In lieu of requiring buyers to pay all cash, some land sellers choose to offer “owner financing”. The seller accepts a down payment from a buyer of, say, 20% and then the buyer makes monthly payments to the seller over time.
When one of my seller-clients decides to do this, I ask them to specify up front the terms they will consider, i.e., the down payment, interest rate, and number of years. An example is 20% down, 6% interest, 10 years. I put the seller’s terms in black and white in all of my marketing materials. Yet, inevitably, I find that whatever down payment the seller requires, a few buyers will always contact me and ask if the seller will accept a smaller down payment.
Typical conversation with a buyer
This video shows a typical conversation that I will have with buyers. It explains why sellers offering “owner financing” will not accept a small down payment:
Additional reasons why sellers will not accept $0 down or a low down
The commission and closing costs are not the only reason sellers will not accept $0 down. The seller might also have liens or back property taxes to pay.
For example, suppose the seller in our $100,000 video example still owes $4000 on a loan tied to the land. In addition, he owes $3000 in a child support lien and $2000 in back property taxes. In order to transfer the land to a buyer “free and clear”, escrow will require the seller to pay those items, along with the commission and closing costs, out of the seller’s proceeds. Even though the seller is paying these items, and the buyer is not paying them, the down payment that the buyer gives the seller has to be sufficient to cover all of the items the seller is responsible for or the seller will have to write a check to escrow in order to close. Land sellers do not want to write checks. They want to receive checks. Getting money in return is kind of the whole point of selling land when you think about it!
Further, when a seller offers to carry the loan, he will naturally have a keen interest in making sure that the buyer will make their monthly payments in full and on time. The higher the down payment, the less likely the buyer will flake out in the future. This is because buyers realize that they will lose their down payment (and the land too) if they don’t pay.
Other sellers have in mind a certain amount of money that they want up front for a particular and immediate use in their life. Maybe they have medical bills to pay. Maybe they’re trying to fund the family’s vacation to Hawaii. Maybe they want to buy another parcel of land. Maybe they want to renovate their kitchen. Maybe they owe money to their drug dealer. Who knows? The point is, some land owners don’t want to sell their land at all unless they can get some threshold dollar amount down from a buyer. If they can’t get at least that amount, they won’t sell at all.
Occasionally “the seller” is actually multiple sellers, each with a percent interest. So, whatever the buyer puts down ends up getting split 2, 5, 8 ways (or whatever) after costs are deducted. The amount each individual seller will end up with at closing is therefore small. The more co-owners there are, the more the required down payment can get ratcheted up.
Advice to buyers
Before buying land, consider saving your money for a while so that you will have a sizeable down payment. Or, find a co-investor. Or purchase a less expensive parcel of land.
If you really want to purchase land with $0 down or a small down, don’t even look at parcels listed by Realtors. This is because, when there is a Realtor involved, the seller will always have to pay the commission out of any down payment that you propose. The math is not going to work out. So, buyers, if you don’t want to put at least 20% down, look only at For Sale by Owner (FSBO) listings where the seller does not have the expense of a commission.
If you have your heart set on a parcel listed by a Realtor, then at least contact the Realtor and ask if the land is “free and clear” of all liens and back taxes. Sometimes the agent will know the answer to this question and sometimes they won’t. Depending on what the agent says, do a “back of the envelope” calculation. Consider things from the perspective of the seller. Add up all the costs you think the seller will have to pay at closing: liens, back taxes, commission, and closing costs. You won’t have the exact numbers, so just estimate. When estimating, keep in mind that commissions are not always 6%. They can be 8%, 10% or anything and the listing agent is unlikely to tell you what commission the seller is paying. The total you come up with is your estimate of the bare minimum down payment the seller might possibly consider. Throw in an additional cushion of several thousand dollars over that sum and that’s the down payment you might propose in your seller-financing offer. If you find that the total exceeds what you want to put down, then don’t even bother submitting an offer. Move on down the road and buy a different parcel.
Suppose that the seller’s total costs, including liens, back taxes, commission, and closing costs, add up to $9642. Buyers, please don’t assume that you can offer the seller $9700 down and he will accept it. The seller is not going to transfer title to you in return for a check for $58 dollars at closing. The seller will want to receive a check for thousands of dollars at closing in order to agree to carry the loan for you. That’s why it’s important to cushion the down payment offer by several thousand dollars over and above the seller’s total costs.
Also, note there are basically two ways the seller can carry the loan. One is with a “trust deed” where title is transferred to the buyer at closing. Escrow records a lien on the land in favor of the seller and the seller and becomes a non-owner and lender just like he is Wells Fargo. The second way is a “land contract” where the seller retains title until the loan is fully paid off. The land contract is sort of like buying a car. After you make all the payments, then you get the pink slip. You don’t get the pink slip (title) up front. I’m not sure about other states, but the trust deed is the most common in California and Oregon, and I have never seen a “land contract” used in these states in my career. However, a “land contract” is the only kind of agreement that is likely to work with $0 down or a low down. This is because sellers are unlikely to want to transfer title to you up front when you are putting no money down. As a buyer, you might try proposing a “land contract” to FSBO sellers instead of a “trust deed”.
Finally, buyers, remember that, in addition to the down payment, you will also be expected to pay your portion of closing costs. Closing costs include the escrow fee and title insurance. These costs are entirely separate from the down payment and are paid to the escrow and title companies, not to the seller and not to the Realtor. Even in the unlikely event that you can convince a seller to accept $0 down, you will still be expected to pay your share of these costs. Purchasing real estate is not free.
Advice to sellers
Offering to “carry the loan” is one way to dramatically increase the odds of selling your land, and for top dollar. The reason is, there are virtually no good bank loans for most kinds of vacant land. Sellers who offer to “carry” do not think of it as a burden. They think of it as an investment that yields a return secured by real estate. Consider whether or not seller-financing is right for you. If you don’t want to carry the loan, that’s totally fine, just know that your buyer-pool will likely be limited to those buyers who have all cash. If you do decide to offer seller-financing as an option, consider requiring at least 20% down.
The notion of a zero-down payment on land is basically a myth. I have never seen a seller accept that in my career. Purchasing land with a low (not $0) down payment might be possible but not when a Realtor is involved in a transaction. Buyers who are seeking seller-financing, and want to consider parcels listed by Realtors, should be prepared to put down at least 20%.