House Hunters, Don't Despair. A New Home Is Still Within Reach

Published in the International Business Times

The housing market is tighter than ever. Home prices and mortgage rates are soaring. As a result, housing affordability indices are near all-time lows. The typical buyer's monthly payment has surged 39% over the past year.

For many families, homeownership feels increasingly out of reach. But prospective buyers -- especially first-timers looking for their piece of the American Dream -- needn't despair. A vast array of private, non-profit, and public resources exists to help would-be buyers of every background and income level purchase a home.

The trick, however, is navigating that array.

For homebuyers short on savings, for example, there are more than 2,000 down-payment-assistance programs, including those run and financed by each of the 50 states.

Many states also offer income tax credits to first-time buyers, which can make that down payment and first year of ownership much more affordable.

Some state and local governments, as well as non-profits, give direct down payment grants to homebuyers, especially at lower income levels. For instance, Iowa's FirstHome Grant provides $2,500 toward closing costs or a down payment for qualifying first-time homebuyers, veterans, and individuals in low-income communities. And, when paired with the state's new Minority Down Payment Assistance program, eligible Iowans can receive an additional $5,000 grant.

Meanwhile, others offer 0% interest loans toward a down payment that are forgiven after a specified period of time. Pennsylvania's HOMEstead program issues zero-interest loans of up to $10,000 that are forgiven at an annual rate of 20% over five years. Once those five years are up -- so long as the borrower hasn't refinanced, transferred ownership, or moved -- the loan doesn't need to be repaid.

Another common type of zero-interest loan -- available through programs such as Florida Assist and Illinois' Access Deferred -- entails no payments until the house is sold or refinanced. In these inflationary times, that can be a real break for the borrower, who will be repaying the fixed amount of the loan with future dollars that are worth less than they are today.

The federal government, meanwhile, has even larger programs specifically designed to help people with less wealth, lower incomes, or lower credit scores secure affordable mortgages.

For example, the Federal Housing Administration insures mortgages with down payments as low as 3.5% and offers more flexibility with respect to lower credit scores and debt-to-income ratios. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac finance mortgages with down payments as low as 3% for qualified borrowers. Military veterans can get zero-down mortgages insured through the Veterans Affairs Home Loan Guarantee Program. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture insures mortgages or even directly lends to qualifying buyers in small towns through the Rural Housing Service.

Sorting through these various programs -- and evaluating which ones make the most financial sense -- is no easy matter, especially for first-time buyers. Further complicating things, some lenders participate in certain loan and down-payment-assistance programs, while others don't.

Fortunately, buyers don't have to sort through this web of programs alone. The country's more than 1.5 million realtors are equipped to provide insight into the various buyer assistance programs out there, especially for underserved communities who have historically missed out on the wealth creation of home ownership. Buyer's agents can guide first-timers through all the options available locally -- and make them aware of programs they might never have found on their own.

These programs don't just help new homebuyers; they help everyone, because all Americans benefit from increased home ownership. New housing construction in thriving communities across the country is critical to the American economy. And study after study shows that home ownership makes people more involved and invested in their communities.

As interest rates and home prices rise, many prospective buyers are growing despondent, wondering if they'll ever be able to purchase their own property. They need not answer that question on their own. And thankfully, there are plenty of resources out there to help would-be buyers in every state, regardless of their level of affluence.

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