You could decide you don’t want to purchase the house. Let’s say you get a new job that requires you relocate to a new city. Or maybe you still can’t qualify for a mortgage at the end of the contract term. Perhaps you just decide this house isn’t for you. If you’re in a lease option agreement, you can walk away from the contract. But what happens to all of the cash you forked over in higher rent and option money? That’s thousands of dollars you won’t get back.
The specifics of the contract will differ, but the general idea is that the prospective tenant/buyer will sign a contract to rent the home with an option for them to purchase the house at the end of the lease. The time period where they can live in the house before a lease expires is often between 1-5 years, and when they buy the house, a portion of the rent payments during the lease goes toward putting down a down payment. Ideally, this takes a sizable chunk out of the purchase price.

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How the purchase price of the house you're renting to own can vary as well. Some contracts stipulate that the purchase price will stay what it was when the initial contract was signed, while others have it be the market value of the house at the time of purchase. Some contracts eschew each of these for a different method entirely, having the purchase price go up a certain percentage every year of the lease. Rent-to-owners can decide to buy the house any year of that lease.

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A rent-to-own agreement allows would-be home buyers to move into a house right away, with several years to work on improving their credit scores and/or saving for a down payment before trying to get a mortgage. Of course, certain terms and conditions must be met, in accordance with the rent-to-own agreement. Even if a real estate agent assists with the process, it’s essential to consult a qualified real estate attorney who can clarify the contract and your rights before you sign anything.

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We’re also seeing an uptick in rent-to-own homes now that property values have recovered from the recession. As prices have increased, it has become harder for some homebuyers to save enough for the requisite down payment. Rent-to-own homes provide a built-in mechanism to help people save for the down payment on a home they love but simply cannot afford at the moment. Rent-to-own homes can also help a person rebuild their credit by making timely rental payments during the contract period, thus increasing the likelihood that they’ll be approved for a mortgage to buy the home a few years down the road.
Next, let’s talk about the home’s purchase price. In most deals, you will agree to a purchase price upfront, typically current market value or a bit higher. In limited other instances, you may delay that decision until your lease term is up. Whether one or the other will be more beneficial hinges on whether the home’s value rises or falls during that time. A key point in either scenario, however, is that the purchase price is also negotiable — just like you’re buying a house the traditional way.

You’ll pay rent throughout the lease term. The question is whether a portion of each payment is applied to the eventual purchase price. As an example, if you pay $1,200 in rent each month for three years, and 25% of that is credited toward the purchase, you’ll earn a $10,800 rent credit ($1,200 x 0.25 = $300; $300 x 36 months = $10,800). Typically, the rent is slightly higher than the going rate for the area to make up for the rent credit you receive. But be sure you know what you're getting for paying that premium.
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Another plus is that lease options typically apply a portion of the rent paid towards the down payment on the home and because of this they work as a great way for people to purchase a home when they don't have the money readily available for a down payment. First time buyers should take a look at a lease option as a simple and effective way to defer buying a home while saving more for that down payment.

It’s critical to sign an agreement that is in your best short- and long-term interests. The rent-to-own option will cost more than a traditional home rental because there are other costs baked into the monthly amount. The good news is these “other costs” such as the initial option fee and monthly credit will go toward the final purchase price. Nevertheless, a rent-to-own contract should always include the length of the rent-to-own lease agreement (usually anywhere from 12­ to 70 months), the amount of initial option fee (usually 35 percent of final purchase price), the final purchase price at the end of the term, and the amount of the monthly payments that will go toward the purchase price. These figures are all negotiable.
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