The Pros and Cons of Rent-to-Own Homes

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.

couple receiving keys to home

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 does rent-to-own 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 home’s 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 lease option 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 with a lease purchase contract 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, 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 payment 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, the home’s 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 U.S. 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 monthly 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.

Option Fee

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 during that time frame, 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 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.

1. 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 money 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 rent-to-own 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.

5. Get a Property Inspection

Any time you make a home purchase, it’s essential to know what you’re buying. The same is true for rent-to-own properties. A home inspector can check things out and make sure you aren’t purchasing a home with serious issues.

6. Start Preparing to Buy

Once you start making rent payments, it’s time to start preparing for your eventual home 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.

Bottom Line

Rent-to-own homes present a unique option for potential homeowners. This approach offers the opportunity to enter the homeownership arena at a slower pace, allowing individuals to build credit, save for a down payment, and experience living in the home before making a final purchase decision.

However, the rent-to-own path isn’t free from drawbacks. Potential buyers should be wary of unfavorable terms, higher monthly payments, and the risk of losing money if they decide not to buy. Ultimately, like all significant decisions in life, choosing a rent-to-own option requires careful consideration and thorough research.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I find rent-to-own houses?

Rent-to-own houses can be found through specialized websites dedicated to these types of listings, local real estate agents familiar with the concept, or sometimes through classified advertisements in local newspapers or online platforms.

Can I find rent-to-own homes on Zillow?

Yes, Zillow does list rent-to-own homes. When searching for properties, you can filter the search results to show only rent-to-own options. However, availability may vary based on the region and market conditions.

How long is the typical rent-to-own contract?

The typical lease term ranges from one to five years, but terms can vary based on the agreement between the homeowner and tenant.

Do I have to buy the house at the end of the lease?

No, the decision to buy is optional. However, if you decide not to purchase, you may lose any upfront fees or additional monthly amounts set aside for the potential purchase.

Can the seller change the purchase price once set?

Generally, the purchase price is fixed in the initial agreement. However, some contracts may have clauses allowing price adjustments based on market conditions.

What happens if the property value decreases during the lease period?

If the home’s value decreases and you’ve agreed on a set purchase price, you could end up paying more than the current market value. It’s crucial to negotiate terms that protect your interests.

Who is responsible for repairs and maintenance?

The agreement should clearly outline these responsibilities. In most cases, the tenant bears the responsibility for maintenance and repairs during the lease term.

What’s the benefit of a rent-to-own agreement for sellers?

Sellers can generate rental income while waiting to sell, often at a premium. It also widens the pool of potential buyers, especially those who need time to improve their credit or save for a down payment.

How do property taxes work in a rent-to-own agreement?

In a rent-to-own scenario, the property taxes are typically the responsibility of the homeowner, as they still retain ownership of the property during the rental period. However, the specific arrangement can vary based on the terms of the agreement.

Some contracts may stipulate that the tenant pays the property taxes directly or reimburses the homeowner. It’s crucial for both parties to clearly understand and agree upon who will cover the property tax obligation before entering into a rent-to-own contract.

If I don’t buy, do I get a refund for the extra money paid?

Typically, the extra money paid above regular rent, often referred to as “rent premium,” is forfeited if you decide not to buy.

Is the rent in a rent-to-own agreement higher than usual?

Often, yes. A portion of the monthly rent may be used for the potential down payment or purchase price, making it higher than the average rent for similar properties.

What’s the difference between rent-to-own and mortgage?

Rent-to-own is an agreement where a tenant rents a property with the option to buy it at the end of the lease. No bank is involved initially, and the tenant isn’t obligated to buy. A mortgage, on the other hand, is a loan specifically for purchasing a property. The buyer borrows money from a bank or lender and agrees to pay it back with interest over a predetermined period.

Does rent-to-own hurt your credit?

A rent-to-own agreement, in itself, doesn’t usually affect your credit. However, if the homeowner reports late payments to credit bureaus, it could hurt your credit score. On the positive side, consistently paying on time and eventually securing a mortgage can benefit your credit.

What is another name for rent-to-own?

Rent-to-own agreements can go by various names, including:

  • Lease to purchase
  • Lease option
  • Rent-to-buy
  • Rent-to-purchase option
  • Lease purchase

Each of these terms represents the concept of renting a property with the potential option to buy it after a set period.

Stephanie Faris
Meet the author

Stephanie Faris is a professional finance writer with more than a decade of experience. Her work has been featured on a variety of top finance sites, including Money Under 30, GoBankingRates, Retirable, Sapling, and Benzinga.