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Cold Feet? How to Kill a Contract on Your For-Sale Home

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As a seller, you do have options when it comes to backing out of a home sale, but there may be consequences.

Selling your house seemed like such a good idea … up until the moment someone actually wanted to buy it. Now you’ve got cold feet.

Lots of existing protections allow a buyer to back out of a home purchase. But what if your house is under contract — and then you decide not to sell after all?

Just how do you quash a deal on your for-sale home? If the thought of leaving your house is making your anxiety level soar, read on for some options.

Refuse to make repairs

Buyers will generally get your house inspected before they buy. And any home inspector worth his salt will probably find oodles of repairs the home needs. Most buyers will ask you to make them. If you don’t want the sale to go through, you could simply refuse. “That might make the buyer angry enough to walk away,” says Mike Minihan, an Atlanta real estate agent.

Along those lines, you can refuse to grant other concessions sought by the buyer, such as not allowing contract deadline extensions for financing or appraisals or not agreeing to change the closing date.

Although those tactics don’t guarantee the buyer will call off the deal, it’s worth a shot.

Caution: You might not want to try this if you’re selling in a hot market with low inventory. Buyers will be less likely to walk for any of the above reasons, and resorting to those tactics “only makes you seem like a jerk,” says Minihan.

Negotiate a deal

Let’s say you really do want to move, but you just aren’t ready yet. Maybe you haven’t found a house you like enough to move into, a common scenario if you’re looking in a hot area with low inventory.

Instead of going through the hassle of finding a house to rent, moving, and then moving again, ask the buyer if you could continue to live in your former home until you find a house to buy. To make the deal work, offer to pay the buyer rent.

“We are finding that buyers are much more open to this in a seller’s market,” says Minihan.

But there’s a catch.

“These rent-back agreements need to be worked out in the initial contract negotiation,” says Minihan. Once you’re under contract, you just have to hope “the buyer will be nice.”

Have a contingency in place

Hindsight is 20/20. If you’re reading this before you’ve put your house on the market, however, your motto could be Foresight is 20/20.

Make the sale of your home contingent upon finding suitable housing, recommends Melissa Zavala, a San Diego County, CA, broker. That way, “The seller might be able to back out or delay the closing if suitable housing is not available,” she says.

Take responsibility for your actions

Suck it up, and put yourself in the buyer’s position. They entered this contract in good faith, and now you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You might have a valid reason for doing so, but you sometimes need to pay for decisions that affect others.

“Be upfront and honest with the buyer,” says Minihan. Just tell them you made a mistake and no longer want to sell. “Offer to reimburse them for their inspections or appraisals, and apologize for wasting their time.”

Know that it might be difficult to sell later

If you successfully backed out of a contract and then put the house back on the market for some reason, maybe to give yourself more time, it could look odd.

Future buyers will wonder what went wrong. They might assume your house didn’t pass inspection, so they might cross it off their list of potential properties. Or if real estate agents find out that you got cold feet, they might not show your home. “We might not want to deal with [someone] who has a history of backing out of deals,” says Minihan.

Prepare for the worst: being sued

The buyer could sue you if you don’t honor the contract you signed. The “specific performance” remedy requires either defaulting party to honor and complete the contract. So if you change your mind and no longer want to sell, the court might force you to do so — “but this is rare,” says Minihan.

Get a lawyer

If the buyer isn’t budging and really wants your house, and you really, really don’t want to sell, it’s probably lawyer time. An attorney can let you know exactly what can happen if you breach a contract.

“It’s important for sellers to understand that a contract is exactly that — a contract,” says Melissa Zavala. “So the terms should be carefully considered before moving forward.”