(KANSAS NEWS SERVICE) - The home in Haysville was meant to be a safe place, a sanctuary, for Maria Robledo and Enrique Perez.

The house had one more bathroom and bedroom than their former home. It had a big backyard for their 10-year-old son, Mateo. And it was within walking distance of his grade school.

“There was more space for me to explore. For example, there was a lake nearby,” said Mateo, speaking in Spanish. “It was big outside; it was very beautiful.”

In August 2020, the Spanish-speaking Perez-Robledo family signed a contract for the home written in English, thinking they were buying it. The family spent months and thousands of dollars on repairs before moving in in January 2021.

But three months later, Perez and Robledo realized they did not, in fact, own the home. The $10,000 they paid to the sellers had not been a down payment.

The contract they signed for the house was a lease agreement with an option to purchase – a unique payment structure similar to rent-to-own contracts.

In these contracts, buyers typically rent the home for a certain amount of time, with the option to buy it directly from the owner before the lease expires. In some cases, a percentage of the monthly rent goes toward the purchase price. The sellers might also ask for an up-front cash payment, which mimics a down payment but doesn’t necessarily guarantee equity in the house.

Rent-to-own contracts mean buyers can avoid banks and credit checks. But skirting traditional lenders can be risky, as the Federal Trade Commission has warned.

Perez and Robledo faced that reality when a judge ruled this fall that the contract they signed was fraudulent. The sellers didn’t have complete ownership of the house, despite saying so in the contract.

“Unlike rental situations, which are governed by the Landlord Tenant act, Kansas has no regulations about rent to own,” said Marty Keenan, the lawyer who represented the Perez-Robledo family in court. “So, it's like the Wild West.”

Some lawmakers are trying to increase regulations on contracts like this. A bill introduced to the Kansas Legislature last year would require sellers in most cases to have total ownership to use a contract for deed, which is similar to a rent-to-own agreement.

But it’s too late for the Perez-Robledos, who weren’t awarded any money as a result of the fraud they experienced. That’s because the judge said the family moved out of the house with “unclean hands”: Perez and Robledo removed many of the home improvements they’d made.

The sellers, Myrna Muniz and Carlos Rodriguez, argued the house was left in poor condition, with damaged electrical wiring and plumbing.

Perez and Robledo dispute this.

“If something is affixed to the house, it becomes part of the house,” said Sedgwick County District Court Judge William Wooley in his ruling. “So you did not have the right to remove the windows. You did not have the right to remove the doors. You did not have the right to remove the air conditioning and the furnace.”

Language barriers and a new home

The Perez-Robledo family started looking for a bigger house in the summer of 2020. Perez works in construction, so he could fix up anything the family bought.

“We thought about looking for another house to build something for ourselves, when we were older, when we got to where we could no longer work,” Perez said. “And also, for our son, for his future.”

They found Muniz, a licensed real estate salesperson, on Facebook. Perez and Robledo liked the house she showed them in Haysville.

In August, both parties showed up to sign the contract. That’s where their two stories diverge.

The contract – titled as a “lease agreement with option to purchase”– was written in English. In it, Perez and Robledo are labeled as both tenants and buyers.

The agreement required them to pay about $1,000 a month in rent, which the contract said would not be credited toward the home’s $85,000 purchase price. The contract also said Perez and Robledo would pay a $10,000 nonrefundable fee, which would be credited toward purchasing the house if they opted to buy it.

Perez and Robledo don’t speak English. They said the sellers told them the contract was a purchase and sale agreement for the Haysville home, and that the $10,000 was a down payment.

Muniz and Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment. But their lawyer, Jerry Bogle, spoke on their behalf. He said his clients verbally translated the contract for the Perez-Robledo family.

“It's not fair for (Perez and Robledo) just to say after the fact that, ‘Oh, gosh, we didn't understand that,’” Bogle said. “My clients testified that they read it to them in Spanish.”

In his ruling, Judge Wooley found the two parties did discuss the contract, but it wasn’t translated word for word.

“There’s just so much wrong with this contract,” Wooley said in his ruling. “Using this contract is unconscionable.”

Hispanic or Latino families are particularly at risk of misinterpreting rent-to-own contracts. Jason Probst is a Democratic state representative in Hutchinson, which has grappled with contracts for deeds for years.

Probst helped introduce the bill to regulate the contracts. He’s heard anecdotally that Spanish-speakers tend to suffer from confusion about them.

“They do all this work on this house,” Probst said. “And then … because there's a language barrier and a misunderstanding of the legal mechanisms, they think that they can sell the house. And then they find out that they can't.”

Sandra Lopez is the deputy register of deeds in Finney County in southwest Kansas. She said in her two years at the office, four families have come in asking for the title to their home – homes they didn’t own because they were buying them on a contract for deed. All were Spanish speakers who Lopez thinks didn’t receive a thorough explanation of the contract.

“Because of the wording on the document, a lot of Hispanic people don't understand it,” Lopez said. “And so they feel like they've been kind of robbed.”

Moving in 

The Haysville house was in rough shape when Perez and Robledo signed the contract in August 2020. Neither the Perez-Robledo family nor the sellers dispute that it was uninhabitable and had been without power for years.

“We started cleaning everything, putting in new walls, the ceiling,” Robledo said.

She said electric wires in the house had been chewed on by animals and needed serious repairs. Court documents say Perez and Robledo spent about $2,000 to restore electricity and about $5,000 to restore plumbing to the house.

The family also put in wood floors and redid the bathrooms, Perez said. Receipts from the family show hundreds of dollars in purchases at Sutherlands and $8,000 spent on the installation of a heat pump and electric furnace.

Perez, Robledo and their son moved in in January 2021.