Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 10, 2016

Risky Rent-to-Own

By David Reiss

photo by Steve Snodgrass

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted me in Rent-to-Own Option for Home Shoppers Rife with Pitfalls, Experts Caution. It opens,

Finding the right rental house was more difficult than Phyllis Lombardi anticipated.

“It’s hard to find a big enough house that allows pets, for the number of people we have in South Fayette,” said Lombardi, 45. She and her husband have four children living at home.

The Lombardis are moving because the owners of the house they are renting want to sell. But the couple isn’t ready to buy. The husband’s income was cut by more than half when they relocated to the Pittsburgh area several years ago, and they are repairing their finances after a short sale on a home.

Finding no rentals in South Fayette that meet her criteria and price, Lombardi is going with an option suggested by her real estate broker: Pick a house for sale on the market and do a rent-to-own contract with an investor who would buy it.

Rent-to-own agreements require prospective buyers to pay rent with an option to purchase the house at a later date, usually within two to five years. It can broaden the options for people with checkered credit histories who think they might soon be in a position to buy.

But it is an industry with a lot of shady operators and which can prove costly to prospective buyers who are not careful, said David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School.

“In some cases, these programs are based on the idea of hope springs eternal,” Reiss said. “But a large percentage of them are likely to fail.”

The terms of these contracts vary, but renters often pay a premium above market price, with a portion of that going toward the eventual cost to buy the home.

Many times, renters reach the end of the agreement and are still unable to buy, forfeiting everything they have paid — rent, fees and any premium toward the purchase price — to the owner and walk away with nothing, said Max Beier, a real estate attorney Downtown.

“Traditionally, what you’re going to have in these agreements is a default provision that’s pretty harsh,” he said. “Commonly, you’re going to lose 100 percent of the equity you’ve paid.”

And many don’t come with the same renter protections. For example, maintenance and upkeep costs are often the tenant’s responsibility — just as if they owned the home.

Also, the penalty for late rent payments tends to be more severe than the standard 5 percent for a late mortgage payment, and even cause someone to be kicked out of the home, Reiss said.

“The rights you have as a tenant in a rent-to-own situation are not as clear and not as good as if you were a homeowner,” Reiss said.

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