What is a land lease?

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You might have experience with leasing a car, but did you know you can also lease land for your home? A land lease involves a combination of buying a home and renting the land it sits on. This kind of agreement can be a less expensive route to homeownership, but also comes with drawbacks that warrant careful consideration. Here are the basics to know.

What is a land lease?

A land lease, also known as a ground lease, is an arrangement in which a landowner — the lessor, in legal terminology — rents out the land to a tenant, or the lessee. A land lease is common for commercial places of business, but many residential real estate property owners also pay to lease the land their homes are on.

There are two main types of land leases:

  1. Subordinated
  2. Unsubordinated

With a subordinated land lease, the landowner is at risk if the tenant defaults on the loan for their property. If the bank has to foreclose on the property, for example, it could have the right to take the land, too. An unsubordinated land lease, on the other hand, keeps the land and property separate, so in the event the tenant defaults, no one else can make a claim to the land.

“Most landowners today should not agree to subordinate except under the most compelling circumstances,” according to the American Bar Association.

How do land leases work?

If you’re on the tenant side and considering a land lease, be prepared to act as both a homeowner and a renter. You’ll need to secure a mortgage for the physical property (or pay all-cash if you can afford it), and account for what you’ll pay each year in lease and other fees. Some land-lease properties are part of homeowners associations, which means you’re responsible for paying dues, for instance.

Where to find a land lease

Land leases are common mostly for manufactured housing and mobile homes. There are nearly 40,000 land-lease communities — also called mobile home or trailer parks — in the U.S., according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. However, you can find leasehold properties elsewhere, too. From retirement communities in California to high-rise buildings in New York City, leased-land living arrangements exist across the country.

If you’re looking for a leased-land property, a real estate agent is one of the best resources. Your agent should have a good idea of which properties in your area are attached to land leases.

Land lease pros and cons

Pros

  • Lower upfront price – If you’re trying to buy a home but discouraged by the price tag, buying a property on leased land could be more affordable.
  • Lower property taxes – If you’re only taxed on the property and not the land, your property tax bill could be lower.

Cons

  • Potential for lease increases – The most notable downside to a land lease is the potential for rising costs — an issue that has created major trouble for mobile homeowners especially. In recent years, private equity firms have acquired trailer parks and immediately increased monthly fees.
  • Less flexibility to move – If you’re a renter and your landlord fails to maintain the property, you can simply opt not to renew the lease and move. Land-lease agreements can be more challenging to get out of. If you live in a mobile home, for example, moving the home can cost as much as $20,000, according to HomeAdvisor.
  • Getting a mortgage can be tricky – If you’re applying for a 30-year mortgage, say, and you’re planning to live on leased land, your lender might need assurance that you’re going to be able to stay there for at least 30 years.

Should you buy a home on leased land?

A lower purchase price might be enticing, but the potential for unexpected increases in the cost of the land can quickly erase any financial gain. If you’re thinking about buying a home on leased land, consider:

  • How long the lease lasts
  • What the monthly homeowner fees are, if any, on top of the lease expense
  • The fine print (e.g., Are there limitations on the amount that the lease can increase in a given term? What happens if the land is sold to another party?)

“There are pros and cons to leased-land living,” explains Zach Wahls, Democratic state senator for Iowa’s 37th District and vice president of community investment and development at GreenState Credit Union. “However, I think it’s the rare exception when the pros outweigh the cons. Most people will be better off in a more traditional living arrangement whether they rent a home or own it.”

You could also consider exploring another type of arrangement, rent-to-own, which allows you to eventually own the property and the land underneath it.

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