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What Is A Short Sale In Real Estate? A Guide To The Process

July 27, 2023 12-minute read

Author: Miranda Crace


If you’re interested in buying a house at a discount, short sales can be an appealing option. Short sales are a safer alternative to foreclosures for both sellers and their lenders, which is why you often can find them priced just below market value. However, a short sale transaction is far more complex than your average sale, and can therefore involve a lot more risk.

Before you decide to purchase a short sale, you must know precisely what you’re getting yourself into. Reading this guide will arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate a short sale and determine if it’s the right choice for your circumstances.

Short Sale: Definition And Explanation

A short sale occurs when a homeowner in dire financial trouble sells their home for less than they owe on the mortgage. The lender of the original mortgage gets all of the proceeds of the sale, and either forgives the difference or gets a deficiency judgment, which requires the original borrower to pay what’s left over.

Why Can Short Sales Be Beneficial?

Although this seems like a less-than-ideal arrangement for the lender, especially if the difference is forgiven, it’s often a preferable alternative to foreclosure. A short sale is a way for a homeowner and their lender to get out of a difficult financial situation by taking a loss, so it’s often possible for a buyer to profit from this transaction. However, buyers should be aware that buying a house on a short sale is not always a good investment.

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When Does A Home Go Into Short Sale?

A home goes into short sale when the homeowner realizes that they can no longer afford to keep up with their mortgage payments. Instead of waiting for the bank to foreclose on the home, the homeowner initiates the short sale process by submitting an application to the mortgage lender.

There are two critical factors that the lender will consider when deciding whether to approve a short sale:

  • The home has to be worth less than what the homeowner owes on it. The lender will want to review recent sales of comparable properties to make sure this is the case.
  • The seller must be able to prove financial hardship. They have to show that they don’t have the income or assets to pay back the rest of the outstanding mortgage loan.

Short Sale Vs. Foreclosure

Short sales and foreclosures are both processes that occur when homeowners are struggling to keep up on their mortgage payments, or if they find that their mortgage is underwater. An underwater mortgage is when a borrower owes more money than the home is worth. In both cases, the homeowner loses possession of their property, though the circumstances and repercussions are different.

The extent of the seller’s control is a significant difference between these two processes. In a short sale, a seller will decide to submit a financial package, seeking a lender’s approval to sell the property for less than the amount they owe on it. Therefore, the seller enters into this process voluntarily, which is not the case for foreclosures.

Once a lender approves a short sale, a seller is in charge of selling the property. However, the lender is responsible for the negotiations and determines whether to accept or reject buyers’ offers – as it is the lender who is trying to recoup costs.

On the other hand, a foreclosure is a legal action taken by a lender to seize a seller’s property after they fall too far behind on their monthly payments. Although both processes can negatively impact a seller’s credit, a foreclosure can have a far more damaging impact on a seller’s FICO® Score and how long they have to wait to get a mortgage again. Furthermore, the foreclosure process can be expensive for the seller (and lender) and ultimately force them to file for bankruptcy in some cases.

What Does A Short Sale Mean For The Buyer?

On the other end of a short sale transaction is the home buyer. Oftentimes, buying a short sale home gives buyers the opportunity to get a good deal on a piece of real estate. These properties are also often in better condition than distressed properties.

Still, buying a short sale home comes with a time commitment and a certain amount of risk, so home buyers should be fully aware of the potential benefits and drawbacks before making an offer. We’ll take a closer look at the pros and cons of short sales a little later.

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How To Buy A Short Sale Home: The Process For Buyers In 6 Steps

Although the steps involved in a short sale process are very similar to a traditional deal, the process is more complicated because of the lender's involvement. The typical home buying process merely requires the seller to transfer their equity to the buyer in exchange for the agreed-upon purchasing price.

However, in a short sale, the transaction is in the hands of the lender, so the process tends to be more time-consuming and convoluted. The following six steps illustrate the primary differences between a short sale and a traditional sale.

Step 1: Get Approved For Financing

As with any home purchase, the first step is getting approved. While it’s always beneficial for buyers to obtain an initial approval before making an offer, it’s even more important in a short sale, as the lender will want to ensure that the new buyer is actually capable of purchasing the short sale property.

Step 2: Get A Real Estate Agent And Find A Home

Finding any home can take time, but it’s more challenging when your heart is set on scoring a short sale. Instead of searching through all the listings available in your desired area, focus on preforeclosure property listings online. You can also search through public records by getting in touch with the local county court.

Identifying and navigating a short sale can be tricky, but an experienced real estate agent can help you. They can assist with and explain all aspects of the home buying process, including locating short sales.

Step 3: Do Your Research

Before you make an offer, you want to gain all the information you can about the property. You’ll want to begin by reviewing comparable sales in the area to find out the actual value of the home. Real estate agents are an excellent resource for determining home value because they have access to the multiple listing service (MLS), which provides information on the prices of homes currently on the market and recently sold.

Since short sales are transactions in which the seller owes more on the home than it’s worth, you’re going to want to find out exactly how much the seller owes the lender. Before you purchase a short sale, you must make sure that you know of every person or entity that has a claim to the property (these are called lienholders). So, you should also double-check that there are no other liens on the home. You can ask the seller, their agent or lender for this information. However, to be safe, you should also ask a title company to do a title search on the property.

Step 4: Make An Offer

When making an offer on the property, you must use your knowledge of local home values to consider what the lender will think of your offer. You might be looking at the short sale as a way to get a deal on the home, but keep in mind that the lender is still trying to recoup as much of the remaining mortgage balance as possible – and likely also has to meet investor guidelines to accept the offer. Your offer should be close to the market value of the home if you want it to be accepted.

When you’re looking at properties, beware of fraudulent activity. If the seller asks you to pay money under the table for the opportunity to apply for a short sale, refuse and report it.

Step 5: Have The Home Inspected

Short sale properties are sold “as is,” which means you won’t be able to negotiate a lower purchase price if there are problems with the property. However, you should still know the condition of the home you’re buying before you decide to close on it. While the seller is required to disclose any known defects, sometimes this type of information falls through the cracks.

Be sure to get a home inspection so you know what you’re getting yourself into. If repairs are needed, research the cost or get estimates, so you can find out if the home will make financial sense for you in the long run.

Step 6: Close On The Property

Even after the lender has accepted the short sale, you need to ensure that the lender and any other lienholders are willing to release the collateral. The more lienholders there are, the longer this process can take.

For the sale to close, the seller must also provide the following documentation:

  • Hardship letter: A letter that explains the seller’s financial burdens and exactly why they can’t afford to make further mortgage payments.
  • Proof of income and assets: The seller must provide at least 2 years’ worth of bank statements and tax documents. This information must prove that the seller has no funds available to pay off their remaining debt.
  • List of liens: While some sellers may only be in debt as a result of their primary mortgage, others may have multiple debts. The seller must provide an up-to-date list of all liens on the property.
  • Comparative market analysis: A lender will insist upon a comparative market analysis to see a list of comparable properties that are currently on the market and have sold in the last 6 months to prove that the seller owes more than the house is worth.

Assuming the approval letter and documentation are in order, you’ll be able to close on the property, receive the keys and move in.

Benefits Of A Short Sale In Real Estate

Short sales can be beneficial for all parties involved. They provide greater investment opportunities for buyers and minimize the financial repercussions that both lenders and sellers would face if the properties went into foreclosure. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits for both buyers and sellers.

Short Sale Benefits For Buyers

There are a few main benefits with short sale homes for buyers, such as:

Discounted Price

Although the short sale property will be priced according to market value, the lender is highly motivated to sell in order to cut the bank’s losses. As a result, buyers can often get a better deal on the home than they would if it was purchased through a typical sale.

Less Competitive Market

Given the lender’s entanglement in the deal, short sales are far more complicated than traditional sales. Since most buyers are not experienced in short sales, they tend to shy away from them. There is less competition and a better chance to receive an offer and get it accepted when there are fewer interested buyers.

Short Sale Benefits For Sellers

On the other hand, sellers have many benefits during a short sale, such as:

  • Foreclosure prevention: A short sale will prevent a seller’s home from going into foreclosure, which can have a far more detrimental impact on their credit score.
  • Debt absorption: The majority of a seller’s debt will be paid off by the home buyer.
  • Savings on fees: In a typical sale, a seller would have to pay for agents’ commissions, but in a short sale, the lender pays these fees.
  • Potential debt forgiveness: It’s possible that the lender will accept the proceeds of the short sale and write off the remaining debt as a loss. In these cases, the seller is not held accountable for paying off whatever debt remains after the short sale.
  • Housing market reentry: A short sale enables the seller to reenter the market and obtain a mortgage immediately with a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan under the right circumstances. In order to do this, you have to have no late mortgage or installment payments in the last year prior to the short sale, and no late mortgage or installment payments in the year prior to applying for the new mortgage.

Drawbacks Of A Short Sale

Despite the benefits involved, there are still quite a few drawbacks that come with short sales. The process is complex and drawn out, which can increase the riskiness of the transaction and negatively impact buyers, sellers and lenders financially.

Here’s a list of some of the issues that both buyers and sellers face when involved in a short sale.

Short Sale Drawbacks For Buyers

If you're a buyer looking to obtain a short sale home, make sure you understand some of the drawbacks, such as:

More Time

A short sale usually takes longer than a traditional sale because of the lender’s involvement. In an attempt to recoup as much money as possible, the primary lender and any junior lienholders involved will take their time negotiating and closing the deal. Remember, the more lienholders there are, the longer the process will take. Furthermore, there are times when the seller delays the sale because they either second-guess their decision or are unprepared with the necessary paperwork.

Increased Risk

Since short sales are sold “as is” without typical disclosures, like a Seller’s Disclosure, the condition of the home and the quality of the deal are not always clear to the buyer. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the deal will actually close, so the buyer may risk spending time and money on a home they’re unable to purchase in the end.

More Homework

A short sale requires the buyer to put in a lot more work upfront. Doing research to figure out the true value of the home, discovering all liens on the property and identifying any issues with the property’s condition are essential to determining whether the purchase is worthwhile.

Property Condition

Given the fact that short sale sellers are financially strapped, their properties tend to be in worse condition than average homes sold on the market. Therefore, the buyer often has to spend a lot more money on repairs and improvements.

Short Sale Drawbacks For Sellers

Although there's many benefits for sellers during a short sale in real estate, they also come with drawbacks, such as:

  • No negotiation power: Although a seller plays an active role in the sale of the property, the lender is the only one with the power to negotiate the purchasing price of the home.
  • Lack of profits: Since a seller owes money to the lender, they won’t receive any of the proceeds of the sale of their home.
  • Credit score damage: A short sale can do real damage to a seller’s credit score. The higher your credit score, the larger the hit. However, short sales tend to cause sellers’ credit scores to drop by fewer points than foreclosures.
  • Delay in obtaining another mortgage: After a short sale, a seller must complete a waiting period before qualifying for a new mortgage. Outside of an FHA loan, the waiting period may be anywhere from 2 – 7 years.
  • Deficiency judgment: In some circumstances, the lender will sue the seller in an attempt to retrieve the remaining debt after the short sale. If a seller is sued, their credit score will receive a blow similar to a foreclosure. However, this process is not legal in all states.

5 Buyer Tips For Navigating Short Sales

If you're a buyer going through a short sale, take a look at these tips to help you throughout the process.

1. Get Estimates For Repairs

The property may be sold “as-is,” but you should still have the home inspected and get estimates for any repairs that must be made. Having this information at hand will not only help you determine if the home is worth buying, but it’ll also give you more power when it comes to negotiating with the lender. If you can prove that the property is in worse condition than it appears, you’ll be more likely to persuade the lender to sell at a lower price.

2. Make Sure Your Offer Is Realistic

Though lenders are motivated to sell, they’re also trying to make as much from the transaction as possible. If you submit a low-ball offer or try to ask for contingencies, it’s unlikely that your offer will be accepted.

3. Provide As Much Cash As Possible

After having lost money on a risky investment, lenders are looking for a sure thing. If you can pay in cash, lenders will be jumping at your offer. If not, the larger your down payment, the safer and more enticing your offer will appear. (Don’t forget: If you require financing, you must get preapproved before you make an offer.)

4. Offer To Pay Seller’s Closing Costs

Although the lender typically pays the commission and any other fees the seller is responsible for, agreeing to pay closing costs will make your offer more appealing. If there are other buyers interested in the property, this offer will give you a leg up against the competition, as it’ll enable the lender to recoup more money.

5. Enlist The Help Of A Real Estate Professional

Real estate agents are indispensable resources when it comes to short sales. Short sales are complicated transactions, and with lenders calling all the shots, it’s vital that you have representation. An agent who is knowledgeable about the process will be able to research the property, advise you on its value, negotiate a better deal and ensure that your interests are protected.

Is Buying A Short Sale Right For You?

The answer to this question is not necessarily a simple one. To decide if a short sale is right for you, you must consider your needs as well as the specifics of the property you’re interested in. Remember three key facts:

  • The process will take longer, so you must be prepared to wait.
  • You’ll be buying the home as is.
  • You’ll need a larger down payment.

Make sure you know the condition that the home is in and how much repairs will cost. Saving money on the purchase price will mean nothing if you ultimately have to spend more to make the home livable.

The Bottom Line

Short selling prevents a homeowner from foreclosing on their house. It also allows the home buyer to purchase a home for less money than it would typically be worth due to the vulnerability of the housing market.

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Miranda Crace

Miranda Crace is a Senior Section Editor for the Rocket Companies, bringing a wealth of knowledge about mortgages, personal finance, real estate, and personal loans for over 10 years. Miranda is dedicated to advancing financial literacy and empowering individuals to achieve their financial and homeownership goals. She graduated from Wayne State University where she studied PR Writing, Film Production, and Film Editing. Her creative talents shine through her contributions to the popular video series "Home Lore" and "The Red Desk," which were nominated for the prestigious Shorty Awards. In her spare time, Miranda enjoys traveling, actively engages in the entrepreneurial community, and savors a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.