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First-Time Buyer: Loan Programs Can Be Tricky

First-Time Buyer: Loan Programs Can Be Tricky
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You may be a first-time home buyer and not even know it. That’s because in the world of real estate, “first time” really means “first time in a while.”

Most programs aimed at helping first-time home buyers define that as someone who hasn’t owned a home in the last three years. That’s the good news. The bad news? Despite all the chatter you hear about special loans for first-timers, the reality is there aren’t a lot of programs to help them out anymore. Many of those that still exist are targeted primarily at low-income buyers. But don’t despair! There are a few things you can do to get your foot in the door of your first home.

For first-timers, the most pressing mortgage questions usually have to do with the down payment. Once you’ve owned a home, in theory anyway, you can use the equity from that purchase to come up with a down payment on your next one. But saving up a 20 percent down payment from scratch can be daunting, especially with rents on the rise. Fortunately, you don’t have to. There are government-backed loans available that require as little as 3 percent down, regardless of whether or not you’ve owned a home recently.

One of the few options still available exclusively to first-time home buyers is the ability to take a penalty-free withdrawal from an IRA to make a down payment. In this case, the IRS defines a first-time buyer as someone who has not owned their primary residence in the past two years. You can withdraw up to $10,000 from a traditional IRA to make a down payment on your first home.

You will pay income tax on that money, but not the 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty. With a Roth IRA, things are a bit more complicated. But, assuming it’s been open at least five years and you don’t take out more than $10,000 worth of earnings, that withdrawal is tax and penalty free. Just because you can withdraw retirement funds early, however, doesn’t mean you should. Think very carefully and consult a financial advisor about your specific circumstances before dipping into your retirement funds to finance a home purchase.

There are some sub-categories of first-time buyers who may be able to get more direct financial help for making a home purchase. For example, if you meet income qualifications for your city or state, you could get something called a Mortgage Credit Certificate that essentially reduces the interest payments you make on your loan. But beware, there is usually a significant application fee. Some cities offer substantial grants or down payment assistance programs to home buyers who meet income requirements or are purchasing in particular neighborhoods or are in specific professions like teaching or firefighting. And there are nonprofits in many locations that will help first-time home buyers. The key is to search online in your specific city and state to see what options might be available to you. And if you do find a down payment assistance program you think you qualify for, check with your lender to make sure they are willing to work with buyers getting financial assistance.

So, if there’s not much help available, why do you keep hearing about “first-time buyer” programs in radio ads and on TV? It’s true that when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the federal government offered tax-incentives to first-time buyers, but most of those programs have ended. Now, it’s all about marketing. Some lenders are specifically going after your business as a first-time home buyer. They want you to know they will work with you even if you haven’t done this before or don’t have a whole lot to put toward a down payment. But don’t assume you are getting a special deal just because you’re a newbie.

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