Rent prices are on the rise, with the average cost increasing 18% between 2017 and 2022. But buying a home requires a hefty down payment and good credit. Renting to own your home can give you the best of both worlds, but there are some downsides.
If you’re thinking about signing a rent-to-own agreement, it’s important to weigh the pros/cons of rent-to-own home deals. Here’s what you need to know before you sign on the dotted line.
What are rent-to-own homes?
When you own a home, part of your monthly payments goes toward paying off the principal. If you stay in the home long enough, you’ll own it.
The same doesn’t apply to rentals. Your monthly rent solely covers your costs of living in that home, whether it’s a condo, apartment, townhouse, or single-family house.
A rent-to-own home lets you pay rent to live on the property, with the option to buy it when the lease runs out. In some cases, a portion of your rent goes toward the purchase price, but that isn’t always the case.
How Rent-to-Own Agreements Work
A rent-to-own agreement is essentially a lease agreement with an option to buy. Rent-to-own contracts should be read thoroughly. Those options can vary from one contract to another.
When you sign a rent-to-own contract, you pay an upfront fee called an option fee. This is typically 1 to 5% of the purchase price, and it’s non-refundable.
It’s important to note that a lease does not relieve you of the requirements to buy a house. You’ll still have to qualify for a mortgage and make a down payment. It’s merely a way to buy yourself some time and possibly put some of your rent toward the purchase price of a home.
Lease Option vs. Lease Purchase
Before you sign, pay close attention to the lease agreement you’re signing. There are two types, and one contractually obligates you to buy the property.
Lease Option Agreement
A lease option agreement is the best deal of the two for you, the buyer. You’re signing a rent-to-own contract that merely gives you first rights to the house when the lease is up. If you change your mind, find a better deal, or can’t qualify for a mortgage, you can find somewhere else to live and move your belongings out.
Since the option fee is nonrefundable, it’s important to note that you will lose money if you choose not to buy. Calculate this loss when you’re deciding whether to buy.
Lease Purchase Agreement
Unlike a lease option agreement, lease purchase agreements obligate you to buy at the end of the lease. Since it’s a contract, that means you’re legally obligated to purchase the house.
This can be risky for a couple of reasons. Once you’re in the house, you may see issues you didn’t notice when you were first touring the house. Things could change with the neighborhood or your circumstances that you couldn’t know at the outset.
But the biggest issue could simply be that you aren’t eligible for a mortgage to buy the house. Make sure you know, up front, what penalties or liabilities you’ll face if you can’t buy the house when your lease is up.
Even though both agreements operate differently on your end, they do obligate the seller to give you the option to buy when your lease expires. This puts you in a position to own a home at a predetermined future date, giving you the opportunity to start planning.
Length of a Rent-to-Own Agreement
Rent-to-own contracts start with a lease period that can be up to five years but is usually less than three. The thought is that the rental period will give a renter time to qualify for a mortgage. During this time, you’ll work on building your credit, if necessary, and saving for a down payment.
In some cases, a rent-to-own arrangement could have renewal terms. That means if you reach the end of the lease and want more time, you can extend the lease. With this option, though, the property owner could increase your monthly rent or the purchase price.
Preparing for Homebuying
During your lease term, you’ll make each monthly rent payment in exchange for remaining in the house. But it’s important during that time that you work toward purchasing the house when your time is up. Here are some things to do to boost your chances of landing a mortgage once your lease expires.
Boost Your Credit Score
Your rent-to-own deal requires that you qualify for a mortgage once the term is up. To do this, you will need to meet the minimum credit score requirements. You can get a free copy of your credit report each year at AnnualCreditReport.com, but there are also credit monitoring services that can help you stay on top of things.
Although requirements can vary from one lender to the next, Experian cites the following credit scores as necessary to land a mortgage:
- FHA: If you qualify, a Federal Housing Association loan will accept credit scores as low as 500.
- USDA loans: Those who meet the requirements can qualify with a score as low as 580.
- Conventional loan: Generally 620 or higher, but some lenders require 660 at minimum.
- VA loans: Eligible military community members and their families can obtain loans with scores as low as 620.
- Jumbo loan: These loans cover houses at a higher price, so you’ll need a score of at least 700.
Save for a Down Payment
In addition to a good credit score, you’ll need to put some money down on your new home. Down payment requirements vary by loan type, but it’s recommended that you put at least 20% down. That means if you’re buying a $200,000 home, you’ll need at least $40,000 by closing.
There are lower down payment options, but if you choose those, your mortgage payments will include something called private mortgage insurance. This will increase your monthly payments by $30 to $70 per $100,000 borrowed.
If you can’t save up 20%, you may qualify for an FHA loan, which requires as little as 3.5% down. Both VA and USDA loans have zero down payment options, and there are programs offering down payment assistance to those who qualify.
The best part about rent-to-own properties, though, is that some come with rent credits. With a rent credit, a percentage of your rent will go toward your required down payment. Calculate in advance how much you’ll have in that escrow account at the end of your lease to make sure you save enough to supplement it.
What are the pros of rent-to-own?
Rent-to-own homes can be a great option, especially during a tight housing market. If there’s a house you want to buy, but you can’t make a down payment or your credit isn’t where it should be, it could be a great workaround. Here are some of the biggest benefits of rent-to-own agreements.
Rent May Go Toward Purchase Price
Depending on the terms of the rental agreement, renting to own could help you work toward paying for the home. Instead of the full amount of your rent being pocketed by a landlord, a percentage of your rent could go toward the eventual purchase price. Before signing, pay attention to rent credits and try to negotiate the best deal possible.
The Purchase Price Is Locked In
When a landlord agrees to a lease option, a purchase price is written into the contract. That price will typically be higher than what the market says it’s currently worth. This means if the housing market sees an unexpected increase, you’ll be buying the home for less than its value. Even if the market dips, once you purchase the house and remain there for a few years, you may be able to sell it at a profit.
You’ll Buy Extra Time
For many renters, the rent-to-own period provides time to qualify for a mortgage. If you’ve researched all the options and found you’re close but not quite there yet, a rental period could be just what you need.
Before you choose this option, though, take a look at your circumstances. If substantial existing debt and poor credit mean you won’t qualify, you may need more than the few years you’ll get with a rent-to-own agreement.
No Moving Necessary
Let’s face it. Moving can be a pain. You have to pack everything up, line up a moving truck and get help moving, and unpack your items once you’re in the new location.
With a rent-to-own agreement in place, you skip the hassle of moving. You’ve already been in that home, making rent payments, for at least a couple of years. You’ll simply go through the closing process and switch from rent payments to mortgage payments.
What are the cons of rent-to-own?
If you can get a mortgage, that’s always going to be a better option than renting or leasing to own. But there are some instances where renting without the buy option could be better for you. Here are some things to consider.
Rent-to-Own Home Maintenance
Before you sign any lease agreement, it’s important to read the fine print. One thing to note, specific to own agreements, is who will be responsible for maintenance during the rent-to-own period. If you rent without the promise of eventual ownership, your landlord will take care of those costs. In some cases, rent-to-own agreements require the renter to handle all repairs.
But there’s an upside to handling repairs on your own. To your landlord, the property is technically yours. That means you likely will give it more TLC. Still, it’s well worth it to pay for a home inspection before you agree to a rent-to-own agreement. This will identify any serious issues that will need to be addressed before you buy.
One distinguishing feature of a rent-to-own property is the option fee. This is usually between 1 and 5% of the purchase price and is non-refundable. That means if you don’t ultimately qualify for a mortgage, you’ll lose that money.
Home Values Could Drop
Property values aren’t guaranteed. Your landlord estimates the value of the property, but if you’re in a rising market, you might get that home at a steal. While that’s good news for you, the reverse can happen. If housing prices drop substantially within the specified period, you could find yourself buying a property for more than it’s worth.
Contract Breaches Can Be Costly
Rental agreements are a legal obligation. If you don’t pay your rent, your landlord can evict you and keep your security deposit. But rent-to-own contracts bring an additional level of risk. Missed payments mean you could be evicted and lose all the money you’ve put in. That includes the non-refundable upfront fee and any rent credit you’ve earned.
All that money will also be lost if you can’t qualify for a mortgage when your rental time is up. These agreements can give you some breathing room. However, if your low credit scores, income, lack of a down payment, or employment situation make you ineligible for a mortgage, you could be searching for another rental while losing everything you’ve paid on the lease-to-own home.
Steps to Buy a Rent-to-Own Home
Once you’ve decided renting to own is the route you want to take, you may wonder what to do next. The following steps can help you ensure you get the best deal in a rent-to-own agreement.
Find a Home
This is more challenging than it might sound, especially if you’re looking in a competitive real estate market. Rent-to-own homes are extremely rare, so you may have to find a home for sale and try to negotiate this type of setup.
Typically, homeowners become renters when they can’t sell their homes. This means your rent-to-own contract might be on a home that’s in a less desirable or convenient area of town. For someone whose home has been on the market for a while, being able to collect rent with the promise of a sale in a few years can be a huge relief.
For best results, find a real estate agent who can help you track down a home and negotiate with the seller. The National Association of REALTORS® maintains a directory of real estate agents, but you can also ask for a referral or find real estate agents nearby who have brokered these types of deals recently.
Research the Home
Even if it’s tough to find a lease-to-own home in your area, don’t snatch up the first one you find. Crunch the numbers to make sure the rent and purchase price make financial sense for you. Look at the sale history of the home to verify that the owner’s estimated purchase price is somewhat within what the median home price will likely be when your lease expires.
Research the Seller
The seller needs to be looked into as well. This is even more important with rent-to-own agreements since this person will be your landlord for the entire lease period. If you see any red flags during your interactions with the seller, move on.
Choose the Right Terms
Before you make a real estate purchase, you would have a closing attorney review the documents. The same goes for a lease agreement. Run all the paperwork past a real estate attorney to make sure there’s nothing in the contract that will hurt you in the long run.
Your real estate agent should be able to negotiate the best terms for you, including how each rent credit will help you build equity and what happens at the end of the lease.
Get a Property Inspection
Before any home purchase, it’s essential to know what you’re buying. The same goes for a rent-to-own situation. A home inspector can check things out and make sure you aren’t purchasing a home with serious issues.
Start Preparing to Buy
Once you start making rent payments, it’s time to start preparing for your eventual purchase. Chances are, you’ll have to make a sizable down payment on a home loan, so plan to have that ready. Also, keep an eye on your score with all three credit bureaus and make sure you’ll qualify.
A rent-to-own contract can be a good deal for both the buyer and the seller. It can give you time to save money and improve your credit score. A real estate lawyer should take a look at your contracts and make sure your best interests are protected.