Buyer and seller agreeing on a pre contract deposit to be paid. SAM Conveyancing's guide on non refundable deposits when buying a house
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Non Refundable Deposit When Buying a House

(Last Updated: 27/10/2023)
6 min read
Key Takeaways
  • Sellers or estate agents will sometimes ask for a pre contract deposit to take property off the market when your offer is accepted. This is typically non-refundable.
  • The amount varies and is usually paid to the estate agent. It's important to ensure that the holding deposit is part payment of the purchase price and not an additional cost incurred.
  • You must get a written agreement stating the terms under which this deposit is refundable to protect yourself.

The principle behind property law in England and Wales is that no buyer is contractually bound to purchase the property until they have completed all of their due diligence and are happy to exchange contracts (Read more about Exchange of Contracts here). This does mean that the buyer, as well as the seller, can pull out for whatever reason up until they formally exchange contracts (and even after at a serious financial cost - read how to pull out after exchange of contracts).

What does a non-refundable deposit mean?

Sellers and estate agents are more frequently asking buyers to pay a "holding deposit" at the point they make an offer. The principle is to lock in the buyer with a financial commitment that they'll lose if they pull out. The challenge for the buyer is that pre contract deposits require a written contract, which is often very detailed, and so a lawyer must usually untangle the legally binding caveats hidden in the small print.

With a complex non-refundable deposit contract, often called a Lockout Agreement, the terms could take weeks to agree between the sellers' and the buyers' solicitors. There are some who would say that this time would be better spent focusing on completing the standard legal work required on the purchase and getting to the exchange of contracts sooner.

5 Simple Questions to Check in your Non-Refundable Deposit Contract

    How much is the non-refundable deposit?
Pre contract deposits range between £500 to £2,000. If you are asked to pay more than this, then you need to ensure you have the ability to get some, if not all, of the deposit repaid if certain stages aren't met by the seller.

    Who do you pay the non-refundable deposit to?
Most non-refundable deposits get paid to the estate agent by the buyer, either by cheque or by debit card. It is important to make sure that the estate agent agrees to pay this money to the seller's solicitors once the conveyancing is underway as it should be deducted from the overall purchase price.

You should check to make sure that the non-refundable deposit isn't actually a fee levied by the estate agent and that, on completion, you still have to pay for the full purchase price. There are a number of estate agents who state the pre contract deposit is a reservation deposit however, in their small print, it turns out to be a fee charged by the estate agent (Read our article on Estate Agents Force Buyers to Pay to Get Their Offers Accepted)

    Under what terms can you break and not lose your deposit?
As you are paying a pre contract deposit, knowing very little about the property or the seller, then you should have clauses to allow you to pull out and get repaid your deposit in full. These are just some of the reasons that you may need to pull out after putting in an offer:

  • The property has been undervalued by the mortgage lender, and you can't get a mortgage (Read What to do if banks undervalue your property)
  • The property has a structural defect that has been picked up in the mortgage valuation and/or building survey
  • The seller has made misrepresentations in their disclosed documents
  • The seller is unable to provide satisfactory replies to enquiries of the buyer
  • The seller is unable to give vacant possession

    What happens if the seller breaks the contract?
As much as the seller doesn't want the buyer to pull out, the buyer may not want the seller to pull out at the last minute, either. The non-refundable deposit contract needs to be binding for both the seller and the buyer, with adequate compensation payable for breaching the terms, including cover for legal costs, survey fees and other associated losses incurred.

    What is the timeline for the contracts to get exchanged?
Non-refundable deposits are often given when buying a new build property, and the time frames for these transactions are clearly set out at the outset; normally exchange of contracts occurs within 28 days. For non-new build transactions, a time limit should be agreed upon by both parties to complete their legal title checks and responses to enquiries.

Can I get a non-refundable deposit back?

Your deposit is non-refundable, unless the contract between you and the seller is breached. This is why it is important to have a contract in place, clearly stating what the terms are and what happens if either party pulls out. As a buyer, you might be forced to pull out of the transaction due to unforeseen, but reasonable circumstances.

If stated in your contract, you will be able to pull out and keep your deposit. This is also applicable if the deal fails because of the seller.

Are you paying a pre contract deposit?

We have specialist conveyancing solicitors to support homebuyers through the complex conveyancing process. If you need help and support, you can get in contact today on 0333 344 3234 or email

Frequently Asked Questions
Andrew Boast of Sam Conveyancing
Written by:
Andrew started his career in 2000 working within conveyancing solicitor firms and grew hands-on knowledge of a wide variety of conveyancing challenges and solutions. After helping in excess of 50,000 clients in his career, he uses all this experience within his article writing for SAM, mainstream media and his self published book How to Buy a House Without Killing Anyone.
Caragh Bailey, Digital Marketing Manager
Reviewed by:

Caragh is an excellent writer in her own right as well as an accomplished copy editor for both fiction and non-fiction books, news articles and editorials. She has written extensively for SAM for a variety of conveyancing, survey and mortgage related articles.

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