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First-time homebuyer programs and grants can help make your goal of homeownership a reality. We’ve rounded up some of the best national grants, programs and loans for first-time homebuyers that can help get you into your first home without needing to make a 20 percent down payment.

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Types of first-time homebuyer programs

Conventional mortgages are among the most popular types of loans: They don’t have specialized eligibility requirements, come with low minimum down payments and are available through a variety of reputable lenders, both traditional and online.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set borrowing guidelines for conventional loan programs. With a 3 percent minimum down payment, these programs are an affordable option for borrowers with a solid credit score and income:

  • Conventional 97 mortgage – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both back the Conventional 97 program, which only requires 3 percent down, but a minimum credit score of 620. Like most conventional low-down payment mortgage programs, the borrower is also required to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI), an additional cost with their monthly mortgage payment.
  • HomeReady mortgage – Fannie Mae’s HomeReady mortgage program also requires just 3 percent down (with PMI, although it might be less expensive), and offers more flexible underwriting.
  • Home Possible mortgage – Freddie Mac’s Home Possible mortgage program is similar to the HomeReady mortgage, with a 3 percent minimum down payment.
  • HomeOne mortgage – This Freddie Mac mortgage also allows for just 3 percent down with PMI, but is available only to first-time homebuyers and comes with some special criteria.

You don’t directly deal with Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to get these loans. Rather, they’re available through many types of mortgage lenders, including banks, online lenders and credit unions.

The federal government operates many first-time homebuyer loan programs. However, these often have special requirements regarding the location or type of property, or criteria for the borrower (like military service).

Government loans are mortgages backed by a government agency, either the Federal Housing Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs or Department of Agriculture. They aren’t created or funded by these organizations, however; they’re offered through approved mortgage lenders throughout the U.S. Some lenders even specialize in certain types.

FHA, VA and USDA loans

  • FHA loan – Insured by the Federal Housing Administration, FHA loans allow borrowers to buy a home with a minimum credit score of 580 and as little as 3.5 percent down, or a credit score as low as 500 with at least 10 percent down. If you put down less than 20 percent, however, you’ll have to pay FHA mortgage insurance, which includes a 1.75 percent upfront fee and annual premiums. FHA also insures FHA 203(k) loans, which allow borrowers to buy and fix up a home with the same low credit and down payment flexibilities.
  • VA loan – Qualified U.S. military members (active duty, veterans and eligible family members) can apply for loans backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA loans come with lower interest rates compared to other loan types, and don’t require a down payment. Borrowers, however, will need to pay a funding fee, but it can be rolled into your monthly loan costs. Some servicemembers might be exempt from paying this fee, as well.
  • USDA loan – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guarantees loans for some rural homes for up to 100-percent financing (in other words, there’s no down-payment requirement). 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. There are also fees for this type of loan.

Energy-efficient mortgage (EEM)

Making green upgrades can be costly, but you can get an energy-efficient mortgage (EEM) (either a conventional loan or one backed by the FHA or VA) to help finance them. This type of mortgage allows you to tack the cost of energy-efficient upgrades (think new insulation, a more efficient HVAC system or double-pane windows) onto your primary loan, without requiring a larger down payment.

However, EEMs come with larger mortgage payments (since you’re borrowing more), and there are certain requirements to abide by, including getting an energy assessment.

Good Neighbor Next Door

The Good Neighbor Next Door program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides housing aid for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers. Through the program, borrowers can receive 50 percent off a home in a “revitalization area,” provided they live in the home for at least three years. You can search for properties available in your state on the program’s website.

HomePath Ready Buyer

Fannie Mae’s HomePath ReadyBuyer program is geared toward first-time buyers interested in a foreclosed home. After taking a required online homebuyer education course, eligible borrowers can receive up to 3 percent in closing cost assistance toward the purchase of a property that’s been foreclosed upon and is now owned by Fannie Mae, called a HomePath home. Of course, this limits your choice of properties, which (like many foreclosed homes) might need much repair, so this program isn’t for everyone.

Native American Direct Loan (NADL)

The Native American Direct Loan (NADL) provides financing to eligible Native American veterans and their spouses 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. There is no down payment required with this type of loan, as well as no mortgage insurance, but there is a funding fee.

First-time homebuyers can more easily afford a home with the help of down payment assistance (DPA), which is a sum of money given as either a grant, second mortgage (with varying repayment terms) or matched savings.

Down payment grants

Down payment or first-time homebuyer grants are essentially free money that help you cover your down payment or closing costs. Grants are usually awarded to low- or moderate-income borrowers, typically defined as earning no more than 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). They also come with a number of other requirements, such as limits on home purchase price and a minimum credit score. You might be able to apply for multiple grants, so don’t be shy about trying to score more financial assistance.

To find grant programs in your area:

  • Ask your loan officer or real estate agent for guidance — they might know about special grant programs in your area.
  • Explore grants from local housing authorities or nonprofit organizations.
  • Consider working with a local credit union or community bank — these might offer grant programs of their own.

Down payment assistance loans

Besides grants, there are a variety of down payment assistance loans — a second mortgage you take out with the first mortgage you’re using to buy the home:

  • Low-interest loans – These are low-interest second mortgages for a small sum that help borrowers with the down payment and closing costs. These have to be repaid, usually over the course of a few years.
  • Deferred-payment loans – These types of loans don’t charge interest, but need to be repaid in full when you sell the home or refinance the first mortgage.
  • Forgivable loans – These are similar to the other kinds of assistance loans, with one key difference: This second mortgage will be forgiven so long as you stay in the home for a certain period of time (the exact amount depends on the program) and stay up-to-date with your mortgage payments.

Down payment savings match

Down payment savings match programs help grow the amount a borrower puts down for a home by matching the borrower’s savings. These programs are structured over a specific amount of time and provide matched funds up to a certain amount, which can only be used for the down payment and closing costs.

For example, some state-level housing finance agencies offer Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), which might contribute three dollars for every one dollar the borrower saves. Those who qualify work with an assigned counselor to deposit funds into an IDA over a specified period of time. If the borrower follows the plan and saves the required amount, they’ll receive the match at closing.

Many states and municipalities offer first-time homebuyer grants (which don’t have to be repaid) and low-interest mortgage programs. Some are even enticements to attract residents, being geared to people relocating from out-of-state.

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5. Employer-sponsored programs

Employer-assisted housing (EAH) programs help employees with housing needs, usually in neighborhoods near the workplace. This assistance can come in many forms, such as a forgivable loan coupled with required homeownership education. EAH programs are often limited to certain occupations, and there could be other restrictions, such as a first-time homebuyer or specific tenure requirement, or income limits.

Nonprofit programs can offer exceptional value to first-time homebuyers seeking an affordable mortgage. One example is Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a nonprofit that provides low-rate mortgages to low- and moderate-income borrowers without requiring a down payment or closing costs. The nonprofit does this by using “character-based” standards to qualify borrowers, versus the risk assessment most mortgage lenders perform, according to the organization.

There are nonprofit programs available at the local level, as well. For instance, New York City offers a down payment assistance program offering up to $100,000 to eligible borrowers in any of the boroughs.

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