Ask an estate agent: What can I do if my house sale falls through?

'For sale' and 'sold' property signs

A buyer - and indeed a seller - is entitled to walk away from any deal right up until the point contracts are exchanged - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Unlike in some countries, where once your offer is accepted on a house you are contractually obliged to buy it unless you discover a fundamental flaw which was not mentioned in the sale particulars, in England a buyer – and indeed a seller – is entitled to walk away from any deal right up until the point contracts are exchanged.

This can cause heartache for sellers, not to mention extra costs in terms of legal fees, lost time and having to remarket a property.

“It can be very frustrating when you are so far down the road of selling your property and your buyer pulls out,” says Jan Hÿtch, chair of the Norwich & District Association of Estate Agents (NDAEA).

“Fortunately there are some things you can do to minimize the risk, but you will never remove it completely.”

We asked a cross-section of NDAEA member agents what their advice 
would be.

Hands holding yellow paper house on blue background, family home, homeless shelter housing and home

There's not a lot sellers can do to protect their house sale as sellers have no rights, and no protection up to exchange of contracts - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How common is it for buyers to pull out?
“Thankfully this is relatively uncommon at the moment,” says Jo McIntyre of Musker McIntyre. “This is mainly due to the lack of stock and the amount of demand.

“The buyers who are fortunate enough to have found the property they want are tending to go through to exchange of contracts, rather than risk it!”

However, that lack of supply is leading to buyers pulling out in certain circumstances, says Tim Wicks from Arnolds Keys. “In a market where supply is restricted, buyers compromise more and may decide to withdraw from a purchase if a more suitable property comes onto the market.” 

Steve Pymm of Pymm & Co puts a figure on the dropout rate: “On average I would say 20 per cent of sales fall through, although around half of them resell, so an average of ten per cent never complete.”

Up to what stage can someone pull out of a house sale? Do sellers have any rights or protection?
“Unfortunately sellers have no rights, and no protection up to exchange of contracts,” says Katie Mountain, manager of Arnolds Keys’ city office. “Buyers and/or sellers can pull out at any stage of the transaction.”

“A buyer can withdraw at no cost to them up to exchange of contracts, when a ten per cent deposit is paid and the contract is then legally binding,” says Steve Pymm. “In 25 years as an agent I have never known anyone not to complete after exchange of contracts.”

Upset frustrated young man reading bad news in postal mail letter paper document sit at home table,

A bad survey or search results are the most common reasons, along with a chain collapsing, for a buyer to pull out - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Of course there are sometimes valid reasons,” says Jo McIntyre. “If you use a good estate agent, they should be able to hold deals firmly together and get across the finishing line.”

What are some of the most common reasons buyers pull out, and is there anything a seller can do to lower the risk?
“A bad survey or search results are the most common reasons, along with a chain collapsing,” says Steve Pymm. “To minimize the risk, take advice from your agent before marketing and try and sell to a chain-free buyer.”

Clive Hedges, manager of Arnolds Keys’ coastal office agrees that the condition of a property, as revealed by the survey, can lead to a buyer pulling out, but says that vendors are often prepared for this.

But there are other reasons: “Sometimes competitive bidding can ‘force’ a buyer to extend their budget, and then they get second thoughts. A realistic valuation and good support team will mitigate most of the reasons.”

Jo McIntyre agrees. “To lower the risk, employ a good, trustworthy estate agent who can help mitigate against issues and smooth the process for both buyers and sellers alike.”

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Does a seller still have to pay fees if a buyer pulls out? If so, what for?
“Most agents do not tend to charge a seller if the buyer pulls out, unlike industries where you have to pay for a service – estate agents do all the leg work and only get paid once the property is successfully sold,” says Jo McIntyre.

“Some agents do charge for marketing material and some even charge an ‘up-front’ fee. So choose an agent that has a good reputation for excellent customer service and look at their reviews.”

Katie Mountain agrees that it’s important to check an agent’s terms of business before signing up. “Normally the terms for agents would be ‘no sale, no fee’, however if a seller decides to pull out after accepting an offer from a willing and able purchaser, the agent may charge a fee, so check the terms.”

Steve Pymm points out that there may be other costs to consider. “The only fee a seller may have to pay if their buyer pulls out is a small amount to their lawyer for any work carried out up to that point – but as agents, we only bill on exchange of contracts.”

Moving day concept, cardboard carton boxes stack with household belongings in modern house living ro

Try again, and don’t lose heart, says Jo McIntyre - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

If the worst happens, what should a seller do?
“Although it might be the first time a sale has fallen through for the seller, it will be a well-versed scenario for an experienced agent – so listen to the advice that agent is giving,” advises Clive Hedges.

It’s important to address the reasons for the property sale falling through, says Steve Pymm. “If it’s down to a bad survey, then you may need to undertake remedial building work, or take advice on search results and remarket straight away. “If a chain collapses, maybe allow seven days for the chain to retie up, and if not look to remarket the property.”

Jo McIntyre advises a sanguine approach. “Try again, don’t lose heart – a good agent will support you and give you sensible advice on the next step to selling and moving.”

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