The subprime fallout has made the once-slam-dunk home loans more difficult to obtain. While some neighborhoods continue to be very active, other areas have slowed considerably.

In addition, the first notion of “back to school” already has hit many second-home owners who are beginning to schedule the “winterization” of the family cabin. Instead of going through another off-season with little use and significant maintenance, some owners will use the last few weeks of the summer season to show — and hopefully sell — the family getaway, raising for-sale real estate inventory levels in popular areas.

If your house or cabin already has been sitting for sale long enough to bite into your comfort and affordability zones, you might want to consider a lease-option.

A lease with an option to buy often can solve a two-mortgage problem for a seller, and provide a cash-poor buyer with an opportunity to “try out” a house while getting a portion on the monthly rent credited toward a down payment.

Many sellers make a commitment to purchase another house contingent on selling the one they’re already in. But when it comes time to purchase the second house, or lose it, the prospective buyer can be faced with making payments on two homes if the first one has not sold.

A 12- to 18-month lease agreement, with an option to buy within the lease period, can solve problems. Here’s how a typical lease-option works:

1. The buyer and seller agree on a purchase price, usually a figure somewhere between today’s market value and the anticipated market value 12 months down the road.

2. The seller gives up tomorrow’s presumably higher value for money in hand today. The buyer pays a bit more than today’s value in exchange for very little cash down. Let’s say buyer and seller agree the price will be $335,000.

3. The seller charges the buyer a nonrefundable fee for agreeing to this option. The amount can vary depending on factors such as how eager the seller is to move and the size and quality of the house. Typically, the higher the fee, the better the buyer maintains the property.

4. Let’s use $3,000 for the fee in our hypothetical transaction. The fee is in addition to the monthly lease payments. And we’ll have the seller give the buyer the right to purchase the property for $335,000 at any time within the 12-month lease period. If the option is exercised, the fee could be considered part of the down payment.

5. The lessee has made no down payment, hence the monthly option fee is typically higher than rental market rates. The two parties agree on what portion of the rent will be applied to the down payment. Any amount can be credited. For example, if the monthly fee is $2,000, $800 could be credited to the down payment. (If the seller really is not eager to sell, he may not agree to a higher rent credit.)

6. Buyer and seller must be sure to specify both lease and sale terms in the agreement. For example, when the time comes for the buyer to exercise the option, if the interest rates are at 8 percent, the buyer may not be able to qualify for a loan. It’s a good idea to set an interest-rate ceiling in the agreement, or ask the seller to finance the home when conventional rates hit a certain level.

Sellers should read their mortgage agreements carefully before entering a lease-option agreement. Some lenders may activate a “due-on-sale” clause if the seller enters into a lease-option with another party. Many times, lenders will permit a specific lease-option period if notified in advance. And, lenders usually are more willing to participate when they are assured of future business — like the seller’s or buyer’s new mortgage loan.

Some realty agents have been reluctant to seek lease-options for clients because they have been unwilling to gamble their commissions on whether the option would be exercised. Others are skittish about deferring their commission until a deal is solidified. However, when open-minded agents understand a lease-option could keep a deal together and result in future business, the concept is readily accepted.

What’s the once-popular saying: A small piece of something is better than a large piece of nothing?

To get even more valuable advice from Tom, visit his Second Home Center.

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