5 Things You Need to Know When Renting-to-Own a Home

By Dan Rafter on 12 July 2016 0 comments

Your credit scores are too low. Or maybe you've run up too much credit card debt. Whatever the reason, you can't qualify for the mortgage loan you need to buy a home. But there is hope: You can enter into a rent-to-own agreement and begin living in a home today — one that you might eventually be able to buy.

Just be careful: David Reiss, professor of law and research director for the Center for Urban Business at Brooklyn Law School, said that consumers need to be careful when entering rent-to-own arrangements. Often, these agreements end up with tenants losing money that they didn't need to spend.

"Potential homebuyers should be very careful with rent-to-own opportunities," Reiss said. "They have a long history of burning buyers. Does the law in your state provide any protection to a rent-to-own buyer who falls behind on payments? Could you end up losing everything that you had paid toward the purchase if you lose your job?"

These worries, and others, are why you need to do your research before signing a rent-to-own agreement. And it's why you need to know these five key facts before agreeing to any rent-to-own contract.

1. How Do Monthly Rent and Final Selling Price Relate?

In a rent-to-own arrangement, you might pay a bit more in rent each month to the owner of a home. These extra dollars go toward reducing a final sales price for the home that you and the owner agree upon before you start renting.

Then, after a set number of years pass — usually anywhere from one to five — you'll have the option to purchase the home, with the sales price lowered by however much extra money you paid along with your monthly rent checks. Not all companies that offer rent-to-own homes work this way. Some don't ask for more money from tenants each month, and don't apply any rental money toward lowering the eventual sales price of the home.

This latter option might be the better choice for you if you're not certain that you'll be able to qualify for a mortgage even after the rental period ends.

"A pitfall is if the tenant buyer signs into the program but will never be approved for financing, thus never purchases the house," said John Matthews, president of operations of Chicago Lease to Own. "That is how the scammers out there have used rent-to-own to hurt people. They sell it to those who should never have been in the program and take their portion of the rent every month used 'for the purchase of their home' knowing that the tenant will never qualify to buy the home."

Make sure you know — and are comfortable with — the home's final sales price and monthly rent payments before you agree to a rent-to-own arrangement. And if you don’t want to pay extra in rent each month for a home that you might never end up buying? A rent-to-own agreement might not be for you.

2. What Is the Timeline?

To start the rent-to-own process, you and the owner of a home sign a contract listing what the home's final sales price will be after the rental period ends. The contract will also list how long you will rent the home before you have to decide whether to buy the property. The document will state, too, how much you'll pay in rent each month, and how much of that money will go toward lowering the home's final sales price.

These are all key facts to learn before you rent-to-own. You don't want too little of your monthly rent going toward a home's final sales price. If it does, you'll barely make a dent in that final sales price.

3. What's an "Option Premium"

After you and the homeowner sign the contract, you'll pay what is known as an option premium. This premium is what gives you the right to purchase the home after the rental period ends. Be aware that this premium is nonrefundable, even if you don't decide to buy the house after your rental period comes to a close. You can expect to pay about 5% of the home's final sales price for your option premium.

4. What Happens to Your Extra Money If You Don't Buy?

If you don't end up buying the home after the rent-to-own period ends, you'll most likely lose the extra money that you paid each month to your landlord. Most landlords will include a provision in their rent-to-own contracts stating that tenants lose the extra rent they send in every month if they pass on their option of purchasing the home.

If you're not certain that you will end up buying the home — and after five years or so of renting a home you might decide that the property or neighborhood is not the right one for you — be wary of entering a rent-to-own arrangement. You might be throwing away all those extra dollars each month.

5. How Strong Is the Local Real Estate Market?

It pays, too, to study the market in which your rent-to-own home sits. Are housing prices rising in value each year? Or is the market a sluggish one? This is important information to know. What if the home in which you are living loses value during the five years you are renting it? Will you still want to pay that higher final sales price that you negotiated with your landlord?

If you signed a contract, you won't have any recourse but to pay more than what the home is worth or to walk away from the deal, meaning that you threw away all that extra rental money you sent your landlord every month.

Renters need to be careful, too, when negotiating a home's future sales price. A landlord might ask for a price that is unrealistically high for a specific market.

"The landlord will greatly inflate the purchase price of the home when the tenant can buy it," said Mark Ferguson, founder of Invest Four More in Greeley, Colorado. "The home may be worth $120,000 today, but in a year or two, the price for the tenant will be $140,000 or more. The landlord will justify this because prices always go up. Landlords won't tell you that the average appreciation of homes is 3% to 6% a year, and their price is 20% or 30% higher a year."

It pays to meet with a real estate agent or to study the local housing market on your own. You can never guarantee that a home won't fall in value, but by doing your homework, you can at least increase your odds of renting a property that has a chance to increase in value during the rental period.

Have you bought a home via rent-to-own? What was the process like for you?

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