It's tough for buyers to find financing and hard for sellers to find buyers. A solution that can work well for both is renting with an option to buy.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With buyers scarce and financing tight, some home sellers are offering rent-to-buy options to potential buyers. In fact, there's been enough of a spike in interest that ForSaleByOwner.com added it as a search option on the site, says spokesman Eric Mangan.
These deals, also called rent-to-own and lease-option, usually require buyers to pay extra rents each month plus up-front fees of about 5% of the purchase price. The regular rent then goes in owner's pocket (presumably to pay the mortgage), but the additional payments are used to buy down the price of the home.
"Lease option agreements, if properly drafted, by and large are an effective way of enabling people to buy who are having trouble arranging financing or coming up with down payments," said Lawrence Jacobson, a real estate attorney in Los Angeles.
Because the contract is typically written to close in 12 to 36 months, it gives buyers the chance to experience homes and neighborhoods without having to make major commitments.
But the biggest reasons buyers opt for rent-to-buy deals are to build up down payments and to improve their credit profiles so obtaining a mortgage is easier.
For example, if they buy a $200,000 home, paying $5,000 up-front and a rent premium of $400 a month on top of their $1,000 market rent that, they'll have $9,800 saved after one year and $19,400 after three.
In New York City, condo conversions are increasingly offering the option after having units sit empty. For example, the developers of a former commercial building on Wall Street are offering to apply 100% of "buyers" rents toward the purchase prices. And there are no up-front fees.
It's a luxury building with prices starting at $630,000 million for a studio to $8.4 million for a four-bed penthouse. Sales were slow because buyers were having difficulties arranging financing, according to sales director Larry Kruysman.
"What we were finding from customers was that banks were making it more difficult to purchase," he said. The lenders were asking borrowers to put up 30% of the purchase price to obtain a mortgage rather than the traditional 20%.
But most rent-to-buy offers are from individual sellers, often people who have purchased new homes, can't sell their old ones and need to offset some of their mortgage costs.
Renee Haworth, a Louisiana homemaker, tried to sell a house in Mandeville, La., for many months without success.
"We had two or three buyers ask us if we would do a lease option," she said. "We hadn't thought about it before that."
She consulted an attorney and made a deal this past March. It calls for a sale price of $217,000 for the four-bedroom two-and-a-half bath house. The buyer put $3,000 down and pays $1,400 a month, $400 of which accumulates toward the sale price.
The renters agreed to exercise their option after 12 months. Under terms on their contract, if they decide to walk away, they lose both the $3,000 deposit and the $400 per month they pay over normal market rents.
But there are drawbacks to these deals. You need a good contract and a healthy sense of "buyer besmeared."
Losing your investment: For one, there's little protection for buyers who fall behind in payments. If you fall behind and are evicted, you lose any up-front fees and rent premiums you paid.
Can't get a loan: If you still can't arrange financing at the end of the rental period, you may have to forfeit all the extra cash you've invested. The terms for that scenario would need to be spelled out in the contract. In buyers' markets, you may have the leverage to get a contingency clause specifying any up-front fees and extra rent be returned if you don't qualify for a loan.
Falling home prices: Buyers may be hesitant to lock into a set price a year in advance considering how much home values are plunging. If the comparables are significantly more attractive when it's time for your deal to close, you can sometimes renegotiate, but that's at the seller's discretion. If renegotiating is impossible, then you have to decide whether it's cheaper to walk away or go through with the deal.
Foreclosure scams: Some renters have been burned by doing lease-option deals with owners who are going through foreclosures. After months of taking the inflated rent payments even though they are in foreclosure, the owners finally have the home repossessed by the bank and the renters are served with eviction notices and are out their investments.
There have also been instances of foreclosure-prevention scams in which fraudsters take title to homes and do lease-option deals with unsuspecting renters. Instead of applying the initial deposit and the extra rent money to the down payments, the scam artists simply pocket everything and disappear. Because the renters don't get a title to the property until they close the bank loan, they are again out their investments.
Walk aways: Pitfalls exist for sellers as well. Renters may decide to not exercise their options if prices fall. That can leave sellers with large paper losses by the end of the lease compared with if they had sold the home when they originally planned. They are also stuck carrying the costs of the home until they find other buyers or tenants.
Most importantly, however, buyers must be cautious about entering into a deal that's unaffordable. The payment can seem manageable when you're just looking at the monthly "rent" payment. But there are more expenses than that.
First, the mortgage payment on a $200,000 home after paying $20,000 down, comes to more than $1,000 a month at the current very low interest rates, which are only available to borrowers with the best credit.
Over the past few weeks, rates have been creeping up again, so there's no guarantee they will be as low when the purchase is completed. Plus, credit-damaged buyers can expect to pay one or two percentage points higher at a minimum. That could add another $250 or more to the monthly bill. Then add in private mortgage insurance, property taxes, all the utility and routine maintenance costs, and it could push the monthly payment past $2,000 - and affordability.