September 26, 2016
Erlean Hall had always wanted to own her own home.
So when she saw a sign advertising rent-to-own homes and called the listed phone number, she was happy to hear about how she might be able to purchase one.
“I always wanted to own,” said Ms. Hall, who cleans houses for a living. “That’s anybody’s dream. It doesn’t matter what your situation is. It’s something that you want of yours, something that you want to pass down to your kids.”
After calling the number on the sign, Ms. Hall said she was directed to a website for Vision Property Management where she could look at homes for sale. She was encouraged to use her tax refund money as a down payment, and was told she would not need to go through a credit check.
“I said, ‘That’s good, because my credit’s not that great.’ ”
Advocates say Ms. Hall’s is a textbook example of a situation that has ensnared many financially unsophisticated would-be homeowners without access to traditional mortgage lenders.
Several of the homes she initially looked at were in poor condition, but Ms. Hall held out hope that if she kept looking she could find a house she could fix up and live in with her two children.
Vision’s website bills it as “the country’s largest provider of affordable Lease-to-Own property opportunities.” The company “take[s] great pride in creating an available inventory of affordable homes for individuals and families that may not currently qualify for conventional property purchases due to various employment, health, divorce or other financial reasons.”
When Ms. Hall found a house in Dravosburg, it seemed like what she was looking for — there was a small area in the dining room that appeared to have water damage, but it otherwise the house appeared to be in good condition, she said.
She was excited to see that it had a garage, so she would not have to park her car on the street.
“I called them and said, ‘I really like this house.’ He said, ‘It’s first- come, first-served … . If you’re interested, I’m going to email you these papers. Hurry up and get it notarized and filled out because somebody else could take it.’ So it’s like this rush.”
After quickly getting the required paperwork filled out and notarized, she signed an agreement last year. With a $1,370 down payment, along with her monthly payments, Ms. Hall believed she would own the two-bedroom home — which was listed at $48,000, according to court documents — at the end of seven years.
But only a small fraction of Ms. Hall’s $420 monthly rent — $33.63 — would be counted toward that, the agreement she signed states. That means at the end of seven years, she would have paid only about $2,800 toward the purchase price. At the end of seven years, she can give up the home, or must pay off the balance either through a cash sale or some type of financing.
Allegheny County real estate records show that RVFM 11 SERIES LLC, the legal entity tied to Vision taking Ms. Hall to court, paid $10,590 for the property in 2014.
Installment land contract?
Ms. Hall’s attorney, Eileen Yacknin, argues that while the agreement Ms. Hall signed was labeled a “residential lease with option to purchase,” the agreement was really an installment land contract.
A recent report from the National Consumer Law Center about such contracts noted that they are “marked by grossly unequal bargaining power and access to information between the buyers and sellers, the steep financial costs imposed on buyers throughout the transaction, the fundamental unfairness of forfeiture clauses, limited or no regulation in most states, and a lack of access to affordable legal assistance to enforce what few legal protections exist.”
Such transactions often put the burden of major repairs on the would-be-homeowner, can have an inflated price and are often “disguised as lease-purchase” agreements, the report notes. Additionally, these types of deals tend to have a disproportionate impact on black communities, where fewer people have access to traditional bank loans, according to the report.
The deals combine the worst aspects of home ownership -— being responsible for major repairs — with renting — vulnerability to eviction — without the legal protections of either.
“The important thing is these [types of deals] are built to fail,” said Sarah Bolling Mancini, staff attorney with National Consumer Law Center and one of the authors of a report about such deals. “The sellers make more money if the buyer does not succeed,” because they end up churning multiple people through the property, with various tenants paying to make repairs.
Jonathan Weaver, a housing counselor at the Mon Valley Initiative who counsels first-time home buyers, said he hears from people about once or twice a month who are interested in rent-to-own homes. They often have bad credit or another issue that would keep them from qualifying for a conventional loan. Mr. Weaver said he understands these agreements can seem attractive to renters who want to buy a home.
“I do want to caution them, and tell them how scared it makes me, based on previous cases I’ve seen,” he said.
Ms. Hall, thinking she was becoming a homeowner, was not deterred by early signs that there might be serious problems with the house.
“The water guy comes in, and he says, ‘You know your pipes are stripped?’ ” she recalled.
Copper piping had been stolen from the home before she could move in. Additionally, a key sewage disposal pipe was substantially damaged, so water could not flow upstairs.
Ms. Hall said she searched to find a plumber whom she could pay in installments when she got paid every two weeks. Then she paid hundreds of dollars in plumbing costs to get the water flowing and make the home livable.
“I was like, ‘That’s OK, because this is my home. This is my home. I’m going to be here,’ ” she said.
She put a plastic bag up to catch the leak in the dining room and made do.
But over the summer, out of work due to a car breakdown, she fell behind in her rent, though she was still making payments to Vision, she said.
Ms. Hall was dismayed when, with no notice or warning, she received court papers in August saying she had to leave the house -— an “ejectment.”
Her attorney argues that because the agreement Ms. Hall signed was really an installment land contract, she should be protected by state law covering those types of deals -— which would entitle Ms. Hall to written notice of termination of her agreement.
Furthermore, her attorney argues, if the court finds Ms. Hall signed a residential lease, then she is entitled to live in a habitable home, one with running water, a roof that doesn’t leak and a functioning hot water heater — Ms. Hall’s broke in June, and she and her children have been without hot water since then.
Rent-to-own deals or land installment contracts have fewer protections for buyers than a traditional mortgage, said Ms. Mancini, one of the authors of the National Consumer Law Center report. For instance, there is no required third-party inspection — one that would have noticed Ms. Hall’s stripped pipes — or independent appraisal as there would be with a mortgage transaction.
Not an isolated case
“This is not an isolated instance,” she said. “It is typical that these [homes] are in bad shape, and the person is told, ‘You are becoming a homeowner, you have the obligation to make repairs.’”
These types of deals have been around for a long time but have gone from what had been more of a mom-and-pop practice to one backed by bigger companies turning around large numbers of foreclosed properties, Ms. Mancini said.
“Now, we are seeing this with financial backing. That is the recent trend,” she said.
A spokesman for Vision declined to say how many of the company’s agreements result in the tenant ultimately purchasing the home, saying it is company policy not to disclose proprietary information.
“It’s important to note that we don’t want our customers to fail,” said a statement from Vision. “Before we go into an agreement with any individual, we spend as much time as they need, going through the agreement and its implications in great detail. An unsuccessful transaction is costly to everyone, including us. We go to great lengths to help our customers.”
It’s unclear how often these types of deals happen, according to the report, which cites 2009 census data showing 3.5 million Americans buying a home through a land contract at that time.
“But this number likely understates the prevalence of land contracts, as many contract buyers do not understand the nature of their transaction sufficiently to report it,” the report noted.
Vision’s website lists properties for sale in Pittsburgh, Braddock, McKeesport, Glassport, Duquesne, Carnegie, Wilkinsburg and elsewhere in Allegheny County.
Allegheny County records show six properties owned by RVFM 11 SERIES LLC but show dozens owned by other other limited liability companies tied to Vision.
The National Consumer Law Center’s report recommended that such transactions be regulated by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite her experience, Ms. Hall said she wishes to remain in the home if she can work out an agreement through the court system.
“I’ve invested in this home. I’ve invested. And I’ve been through a lot in this home now,” she said.
She added, “I considered myself a homeowner. But now … I guess I’m back to where I was.”
Read the Post-Gazette article at: http://www.post-gazette.com/business/money/2016/09/26/Rent-to-own-Court-case-sheds-light-on-business-practice/stories/201609260002