Most home buyers have to have a mortgage to finance a home, however, there are alternatives: contracts for deed and rent-to-own agreements.

Under a Contract for Deed, the buyer makes regular payments to the seller until the amount owed is paid in full or the buyer finds another means to pay off the balance. The seller retains legal title to the property until the balance is paid; the buyer gets legal title to the property once the final payment is made.

Contracts for deeds are valid options, and even the primary option for seller financing in most states. The process typically starts as a negotiation between the buyer and seller. The average length of a Contract for Deed is five years, but it can be for any amount of time that the buyer and seller agree on. Interest rates on a Contract for Deed are not regulated, so they can be as high or as low as the buyer and seller can agree on. Similarly, the payments can be structured in any fashion that is agreeable to both parties. In some cases, the value of the house may be divided into equal payments so that the full balance is paid off by the end of the term. In others, regular payments are set up with the balance coming due in a balloon payment at the end of the term. Typically, these contracts can be renegotiated so long as both parties are willing.

It is important to keep in mind that if the buyer defaults on the payments, the seller can repossess the property. In some states, a seller who repossesses a property must reimburse the buyer for the fair value of improvements to the house, as well as a reasonable amount for rent.

A Rent to Own Agreement allows the potential buyer to enter a lease agreement with the seller with the intention of buying the property at the end of the lease. A Rent to Own Agreement includes much of what you’d see in a standard Lease Agreement, such as monthly payments and due dates, grace periods and late fees, property descriptions, tenant’s and homeowner’s name, and the number of years the lease will last. But a Rent to Buy Agreement will also include details like the option fee, how much of the rent goes towards the purchase, terms for violating the agreement, and how the purchase price of the property will be determined.

Before you sign a contract, it is smart to:

  • Choose the right terms: Pick the right contract that best suits your financial availability.
  • Get help: Hire a qualified real estate attorney.
  • Research the contract: Make sure you understand the deadlines, the option fee, the rent payments and the purchase price.
  • Research the home: Make sure the property taxes are up-to-date. 
  • Research the seller: Check the seller’s credit report to look for signs of financial trouble and legitimacy.

Lone Star Legal Aid is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit law firm focused on advocacy on behalf of low-income and underserved populations. Lone Star Legal Aid serves the millions of people at 125% of federal poverty guidelines that reside in 72 counties in the eastern and Gulf Coast regions of Texas, and 4 counties of southwest Arkansas. Lone Star Legal Aid focuses its resources on maintaining, enhancing, and protecting income and economic stability; preserving housing; improving outcomes for children; establishing and sustaining family safety and stability, health and well‐being; and assisting populations with special vulnerabilities, like those who have disabilities, or who are elderly, homeless, or have limited English language skills. To learn more about Lone Star Legal Aid, visit our website at www.lonestarlegal.org.

Media contact: Clarissa Ayala, cayala@lonestarlegal.org.