrow is when an impartial third party holds on to something of value during a transaction.

Escrow and offers

When you make an offer on a home, you will write an earnest money check that will be placed in “escrow.” That means it isn’t going directly to the seller but is being held by an impartial third party until you and the seller negotiate a contract and close the deal. You can’t touch it and the seller can’t touch it. It’s in escrow.

That’s important because it protects both parties. Say you put down earnest money that went directly to the seller and then couldn’t reach a final purchase and sale agreement. You don’t want the seller holding your earnest money hostage as a negotiating ploy. Likewise, the seller won’t want to sign over the deed to the home until you’ve paid for it. And you won’t want to hand over cash without the deed being signed. Escrow ensures everyone gets what they are due at essentially the same time.

Escrow and lenders

When you are talking with your mortgage lender, you’ll hear about escrow again. They might talk about an “escrow” or “impound” account or “reserves.” They may use these terms interchangeably, and that’s OK because they all mean the same thing. They are funds held by the lender to make payments for your homeowners insurance and property taxes. Lenders will collect them monthly along with your loan payment and then pay the tax and insurance bills when they are due. That’s because your lender has a vested interest in making sure those payments are made. You may hear the term “prepaids” as well. That’s money collected in advance for those bills to ensure they’ve got enough on hand to pay them when they are due.

Escrow and closing

Finally, you may hear someone refer to the “closing of escrow.” That’s when your purchase is completed. A closing or “escrow officer” will oversee the final paperwork and handle the exchange of funds and recording of deeds. This person, sometimes an attorney, will ensure that all the money is properly disbursed, that the documents are signed and recorded, and that all necessary conditions are met before closing the escrow.

What is a hold-back of funds?

Sometimes the sale may be completed and ownership transferred while funds are still held in escrow. For instance, if you’ve agreed to let the seller’s family stay in the house for an extra week until their new home is ready, you would sign a “rent-back” agreement requiring the seller to pay you a daily rate for the length of their stay. In the case of such a rent-back, your real estate agent will likely advise you to have the escrow agent hold back a portion of the seller’s proceeds until they’ve moved out and left the house in the condition specified in your contract.

Or perhaps you found something wrong during your final walkthrough of the house. Maybe the seller agreed to make the repair, but the work couldn’t be completed by closing day. Money can be held in escrow to cover the cost.

If you’re purchasing new construction, you may have funds held in escrow until all work is complete and you’ve signed off on it.

Once escrow is closed and all funds have been disbursed, you and the seller will receive a final closing statement and other documents in the mail. Check the statement carefully and call the closing agent immediately if you spot an error. File the statement with your most important papers. You’ll need it when you file your next income tax return.