US: Homebuyers spooked by rooftop solar leases

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A report by Bloomberg has found that some homeowners in the U.S. with a leased rooftop solar array installed have had trouble selling their property to buyers unfamiliar with the scheme and technology.

Despite helping to drive a 38% increase in residential rooftop installations in the U.S. last year, the leasing model remains alien to many would-be homeowners, forcing some vendors to lower their asking price in order to sell their property.

A typical solar leasing contract can run for up to 25 years, and the small print details often embedded in the deals are initially of little concern for residential customers. With most solar leasing contracts tying in the property for the duration of the leasehold, rather than the owner, new buyers have the added responsibility of assuming the leasehold for these systems.

In some cases, new buyers have lacked the appropriate credit scores required to become a solar leaseholder, despite already being approved for a mortgage, although SunPower vice president Martin DeBono told Bloomberg that such occurrences were rare and that the ‘vast majority’ of buyers who qualify for a mortgage can also qualify to take over a solar lease.

Deterrent, or deal sealer?

Although Bloomberg‘s sample of despondent vendors is small, it does hint at the potential of a wider problem in the future. According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, funded by the U.S. Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative, homeowners who actually own rooftop solar systems can add as much as $25,000 to the value of their home for an average installation in California.

So it is not the technology that is the deterrent, it seems, but rather the prospect of taking on an additional lease and contract at the same time as dealing with a mortgage, despite the cost benefits of doing so.

"Homeowners don’t understand what they’re signing when they get into this,"Sandy Adomatis, a home appraiser in Florida who created the industry standard for system valuing tools, told Bloomberg. "You’ve got another layer to add on top of finding a buyer for the house. It’s not a plus."

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s solar analyst Nick Culver said that some buyers just won’t be on board with a solar leasing system, adding that even when it is evident they can save money on their bills every month, the vendor is effectively limited to "a certain subset of buyers".

Solar leasing as deterrent to home buying is a fledgling issue. Launched as recently as 2008, the model only really began to take flight in the U.S. in 2012, and the majority of leaseholders remain in their original properties. SolarCity, the country’s largest solar leasing company with 110,000 customers, has only transferred the ownership of 1,500 contracts, indicating that the surface has only been scratched on a topic that could cause the surging solar segment to wobble, if only slightly and in the short-term.

SolarCity, however, is not unduly worried, and has created an eight-person team to handle the 150 or so transfers a month nationwide.

"Homebuyers are essentially moving into a home with a lower cost of ownership, a lower cost of energy," SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass told Bloomberg. "So a solar lease shouldn’t make it harder to sell a house – it becomes a selling point instead of a point of misunderstanding."

For the informed and initiated, maybe, but others have reported a noticeable cooling of interest once the issue of solar leasing is raised. "We had one offer in five months, and they pulled back as soon as they found out about the solar lease," said Dorian Bishopp, a homeowner in Arizona who was forced to lower his asking price from $155,000 to $140,000 before he could make a sale (the "one offer in five months" may have also had something to do with this). "It is a deterrent, definitely."

A local estate agent told Bloomberg that this was below the average asking price for a house of that size and type in his neighborhood, adding that people appeared to be "scared of the solar lease". However, the same agent also said that attitudes are bound to change for the better until they become a ‘non-issue’. "It will soon be akin to asking ‘does your house have lightbulbs?’," he said.

The lease in question belongs to SunPower, who confirmed to Bloomberg that 1% of its 20,000 solar lease customers have since sold their homes, with the majority transferring the lease to the buyer with few problems.