Closing on a House Without the Seller Present: How to Get It Done

Maybe you and the seller started to rub each other the wrong way during negotiations, and now you’re eager to see the last of them. Or perhaps you’re dealing with a pandemic or quarantine situation and, for everyone’s health, you need to minimize the number of face-to-face visits you have. Whatever the case, you’re wondering: Does the seller have to be present at closing?

We talked to real estate experts who know the closing process backward and forward to get you the answer.

A man in a yellow shirt signing papers on a tablet so the seller have to be present at closing.
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The short answer: No

There’s no reason for buyers and sellers to be in the same room for closing. They don’t even need to sign the paperwork on the same day! Sellers and buyers can have entirely separate closings, whether at a title company or attorney’s office.

You could sit in different rooms, which many title companies started doing during the coronavirus pandemic. If the seller has moved out of state already, they could have their paperwork notarized and mailed back, or they could sign papers through an online portal.

The seller doesn’t have to sign as much paperwork as the buyer probably does because they’re not taking out a mortgage. It’s easier for them to sign via remote online notarization in states that allow it, or to make an appointment with a mobile notary in states that require in-person signatures.

During the coronavirus pandemic, agent Kathy Birchen, who sells homes 44% faster than the average agent in Lansing, Michigan, explained how some closings were able to be completed with sellers “at their cars because there’s very few documents that they have to sign.” So even if you close at a title company, you might not have to interact with the seller.

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The long answer: Your options

If you and the seller don’t have to be in the same room for closing, what are all your options?

Remote closing electronically

Many states allow remote closings, which can be done 100% remotely. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 14 states had permanent laws allowing for remote online notarizations (RON), and as of May 12, 2020, 31 enacted emergency RON measures, according to the National Notary Association (NNA).

When you close remotely, you sign documents online through a web portal or another digital service, such as DocuSign. Your e-signature carries the same weight as a “wet” signature, or one written on printed paper.

When Mark Wilcox sold his D.C. condo, he was already living in Texas. He sold it completely remotely, using DocuSign, and “everything went so seamlessly; It wasn’t a big concern signing electronically.”

When he bought again in Portland, Oregon, with agent Bonnie Roseman’s help, they submitted his offer and completed all paperwork electronically.

“I attended his closing by phone,” Roseman says, “to be able to answer questions and make sure that things were okay.” Even though she normally attends all her closings, during the coronavirus pandemic, the title company only allowed signers into the office.

Remote closing by mobile notary

A mobile notary can bring the closing documents to your home and handle the closing right there in your living room. Or the documents will be mailed to you, then you will sign them with a notary present and send them back.

Roseman had clients in California use mobile notaries to close on a home in Oregon. She explains that, “Mobile notaries are approved by particular title companies. They’ll allow them to do the signings by going to somebody’s home or office.”

The National Association of Realtors is asking the government to create national online notarization standards, but until the government acts, you may have to close semi-in-person with a mobile notary.

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Separate closings

Another way to close remotely is to visit a title company branch office and sign the documents there without the seller present. During the coronavirus pandemic, title companies sanitized rooms, provided brand new pens for signers to take with them, and took other social distancing measures. Nobody had to be in the same room together. Where this wasn’t possible, title companies tried to seat buyers and sellers at opposite ends of a long table.

For most closings, it’s unlikely that anyone other than the buyers, sellers, and escrow agent will be there. While in the past, “We could have a roomful of people,” Birchen says, during the pandemic, “It’s hardly any, and the agents can’t be there, either.”

With “witness-only” closings, the notary or an attorney comes to you and the seller; You sign all documents, and they take care of any disbursements. Buyer and seller can sit down together, or they can meet separately.

However, at witness-only closings, the person conducting the closing will not explain the legal ramifications of what you’re signing, and they’re not legal in all states. If you’re a first-time homebuyer and want someone to walk you through the documents, this might not be your best option.

Creative solutions

In states that don’t allow RON but where you need to take precautions for health or other reasons, sometimes you might have to get creative.

Roseman couldn’t attend one client’s closing during the coronavirus pandemic, so she sat with her on the phone to answer any questions that might come up. Afterward, though, she needed to deliver a book about their house that she assembles for her clients. “I wore gloves, put the book in a bag, and walked halfway to meet her,” she explains.

Rapid City agent Shauna Sheets, who sells homes 68% faster than the average Rapid City agent, represented both the buyer and the seller in one transaction. The sellers had already moved out of their home and into assisted living when the time came to close.

“They were on total lockdown,” Sheets recalls. “So we coordinated a time, someone came out and gathered the documents, and took them inside. They had a notary there and an assistant on speakerphone walking them through what they were signing. When they’d finished, they brought it all back out.”

Another agent passed paperwork through a window to protect an immunocompromised child in the house. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

To help buyers and sellers find the best agents during the coronavirus pandemic, HomeLight created a Move Safe Certification. The idea is to highlight agents who are best equipped to serve you if you want to minimize contact with others during your transaction. A top agent will work hard to find creative ways to help you close on your new home, so make sure you’re working with someone you trust.

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