Normally, the buyer and seller will sign a standard Purchase and Sale Contract or P&S Agreement when buying real estate. Some states allow signatures to be binding when faxing P&S contracts. Massachusetts uses a pre-P&S "Offer to Purchase" contract with the buyer's offer price, and any other additionally legally binding stipulations by the buyer, to allow quicker offers to the seller.
It is widely recommended to seek the advise of an attorney before signing a P&S agreement or Offer to Purchase. An experienced real estate attorney will uncover any issues with the contract before you sign it. You could lose your deposit as a potential buyer of property if there is a problem with the contract discovered before the closing date.
Please note, potential condominium buyers should add any legal stipulations to the P&S such as: review and approve condominium master deed/bylaws, association budget, association meeting minutes, and association financial statements (an attorney can draft an "escape" clause for you).
The following is quoted from the Federal Housing and Urban Development web site concerning the basic elements of most purchase and sale agreements:
[Terms of Purchase and Sale Agreement]
If you receive this [HUD] Booklet before you sign an agreement of sale, here are some important points to consider. The real estate broker probably will give you a preprinted form of agreement of sale. You may make changes or additions to the form agreement, but the seller must agree to every change you make. You should also agree with the seller on when you will move in and what appliances and personal property will be sold with the home.
Sales Price. For most home purchasers, the sales price is the most important term. Recognize that other non-monetary terms of the agreement are also important.
Title. "Title" refers to the legal ownership of your new home. The seller should provide title, free and clear of all claims by others against your new home. Claims by others against your new home are sometimes known as "liens" or "encumbrances." You may negotiate who will pay for the title search which will tell you whether the title is "clear."
Mortgage Clause. The agreement of sale should provide that your deposit will be refunded if the sale has to be canceled because you are unable to get a mortgage loan. For example, your agreement of sale could allow the purchase to be canceled if you cannot obtain mortgage financing at an interest rate at or below a rate you specify in the agreement.
Pests Your lender will require a certificate from a qualified inspector stating that the home is free from termites and other pests and pest damage. You may want to reserve the right to cancel the agreement or seek immediate treatment and repairs by the seller if pest damage is found.
Home Inspection. It is a good idea to have the home inspected. An inspection should determine the condition of the plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical systems. The structure should also be examined to assure it is sound and to determine the condition of the roof, siding, windows and doors. The lot should be graded away from the house so that water does not drain toward the house and into the basement.
Most buyers prefer to pay for these inspections so that the inspector is working for them, not the seller. You may wish to include in your agreement of sale the right to cancel, if you are not satisfied with the inspection results. In that case, you may want to re-negotiate for a lower sale price or require the seller to make repairs.
Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing Built Before 1978. If you buy a home built before 1978, you have certain rights concerning lead-based paint and lead poisoning hazards. The seller or sales agent must give you the EPA pamphlet "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home" or other EPA-approved lead hazard information. The seller or sales agent must tell you what the seller actually knows about the home's lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards and give you any relevant records or reports.
You have at least ten (10) days to do an inspection or risk assessment for lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards. However, to have the right to cancel the sale based on the results of an inspection or risk assessment, you will need to negotiate this condition with the seller.
Finally, the seller must attach a disclosure form to the agreement of sale which will include a Lead Warning Statement. You, the seller, and the sales agent will sign an acknowledgment that these notification requirements have been satisfied.
Other Environmental Concerns. Your city or state may have laws requiring buyers or sellers to test for environmental hazards such as leaking underground oil tanks, the presence of radon or asbestos, lead water pipes, and other such hazards, and to take the steps to clean-up any such hazards. You may negotiate who will pay for the costs of any required testing and/or clean-up.
Sharing of Expenses. You need to agree with the seller about how expenses related to the property such as taxes, water and sewer charges, condominium fees, and utility bills, are to be divided on the date of settlement. Unless you agree otherwise, you should only be responsible for the portion of these expenses owed after the date of sale.
Settlement Agent/Escrow Agent. Depending on local practices, you may have an option to select the settlement agent or escrow agent or company. For states where an escrow agent or company will handle the settlement, the buyer, seller and lender will provide instructions.
Settlement Costs. You can negotiate which settlement costs you will pay and which will be paid by the seller.