Get help with your home purchase
Buying your first home can be challenging, especially when it comes to getting approved for a mortgage and coming up with the down payment.
Thankfully, Uncle Sam has first-time home buyer government programs that can make it easier to get into your new home.
Dig deeper and find out about various loan options, state-run mortgage programs, down payment assistance, and other resources available to eligible buyers.
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Can the government help me buy a house?
For many first-time home buyers, there are some real hurdles along the way. Whether it’s saving for a down payment and closing costs, qualifying for a mortgage loan, or simply navigating the home buying process.
Luckily, there are government programs both at the federal and state level that can help.
“For many, the biggest hurdle when trying to purchase their first home is coming up with the upfront costs of a down payment. While the amount needed to put down varies depending on the type of loan, it can still be a roadblock on the journey to homeownership,” says Mandie Anderson, branch manager with South Carolina-based Silverton Mortgage.
Government-backed loans are a great option for anyone who can afford a monthly payment, but wants to put less money down or has a lower credit score.
“The good news is that there are numerous government loan programs and down payment assistance options designed especially for those who need a little extra help with financing. These programs can be a solution in particular for those who can afford a monthly mortgage payment but may not have a large sum of money on hand for the down payment,” Anderson explains.
Government-backed loans are a great option for anyone who wants to put less money down or has a lower credit score, explains Jeff Gravelle, chief production officer at Newrez, a national mortgage lending and servicing organization.
“Since they are insured by the government, these loans are less risky to lenders and, therefore, allow lenders to offer lower interest rates. As a result, the monthly mortgage payments are often more affordable,” he adds.
Government loans for first-time home buyers
There are three government loan options that are worth exploring if you need a little extra help qualifying for a mortgage: an FHA home loan, VA loan, or USDA loan.
FHA home loan
FHA loans can help if you can’t afford a traditional 20% down payment or have a less-than-perfect credit score.
“You can put down as little as 3.5% at closing with an FHA loan,” says Anderson. “These loans have more flexible underwriting standards and are insured by the Federal Housing Administration and issued by an FHA-approved lender.”
The downside is that, with an FHA loan, you’ll have to pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium along with annual premiums that are paid off monthly. This mortgage insurance will usually need to be paid until you pay off your mortgage or refinance into a different loan type.
Here are some other FHA loan requirements, per Nik Shah, CEO of Home.LLC in San Francisco:
- Credit eligibility: FICO score over 580
- Loan limit: Current FHA loan limit for most single-family homes is $420,680
- Lender/underwriting fee: Around 1% plus an underwriting fee between $350 and $1,000
- Upfront mortgage insurance fees: Typically 1.75% of the loan amount, rolled into the loan balance
- Annual mortgage insurance premium: Generally 0.85% of the loan amount, broken into monthly payments
FHA alternative: HomeReady and Home Possible
Note that FHA isn’t the only low-down-payment loan option available.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — two “government-sponsored enterprises” — each offer a mortgage program with just 3% down. Fannie Mae’s low-down-payment option is called HomeReady and Freddie Mac’s is called Home Possible.
Though these aren’t technically government mortgage loans, they offer many similar benefits, such as flexible credit score and income guidelines. They also have reduced private mortgage insurance (PMI) premiums, which means you might pay a lot less in mortgage insurance costs on a HomeReady or Home Possible loan than an FHA loan.
These programs are definitely worth exploring if you’re considering an FHA mortgage.
VA home loan
A VA loan is arguably the most generous government-backed loan available, but you have to be an active duty service member, veteran, surviving spouse, or other eligible applicant to qualify.
“What makes this loan different from many others is it requires no down payment and no monthly mortgage insurance,” Anderson notes.
She continues, “VA loans are provided by private lenders, with the Department of Veterans Affairs guaranteeing a portion of the loan. This makes it possible for the lender to offer more favorable terms and interest rates, with no minimum credit score required.”
However, you will have to pay a funding fee for the privilege of getting this loan. According to Shah, here are more details on a VA loan:
- Loan limit: Often limited to Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac conforming loan limits, current limit for most areas is around $647,200
- Funding/underwriting fee: Upfront funding fee between 1.4% and 2.4% depending on down payment and loan purpose. Typically rolled into the loan amount
- Must be a primary residence: You can’t use a VA loan to buy a vacation home or investment property
USDA home loan
USDA home loans are ideal for borrowers with low-to-moderate income seeking to purchase a property in a rural area.
“This loan program is also available to low-to-moderate income buyers in less-populated suburbs of some major cities,” Gravelle explains. “As with a VA loan, a USDA loan allows borrowers to finance up to 100%, with zero money down.”
Shah cautions that USDA loans “can be difficult to apply for, are entirely dependent on your income, and come with fees attached.”
Indeed, to qualify, your household income must meet certain guidelines and the home to be purchased must be in an eligible rural area, as defined by the USDA.
Here’s more fine print on the USDA loan, Shah reports:
- Geographic restrictions: The property must be located in an area designated “rural” by the USDA
- Income limits: Your household income cannot exceed 115% of the area median income where you live
- Funding/underwriting fee: Upfront mortgage insurance fee is 1%, which can be financed into your principal balance
- Additional monthly fees: Approximately 0.35% of the loan’s balance for the remainder of the loan, paid monthly; this fee gets smaller every year as you pay off more of the loan
State-run mortgage programs
Many states have special loan programs run by their housing finance agency or a similar body. These can offer unique benefits like low interest rates and down payment assistance (DPA).
“There are many publicly and privately funded programs available to help first-time buyers, such as state bond loans and DPA programs,” continues Gravelle. “These programs for home buyers offer funds administered by cities, counties, housing finance agencies, nonprofits, lenders, and other groups; in some high-cost areas, even employers offer them.”
Because these programs are typically localized to a specific area, the best way to learn more about them is to speak with a loan officer or local real estate agent or search online for “first-time home buyer programs” or “down payment assistance programs” in your city or county.
“Keep in mind that not everyone qualifies for these state-run programs,” says Anderson. “Factors such as income, credit score, profession, and even the location you’re looking to purchase in can determine your eligibility.”
Check out these links for more information and to locate a state-run mortgage or assistance program near you:
Down payment assistance (DPA) for first-time home buyers
There are thousands of DPA programs available nationwide and locally. The aid they offer comes in several different forms, including grants, loans, and credits.
As Anderson explains:
- “With a DPA grant, money is given to the borrower that doesn’t have to be paid back under the condition that they own and live in the home for a specified amount of time. This will typically be secured by a lien on the property until the conditions are met
- “Alternatively, the DPA program can be a second mortgage loan offered at a low or zero interest rate that needs to be paid back or forgiven over a certain period. This most likely will also be secured by a lien on your property”
Alternatively, certain agencies throughout specific states issue mortgage credit certificates (MCCs). These can reduce the amount of federal income tax you pay, making it possible for you to save more funds for a down payment and other costs associated with a home purchase.
“Keep in mind that a tax credit is not received until you file a tax return, so be sure to consult with a tax advisor for your specific situation,” adds Anderson.
To help find DPA programs, check out these links:
“When researching financial assistance programs, carefully review the program requirements to ensure that you qualify. Also, make sure you can find an approved lender,” advises Anderson.
Other government resources for first-time home buyers
First-time home buyers often find it helpful to take a homebuyer education course before buying. And, if you use a government-run mortgage or down payment assistance program, homebuyer education is often required.
“Many courses can be found online or through government housing agencies like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Some are free, while others are available for a fee that typically ranges from $75 to $100,” Gravelle says.
Even if you are not required to take this class, it’s worth your time and expense.
“Homeownership is an important responsibility, and having a better understanding will ensure greater success,” Anderson says.
You may even qualify for counseling through HUD for free.
“There are HUD-approved housing counseling agencies in every state that can help borrowers navigate the process for no charge,” adds Anderson.
Explore your home buying options
If you’re getting serious about buying a home, it’s worth connecting with a mortgage lender. Your loan officer can help you explore your options, look into assistance programs, and gauge your eligibility.
Not only will this give you some direction, but getting pre-approved is also often required to make an offer on a home.
So, when you’re ready, your first step should be to reach out and talk to a mortgage lender about your options.