A client of ours writes:
If i do decide to make an offer, I have some questions: How binding is it if they accept? When do you get an inspection? Can you back out easily as a result of minor things in the inspection, or do only large item problems allow withdrawal? When do i have to start putting up money and try to get a loan finalized?
Once you make an offer, the idea is that you're a "ready and willing" buyer and that you're going to proceed with the contract unless you have a good reason to rescind the offer via one of the contingencies. There are several different types of contingencies, including home inspection contingencies, financing contingencies, appraisal contingencies, HOA document contingencies, and others. These usually last from a few days to a few weeks after the contract has been ratified.
You'll want to get a home inspection after the contract is ratified (details here), but before the inspection contingency expires (usually less than 7 days). Sometimes the sellers may want to fix some of the home inspection items themselves. There's also a final walkthrough that's performed right before closing.
When you make the offer, you'll have to give a copy of the earnest money deposit check. Then you have several days to actually deposit it with the settlement company (for example, 5 days in VA). Once all your contingencies expire, this money has gone "hard" and is no longer refundable.
You can (with some exceptions) generally easily back out of a contract based on a contingency, but once they expire, you're locked into the agreement.
You'll need to get your loan finalized shortly after ratifying the contract. Depending on the lender, you'll probably need between 10 to 30 days to finalize your loan. So, if the contract states that you're closing in 45 days, and the lender needs 30 days to do the loan, you'll have 2 weeks to lock your lender in. There are a lot more details to this point here, but this is a good starting point! Contact us and we'll give you more details.