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Land Contracts: What They Are And How They Work

Kevin Graham8-minute read

October 12, 2021

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Land contracts are seller-financed alternatives to traditional mortgage financing. They’re typically used when buyers are unwilling to get a mortgage through a bank or other mortgage originator. They may also be unable to get a mortgage due to their credit situation or other qualification reasons.

It’s for this latter reason that land contracts have seen growth and been considered a viable option after the mortgage crisis of 2007 – 2010. Those who have experienced a foreclosure or short sale may be able to use a land contract to get into a home when they might not otherwise have been able to.

In this article, we’ll go over the pros and cons of loan contracts. Although they can be helpful, they certainly have their downsides, so it’s important to read your contract in full before signing on the dotted line. Let’s learn about what to watch out for and when to consider refinancing into a traditional mortgage.

What Is A Land Contract?

A land contract is a written legal contract, or agreement, used to purchase real estate, such as vacant land, a house, an apartment building, a commercial building or other real property. As a type of specialty home financing, a land contract is similar to a mortgage, but rather than borrowing money from a lender or bank to buy real estate, the buyer makes payments to the real estate owner, or seller, until the purchase price is paid in full.

Depending upon the legal or common real estate terminology in your area, you may see these types of deals referred to as either land contracts, installment land contracts, contracts for deed, memorandums of contract, real estate contracts or bonds for title.

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How Is A Land Contract Different From A Mortgage?

When you get a mortgage, they tend to be structured so that they can be sold to major investors in the mortgage market. Because of this, mortgages have a fairly standard set of formalized terms for what happens when you miss a payment or if there are any adjustments that need to be made to modify the loan.

Land contracts are completely between you and the owner of the house, so every one of them could be a little bit different. You really have to be careful when negotiating, ensuring that the terms don’t put you at too much of a disadvantage.

How Does A Land Contract Work?

A land contract is typically between two parties: the buyer, sometimes referred to as the vendee; and the seller, also known as the vendor. In a land contract, the seller agrees to finance the property for the buyer in exchange for the buyer meeting the terms agreed upon in the land contract.

In a traditional land contract, the seller keeps the legal title to the property until the land contract is fully paid off. Meanwhile, the buyer gets equitable title, which enables them to build up equity in the property. This will be important in a minute when we talk about the option to pay off your land contract by converting it to a regular mortgage.

There’s also something called a wrap-around land contract. Essentially, the buyer and seller agree to a seller-financed land contract, but the seller keeps paying on their existing mortgage, pocketing the difference between their mortgage payment and what they are paid on a monthly basis by the buyer. Unlike a straight land contract, the buyer in a wrap-around land contract gets the deed to the property immediately. They own the home. However, the seller’s lender has to agree to a wrap-around land contract. This is because they won’t be getting the full payoff amount. They also take a junior lien position in these agreements so they can take the home back if the seller holding the underlying mortgage stops making the payments.

Land contracts typically have installment payments due at periodic intervals as agreed between the buyer and seller. At the end of the term, there may or may not be a balloon payment, which is a lump sum that must be paid in order to satisfy the loan terms.

What Does A Land Contract Cover?

A properly executed land contract has several pieces to it. Let’s look at a few of the basic items.

Sales Price

This covers how much the property is being sold for. Once you pay off this amount of principal, your obligations under the land contract are over. If it’s a straight land contract, you’ll get the legal title at the time of payoff.

Down Payment Amount

This is due at your closing and may be expressed as a percentage or a flat amount in your contract.

Interest Rate

The interest rate is defined, as are terms around whether the rate can ever change. If it can, the timing and conditions under which the interest rate could change should also be defined.

Payment Amounts

The amount of your payment should be spelled out along with how often it needs to be made, monthly or otherwise. The contract may have specific due dates and late fees. It’ll also include whether there’s any balloon payment due at the end of the loan term. You should also be aware of whether the contract includes any penalty for paying off the loan early.

Responsibility Of The Parties

In addition to the basics, there should be clauses in the contract stating the responsibilities of the parties to each other. The buyer will be agreeing to make the mortgage payment. For the benefit of both parties, there should be clear language in the contract regarding what happens if the buyer falls behind on their payments. If any missed payments are allowed, what’s the timeline for paying them back, and under what conditions might the buyer become delinquent to the point that the seller takes the property back?

Title Settlement

If you’re the buyer, you’ll want language that says you get the legal title once all terms of the loan are satisfied. If it’s a wrap-around mortgage, it’s a good idea to have it written in that the seller will make payments on the underlying existing mortgage. That way, if the seller doesn’t make the payments and the buyer loses the house because of it, they have the option of legal action. You may also want a clause that requires the seller to keep careful track of your history of payments. This will make paying off your land contract with a conversion to a traditional mortgage easier later on.

Pros And Cons Of A Land Contract

Now that you know how land contracts work, it’s time to decide whether one is right for you. While there may be benefits of a land contract for certain buyers, there are also potentially significant downsides. It’s important that all parties to a potential land contract are fully aware of the benefits and risks involved. While a land contract may make sense in certain situations, it’s not for everyone, and there may be better options available. It’s important to fully think through the pros and cons of a land contract.

Pro: It’s Easier To Get Financing

Land contract home financing is an option for buyers who might not be able to get it through the traditional means of a mortgage. Before you decide to pursue a land contract, however, you should know that there are many different types of mortgages, and some are geared specifically toward borrowers with low credit scores.

Pro: It’s A Win-Win For Sellers

The seller accomplishes the goal of selling the property while still getting a periodic income stream throughout the term of the contract. If the buyer doesn’t make the payments, they can take the property back pursuant to the terms of the contract.

Pro: There Are More Opportunities To Purchase

A buyer who needs a bigger space but can’t qualify for it under traditional home loan guidelines may be able to obtain the property through seller financing, and then pay off the land contract down the line through a mortgage once the balance is smaller.

Con: The Buyer Depends On The Seller

As a buyer, you’re placing a ton of trust in the seller. For instance, if it’s a wrap-around land contract with an existing mortgage still being paid off by the seller, the buyer can lose the home through no fault of their own if the seller doesn’t make the payments.

Con: Contract Vagueness

You have to really go in and make sure that the contract is ironclad around the responsibilities of each party. You’ll want to know exactly what the payment terms are, if they can change and under what circumstances. You’ll want to get in writing that you get legal title to the property no later than when the principal is paid off as defined by the sale price of the property.

Con: Higher Interest Rates

The seller knows that you’re interested in a land contract likely because you can’t be approved for a standard mortgage. Because the seller is taking on the higher risk, they’ll probably charge you a rate that’s higher than current market interest rates for traditional mortgages.

Con: Homeownership Gray Area

In a straight land contract, you receive equitable title so that you gain equity as you make payments on the loan from the seller, but the seller holds legal title until the property is paid off. This could cause issues around who owns the home if there are any legal disputes or insurance claims that need to be filed. This is further complicated by the fact that many jurisdictions don’t require that the land contract be recorded with the county. For this reason, it’s not really even possible to get a sense of how many land contracts exist in the U.S. The ones in the census numbers are those that are voluntarily reported. That means in many cases, unless the contract is shown in a legal proceeding, the only parties that would know about it would be the buyer and seller.

Converting A Land Contract Into A Traditional Mortgage

For buyers who are able to take the time to get their credit in shape and work to meet other qualifying standards, you can get better terms and/or pay off a balloon payment by converting your land contract to a traditional mortgage. The lender may verify the value of the property. You’ll also need the following items in addition to standard income, asset and credit checks:

  • A copy of the fully executed land contract: The lender will need to know the balance they’re paying off in order to determine the loan amount. They’ll also want to make sure any underlying mortgage in a wrap-around contract would be paid off so that the title is clear.
  • Payment history: It’s important to provide the lender with as long a payment history on your land contract as you can get your hands on. They’ll use this to verify your qualifications.

The Bottom Line: Land Contracts Are Another Option For Home Buyers

There are many routes to homeownership, and a land contract is one of them, best suited for those with poor credit. Learn more about how to repair your credit – and if you have questions about which option best suits your needs, speak to one of our Home Loan Experts. If you think you’re ready to refinance your land contract into a traditional mortgage, you can apply online or give us a call at (833) 326-6018.

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These rates are current as of 12:07 AM UTC on October 27, 2021

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Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a Senior Blog Writer for Rocket Companies. He specializes in economics, mortgage qualification and personal finance topics. As someone with cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia that requires the use of a wheelchair, he also takes on articles around modifying your home for physical challenges and smart home tech. Kevin has a BA in Journalism from Oakland University. Prior to joining Rocket Mortgage, he freelanced for various newspapers in the Metro Detroit area.