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What is escrow?

How escrow accounts work

Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

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Most people need escrow accounts when they get a mortgage for taxes and insurance reasons. In this resource, we explain what escrow means, the different types of escrow accounts and how it all works.

Escrow describes a situation in which a neutral third party
holds funds or an asset until a condition is met.

What is an escrow account and how does it work?

Escrow accounts, sometimes called trust accounts or impound accounts, are a type of prepayment account. Escrow is most commonly used to hold funds intended to pay taxes, insurance premiums and related expenses.

To be “in escrow” means that some amount of money or piece of property is temporarily controlled by a third party until a specified condition has been fulfilled, such as the closing of a deed. An escrow advance is any amount of funds put toward taxes or insurance premiums. An escrow disbursement is when the funds are used to pay for charges and expenses out of the account.

Funds in an escrow account can be used for different purposes, but most people encounter them related to real estate. A mortgage lender collects these funds with your monthly house payment and puts them into an escrow account.

It may seem confusing, but escrow accounts are fairly straightforward and can save everyone a headache in the long run.

How escrow works

An escrow account works sort of like a savings account, but it’s managed by your mortgage servicer and doesn’t earn interest. You can think of an escrow account as a prepayment account used to cover the costs of homeowners insurance, taxes and other fees.

Escrow is meant to help homeowners avoid writing a large check at the end of the year and help show sellers that a buyer is serious about the transaction.

When you make an offer on a house, you pay earnest money into an escrow account. This functions as a sort of promise to the seller. The earnest money is put into an escrow account and later added toward your down payment.

After closing, an escrow officer estimates how much you will owe at the end of the year in homeowners insurance and taxes. This amount is then divided by 12 and added to your monthly mortgage payment each month. Lenders sometimes require a “cushion,” which is an additional amount due with your monthly escrow payment, to cover their expenses.

Each time you make a mortgage payment, your servicer deposits a portion of the payment into an escrow account. The funds in the account cover your real estate taxes and insurance premiums when they are due.

Your lender takes that escrow advance, sets it aside and saves it for the end-of-year payment. An escrow agent then performs an escrow disbursement, meaning they take the money you have saved and put it toward the total expenses.

If you owe more than you have saved, you must pay the difference. If you put more in escrow than you end up needing, you get a refund.

Types of escrow accounts

Depending on where you are in the homebuying process, there are two main types of escrow accounts: one before and one after the purchase. Most lenders require both types of escrow.

  • Escrow accounts for homebuying: This type of mortgage escrow account happens before buying a home. It’s usually somewhere between 1% and 2% of the home’s final purchasing price. This is also called earnest money and indicates to the seller that you’re serious. It will not be cashed until after purchase. After the sale is complete, this money is put toward the down payment. If the homebuying process falls through, this money might not be returned.
  • Escrow accounts for taxes and insurance:  After purchase, you will usually see a line on your monthly mortgage statement titled “escrow.” This number is a portion of your annual estimated insurance and tax expenses. Your escrow taxes and insurance amount can change from year to year. Your lender will estimate it based on the previous year plus two extra months, meaning you might receive a refund at the end of the year. This will be reflected in your monthly mortgage statement.

Escrow FAQ

What is escrow balance?
Escrow balance is the amount you have in your escrow account at any given time. Your escrow balance is managed by a neutral third party and put toward homeowners insurance premiums and property taxes on your behalf.
Who pays closing costs: the buyer or seller?
Usually, buyers and sellers both pay some amount of closing costs. The buyer typically pays between 2% and 5% of the property’s purchase at closing. The buyer’s closing costs typically go toward mortgage lender fees. Most of the time, the seller pays closing costs related to real estate agent commissions, title fees, transfer taxes, etc.
Can I pay my escrow in advance?
Yes, you can pay escrow in advance. However, be aware that making extra escrow payments will not go toward paying down your principal balance. It’s smart to contact your mortgage lender if you have any questions about making more payments toward your escrow balance.
What is an escrow refund?
An escrow refund is much like it sounds — it means you put more into the account than you needed, and a portion is returned back to you. Remember that your escrow officer or agent estimates your payments, so they are not set in stone. If you pay more than you need, your escrow agent refunds you the difference.
Do escrow accounts earn interest?
No, escrow accounts typically do not earn interest.
How long does it take to close escrow?
It generally takes between 30 and 60 days to close escrow. The length of time depends on your contract and terms.
What are escrow services?
Escrow services provide a secure and safe way to complete large financial transactions. Escrow companies are neutral third parties that hold money or property on behalf of the buyer and the seller. The escrow company makes the transaction safer and smoother.
What is earnest money?
When you make an offer on a house, you write an earnest money check. Earnest money functions as a promise to the seller that you intend to follow through with the purchase. The funds are put into an escrow account and transferred to the seller when closing is complete.

Bottom line: What does escrow mean?

Escrow means a few different things, depending on where you’re at in the homebuying process. If you’re still in the purchasing phase, escrow refers to the time between writing up a contract and closing on the house. After you purchase the home, escrow refers to prepayment for taxes and insurance. Your lender collects escrow each month and saves it in an account for use at the end of the year when your insurance and taxes are due.

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Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.