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Homeowners Should Steer Clear of Sale-Leasebacks

By sbup Staff

In real estate, a "sale-leaseback" is a transaction companies use to raise money or to shift around tax liabilities. But this maneuver – fairly common in the commercial real estate world - has started showing up in residential real estate deals, as cash-strapped homeowners get desperate for a way to stay in their homes. However, a sale-leaseback often leaves homeowners worse off than when they started.

Here’s how a sale-leaseback -- also called a sale-and-leaseback – works. In most cases, the seller sells a building or another asset to raise money, and then leases it back from the new buyer. It's a common practice in commercial real estate – the New York Times (Stock Quote: NYT), Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), SunTrust (Stock Quote: STI) and Citibank (Stock Quote: C) have all done multi-billion-dollar sale-and-leaseback deals in recent years.  

But the problems start when a commercial real estate transaction enters the residential market. "These deals are pretty complex things," says Steve Goddard, a realtor with RE/MAX Beach Cities Realty in California. "And even people that have some expertise or real estate acumen call attorneys before signing anything, much less regular homeowners."

For homes, the idea behind a sales-leaseback is supposedly a win-win. A homeowner with troubled finances gets money to pay their bills; the buyer gets a property with a built-in tenant, so it won’t sit vacant. But there are big risks in case the new buyer hits their own financial potholes.

Goddard recommends that homeowners simply steer clear of sale-leasebacks. "It just doesn't make sense in most cases," he says. Sale-leasebacks often end up costing more money in the long-term: the seller becomes a renter and loses the chance to build equity in their home. And if the new buyer – and now the landlord - gets into financial trouble the original homeowner has very little legal recourse to stay in their home.

Still, recent news reports from New Jersey and Chicago highlight the fact that many struggling homeowners are in fact turning to sale-leasebacks as a way to stay in their homes. And instead of staying in their home, some homeowners are left without any equity, and facing eviction when the new owner doesn’t pay their bills and the house enters foreclosure.

In most cases, financially strapped homeowners are better off getting in touch with their lenders and seeing what options are available to avoid foreclosure before entering into any kind of sale-leaseback agreements.

Citigroup has announced a plan to lower monthly mortgage payments for a three month period for out-of-work homeowners, while JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) and Citi have already announced a moratorium on foreclosures. The White House’s housing assistance plan, scheduled for release on March 4, will allow some homeowners to refinance or modify their mortgages, potentially making a drastic step like a sale-leaseback unecessary.

Most sale-leasebacks are done for accounting and tax reasons, as a way to push an asset into another tax year, or to exchange non-deductible mortgage interest for leasing costs that qualify as a business expense, says Goddard. "I just don't see how it can provide a way out for homeowners."

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