Real Estate

Considerations Before Selling a House in Washington

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
Find out key issues involved with selling a house in Washington State.

Although the steps involved in selling a home are similar regardless of what part of the U.S. you live in, Washington’s real estate laws and practices are unique in some respects. Becoming familiar with the process early will help you avoid problems later. Here’s an overview of the basics—from working with a real estate agent to making legally required disclosures to closing the deal.

Working With a Washington Real Estate Agent

Most people selling their home in Washington work with a licensed real estate broker or agent. A good agent will help prepare and price your house, market it to prospective buyers, review purchase offers, and negotiate with buyers all the way through the closing.

Before signing up with an agent, get references from other home sellers and check customer reviews on sites such as Zillow and Trulia. You can check whether agents have valid licenses at the Washington State Department of Licensing’s site.

Signing a Listing Agreement in Washington.

Once you find a real estate agent you want to work with, you’ll sign a “listing agreement,” giving the agent the right to market and handle the sale of your house. Most agents use standard forms created by their state or local Realtor association, such as Washington REALTORS.

Listing agreements typically cover the following.

  • Commission that you (the seller) will pay. This typically ranges from 5-6% of the house sales price, and is split between your real estate agent and the buyer’s agent.
  • Type of listing. Most listing agents will want you to sign an exclusive right to sell listing, which obligates you to pay a commission to the agent regardless of who brings in the buyer. Other arrangements are possible, however, such as an open listing, in which you agree to pay a commission to whichever agent brings in a buyer, or an exclusive agency listing, in which you agree that your agent is the only agent authorized to sell your house but that you will pay a commission only if the agent brings in the buyer (not, for example, if you do).
  • Duration of listing. The listing agreement will cover a set amount of time, such as 60 to 90 days.
  • List price. Your agent will recommend the appropriate selling price. To educate yourself as to whether the agent is recommending an appropriate price, the National Association of Realtors’ website is a good source of information on prices of houses currently on the market, and websites such as Zillow and Trulia provide data on past sales prices. (Note that list prices are often set higher or lower than actual market value, for strategic reasons.)
  • Items included in the sale. You may, for example, plan to leave behind a built-in dishwasher, which would therefore become part of the property that the agent is contracted to sell. Or, you might wish to exclude a large mirror fixture that you plan to move to your new home, in which case the agent needs to know and convey that information.
  • Duties and obligations of seller and real estate agent. Your agreement will spell out how the real estate agent will list or market your house, what type of insurance you must maintain on the property, and what disclosures you must make.

Making Real Estate Disclosures in Washington

State law in Washington (Revised Code of Washington Section 64.06.020) requires sellers to give buyers a filled-in disclosure form, the language of which is spelled out in the law. The form covers describes the contents of the property as well as issues concerning it, such as:

  • legal concerns, such as boundary encroachments or zoning violations
  • condition of the structural components, such as roofs, floors, ceilings, floors, and pool
  • presence of termites or other pests
  • condition of appliances and equipment, such as sump pump, wood stove, and garbage disposal
  • condition of electrical, plumbing and other house systems, and
  • any homeowners’ association fees and deed restrictions (if the house is within a development governed by a community association).

Certain types of sales, such as foreclosures, are exempt from state disclosure rules.

In addition, if your house was built before 1978, you must comply with federal Title X disclosures regarding lead-based paint and hazards. See the lead disclosure section of the EPA’s website for details.

Washington Offers, Counteroffers, and Purchase Agreements

A buyer who wants to purchase a particular Washington home will make the seller a written offer, specifying the price, proposed down payment, and other terms, including any contingencies (conditions that must be met for the sale to close, such as the buyers arranging and being satisfied with the results of a home inspection or the buyers’ arranging financing or selling their current house).

You may reject an offer outright, accept it as, or (as is more typical) respond with a counteroffer. A counteroffer accepts some or most of the offer terms but suggests changes to others, such as a higher price or a closing date that’s sooner than the buyer proposed.

A legally binding contract is formed when you accept the buyer's most recent signed offer (agreeing to any changes from the original offer) and notify the buyer of its acceptance. The transaction will then go into what’s called “escrow.”

What Is Escrow?

Escrow is the time period between signing the purchase agreement and closing on the house. You will choose an escrow or title agent, a neutral third party, to serve as intermediary and supervise the process. This may involve preparing title reports.

The buyer typically has a lot more to do during this time period than the seller. By the close of escrow, the buyer will need to finalize financing, remove all buyer contingencies, have the house appraised (typically required by mortgage lenders), and get title insurance—usually under set deadlines.

As the seller, you will need to cooperate with things like scheduling the inspectors' and appraiser's visits. And if you included contingencies of your own in the contract, such as that you find another house to buy, you'll need to get busy on that.

Issues often come up during escrow that require negotiating, such as who will pay for repair problems identified in an inspection report. The buyer may insist that you either pay to remedy a defect or lower the purchase price. If you cannot reach agreement, the buyer may have the right to back out of the deal.

What Happens at the Closing of Your Washington Home

By the close of escrow (known as the closing or settlement), you and the buyer should have fulfilled all the terms of your purchase agreement. At the closing itself (sometimes a meeting of the parties, other times conducted in separate locations and even on separate days), all final documents and funds will be exchanged between buyer and seller.

The buyer pays you the purchase price, and you give the buyer a deed and other transfer documents and clear title to the house or condo. You pay off any outstanding loans on your property and pay commissions to the real estate agents (per your listing agreement).

Sellers do not usually need to be present at a Washington closing, so long as all costs are paid and documents are signed. Typically, the buyers will sign the final documents at the office of their title company or escrow agent and pick up the keys. The escrow agent will record the new deed in the buyers' name at a local government office, and the home is officially theirs.

Working With a Lawyer

Unlike some states, Washington does not require that sellers involve a lawyer in the house-selling transaction.

Even if it’s not required, you may decide to engage a lawyer at some point in the process—for example, to review the final contract or to assist with closing details. Or, you may want a lawyer’s help drafting a lease agreement if you plan to rent the home back for an extended period of time after the house closing, or if problems show up on the title report such as a lien on your property. And if you are selling your home without a real estate agent (a “for sale by owner” or FSBO), it may be useful to hire an attorney to help with the legal paperwork.

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