What Is Contract Buying?

A parent plays with children in front of their home.
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DEFINITION

Contract buying was an unethical practice common in the 1950s and ’60s in which sellers used exploitative contracts to keep predominantly Black homebuyers out of the housing market. The contracts blocked homebuyers from building equity and included clauses that allowed the seller to evict the tenant for just one missed payment.

Definition and Example of Contract Buying

Contract buying is the practice of denying a homebuyer full ownership until the home contract is paid in full. The buyer would make a large down payment, then make monthly payments at a high interest rate. The seller kept the deed until the home was repaid in full and could evict the buyer at any time. Buyers were never able to accumulate equity in their homes, and there were no laws to protect them. The practice was popular in the 1950s and ’60s, with an estimated 75%-95% of home sales to Black homebuyers being contract sales.

  • Alternate names: home installment contracts, contracts for deed, land sale contracts

For example, say you found a house you wanted to buy for $250,000. The seller tells you you’ll need to enter into a home installment contract. The contract requires you to make a $12,500 down payment, and it says you do not get the deed to the home until you pay off the entire $250,000. Per the contract, the seller keeps the deed to the house while you make payments. Around two years into the contract, you lose your job and miss a mortgage payment. Per the contract, the seller evicts you and you lose your down payment and all monthly payments.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed redlining and other discriminatory lending practices. The act made it unlawful for a creditor to deny a loan or financial assistance based on the race, color, religion, national origin, handicap, familial status, or sex of the borrower.

How Does Contract Buying Work?

The key to contract buying is that the person selling the home keeps the deed. The buyer doesn’t have any ownership rights over the home. The money they pay for a down payment and rent goes straight into the seller’s pocket. No equity is built, and the buyer does not have the right to sell the home. The buyer, in theory, doesn’t get ownership of the home until the terms of the contract are met.

Normally, you get the deed to your house whenever you close the purchase of the home. That deed gives you the right to keep, sell, or rent the house, and it allows you to build equity in your home. You can’t be kicked out of your home for one late mortgage payment, either. And because you have the deed to your home, you have the right to sell your home and pocket the proceeds of the sale, minus what you owe on your mortgage.

Contract buying was the opposite. It masqueraded as a mortgage, but came with no financial or legal protection; contract sellers worked outside housing regulations. Since the seller owned the deed, they could evict the buyer at any time, often evicting buyers for even one missed payment. As a result, the evicted buyer would lose all the money they put into a down payment and monthly payments, leaving them without a home and at a significant financial disadvantage.

Both redlining and contract buying contributed to the deterioration of neighborhoods across the country in the 1950s and ’60s. During this time, it’s estimated that Black families in Chicago lost between $3.2 billion and $4 billion in wealth due to contract buying.

Contract Buying’s Impact on Black Homebuyers

Contract buying was used as a way to keep Black homebuyers out of the housing market, and in the 1950s and ’60s, it worked in tandem with the federally-endorsed practice of redlining. Redlining involves denying a creditworthy applicant a home loan in certain neighborhoods, and it was used to deny homeownership to Black homebuyers. As a result, those homebuyers were left with few options to finance a home, while White homebuyers did not face the same impediments, a Duke University study about contract buying noted.

“So while white Americans were buying homes financed with bank loans insured by the federal government and protected by regulation, building equity as they paid down mortgages, and receiving titles at purchase, federal policy and banking practices pushed black Americans into a secondary, unregulated market that often left them stripped of any wealth they had accumulated—or hoped to accumulate—through home ownership,” the study said. “In this policy context, sellers and speculators in local housing markets exploited black families eager to buy homes. These families had few options other than purchasing ‘on contract,’ a sale product that cleverly offered the illusion of buying a home.”

It’s likely that the financial losses the Black community experienced from contract buying was far more than experts have calculated.

The home prices were usually inflated in the era of contract buying, too, adding another expense to the Black homebuying experience. Homes sold on contract had an average price makeup of 84%. On average, borrowers buying a house on contract paid around an extra $670 (in 2022 dollars) each month. And with that higher home price came higher insurance payments and property taxes, further hurting the homebuyer’s finances.

Furthermore, many Black homebuyers could not afford an inspection or appraisal. As a result, they unknowingly moved into homes that were overpriced and in need of repairs. The buyer paid the repairs out of pocket, further draining their finances, while the seller continued to rake in monthly payments.

Key Takeaways

  • Contract buying is the practice of denying a homebuyer full homeownership until the contract is paid in full.
  • Since the seller still holds the deed, they can evict the homebuyer at any time, and the borrower has no legal protections.
  • Contract buying was used to keep Black homebuyers out of the housing market, and often worked in tandem with redlining.
  • The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed discriminatory homebuying practices such as contract buying and redlining.

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Article Sources

  1. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page iii.

  2. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page 2

  3. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Federal Fair Lending Regulations and Statutes: Fair Housing Act,” Page 1.

  4. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page 1.

  5. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page 9.

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “CPI Inflation Calculator."