What's a Mortgage Escrow Account?

Find out how mortgage escrow accounts work, what items your escrow money will go towards, and how having this type of account this could actually help you out.

If you're taking out a mortgage to buy a home, the lender might require you to have an escrow account for the purpose of paying property taxes and other items. Read on to learn how mortgage escrow accounts work, what items your escrow money will go towards, how having this type of account this may actually help you out, and whether you can cancel this kind of account once it's in place.

What’s a Mortgage Escrow Account?

When it comes to mortgage accounts, the term “escrow” means something different than it does when you buy a home. In a home purchase, escrow refers to when a neutral third party collects and disburses the required funds and documents involved in the closing process.

With a mortgage escrow account, on the other hand, you pay extra amounts to the servicer (the company that handles the account on behalf of the lender) along with your monthly payment of principal and interest. The servicer puts these amounts into a special account—a mortgage escrow account—and pays certain property costs, including taxes and insurance, on your behalf out of that account.

Mortgage Escrow Terminology

There are a few terms and acronyms you should know about when dealing with mortgage escrow accounts. For example, a mortgage escrow account is sometimes called an "impound account" (like in California) or a "trust account".

Also, a mortgage escrow account pays for taxes and insurance, which are usually referred to as T&I. The mortgage payment, which consists of principal and interest, is called P&I. All together, these items are called PITI—principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.

How Mortgage Escrow Accounts Work

If you have a mortgage escrow account, you must pay an estimated portion of certain annual costs each month. Escrow payments are made at the rate of 1/12 of the yearly amount due. The lender might also require a little extra—called a "cushion"—to cover unexpected increases in costs. This money is set aside to cover various costs including property taxes, homeowners' insurance, and private mortgage insurance. These items are collectively called “escrow items.” The idea is to protect the lender from the possibility that you won't regularly pay these on your own.

In most cases, the tax and insurance bills are sent directly to the servicer. The servicer then pays these bills when they become due—typically once or twice a year.

If your property costs change—for example, your property is subjected to a tax reassessment or your homeowners' insurance carrier raises its rates—your escrow payment will change.

What's An Escrow Analysis?

Each year, your servicer will review your escrow account to make sure the escrow portion of your monthly mortgage payment covers the taxes and insurance premiums while also maintaining the minimum escrow account balance, if there is one. This is called an escrow analysis.

To find a copy of your most recent escrow analysis and get details about your escrow account, you can:

  • Check your mortgage account online. Most servicers provide information about your escrow account over the Internet. You should be able to go to your lender or servicer’s website and log in to see what tax and insurance payments they’ve made from your account.
  • Check your escrow account disclosure statement. After your mortgage servicer does the escrow analysis, it will send you an escrow account disclosure statement by mail. But if you're more than 30 days behind in your payments at the time of the analysis, the servicer does not have to send you the statement. The statement will include the results of the analysis, including a history of the activity on your account over the past year, as well as the expected upcoming activity for the next year.

Benefits to Having an Escrow Account

Mortgage lenders tend to like escrow accounts because it ensures that your taxes and insurance premiums are paid on time and in full. Having an escrow account can also make your life easier because you don’t have the pay the insurance and taxes in lump sums, but instead you get spread out the payments over the year.

Sometimes Escrow Accounts Are Required, Sometimes They’re Not

Mortgage lenders don't require all borrowers to have an escrow account. For some, it's required; for others, it is merely an option. And you might be able to cancel the account at some point. (Learn more in Can I get rid of a mortgage escrow account and pay property taxes and insurance on my own?)

If you don’t have an escrow account, you're responsible for paying the taxes and insurance directly, usually in one or two large payments each year.

What Happens If You Don’t Pay Your Homeowners' Insurance

If you fail to purchase homeowners' insurance, your lender might buy a policy—called “force-placed” insurance or “lender-placed” insurance—and add the amounts to your loan balance. This type of insurance typically costs more and provides fewer benefits than insurance that you could buy on your own.

What Happens If You Don’t Pay Your Property Taxes

If you are responsible for paying the property taxes on your own, but you fail to pay them, the taxing authority may:

  • charge you penalties, interest, and fines, and/or
  • place a tax lien on your home.

You could also potentially face a foreclosure. (Learn more about property tax foreclosures.)

Alternatively, the lender might advance the cost of the property taxes out of its own funds to protect its interest in the property and then add this amount to the total you owe. If you don’t pay up, you’ll most likely be in violation of the terms of the mortgage contract and the lender will be able to foreclose.

If you're facing a potential foreclosure, consider contacting an attorney to find out about your options.

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