The Ins and Outs of Seller-Financed Real Estate Deals

An alternative to a mortgage when you're buying or selling a home

When it comes to financing residential real estate, most transactions follow a familiar process. The seller finds a willing buyer with the required income, employment history, and credit score to qualify for a mortgage, and a lending institution puts up the money to finance the deal.

But what if traditional financing is unavailable, and the buyer and seller still want to proceed privately with the sale? They enter what's known as seller financing. As the term implies, the person who's selling the house finances the purchase.

Key Takeaways

  • In residential real estate transactions, one option is seller financing, by which the seller finances the purchase for the buyer.
  • Seller-financed transactions can be quicker and cheaper than conventional ones.
  • Buyers need to confirm the seller is free to finance (they have no mortgage or their mortgage lender allows it) and should be prepared to make a down payment.
  • Seller financing typically runs for a shorter period than a traditional mortgage.
  • Both parties in the transaction should hire professionals to provide guidance and draw up the contract and promissory note.
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Ins And Outs Of Seller-Financed Real Estate Deals

How Does Seller Financing Work?

A bank isn’t involved in a seller-financed sale; the buyer and seller make the arrangements themselves. They draw up a promissory note setting out the interest rate, schedule of payments from buyer to seller, and the consequences should the buyer default on those obligations. Unlike a sale involving a mortgage, there is no transfer of the principal from buyer to seller but merely an agreement to repay that sum over time.

With only two main players involved, owner financing can be quicker and cheaper than selling a home in the customary way. There is no waiting for the bank loan officer, underwriter, and legal department, and buyers can often get into a home for less money.

The Advantages of Seller Financing

This alternative to traditional financing can be useful in certain situations or in places where mortgages are hard to get. In such tight conditions, seller financing provides buyers with access to an alternative form of credit.

Sellers, in turn, can usually sell faster and without having to make costly repairs that lenders typically require. Also, because the seller is financing the sale, the property may command a higher sale price.

Lower Closing Costs

Closing costs are indeed lower for a seller-financed sale. Without a bank participating, the transaction avoids the cost of mortgage or discount points, as well as origination fees and a host of other charges that lenders routinely extract during the financing process. There's also greater flexibility, at least ostensibly, about the loan provisions, from the required down payment and the interest rate to the term of the agreement.

The seller's financing typically runs only for a fairly short term, such as five years, with a balloon payment coming due at the end of that period. The theory­­­­—or the hope, at least—is that the buyer will eventually refinance that payment with a traditional lender, armed with improved creditworthiness and having accumulated some equity in the home.

Seller Financing for Buyers

For all the potential pluses to seller financing, transactions that use it come with risks and realities for both parties. Here's what buyers should consider before they finalize a seller-financed deal.

Don't expect better terms than with a mortgage

As the terms of a seller-financed deal are hammered out, flexibility frequently meets reality. The seller digests their financial needs and risks, including the possibility the buyer will default on the loan, with the prospect of a potentially expensive and messy eviction process.

The upshot can be sobering for the buyer. It's possible, for example, that you’ll secure a more favorable interest rate than banks are offering, but it's more likely you’ll pay more, perhaps several additional percentage points above the prevailing rate.

As a buyer, you'll probably have to provide a down payment that's comparable in size to those of a typical mortgage—that is, 20% or more of the property’s value.

You may need to sell yourself to the seller

It's smart to be transparent and straightforward about the reasons you didn’t qualify for a traditional mortgage. Some of that information may emerge anyway when the seller checks your credit history and other background data, including your employment, assets, financial claims, and references.

But make sure, too, that you point out any restrictions on your ability to borrow that may not surface during the seller's due diligence. A potential buyer who has solid credit and a sizable down payment on hand may have recently started a new business, and so be unable to qualify for a loan for up to two years.

Be prepared to propose seller financing

Homeowners who offer seller financing often openly announce that fact in the hope of attracting buyers who don’t qualify for mortgages. If you don’t see a mention of seller financing, though, it doesn’t hurt to inquire. However, instead of asking if owner financing is an option, you might want to present a specific proposal. You could say, for example, "My offer is full price with 20% down, seller financing for $350,000 at 6%, amortized over 30 years with a five-year balloon loan. If I don't refinance in two to three years, I will increase the rate to 7% in years four and five."

Confirm the seller is free to finance the sale

Seller financing is simplest when the seller owns the property outright; a mortgage held on the property introduces extra complications. Paying for a title search on the property will confirm that it’s accurately described in the deed and is free from a mortgage or tax liens.

According to Jason Burkholder, a Realtor with Weichert, Realtors in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, "Most mortgages have a 'due on sale' clause that prohibits the seller from selling the home without paying off the mortgage. So if a seller does owner financing and the mortgage company finds out, it will consider the home 'sold' and demand immediate payment of the debt in full, which allows the lender to foreclose."

Seller Financing for Sellers

Keep these tips and realities in mind if you're considering financing the sale of a home.

You needn't necessarily finance the sale for a long time

As the seller, you can, at any point, sell the promissory note to an investor or lender, to whom the buyer then sends the payments. This can happen the same day as the closing, so the seller could get cash immediately.

In other words, sellers don't need to have the cash, nor do they have to become lenders. Be aware, however, that you will likely have to accept less than the full value of the note in order to sell it, thus reducing your return on the property. Promissory notes on properties typically sell for 65% to 90% of their face value, according to Amerinote Xchange, a company that specializes in secondary-market funding.

Make seller financing part of your pitch to sell the property

Because seller financing is relatively rare, promote the fact that you’re offering it, starting with the property listing. Adding the words "seller financing available" to the text will alert potential buyers and their agents that the option is on the table.

When potential buyers view your home, provide more detail about the financing arrangements. Prepare an information sheet that describes the terms of the financing.

Sellers should provide a general explanation of what seller financing is because many buyers will be unfamiliar with it.

Seek out tax advice and consider loan-servicing help

Because seller-financed deals can pose tax complications, engage a financial planner or tax expert as part of your team for the sale. Also, unless you’re experienced and comfortable as a lender, consider hiring a loan-servicing company to collect monthly payments, issue statements, and carry out the other chores involved with managing a loan.

How to Structure a Seller Financing Deal

Both parties in a seller-financed deal should hire a real estate attorney or real estate agent to write and review the sales contract and promissory note, along with related tasks. Try to find professionals who are experienced with seller-financed home transactions—and who have experience where you live, if possible, because some relevant regulations (such as those that govern balloon payments) do vary by jurisdiction.

Professionals can also help the buyer and seller decide on the particular agreement that best suits them and the circumstances of the sale. If it isn't a seller-financed deal, real estate investor and Realtor Don Tepper points out that "there are actually dozens of other ways to buy" other than a traditional mortgage arrangement. These arrangements, Tepper notes, include lease-option, lease-purchase, land-contract, contract-for-deed, equity-sharing, and wrap mortgages. "Most buyers and most real estate agents don't know how any of these work," he says.

The Bottom Line

Is seller financing a good option? As unusual and unfamiliar as it is to most people, seller financing can be a helpful option in a challenging real estate market. However, the arrangement triggers some special risks for buyers and sellers, and it's wise to engage professional help to mitigate those and allow the process to run smoothly.

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  1. Amerinote Xchange. "Learn How to Sell a Promissory Note — Expert Tips." Accessed June 11, 2021.