Shelling out big bucks for your first home, along with shopping for a mortgage, might seem daunting. Luckily, though, there are numerous first-time homebuyer programs and grants that can help you get your foot in the homeownership door.
Here’s a look at 10 first-time homebuyer programs that are popular with rookie house hunters.
- FHA loan – A loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration that’s ideal for borrowers with lower credit scores or little money saved up for a down payment.
- USDA loan – A loan program guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for lower-income borrowers in eligible rural areas.
- VA loan – A loan backed by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs for military personnel, veterans and their families. VA loans have minimal closing costs, competitive rates and no down payment requirement, however, a funding fee is required for some borrowers.
- Good Neighbor Next Door – A HUD program that provides housing aid — a discount of 50 percent on a home’s list price in revitalization areas — for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers.
- Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac – Loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac require 3 percent down for conventional mortgages making them ideal for first-time buyers who have strong credit but little savings for a down payment.
- HomePath ReadyBuyer Program – A program that provides 3 percent in closing-cost assistance to first-time buyers who complete an educational course and purchase a foreclosed Fannie Mae property.
- Energy-efficient mortgage – An EEM is backed by FHA or VA loan programs and allows borrowers to combine the cost of energy-efficient upgrades onto a primary loan upfront — all without a larger down payment.
- FHA Section 203(k) – An FHA-backed loan that lets you borrow the funds needed to pay for home improvement projects and roll the costs into one loan with your primary mortgage.
- Local first-time homebuyer programs and grants – Many states and cities offer first-time buyer programs and grants for down payment or closing cost assistance. These programs typically come with income restrictions and have to be repaid when you sell the home.
- Native American Direct Loan – Backed by the VA, this program provides direct home loans to eligible Native American veterans to buy, renovate or build homes on federal trust land.
Here’s an in-depth look at each of these programs.
1. FHA loan
- Require lower credit score than conventional mortgages
- Low down payment requirement of 3.5 percent
- Requires upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums
- Overall borrowing costs tend to be higher
Best for: Buyers with less-than-pristine credit and those who don’t have a large down payment.
If you’re not sitting on a pile of down payment cash and you have a spotty credit record, there’s a loan for that. Insured by the Federal Housing Administration, FHA loans typically come with smaller down payments and lower credit score requirements than most conventional loans. First-time homebuyers can buy a home with a minimum credit score of 580 and as little as 3.5 percent down, or a credit score of 500 to 579 with at least 10 percent down.
FHA loans have one big catch called mortgage insurance. You’ll pay an upfront premium and annual premiums, driving up your overall borrowing costs. Unlike homeowners insurance, this coverage doesn’t protect you; it protects the lender in case you default on the loan. It’s the price borrowers pay when they have less skin in the game.
2. USDA loan
- Requires a little to no down payment
- Can qualify with a lower FICO score (640 or higher)
- Borrower income is restricted to less than 115 percent of the median income for purchase area
Best for: Borrowers with lower or moderate incomes purchasing a home in a USDA-eligible rural area.
You may not know it, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, guarantees loans for some rural homes and you can get 100 percent financing. This doesn’t mean you have to buy a farm, shack up with livestock or live in the boondocks, but you do have to buy a home in a USDA-eligible area.
USDA loans also have income limits based on where you live, meaning they’re geared toward folks who earn lower to moderate incomes. Typically, you need a credit score of 640 or higher to qualify for a streamlined USDA loan. If your score falls short, you’ll have to provide extra documentation on your payment history to get a stamp of approval.
3. VA loan
- No down payment requirement, and funding fee can be rolled into loan
- Doesn’t require a minimum FICO score or private mortgage insurance
- Lenders may have their own minimum FICO score overlays
Best for: Active-duty military members, veterans and their spouses who are eligible for VA loan benefits.
Many U.S. military members (active duty and veterans) are eligible for loans backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA. VA loans are a sweet deal for eligible borrowers because they come with lower interest rates than most other loan types and require no down payment. A funding fee is required on VA loans, but that fee can be rolled into your loan costs and some service members may be exempt from paying it altogether.
Other VA loan perks include no PMI or minimum credit score. If you struggle making payments on the mortgage, the VA can negotiate with the lender on your behalf to take some stress from the equation.
4. Good Neighbor Next Door
- Deeply discounted home prices
- Can use with FHA, VA or conventional financing, or cash
- Can sell after 36 months and keep the profits
- Limited number of homes available for a limited timeframe
- Must live in property for 36 months
- Homes are sold “as-is” with no buyer’s warranty
Best for: Teachers, law enforcement, firefighters or emergency medical technicians who are looking for an affordable home.
The Good Neighbor Next Door program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, provides housing aid for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers — the folks who help keep communities safe and well educated.
Through this program, you can receive a discount of 50 percent on a home’s listed price in regions known as “revitalization areas.” Using the program’s website, you can search for properties available in your state. You must commit to living in the home for at least 36 months so this may not be ideal if you plan to move sooner.
5. Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac
- Low down payment requirement of 3 percent
- Variety of loan terms available with fixed and adjustable rates
- Some programs allow a debt-to-income ratio, or DTI, of up to 50 percent
- Requires a minimum FICO score of 620
- Adheres to strict loan limits set by the government
- Private mortgage insurance is typically required with less than 20 percent down
Best for: Borrowers with strong credit and stable incomes who may not have a large down payment saved up.
The names might sound a bit kitschy, but Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government-sponsored entities that keep the U.S. mortgage market going strong. The GSEs, as they’re called for short (government-sponsored enterprises), each set borrowing guidelines for loans they’re willing to buy from conventional lenders on the secondary mortgage market.
Both programs require a minimum down payment of 3 percent. Homebuyers also need a minimum credit score of 620 (or higher, depending on the lender) and a relatively unblemished financial and credit history to qualify. Fannie Mae accepts a debt-to-income ratio as high as 50 percent in some cases. You’ll still pay for PMI because you’re putting less than 20 percent down, but you can get it canceled once your loan-to-value ratio drops below 80 percent.
6. Fannie Mae’s HomePath ReadyBuyer Program
- Provides up to 3 percent in closing cost assistance for first-time buyers
- Selection of homes may be limited in your area
- Must complete an online first-time buyer education course before making an offer
Best for: First-time homebuyers who don’t have a lot of money for closing costs and don’t mind buying a foreclosed home.
Fannie Mae’s HomePath ReadyBuyer program is a little-known initiative geared toward first-time buyers interested in foreclosed homes that are owned by Fannie Mae. After taking a required online home-buying education course, eligible borrowers can receive up to 3 percent in closing cost assistance toward the purchase of a HomePath property. The trick is finding a HomePath property in your market, which might be a challenge since foreclosures account for a smaller chunk of listings today.
7. Energy-efficient mortgage (EEM)
- Can roll the cost of energy efficient improvements into a primary mortgage
- Insured by FHA or VA loan program
- Doesn’t require a larger down payment to add improvements into primary loan amount
- Loans may have dollar-amount caps on energy-efficient upgrades
Best for: Homebuyers who want to make their home more energy-efficient but don’t have the up-front cash for upgrades.
Making a home more energy efficient is good for the environment, and good for your wallet by lowering your utility bills. Making green upgrades can be costly, but you can get an energy-efficient mortgage, or EEM loan, that’s insured through the FHA or VA programs.
An EEM loan lets you tack the cost of energy-efficient upgrades (think new insulation, a more efficient HVAC system or double-paned windows) onto your primary loan upfront — all without a larger down payment.
8. FHA Section 203(k)
- Allows you to roll cost of renovations into your primary mortgage
- Home’s value is calculated is based on its improved value
- Low down payment requirement of 3.5 percent
- Improvements must cost more than $5,000
- May pay a higher interest rate to roll rehab costs into loan
Best for: Homebuyers interested in purchasing a fixer-upper but who don’t have a lot of cash to make major home improvements.
If you’re brave enough to take on a fixer upper but don’t have the extra money to pay for renovations, an FHA Section 203(k) loan is worth a look.
Backed by the FHA, the loan calculates the home’s value after improvements have been made. You can then borrow the funds needed to pay for home improvement projects and roll the costs into one loan with your primary loan amount. You’ll need a down payment of at least 3.5 percent, and improvements must cost more than $5,000.
9. Local first-time homebuyer programs and grants
- Offers down payment and closing cost assistance to bridge gap in cash savings
- Loans come with low or zero interest rates
- Income limits typically apply, depending on the program
- Some loans have to be repaid when you sell the home
Best for: First-time homebuyers who need closing cost or down payment assistance.
In an effort to attract new residents, many states and cities offer first-time homebuyer grants and programs. The aid comes in the form grants that don’t have to be repaid or low-interest loans with deferred repayment to cover down payment or closing costs. Some programs may have income limits, too. Before buying a home, check your state’s housing authority website for more information.
Contact a real estate agent or local HUD-approved housing counseling agency to learn more about first-time homebuyer loans in your area.
10. Native American Direct Loan
- No down payment or PMI required
- Low closing costs and interest rate
- Maximum loan limits apply depending on the area
- Property selection may be limited
Best for: Eligible Native American veterans wishing to buy a home on federal trust land.
The Native American Direct Loan provides financing to eligible Native American veterans to buy, improve or build a home on federal trust land. This loan differs from traditional VA loans in that the VA is the mortgage lender.
The NADL has no down payment or private insurance requirements, and closing costs are low. Borrowers are required to pay a minimal funding fee of 1.25 percent to the VA. The VA states on its website that borrowers typically pay a 4.75 percent interest rate but that can change with market conditions. Maximum loan limits apply.