How does owner financing work? What homebuyers and sellers need to know

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Buying or selling a home can be a complicated process. Sometimes, homebuyers have trouble qualifying for a mortgage. Other times, sellers yearn to cut through the red tape and net potentially more profit.

The solution for both may be owner financing. Although not very common today, owner financing is when the seller offers direct financing to the buyer instead of or in addition to a mortgage.

What is owner financing?

Owner financing occurs when the owner of a property for sale provides partial or complete financing to the buyer directly, after the buyer makes a down payment, according to Michael Foguth, founder and president of Foguth Financial Group in Howell, Michigan.

“The agreement here is very similar to a mortgage loan, except the owner of the home owns the debt instead of a bank or other lender,” Foguth says.

Owner financing is usually not reported on the buyer’s credit report. There is typically a substantial down payment required (usually 10 percent to 15 percent) that makes up for the fact that the financing is usually not dependent on the buyer’s income or credit history — although sellers are advised to perform a credit check regardless.

Chris McDermott, real estate investor and broker with Jax Nurses Buy Houses in Jacksonville, Florida, has offered owner financing himself on investment properties he’s sold. McDermott says it can be a common practice in some areas, “specifically for rural land or homes that a seller owns free and clear.”

Owner financing can be beneficial to buyers who aren’t eligible for a desired loan from a lender, or if the lender only qualifies the buyer for a portion of the purchase price. In the latter scenario, the buyer may be able to take out a first mortgage from the lender for that portion, and then obtain owner financing for the shortfall.

How does owner financing work? 

In most owner financing arrangements, the owner (seller) records a mortgage against the property, which is sold via deed transfer to the buyer.

“Typically, the owner lets the buyer take over and move into the house without a mortgage, but after the buyer makes a down payment,” explains Andrew Swain, co-founder and president of Sundae, a San Francisco-headquartered residential real estate marketplace that helps sellers of distressed properties.

“The buyer signs a promissory note and makes monthly payments to the seller, but the owner keeps the title to the home as leverage in the deal,” says Swain.

“The buyer makes mortgage payments to the seller over an agreed-upon amortization schedule at a specified fixed interest rate,” McDermott says. “Typically, the seller will not hold that mortgage for longer than five or 10 years. After that time, the mortgage commonly comes due in the form of a balloon payment owed by the buyer.”

To make that balloon payment — generally a large lump sum — the buyer usually (by that time) qualifies for and obtains a mortgage refinance, likely for a lower interest rate.

Alternatively, the buyer can get a first mortgage from a bank or other lender while the seller takes a second interest in lieu of some of the down payment, explains John Kilpatrick, managing director of Greenfield Advisors in Seattle.

“Say you want to buy a $200,000 house,” Kilpatrick says. “The bank will only loan you $160,000. If the seller will take back a second mortgage for $40,000, the deal may be able to close.”

Just because a seller is providing the funds doesn’t mean the buyer won’t pay closing costs, however. According to McDermott, these charges can include deed recording and title fees.

The good news is that the costs “are usually substantially less than you’d pay with bank financing,” says Bruce Ailion, a real estate attorney, investor and Realtor in Atlanta.

Example of owner financing

Say “a seller advertises a home for sale with owner financing offered,” McDermott says. “The buyer and seller agree to a purchase price of $175,000. The seller requires a down payment of 15 percent — $26,250. The seller agrees to finance the outstanding $148,750 at an 8 percent fixed interest rate over a 30-year amortization, with a balloon payment due after five years.”

In this example, the buyer agrees to make monthly payments of $1,091 to the seller for 59 months (excluding property taxes and homeowners insurance that the buyer will pay for separately).

At month 60, a balloon payment of $141,451.27 will be due. The seller will end up collecting $233,161.27 after 60 months, broken down as:

  • $26,250 for the down payment
  • $58,161.27 in total interest payments
  • Total principal balance of $148,750

Pros and cons of owner financing

Pros Cons
Access to financing for homebuyers Balloon payment
Benefits for sellers at tax time Bigger down payment required
Homeowner sells as-is, without paying for repairs Higher interest rate
Greater investing potential for sellers Risky for seller if buyer defaults

Owner financing offers advantages and disadvantages to both the buyer and seller.

“The buyer can get a loan they otherwise could not get approved for from a bank, which can be especially beneficial to borrowers who are self-employed or have bad credit,” Ailion says.

However, “the interest rate charged by a seller is usually much higher than a traditional mortgage lender would charge,” McDermott says, “and the balloon payment that comes due after a few years will be significant.”

The advantages to the seller are multifold. Owner financing allows the seller to sell the property as-is, without any repairs needed that a traditional lender may require.

“Additionally, sellers can obtain tax benefits by deferring any realized capital gains over many years, if they qualify,” McDermott notes, adding that “depending on the interest rate they charge, sellers can get a better rate of return on the money they lend than they would get on many other types of investments.”

The seller is taking a risk, though. If the buyer stops making loan payments, the seller may have to foreclose, and if the buyer didn’t properly maintain and improve the home, the seller could end up repossessing a property that’s in worse shape than when it was sold.

How to buy a home with owner financing or offer it

If you can’t get the financing you need from a bank or mortgage lender, a skilled real estate agent can help you find properties with owner financing.

“Just be sure the promissory note you sign is legally compliant and clearly lays out the terms of the deal,” advises Swain. “It’s also a good idea to revisit a seller financing agreement after a few years, especially if interest rates have dropped or your credit score improves — in which case you can refinance with a traditional mortgage and pay off the seller earlier than expected.”

If you want to offer owner financing as a seller, you can mention the arrangement in the listing description for your home.

“Be sure to require a substantial down payment — 15 percent if possible,” McDermott recommends. “Find out the buyer’s position and exit strategy, and determine what their plan and timeline is. Ultimately, you want to know the buyer will be in the position to pay you off and refinance once your balloon payment is due.”

It’s important to have a real estate attorney prepare and carefully review all the documents involved, as well, to protect each party’s interests.

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