Buying real estate is more formal than bargaining for a car — it involves written proposals exchanged between your real estate agent and the seller's agent. When you decide to make an offer, "how much" is a decision you may want to make with your agent.

A good real estate agent will do a Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) and help you negotiate knowing the true market value of the home you want to buy. It's also a good idea to understand how much house you can afford before committing to a price.

Helpful hints

Here are some tips and tactics for making an offer on a house to discuss with your real estate agent.

Show that you're serious

From the sellers' point of view, a pre-approved buyer is more attractive than someone who says they can buy a house but have nothing but their word to back up their offer. A pre-approval could help you negotiate on price and it could be a deciding factor for sellers who receive multiple bids.

Put some skin in the game

"Earnest money" is an initial deposit to be paid to the seller if your offer is accepted, to put weight behind your intention to buy. If your purchase offer is among multiple bids on a home, the earnest money you put down (also known as a "good faith deposit") may influence the seller's decision-making in your favor.

Leave room to negotiate

Don't call your first offer your "best" or "final" offer if you're willing to go higher. In a competitive market, you can put an escalation clause in your offer, agreeing to go a small amount above the highest bid — but before you do, decide on the maximum amount you're willing to pay.

Lowball with caution

Bidding low may be a good strategy in a weak market, but if your bid is too low, the seller may be offended and reject your offer without even trying to meet you in the middle. If you want to make an offer that's significantly below the asking price, explain why in specific but polite terms.

Time on market matters

If a house has only been on the market for a few days, the seller is less likely to give you a price break than if the house has been sitting empty for months. Why the seller is selling can also provide a clue as to a seller's potential willingness to wheel and deal.

Make it easy for the seller to sell

For example, if you can agree to set up your housing inspection quickly — and to take responsibility for smaller repairs that come to light — your offer will be more attractive than a competing offer that involves more pre-closing repair work to be completed by the seller.

Remember: Sellers are people, too

Sellers are often attached to their homes and want to leave them in good hands. An offer letter that explains why you want the house — e.g., to live closer to an elderly relative — can sometimes make a difference.