A short sale in real estate is the sale of a home at a lower price than what’s owed on the mortgage.
The transaction requires the lender's approval and is a last resort to avoid foreclosure when a homeowner can no longer afford to make mortgage payments.
Short sales, sometimes called pre-foreclosure or distressed sales, were common after the housing market collapsed in 2008 and left many homeowners underwater on their mortgages. Today, they comprise a much smaller share of total home sales.
A short sale isn't the only alternative to foreclosure. If you're a homeowner worried about your ability to pay the mortgage, explore mortgage relief programs before considering a short sale.
How a short sale works for the seller
As the homeowner, you'll need your lender's approval to do a short sale. You may be eligible if you:
Recently experienced a financial hardship.
Owe more than the home is worth and can no longer afford the mortgage.
Applied for a loan modification but didn't qualify, or can't do a loan modification for some other reason, such as the need to relocate for a job.
Contact your lender or mortgage servicer as soon as possible if you think you might have trouble paying your mortgage. You may qualify for mortgage assistance, staving off the need for a short sale.
If you don't qualify for a loan modification, then you may apply to do a short sale. Be prepared to provide financial documents, such as pay stubs and tax returns.
Nerd tip: In some states, sellers are responsible for paying the difference between the sales price and the mortgage balance after a short sale closes. In that case, you can ask the lender to "waive the deficiency" before proceeding with the short sale. Get the waiver in writing, advises the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If your short sale is approved, work with a real estate agent who has experience with short sales. The agent will help you market the property and guide you through the process with the lender.
Short sale vs. foreclosure
A homeowner initiates a short sale with the lender's approval. With foreclosure, the lender repossesses the property after a borrower has defaulted on the mortgage.
A short sale has some advantages over foreclosure. As the homeowner, you:
Can plan your leave-taking, which could give you a greater sense of control in the selling process.
May qualify for paid moving expenses.
May be eligible to buy a home again sooner than after foreclosure.
Homeowner alternatives to a short sale
Consider other options before a short sale if you think you might not be able to pay your mortgage.
Need assistance sorting through the options? A housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can help.
Be prepared to share your last mortgage statement and other financial documents, such as recent bank statements, credit card bills, tax returns and pay stubs. You can search for a counselor through the HUD website.
Nerd tip: Watch out for mortgage relief scams. Beware of companies that promise mortgage relief for an upfront fee or that discourage you from contacting your lender, attorney or a government-approved housing counselor.
Frequently asked questions
How a short sale works for a buyer
Short sales are more complicated than traditional home sales because more stakeholders are involved in the process. In addition to the homeowner and buyer and their real estate agents, stakeholders include the mortgage servicer and the "investor" — the company that owns the mortgage. (Lenders often sell home loans to other banks or entities, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.)
And in some instances, the transaction may involve other lenders holding second mortgages, such as home equity loans on the property, as well as a private mortgage insurance company or a homeowners association that is owed money.
Here are the general steps for buying a short sale home:
Get preapproved for a mortgage before you start shopping. A mortgage preapproval will show the seller's lender that you have the ability to buy the home. Or be prepared to show proof that you have the money if you're buying with cash.
Choose a real estate agent with experience in short sale transactions. The agent will identify homes listed for short sale and guide you through the process.
Work with your agent to submit an offer on a home. The lender may accept, decline or send a counteroffer.
Respond to the counteroffer.
Close the deal. Work with your real estate agent to follow all the instructions to closing.
Buying a short sale home: Pros and cons
Buying a short sale property isn't for everybody. Weigh the pros and cons of short sale transactions before you start shopping.
Some buyers aren’t interested in short sales, so you might face less competition when making offers.
Sellers are highly motivated, perhaps opening the door to getting a lower price than with a traditional sale.
Short sales are more complicated than traditional home sales because they involve multiple parties.
The transactions typically take longer to complete than traditional sales.
The lender must approve the price, so your offer may not be accepted even if the homeowner likes it.