Using Limit Orders When Buying or Selling Stocks

Take more control over your trading outcomes

what is a limit order? it sets a limit on the price you're willing to pay or accept for a given stock, limit orders can be used whether buying or selling a transaction, limit orders might have to wait in line for attention from a stockbroker potentially slowing down the trading process, though you don't have to babysit your trading when using limit orders you could miss out in a volatile market if you fail to oversee it o

The Balance / Hilary Allison

When managing your stock market trades, many techniques and methods exist to help you make a profit or reduce a loss. One of these tools is called a "limit order." It helps you control how much you spend or make on a trade, by placing points on a transaction that will cause an automatic stop of the activity or automatically make it happen. Many buyers and sellers find the limit order to be one of the most important and useful tools for crafting investing success.

Key Takeaways

  • A limit order sets a price on how much you’re willing to spend when you're buying a stock, as well as the price at which you’re willing to sell.
  • You can use limit orders whether you’re buying or selling. They work on both sides of a transaction.
  • Limit orders might have to wait in line for attention from a stockbroker, potentially slowing down the trading process.
  • You don’t have to “babysit” your trading when you use limit orders, but you could miss out in a volatile market if you’re not paying attention.

How Limit Orders Work

Limit orders can be set for either a buying or selling transaction. They serve essentially the same purpose either way, but on opposite sides of a transaction. A limit order gets its name because using one effectively sets a limit on the price you are willing to pay or accept for a given stock. You tell the market that you'll buy or sell, but only at the price set in your order or terms even more favorable to you.

Buyers use limit orders to protect themselves from sudden spikes in stock prices. Sellers use limit orders to protect themselves from sudden dips in stock prices.

The opposite of a limit order is a market order.

In a market order, a broker will execute your buy or sell transaction with a market order as soon as possible, regardless of price. If you're new to trading and have been using the default setting on brokerage apps, you've most likely been placing market orders.

For stable stocks with high volume, market orders often execute at a prices that are close to the trader's expected order. However, volatile stocks with low volume experience more rapid price swings, and there's a possibility that you could end up paying much more than you expected when you buy, or taking in far less than you anticipated when you sell.

Limit orders may be placed in a trading priority list by your broker.

One thing to keep in mind with limit orders is that they may or may not go to the top of the list for execution by your stockbroker. If the price on your limit order is the best ask or bid price, it will likely be filled very quickly. If not, it will get in line with the other trade orders that are priced away from the market price. As other orders get filled, your order may work its way to the top. On the other hand, orders priced closer to the current market price may come in and push your order down on the list.

Although they do have some flaws, some consider limit orders to be a trader's best friend, because they provide certain assurances. Your order will only be filled at the price you set, or better.

Placing a Trade With a Limit Order

Your broker will ask you to specify five components when placing any kind of trade, and that is where you'll identify the trade as a limit order:

  • Transaction type (buy or sell)
  • Number of shares
  • Security being bought or sold
  • Order type (where you'll specify that this is a limit order rather than a market order or another type of order not discussed on in this piece)
  • Price

Limit Buy Order

For example, suppose you want to buy 100 shares of a stock with the ticker XYZ, and the maximum price you want to pay per share is $33.45. In that case, you'd use a limit buy order, and you would express it like this:

Buy 100 Shares XYZ, limit 33.45

This order tells the market that you will buy 100 shares of XYZ, but under no circumstances will you pay more than $33.45 per share for the stock.

Limit orders are not absolute orders. Your limit order to buy XYZ at $33.45 per share won't be filled above that price, but it can be filled below that price—and that's good for you. If the stock's price falls below your set limit before the order is filled, you could benefit and pay less than $33.45 per share. On the other hand, if the price goes up, and your limit price isn't reached, the transaction won't execute, and the cash for the purchase will remain in your account.

Limit Sell Order

The transaction works the same way for a limit sell order. If you enter a limit sell order for $33.45, it won't be filled for less than that price:

Sell 100 Shares XYZ, limit 33.45

In other words, your stock won't be sold for any less than $33.45 per share. If the stock rises above that price before your order is filled, you could benefit by receiving more than your limit price for the shares. If the price falls, and your limit price isn't reached, the transaction won't execute, and the shares will remain in your account.

Benefits of Experience

It takes some experience to know where to set limit prices. If you set limit buy orders too low, they might never be filled, which would do you no good. The same holds true for limit sell orders. With some experience, you'll find the spot that gets you a good price while making sure your order actually gets filled.

An Example of a Potential Issue

The simple limit order could pose a problem for traders or investors who are not paying attention to the market. For example, suppose you enter a $30 sell limit order on XYZ stock before taking a week off for vacation. You check in your portfolio the next Monday and find that your limit order has executed. You made a small profit off the sale, and you're happy with that, but then you see that XYZ's current price is $45.

If you are worried about losses and gains when taking a vacation or trading break, you could try to not set up any trades for the period when you will be unavailable.

So, what happened? Well, while you were on vacation, XYZ became a merger target, and the stock's price spiked. Your order executed at $30 that day, but the price kept rising on the rumors of a lucrative merger. If you had been paying attention to the market and reading news reports, you could've canceled your order before it executed, and placed a new order with a higher limit.

You can imagine the reverse of this hypothetical scenario—the stock dropped like a rock on bad news while you weren't paying attention, and your buy limit order filled as the stock was in a free fall.

The Bottom Line

Limit orders make excellent tools, but they are certainly not foolproof. The same function that protects you from extreme losses can also prevent you from realizing unexpected gains. In a highly volatile market, limit orders like the example above may cause you to lose out on additional profits or shares, because they may execute too soon.

If you want to buy or sell a stock, set a limit on your order that is outside daily price fluctuations. Ensure that the limit price is set at a point at which you can live with the outcome. Either way, you will have some control over the price you pay or receive.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a stop-limit order?

A stop-limit order combines a stop-loss order with a limit order. Once the stop price is hit, a limit order will open up. These can be placed on either the buy or sell side. For example, you could set a stop-limit buy order with a stop of $10 and limit of $9.50. Once the stock drops down to $10, your brokerage will automatically place a limit order for $9.50. Similarly, a trailing stop-limit order combines a trailing stop-loss order with a limit order.

How long does a limit order last?

You can choose how long you want your limit order to remain open. You can give it a day, a week, or leave it up until it executes. There are even fill-or-kill orders that either execute immediately or not at all.

Why isn't my limit order filling?

If your order isn't filling, it's probably because your brokerage can't get you the price you want. Market orders fill first, so you may see your limit price quoted by your brokerage before your limit order executes. The market orders will execute first and, if there are enough shares or buy orders left to fill your limit order, then your order will execute. This kind of delay is most likely to happen with low-volume stocks that don't have many shares up for sale at a given moment.