What Is a Rent-to-Own Home?

By Janet Siroto · November 16, 2023 · 9 minute read

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What Is a Rent-to-Own Home?

Buying a home can at times feel like quite an uphill climb, what with socking away cash for a down payment and getting approved for a mortgage. One option that may promise to ease the path for some people is what is known as a rent-to-own arrangement.

If you enter into this agreement, you may be able to rent and then decide to purchase the property at the end of the lease. That can give you some time to build your savings and your credit. What’s more, while renting, part of your monthly payment may be earmarked for your down payment.

However, in addition to these positives, there are potential downsides, such as losing a nonrefundable upfront fee if you decide not to buy. If you’re curious about rent-to-own homes, read the following guide. You’ll gain important insights that can help you decide if this form of homebuying is right for you.

What Is Rent-to-Own?

Renting vs. buying a home is a big decision, but in some cases, you may be able to do both. With a rent-to-own home, you lease a property and have the option to buy it at the end of that period. Your monthly rent (which may be higher than the going market rate) can include a portion that is earmarked as down payment money should you decide to buy.

A key benefit of rent-to-own agreements is that they can help make homeownership possible for people who might not otherwise be able to purchase a property. Someone who doesn’t have a hefty chunk of change saved for a down payment may be able to buy a home. Or it might give a prospective homebuyer a chance to build their credit history en route to applying for a mortgage a little later on.

In these ways, rent-to-own could put you on the path to buying a property while still renting.

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How Do Rent-to-Own Agreements Generally Work?

Now that you know what a rent-to-own home is, here’s a closer look at how they work. With these agreements (also sometimes called “lease with option to buy”), the renter typically commits to renting the property for a specific period of time, with the option (or obligation) to buy.

•   In many cases, the renter pays an upfront nonrefundable option fee. This is what can secure the option to buy, and it typically ranges from 1% to 5% of the purchase price.

•   Another feature of a rent-to-own agreement can be that a portion of the monthly rent goes toward the down payment at the end of the lease, should you decide to buy. So if the going rental rate is $1,700 in your area, you might pay $2,000 a month, with that $300 additional going toward the down payment. (You may have to hunt if you want a rent-to-own home with low monthly payments.)

•   It’s important to note that there are two different kinds of rent-to-own arrangements. There’s lease-option, which means you will have the choice of whether to buy the property, and there’s lease-purchase, in which you are committing to buy the property in the future. The latter can be a legal obligation, so proceed with caution.

•   With these rent-to-own or “lease with option to buy” deals, you can either decide on the purchase price upfront or agree that the sale will be contingent upon an appraisal at the time of purchase. It is generally recommended to get a home appraisal and inspection upfront before entering into a contract.

•   The appraisal, if done up at the start, can set the market value of the home and can also give a rent schedule showing rents paid in the area for the same type of home. The rent schedule confirms the base rent charged is reasonable before any option to buy surcharge is added on top.

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Benefits of Rent-to-Own Homes

Here are some of the potential advantages of a rent-to-own agreement.

•   A rent-to-own property may offer a way to get into your dream house before you’re totally ready to buy. Perhaps you don’t have enough money saved for a down payment and don’t see a path to accruing enough to buy a home in today’s market. Rent-to-own could open a door to home ownership.

•   Another benefit of renting to own is that it buys you time to build your credit. Maybe you’re still cleaning up a past credit problem that’s keeping you from qualifying for a mortgage. Renting first could give you time to accomplish this.

•   You can potentially save money on repairs. With a rent-to-own arrangement, a landlord and tenant often split the cost of repairs. In some situations, the landlord agrees to cover larger expenditures. This can be helpful to those trying to save money to buy a home.

•   There’s flexibility. You get to try on homeownership of a property by living there as a renter first. At the end of the rental period, you can choose to buy or move. That is, unless you’ve entered into a lease-purchase arrangement, in which case you can be legally obligated to buy.

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Some Problems with Rent-to-Own Agreements

There are usually pros and cons of buying a starter home, but doing so via a rent-to-own arrangement can have its own set of considerations. Now that you know the potential upsides of renting to own, consider these potential disadvantages before you sign on the dotted line.

•   Selection may be limited. If you have your heart set on a certain neighborhood or home style, you might be out of luck. Unless you can find a seller in your target neighborhood who’s willing to do a rent-to-own or lease arrangement, you’ll likely have to stick with the conventional choice of renting or buying.

•   You could lose money if you decide not to buy. That option fee discussed above is often nonrefundable, and any surcharge you pay on the monthly rent (to go toward a down payment) may not come back to you either. The bottom line: If you walk away at the end of the lease, your finances could take a hit, which could be a significant homebuying mistake.

•   What’s more, if you’ve signed a lease-purchase document, it can be legally binding in terms of having to buy at the end of the rental. If you can’t or don’t want to purchase when the time comes, you could be in a very difficult spot.

•   If you agree to a purchase price at the beginning of your rental term, there is the chance that the home’s value could drop with market fluctuations. Then, when it’s time to exercise your option to buy, you might be faced with an overpriced property.

•   Just because you have entered into a rent-to-own agreement doesn’t mean you will qualify for a mortgage at the end of the rental term. Yes, you may have more money set aside for a down payment or you might have built your credit, but again: There are no guarantees that a lender will approve you to move ahead with the purchase.

•   If the owner stops making payments and the property goes into foreclosure, you may be out of luck. And you may not have much say if the property isn’t maintained to your standards.

Recommended: Is Now a Good Time for Buy a House?

Do These Contracts Compare to Qualifying for A Mortgage?

A rent-to-own home may seem helpful if you are not quite ready to buy a home outright; say, you might need more time to accumulate a down payment or build your credit history. Or perhaps you think you want to buy a property, but you’d like to live in it before committing 100%.

Keep in mind, however, that signing a rent-to-own agreement doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily qualify for a home loan. At the end of your rental term, if you decide to buy, you will still have to apply and be approved for a mortgage. Your financial credentials will be reviewed in depth to determine your creditworthiness.

If you’re serious about becoming a homeowner, a traditional home purchase along with a mortgage may offer a wider array of options. With a traditional mortgage, you take out a loan to cover the purchase price of your new home minus your down payment. A mortgage loan allows you to immediately purchase your home, as opposed to renting first.

In addition, there may be some tax benefits to owning right away vs. renting first; you might talk with a tax advisor to get more details.

If you don’t feel ready to put down as much money as you’d like, you might consider conventional loans that let you put down as little as 3% to 5% down or government-backed loans that may even allow you to buy with no money down. You could also look for down payment assistance programs you might be eligible for in your area. These can help make a purchase more affordable.

Recommended: Quiz: Should You Buy or Rent a Home?

The Takeaway

Rent-to-own homes can offer a way to buy a home after leasing it. This can provide time to the prospective homebuyer to save up funds for a down payment or to build their credit. However, an option fee (usually nonrefundable) and a higher rent can be part of the arrangement, so it’s wise to consider this carefully. Having a lawyer review the agreement up front can be a good idea so you fully understand the potential risks and rewards.

If you think you’re ready for homeownership (whether after renting or right away), you may want to check out your mortgage options: what kinds of home loans are available at what interest rates from which lenders. That can help you understand your home-buying budget.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

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What does it mean when someone says rent-to-own?

Rent-to-own arrangements allow a person to rent a property and then have the option (or obligation) to buy at the end of the lease. There is usually a nonrefundable option fee to be paid up front, and the rent may be higher than the norm in the area. That’s because a portion may be earmarked to go toward a down payment at the end of the rental.

Is it smarter to rent or own a home?

Deciding whether to rent or buy a home is a very personal decision. It can depend upon your financial situation, your need for flexibility vs. your desire to put down roots, and other factors.

What is the main reason to avoid renting to own?

Renting to own can have a few drawbacks. However, here’s a key one: There are often nonrefundable fees and rent surcharges, which could cause financial loss if you decide not to move ahead and buy.

*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

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