There are legit rent-to-own programs in Florida. And elsewhere.
Can you explain what you've run into--why they appear to be scams?
Let's clarify a few points first.
There really isn't a "rent-to-own" technique. There's a "lease-option" where you lease and have the option of purchasing. There's also a "lease-purchase" where you lease but have locked yourself into a purchase agreement. Then there are slightly different techniques (often in different parts of the country), such as a land contract, contract for deed, etc. And then there's always straight owner financing. Each of these works slightly differently.
Are they tricky/very tricky/very, very tricky? Not really. What makes it tricky are lawyers and real estate agents who don't understand the process and sometimes, unfortunately, muck it up. But there are plenty of protections you can build into a lease-option to make the process quite safe. (Not as safe as buying outright, but reasonably close.)
I'm not sure why Mott refers to rent-to-owns as scams, since he very correctly notes that lease-purchases and lease-options can be done properly. I'd just caution you--as I noted above--that rent-to-own really isn't describing a specific technique, whereas lease-options and lease-purchases are.
Are they rare/hard to find? No. It's true that many lease-options or lease-purchases aren't listed that way on the MLS. You need to know what to look for. And sometimes you (or your agent) have to put them together yourself. For techniques on how to find them, see a blog I wrote at http://bit.ly/findaleaseoption
OK. So what are some red flags to watch out for?
If you're dealing with an investor (who likely is doing what's called a "sandwich lease option"), don't pay money up front just for a listing of lease-option properties. There's plenty of money to be made by investors on legitimate sandwich lease-options. (Option fee, cash flow, final sale.) There's no need, no reason, to ask for money just for a listing. A legitimate investor wants to reach as wide a group of buyers as possible. Charging an up-front fee would just narrow that pool.
Though it's all negotiable, an option fee usually will be 1%-3% of the purchase price of the property. Be cautious is you're asked for more.
It's legitimate--even desirable--for the investor to check your credit. The goal at the end of the lease-option is for you to buy the property. That means you'll need a downpayment and you'll need acceptable credit (today that's a 620 score or better, generally). If your credit is too low and the time frame is too short, then you're just setting yourself up for failure.
Aim for a 2-4 year lease-option. No less than 2. Remember: It'll take time to clean up your credit and save up for your downpayment. That won't happen in 6 months or a year. So if someone suggests a 6-month lease-option, walk away.
Though it's all negotiable, aim for a reasonably generous rent credit. That's the amount of your rent that'll be credited toward the purchase price. Rough rule of thumb: 20%. More is better. Less, and you're not going to be helped much by the rent credit.
Make sure you're dealing with either: (1) the property owner, or (2) someone who has the authority to sell the property to you. In the case of a sandwich lease-option, the investor won't be the owner. But that's acceptable if the investor has the right to purchase the property (with an option of his own with the owner).
Lease-options often place more responsibility on the tenant-buyer for the property's maintenance and upkeep than if you were just a renter. That's OK. But understand precisely what your responsibilies include.
See a lawyer to build in protections in the option agreement. For example, what happens if, at the end of the option period, the house doesn't appraise for the agreed-upon sales price? There are a bunch of different ways to handle that, but you and the other party have to agree to a strategy up-front. Similarly, how do you make sure that the owner is making the mortgage payments? There are a number of different ways to make sure; a good lawyer will know them.
Again: If you provide information on what's led you to believe that you've been dealing with scams, I may be able to offer additional advice.
Hope that helps.