The process of closing on a home is not a familiar one to most people, only doing it a few times during their life. One of the questions we get all the time is “when do I get my keys so that I can move in?”
This is one of those topics where the answer differs from state-to-state, as closing procedures and customs vary pretty significantly. We’re in Washington state, so if you live elsewhere, check with local real estate professionals for how it works in your area.
In order to get possession of the home that you are buying, the transaction must be closed. In fact, if you read the standard NWMLS contracts that are used in most transactions, possession of the property transfers to the buyer at 9PM on the closing date, offering some time for the sellers to finish their move-out on closing day. If you close at 4PM, you can receive keys at 9PM.
One of the biggest misconceptions among buyers in Washington is what constitutes closing. Many think that once they give their money to the escrow company and buyer and seller sign their paperwork, they own the home. That’s not the case, as signing and closing are two different events here. Closing means that the seller has delivered the deed to the property to the buyer, and funds are disbursed according to the contract. You won’t get handed the deed, as the other important piece of the process is to let the world now that the sale has occurred so that the property can’t also be sold to someone else. This is done by recording the deed at the county recorder’s office. Closing occurs when the deed is recorded at the county and recording numbers are available. (You can actually watch for this in real time on the King County Recorders site.)
In most instances, signing takes place a day or two before the actual closing, and the additional time is used for final documentation review by lenders. Once the deed (and your mortgage) is recorded, you own the home. If the home is vacant, customarily your agent can pass you the keys at any time after recording. If the seller is in the midst of final move-out, they may take until the possession time in the contract to pass you they keys.
In your contract negotiations, you can agree with the seller for early or late possession. The seller may need an additional day or two to close on their next home and move out, or perhaps the buyer is trying to get early possession to facilitate their own move. In general, we recommend strongly against early or late possession agreements of any sort. Early possession by the buyer can have disastrous consequences if the sale fails. We’ve had multiple clients get the keys a day or two early, move their stuff in and then have their sale fail and have to move out. Sellers in this scenario are faced with the unappetizing prospect of having to evict the buyer. More importantly, you don’t own the home, so what happens if a seller enters the home and takes your stuff? Or what happens in a fire or flood? The seller’s insurance covers the home, but not your belongings. There is a lot of liability to early possession, and we don’t recommend it.
Delayed possession is more common, giving the seller additional time to facilitate their next purchase or move. It does introduce similar sorts of risks, since the home you own is occupied by someone else, and what happens in a disaster? Allowing this is more of a judgment call, based on the seller’s situation. If a seller has lived in the home for many years and you see how they cared for it, there isn’t a high likelihood that they are going to damage it or leave you with an unwelcome surprise, but offering an extended possession time without a formal lease agreement can be a bad idea.
Some home sales may call for a little bit of flexibility in when possession is transferred, but anything beyond a few days should be formalized with a lease agreement to avoid disagreements and clarify liability between the short-term tenant and landlord. Very short-term leases may not have any rent associated with them, but anything beyond a week or two should involve negotiations of rent payments to take care of your holding costs.
Lastly, we’ve seen instances where buyers, in cooperation with their agents, snag a key from the keybox prior to closing and begin moving in or even doing work on the house! Sellers will want to make sure that their agent remains in control of the keys until closing has occurred, as there is no scenario where allowing the buyer’s contractors in the home to do work is a good idea when they don’t own it.