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A Guide To First-Time Home Buyer Programs, Loans & Grants

Lauren Nowacki7-minute read

February 24, 2021

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There’s a lot to think about when buying a house – and it’s normal to have questions, especially if it’s your first time. You might be wondering about some general first-time homebuyer tips, or the best way to get down payment assistance or help with your closing costs.

Here, we’ll cover some of the most advantageous programs for first-time homebuyers, so you know what options are available.

Types Of First-Time Homebuyer Programs

First-time homebuyer costs can seem overwhelming. But, luckily, there are several options for assistance with your down payment and closing costs, including charitable and government-sponsored programs. Local and federal tax credits can lessen the bite, and there are also educational programs that can offer help at every step.

Down Payment Assistance

A down payment is a large initial expense when you buy a home. A down payment is required for most types of mortgages. Though many first-time homebuyers believe that they need a 20% down payment to get a mortgage, many lenders issue loans to first-time buyers with as little as 3% down.

DPA Loans

Not sure you can cover a down payment on your own? You may also be able to get down payment assistance (DPA) through a few specific types of loans to reduce the amount you have to put down.

A few options include second mortgages, deferred payment loans and forgiven loans.

Loans structured as a second mortgage must be paid off at the same time as your main mortgage.

 

 Deferred payment loans must be paid in full when you move, sell, refinance or pay off your main mortgage.

Loans can also be forgiven over a set number of years – but will need to be repaid when you move, sell, refinance or pay off your main mortgage if you move before that set number of years expires or you otherwise violate the terms of forgiveness.

DPA Grants

You may be able to get DPA through grants, which don’t have to be repaid. Program requirements for loans and grants may vary, so it’s best to check with your local or state government for details on any first-time buyer down payment assistance programs.

Government-Backed Loans

A loan backed by the federal government can also help qualified first-time homebuyers purchase with no down payment – we’ll cover these types of loans in more detail below.

Tax Credits

Unfortunately, you can no longer take advantage of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act’s $7,500 credit for first-time homebuyers. The program ended in 2010.

However, you can still save money on your taxes through various deductions. Federal and state deductions can lower your taxable income.

For example, you can deduct your mortgage insurance costs from your federal taxes if your mortgage is worth less than $750,000. This includes private mortgage insurance (PMI) and mortgage insurance premiums (MIP) associated with FHA loans, as well as the guarantee fees for USDA loans. Additional deductions and credits may be available through your state or local government.

Closing Assistance

Like down payment assistance, there are government-sponsored and private programs that can help you pay closing costs. Closing costs are additional fees you pay at the end of the mortgage process. Closing costs are typically 3% – 6% of the total cost of your home loan. Like down payment assistance, closing cost assistance can come through a grant or loan.

You can also look to your seller for help with closing costs, with seller concessions. The seller may be able to help with attorney fees, real estate tax services and title insurance. They can also help pay for points up front to lower your interest rate and contribute to property taxes.

Homebuyer Education

You can take advantage of online educational programs and resources if you aren’t sure how to start your home search. A good first-time homebuying class can be free or low-priced and can teach you about loan options, the buying process and how to apply for a mortgage. Browse real estate courses online and look for ones aimed at first-time homebuyers.

Not sure where to start? Zing University is a free online course from the mortgage experts at Rocket Mortgage®. Zing University takes you through the steps to buy a home, teaches you about mortgage types and can even put you in contact with a local agent to help you become a more confident buyer.

Federal First-Time Homebuyer Programs

You can take advantage of federal, state and local government programs when you buy a home. Federal programs are open to anyone who’s a citizen or legal resident of the U.S. Though not everyone qualifies for every program, you don’t need to live in a specific state to get federal assistance. Here are some of the most popular federal programs for first-time homebuyers.

Government-Backed Loans

Government-backed loans can allow you to get a home with a low down payment or poor credit. The government insures government-backed loans, meaning that they pose less of a risk to a lender.

This also means that lenders can offer you a lower interest rate. There are currently three government-backed loan options: FHA loans, USDA loans and VA loans. Each program has its own list of qualifications.

Good Neighbor Next Door

Are you a pre-K – 12 teacher, emergency medical technician, firefighter or law enforcement officer? You can take advantage of the Good Neighbor Next Door program sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Good Neighbor Next Door program offers a generous 50% off select HUD properties. The properties available are foreclosures and are very affordable, even without the discount. You can view a list of available properties on the HUD program website.

HomePath Ready Buyer Program

Fannie Mae offers first-time home buyers the chance to buy a foreclosed property for as little as 3% down with their HomePath program. You can even apply for up to 3% of your closing costs back through the program as well. Fannie Mae homes sell in as-is condition, so you may have to repair a few things before your new place is live-in ready. However, closing cost assistance can help make it more possible to cover these expenses.

The HomePath Ready Buyer program is only available to first-time buyers who want to live full-time in a house that they’re looking to purchase. You'll need to take and pass Fannie’s Framework Homeownership course before you close.

State And Local First-Time Homebuyer Programs

Most government homebuying assistance comes through state and local programs. Individual programs vary depending on location. You can view a complete list of state-specific buying resources on the HUD website.

Charitable Or Nonprofit First-Time Homebuyer Programs

You might qualify for charitable or nonprofit assistance if you have low to moderate income. Charities and nonprofits are nongovernment organizations that can offer you educational and financial resources when you buy a home. Nonprofits usually have income qualifications that dictate who can get help.

Habitat For Humanity

One of the most well-known housing nonprofits is Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that offers "simple, decent and affordable" housing for low-income families. Volunteers build homes for those in need and Habitat for Humanity makes no profit on the home after you close. This makes their homes much more affordable than local options. Habitat for Humanity is the largest nonprofit builder in the world, with over 800,000 homes built.

Neighborhood Assistance Corporation Of America (NACA)

The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) is another nationwide nonprofit that can help you buy a home. NACA offers “financially unstable” households mortgage counseling and education. NACA’s team members also help low-income families find lenders willing to work with them.

NACA loans have no down payment requirement or closing costs and no minimum credit score, and can give you a more personalized look at potential paths to homeownership.

Like government programs, many charities and nonprofits are region-specific. HUD keeps a running list of approved nonprofits available in every state and county. You can learn more about local housing programs available to you by visiting HUD’s website.

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Employer-Sponsored First-Time Homebuyer Programs

Did you know that your employer can help contribute to your home purchase? Some employers are now adopting housing incentives to help employees cover down payments and closing costs. Your employer may give you a grant or a loan that’s forgivable over time, and your labor union might also offer closing assistance.

The employer-sponsored programs that you can use depend upon what your employer offers. Not every employer offers housing or closing assistance, and employer-assisted housing programs are usually joint efforts between state governments and employers.

Set up a meeting with your manager or HR representative and ask if your workplace offers any kind of down payment or closing cost assistance.

Who Qualifies For First-Time Homebuyer Programs?

Most government and nonprofit programs have a strict definition of a first-time buyer. If you haven’t had any form of ownership in any home in the last 3 years, you’re considered a first-time buyer. You can’t get first-time homeowner benefits if you own a rental or investment property, even if you don’t live in it.

If you opt for a government-backed loan like a USDA loan or an FHA loan, note that your home also has to meet certain standards before you qualify. Local and state government programs also tend to have income restrictions.

Tax deductions and employer-sponsored programs are often more flexible. You can deduct your mortgage insurance on your personal home even if you have other properties.

Employer-sponsored programs are entirely up to the discretion of the employer and state sponsor if there is one. Many state-employer partnership programs also use the 3-year rule, meaning, you may be considered a first-time homebuyer if you have not been an owner in a primary residence for at least 3 years leading up to your purchase.

Some buyers believe that they might not qualify for first-time buyer programs. The best thing to do is talk to a Home Loan Expert at Rocket Mortgage® if you aren’t sure whether you qualify, as they can take a look at your unique situation and point you in the right direction.

Summary

First-time homebuyers have access to many grants, loans and financial help that can make buying a home easier. First-time buying assistance can include help with down payments and closing costs, tax credits or education. You might be able to get help from your local, state or federal government if you meet income standards.

Charities, nonprofits and employer programs are also available. These programs vary by state, but you can easily find programs you qualify for through HUD’s website. As a first-time buyer, you cannot have owned property in the last 3 years.

If you’re looking into buying property as a student, keep in mind that your school loans may make getting a mortgage a bit more difficult, but the same first-time buyer programs should apply.

And when you’re ready to buy, be sure to explore your options with the experts at Rocket Mortgage®.

Low rates were a big story in 2020. It was a great year to refinance!

Great news about 2021 so far: Rates are still relatively low.

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Lauren Nowacki

Lauren Nowacki is a staff writer specializing in personal finance, homeownership and the mortgage industry. She has a B.A. in Communications and has worked as a writer and editor for various publications in Philadelphia, Chicago and Metro Detroit.