The standard home purchase contract lists several conditions that must be met before the closing date, which you can choose to include or not (often by checking a box). These conditions are called "contingencies" because they make the closing of the sale contingent upon certain requirements being met beforehand. Most of the time, contingencies relate to issues like financing, inspections, insurance, and appraisals.
As a buyer, contingencies are vital: They provide you with an escape hatch from the property purchase if, for example, your mortgage financing falls through or other uncontrollable events or discoveries create barriers to your finalizing the deal.
As a practical matter, most of your negotiating over contingencies will be done in writing, via your written offers and counteroffers.
By placing at least a few contingencies on the purchase, you give yourself the opportunity to make sure that completing the deal is the right thing to do—and an option to back out before it's too late.
In some situations, such as with the financing contingency, you might literally be unable to complete the deal if you don't get the mortgage you were expecting. Thus having this condition within the contract saves you from financial disaster. In other situations, a contingency might address the level of risk you're willing to take on, such as with regard to repairs that turn up after an inspector's report (see discussion of the inspection contingency, below).
On the other hand, because every contingency offers you an "escape hatch," they make your offer less attractive to the seller. In hot markets with competitive bidding situations, buyers sometimes omit or waive certain contingencies altogether.
Not only you, but also the property sellers can ask that contingencies be included in the written purchase contract. These usually have to do with the seller's ability to sell or move out by the closing date; such as a contingency stating that the seller needs to have found another house to buy within a certain time, or can rent the house back from you for a limited time period after the closing.
Your real estate purchase contract will build in a certain amount of time (probably several weeks) between the contract signing and final "closing" of the deal, usually called the "escrow" period. The closing date is when the title to the property formally transfers from seller to buyer. To keep things moving, the various contingencies will also have deadlines attached to them.
During the escrow period, you and the seller will both be working hard to meet or remove the various contingencies. For example, you might be scheduling inspections, and the seller might be working with the title company to clear any liens for purposes of your securing title insurance.
Each of you will advise the other party of progress being made. If either of you fails to meet or remove a contingency, you can either cancel the purchase or renegotiate around the issue.
Many contingencies are quite standard, and both you and the seller would probably be foolish not to include them. Below are some common purchase contract contingencies:
Essentially, this contingency conditions the closing on the buyer receiving and being happy with the result of one or more home inspections. Home inspectors are trained to search properties for potential defects (such as in structure, foundation, electrical systems, plumbing, and so on) that might not be obvious to the naked eye and that might decrease the value of the home.
When this contingency is included in the contract, buyers can arrange for (at their own expense) one or more inspections of the property during what's commonly referred to as the inspection period.
If an inspection reveals a problem, the parties can either negotiate a solution to the issue or back out of the deal. The exception would be if the buyer asked for only a "yes/no" inspection contingency, in which case the buyer's only two choices are to go ahead with the deal or cancel it (presumably only if major repair needs turn up). The buyer would not be able to demand repairs or a price reduction based on what the inspection report turns up in such a case.
This contingency conditions the sale on the buyers securing an acceptable mortgage or other method of paying for the property. Even when buyers obtain a prequalification or preapproval letter from a lender, there's no guarantee that the loan will go through—most lenders require significant further documentation of buyers' creditworthiness once the buyers go under contract. Having this contingency in place allows the buyers an out in the event the lender refuses to underwrite a mortgage after it delves further into the buyers' finances, or something changes, like a job loss.
Because of the uncertainty that arises when buyers need to obtain a mortgage, sellers tend to favor buyers who make all-cash offers and leave out the financing contingency (perhaps knowing that, in a pinch, they could borrow from family until they succeed in getting a loan), or at least prove to the sellers' satisfaction that they're solid candidates to successfully receive the loan.
Many buyers add a homeowners' insurance contingency to their contracts. That's because homeowners living in states with a history of household toxic mold, earthquakes, fires, or hurricanes have been surprised to receive a flat out "no coverage" response from insurance carriers. You can make your contract contingent on your applying for and receiving a satisfactory insurance commitment in writing.
Another common insurance-related contingency is the requirement that a title company be willing and ready to provide the buyers (and, most of the time, the lender) with a title insurance policy. Title insurance protects buyers from the possibility that the current—or previous—sellers didn't have free and clear ownership of the property. If you were to discover a title problem after the sale is complete, title insurance would help cover any losses you suffer as a result, such as attorneys' fees, loss of the property, and mortgage payments.
In order to obtain a loan, your lender will no doubt insist on sending out an appraiser to examine the property and assess its fair market value. If the appraised value comes in lower than what you're paying, the lender will be reluctant to fund the loan, giving that its collateral isn't worth enough to cover a foreclosure sale. By including an appraisal contingency, you can back out if the sale fair market value is determined to be lower than what you're paying.
Alternatively, you might be able to use a low appraisal to re-negotiate the purchase price with the sellers, especially if the appraisal is relatively close to the original purchase price, or if the local real estate market is cooling or cold.
Beyond these common contingencies, there might be others in the standard property purchase contract, and still others you or the seller might want to add.
For example, the seller might ask that the deal be made contingent on successfully buying another house (to avoid a gap in living situation after transferring ownership to you). If you need to move quickly, you can reject this contingency or demand a time limit, or instead offer the seller a "rent back" of the house for a limited time.
Likewise, you can request that the deal be made contingent on the sale of your current house; but if you're in a slow market, where it might take you months to sell, the seller is liable to balk at this.
Once you and the seller agree on any contingencies for the sale, be sure to put them in writing in writing. Often, these are concluded within the written home purchase offer. For help, see Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Ann O'Connell, and Marcia Stewart.