A short sale is a sale of real estate in which the net proceeds from selling the property will fall short of the debts secured by liens against the property. In this case, if all lien holders agree to accept less than the amount owed on the debt, a sale of the property can be accomplished.

A short sale has two intrinsic and inseverable components. A Short Sale is successful when (1) a lienholder(s) (a.k.a. Mortgage Company) is agreeable to net less than the amount owed on the note (debt) as the result of (2) an arm's length sale at or below the Appraised Value for that property. The agreeable selling price is intrinsically defined to be at or less than the appraised value allowing the process to be attainable. A prudent buyer will not pay greater than the appraised value, and a Bank or Finance company will not provide a mortgage for greater than the appraised value, thus limiting the Short Sale proceeds to a maximum gross yield of the property's Appraised Value. A short sale may occur when the lienholder expects that a mortgage will likely never be repaid and the home's value (due to the home's condition, such as if a prior homeowner vacated the property and left it damaged or trashed, or general economic conditions in the area or nationwide) will not (either quickly or at all) regain equity to allow full payment of the mortgage.

It's important to understand that a Lien holder is not bound to accept the Appraised value and can demand a greater selling price. In this case, a "Sale" with a prudent arm's length buyer is no longer a reasonable or attainable expectation. Instead the demand for greater than the Appraised Value (but less than the amount owed on the debt) is called a "Short Settlement". Some Lien holders will agree to a Short Sale but not a Short Settlement while demanding greater than the Appraised Value. This is a paradox as neither is achievable and both predestined for failure.

Therefore, a "Short Sale" can only be accomplished when a Lien Holder is willing to accept less than what is owed on the debt while also agreeing to accept a sales price that is at or below the appraised value for the property.

Creditors holding liens against real estate can include primary mortgages, second mortgages, home equity lines of credit (HELOC), homeowner association liens, mechanics liens, IRS and State Tax Liens, all of which will need to approve the sale in return for being paid less than the amount they are owed. The lien holders do not have to agree to accept less, but they often do since the alternative is to let the property go to foreclosure.

A short sale is a more beneficial alternative to foreclosure and has become commonplace in the United States since the 2007 real estate recession.