By Bob Bruss,
America's Most Trusted Real Estate Expert
When home won't sell, consider 'rent-to-own'
Despite above-market rent, all parties benefit
You've been looking for months for your first home, or you want to upgrade to a nicer home in a better community. It's a great time to buy a home, everybody tells you.
Finally, you find the ideal home for sale, which has most of what you want (there is no such thing as the "perfect home.")
But when you sit down with the mortgage lender to go over your income and credit to see if you can obtain the home loan you need, the lender says your FICO (Fair Isaac Corp.) credit score is too low to get an affordable interest rate. A mortgage at 7.5 percent interest is the best he can arrange, but he's not sure you can qualify for the high payment.
Will you give up, resigned to waiting a year or two before buying a home? Of course not.
You know the house you want to buy has been listed for sale three or four months so the sellers must be anxious. The eager real estate agent phones to ask if you got your mortgage preapproval. You report the bad news that you're not willing to pay 7.5 percent interest.
Fortunately, you're working with an experienced realty agent. She suggests renting the house for up to two years until you can improve your FICO score. Then she explains you can lock in the purchase price at today's market value. "Tell me more" is your swift reply.
WHAT IS A LEASE-OPTION? Your real estate agent then explains a lease-option, also known as "rent to own" in many communities, is a combination rental, sales and finance technique that has been used by thousands of home buyers and sellers.
However, a lease-option is not the same as a lease-purchase, which obligates the buyer to buy, usually within a year or two. With a lease-option, if home prices plummet, the buyer doesn't have to exercise the option to buy.
Personally, I bought my current residence with a lease-option when I realized I was "cash challenged" without enough money for a down payment. Through my buyer's agent, I offered the sellers a 12-month lease at $1,500 per month with $10,000 nonrefundable option money. As the vacant house had been listed for sale about six months, I asked for a 100 percent rent credit toward my option purchase price, which was just slightly below the asking price.
After hesitating about 10 days, my sellers accepted, but only for a six-month rental term. I readily agreed. Three days later, I hired a moving van and moved into my new home. About five months later, I exercised my purchase option and took title. At the closing, I received credit against the option price for my $10,000 option money plus the $7,500 total rent paid for five months.
Lease-options work especially well when there is an oversupply of homes listed for sale, such as the current "buyer's market" in many cities. When a home seller needs someone to pay enough rent to cover the mortgage payment but doesn't require an immediate cash sale, a lease-option can be ideal.
THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE LEASE-OPTION BUYERS THAN SELLERS. For some unexplained reason, there are usually more "rent to own" buyers than sellers. Having used lease-options to buy and sell houses for almost 30 years, I've learned a properly marketed lease-option can solve problems for both buyers and sellers.
The key to lease-option success is the amount of rent credit the tenant will earn each month toward the down payment. Although I negotiated a 100 percent rent credit when I bought my present home, as a seller I usually agree to only a 33 percent rent credit. As a motivated seller, I've agreed to 50 and even 100 percent rent credits.
Although the lease-option buyer doesn't get any income-tax deductions, the buyer's rent credit is far better, like a "forced savings account." Of course, if the buyer doesn't exercise the purchase option, the rent credit plus the option money is forfeited.
Here is an example of how to advertise lease-options in the newspaper under the "Houses for Sale" and "Houses for Rent" classified ad categories:
$5,000 MOVES YOU IN3 BR, 2 BA home, Rent-to-Own, $2,000 Total Monthly Rent$500 per month Rent Credit Toward Purchase PriceOpen Sunday 1-3 PM, Bring Your Checkbook; Won't Last!777 Easy Street, Pleasant Heights
Of course, the numbers should be adjusted, depending on the market value of the home and its monthly rent. My experience has been, as a seller, lease-option renters are willing to pay at least 10 percent above fair market rent in return for the rent credit and locking in the option purchase price at today's market value. As a seller, I prefer a one-year lease-option, but I have been known to agree to a two-year term.
LEASE-OPTION PROS AND CONS FOR SELLERS. If your home hasn't sold "the regular way," consider the lease-option "rent to own" advantages for sellers: (a) continued income-tax-deduction benefits, including depreciation, until the option is exercised; (b) upfront cash from the buyer, which is the first month's rent plus the nonrefundable option money; (c) monthly rent cash flow instead of having a vacant house or condominium; (d) there are usually more lease-option buyers than sellers; (e) above-market rent; (f) lease-option tenants usually treat the property very well; and (g) lease-option buyers will agree to a top-dollar option purchase price. The only significant seller disadvantage is the lack of an immediate cash sale.
LEASE-OPTION PROS AND CONS FOR BUYERS. Among the many lease-option benefits for buyers are (a) low upfront cash requirement as compared to buying; (b) it's usually cheaper to rent than own; (c) the rent credit toward the down payment is like a "forced savings account"; (d) if the home goes up in market value, the buyer benefits from the locked-in option purchase price; and (e) buyers can try out the home before buying.
Possible disadvantages for buyers include no itemized income-tax deductions (this is more than offset by the rent credit) and uncertainty knowing if you will be able to afford to buy before the purchase option expires.
HOW DOES THE REALTY AGENT GET PAID? When a house is listed for sale but it hasn't sold, some listing agents are reluctant to recommend a lease-option because they won't immediately receive a full sales commission.
But I often suggest to agents, "Isn't it better to take part of the commission now and part of the commission when the option is exercised, rather than earn no sales commission at all?"
HOW TO FIND HOUSES AND CONDOS TO LEASE-OPTION. Because there is usually a shortage of lease-options, buyers need to get creative. One strategy is to read the "houses for rent" and "houses for sale" classified newspaper ads for clues. Often a landlord can be converted to a lease-option seller by dangling some nonrefundable option money (after you decide you want to "rent to own" the house or condo).
Another strategy is to run your own "House for Rent Wanted" or "House Wanted" classified ad. I learned this technique from a real estate investor who advertises "Executive needs 3 BR, 2 BA house on five-year rent to own. $5,000 option money. Call Jimmy (555) 555-5555." He doesn't get many phone calls, but one or two from motivated home sellers, landlords and real estate agents will be enough.
SUMMARY: Lease-options, also known as "rent to own," are an excellent method to market unsold houses and condominiums. They work especially well in slow "buyer's markets.