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How to finance your solar panels: Cash, loan, lease and more

Rooftop solar panels can come with quite the hefty price tag. Fortunately, there are more than a few options to make it more affordable.

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Whether you're looking to save money, avoid paying so much to your utility or keep some carbon out of the atmosphere, homeowners are generating their own energy with rooftop solar. By some estimates, 13.4% of homes will have solar panels installed by 2030.

While prices are dropping steadily (though supply chain snags have pushed them up recently), rooftop solar costs thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands. Most people don't have that kind of cash laying around, but there are plenty of options for paying for solar.

The SaveOnEnergy marketplace helps you search, compare, sign up and save on the right energy fit for your home — all for free. If you're interested in solar, answer a few questions to get an exact price quote from our solar advisors.

"Financing has always been an issue," said Roger Horowitz, director of co-ops at Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit and advocacy group helping people adopt solar in 11 states. Being able to finance solar is often dependent on having a bunch of cash, good credit and owning a home. 

This article aims to hit some of the highlights of solar financing, but it should not be taken as financial advice. For that you'll have to find someone more qualified to determine whether going solar makes financial sense for you and how to best pull it off. 

Buying solar panels with cash

Arguably the most straightforward way to buy solar panels is with cash, and the benefits are clear. With a cash payment you avoid paying interest and loan fees and don't need a qualifying credit score. As a result, you'll save more money over the life of your solar panels. 

You do have to cough up more cash up front, however, so it will take a while before you recoup the money that you've spent. That period of time is called a payback period, and it's a useful piece of information when deciding whether or not paying in cash is a good option for you. The average payback period is eight years in the US, and you can find help calculating your payback period here.

A cash purchase gives you the opportunity to take advantage of the federal solar tax credit. If your solar panels are fully installed through 2022, the US government will give you 26% of the cost back when you file your taxes. In 2023 the credit falls to 22% and will disappear after that, barring new legislation.

That means you could be getting thousands of dollars back, but it also means you don't get that money back until tax time.

Paying cash works best for folks who have a stable cash flow and can absorb such a large one-time payment, said Grant Klein, senior dealer relations specialist at Clean Energy Credit Union.

Buying solar panels with a loan

If you can't afford to pay all at once, solar loans are widely available from a number of sources and in a number of forms, though a poor credit score might disqualify you.

It's increasingly common for solar providers to offer loans, often from a third party. While these loans are easy to apply for, they can have higher fees associated with them than options from a bank or credit union.

"The vast majority of folks that purchase solar that we see end up using loans from their installers," Horowitz said. He pins that apparent preference on how easy it can be to get a loan in that way. However, getting multiple loan proposals (at least two, Horowitz said) can save you significant money.

One such option is a home equity loan or home equity line of credit, where you borrow against the equity of your house (what you could get for selling it minus what you owe on your mortgage). You can borrow up to 85% of that amount, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

You can claim the federal solar tax credit if you purchase solar using a loan, though it comes back to you when you file your taxes, not when you buy your system. Still, it might be useful in paying back the loan.

Solar loans can be secured or unsecured. A secured loan is one that's backed by collateral, like your house or the solar panels themselves. Essentially, you're saying the lender can sell your collateral to pay off the loan if you fail to pay it. Solar loans are most often secured by the solar equipment, Klein said. Home equity loans are secured by the value in your house. Unsecured loans don't have that guarantee backing them up. As a result, secured loans offer lower interest rates and longer terms for paying them back. 

With any of these options, it's important to shop around and compare lenders. Again, this article isn't to be considered as financial advice. 

Getting help from the government to buy solar panels

Beyond the federal solar tax credit, the federal government (and sometimes your state) can help with a couple of other financing options.

A HomeStyle energy mortgage from Fannie Mae allows you to add the cost of a solar project into your new or refinanced mortgage. The Federal Housing Administration offers similar additions to mortgages. The amount of money you can borrow is determined based on the value of your home. 

One of the advantages of an energy efficient mortgage is that you're borrowing money once instead of twice. That means you only pay one set of loan costs and fees, and you can pay it back over 30 years, instead of 10 or 15 as can be the case with other solar loans. This keeps your monthly payment low. Not every lending institution offers loans from these programs and the borrowing process can be complicated.

"They tend to be more complicated, because you need to make so many phone calls to reach the right people," Horowitz said. That can place an extra burden on people who have fewer financial resources, the people the program is meant to help. It's important to work with an institution who knows how to navigate these systems, Horowitz said. 

An energy efficient mortgage can be used for other energy saving equipment in addition to solar panels such as new insulation, new windows and doors, smart thermostats or water efficiency improvements. Whatever the upgrade, it must be cost effective, which means it needs to save more money over its lifetime than it costs. For most places in the country, solar panels are sure to satisfy that requirement.

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Another option is Property Assessed Clean Energy, which deserves a brief mention despite only being available to residential customers in California, Florida and Missouri. Working with a local PACE office, you can finance your solar panels and pay back the loan over a longer period of time through an additional charge on your taxes. In theory, this makes large purchases more affordable, though early iterations of the program have actually buried some low income homeowners with debt and the possibility of foreclosure. New regulations passed by state legislatures could fix this problem.

Getting solar through a lease or power purchase agreement

If buying solar using cash or a loan is out of reach because of poor credit, lack of cash or some other reason, you still have options. Instead of buying, you can enter into a lease or power purchase agreement with a solar provider. With both options, lumped together as third-party-owned solar, the solar provider owns the panels and you agree to pay for the equipment (via lease) or pay for the power (power purchase agreement), usually at a lower price than you pay your utility.

CNET went into detail on power purchase agreements earlier, but briefly, here's what you need to know.

The biggest benefits to these arrangements are that you don't have to buy solar panels to get solar power. Usually you'll save money on power over the life of your agreement, too. And you won't have to worry about the maintenance of the panels, although maintenance usually isn't a huge burden.

Power purchase agreements usually save you less money than buying panels outright. And, depending on the price of your lease or power purchase agreement and how much your payment increases over time, you could end up saving significantly less. The federal tax credit also goes to the owner of the system, in this case the solar company.

Because these agreements commonly last for 25 years, they work best if you plan to stay in your house long term. Anecdotal reports reveal moving to a house with third-party-owned solar panels can be onerous and expensive. What happens if you move is something you'll want to be sure of before sticking third-party-owned solar panels on your roof.

Also, be aware that third-party ownership of solar panels isn't allowed in every state.

Which solar financing option is best?

Sorry! I'm not giving financial advice here. Before making any decision, make sure you get the advice you need from someone qualified, get multiple offers on solar projects or loans, and make a point of reading all the fine print.

Are there finance options I left out? Others you're curious about? Did you finance solar panels in a way that worked perfectly for you? Reach out via comments and let me know.