First-time homebuyers are navigating one of the toughest real estate markets in modern history. Inventory is especially tight in many areas of the country as speculators buy these homes to flip for a quick profit, and escalating costs are prompting builders to focus more on higher-end homes that are more profitable for them.

With more than 40 percent of first-time homebuyers carrying student loan debt, and the average first-time homebuyer age rising to an all-time high of 32 years old, the real estate market can be a daunting place. Luckily, there are many first-time homebuyers programs, including loans and grants, available.

Here are the best national programs, grants and loans for first-time homebuyers that can get you into a place of your own without a 20 percent down payment or sterling credit. At the end of this story, you can find state first-time homebuyer information for California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.

Summary: First-time homebuyer loans and programs

  1. FHA loan program: A loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Good for those with low credit scores and little money saved for a down payment.
  2. USDA loan program: A loan program 100 percent guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for lower-income borrowers in eligible rural areas.
  3. VA loan program: A loan backed by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs that allows no down payment for military personnel, veterans and their families.
  4. Good Neighbor Next Door buyer aid program: A HUD program that provides housing aid for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and teachers.
  5. Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loan program: Conventional loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac require 3 percent down. Good for those with strong credit.
  6. HomePath ReadyBuyer Program: A program that provides 3 percent in closing cost assistance to first-time buyers. Must complete an educational course and buy a foreclosed Fannie Mae property.
  7. Energy-efficient mortgage program: Backed by FHA or VA loan programs and allows borrowers to combine the cost of energy-efficient upgrades onto a primary loan upfront.
  8. FHA Section 203(k) loan program: Borrow the funds needed to pay for home improvement projects and roll the costs into one FHA loan with your primary mortgage.
  9. 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.
  10. Native American Direct Loan: This VA-backed program provides direct home loans to eligible Native American veterans to buy, renovate or build homes on federal trust land.

1. FHA loan

Best for: Buyers with low credit and smaller down payments.

Not having enough money for a 20 percent down payment may deter you from buying a home, but it shouldn’t. 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.

Learn more about finding the best FHA lender for you.

2. USDA loan

Best for: Borrowers with lower or moderate incomes purchasing a home in a USDA-eligible rural area.

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 or shack up with livestock, 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

Best for: Active-duty military members, veterans and their spouses.

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 to make 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

Best for: Teachers, law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

The Good Neighbor Next Door program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It provides housing aid for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers.

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.

5. Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac

Best for: Borrowers with strong credit but minimal down payments.

These government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, 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

Best for: First-time homebuyers who help for closing costs willing to buy a foreclosed home.

Fannie Mae’s HomePath ReadyBuyer program is geared toward first-time buyers interested in foreclosed homes that are owned by Fannie Mae. After taking a required online homebuying 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)

Best for: Homebuyers who want to make their home more energy-efficient but lack 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)

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. State and local first-time homebuyer programs and grants

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 of 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.

First-time homebuyer programs by state:

10. Native American Direct Loan

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. And you’re not limited to only one property; you can get more than one NADL. Not all states are eligible, though.

Learn more:


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