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LEASE PURCHASE CAN OPEN OWNERSHIP GATE

Renters who are having trouble coming up with a down payment to buy a house might look to an unusual source - the landlord.

The first step is to find a rental house you would like to own. You probably will be able to find some that are already for sale - a real estate agent can point them out.Once you find the house you want, ask if the landlord is willing to consider a lease purchase and if he'll offer a rent credit toward the purchase price.

A lease purchase works like this:

- The renter is guaranteed a set price for the house at some point in the future, often a year from the date the lease purchase is signed. If the price is set at $105,000 today, it will remain at that figure when you are ready to buy next year.

- In return for the price guarantee and the delayed sale, the renter offers the landlord something of worth, perhaps a rent slightly above market or a cash deposit. Generally, the cash deposit

and the extra rent are not returnable - if you don't buy the house, you lose the money. But if you do buy the house, the cash goes toward the purchase price.

- To increase the odds of a sale, the landlord frequently will offer a rent credit. If the renter buys the house within the time set by the lease purchase contract, the landlord will return a portion of the rent toward the down payment. In markets where sales are slow, tenants may be able to negotiate credits of 35 percent to 50 percent.

Here's how such a deal might work.

Sally and Jim find a house they like and learn from their real estate agent that it is owned by a landlord. The asking price is $105,000.

Normally, Sally and Jim would have to come up with a down payment of at least 5 percent or 10 percent. They don't have $5,000 or $10,000 for the down payment.

So they tell the landlord that instead of the $750 rent he normally gets on the house, they will pay $800 a month if he in turn will offer a 35 percent rent credit when they buy the house in one year. The landlord agrees.

Over 12 months, Sally and Jim will pay the landlord $9,600 in rent. With a 35 percent rent credit, they will get back

$3,360. That is enough for a down payment of 3 percent.

The real estate agent can help Sally and Jim find a mortgage with a 3 percent down payment since their annual income - $35,000 - is not above the median income in their city.

They can use up to 28 percent of their monthly income - $816 - for housing costs and their overall monthly debts are limited to 36 percent of income.

With a $101,850 mortgage after the 3 percent down payment, the monthly mortgage will cost Sally and Jim $783 a month in principal and interest at an interest rate of 8.5 percent.

Once the taxes and insurance are added in, however, their monthly housing costs exceed 28 percent of their income. The agent then tells them about the community homebuyers program sponsored by the secondary mortgage lender Fannie Mae and offered in many parts of the nation.

If Sally and Jim agree to take a class on homebuying and managing money, they can get a mortgage with a 3 percent down payment and use up to 33 percent of their monthly income for housing

costs. They decide to go through the program and buy the house.

If this scenario appeals to you, you probably will be able to find a willing landlord in your town. However, before you agree to pay a higher rent or give the landlord cash up front, talk with a real estate agent and a mortgage lender to get an idea of whether you will qualify for a mortgage.

You don't want to pay extra money each month and then find you can't buy the house after all.

If you can't find a local lender offering 3 percent down mortgages, these phone numbers will help you:

- GE Capital Mortgage (1-800-444-5664). GE Capital is an insurance company, not a mortgage lender. But it runs a 3 percent down payment mortgage program that many lenders use and it can give you names of lenders across the country.

- Fannie Mae (1-800-732-6643). Fannie Mae is a big secondary mortgage lender. It will send you information on lenders in your area who offer 3 percent mortgages.

- Countrywide Funding (1-800-577-3732). Countrywide lends directly to home buyers and has offices across the country.

- North American Mortgage (1-800-845-6627 or 1-800-367-4626).

Another direct mortgage lender with a big 3 percent down payment program is Norwest Mortgage. It doesn't have toll-free phone numbers, but there are offices in many cities. Look for Norwest in the white pages.