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Government-backed loans require borrowers to pay for some form of mortgage insurance. With FHA and USDA loans, it’s called MIP, or Mortgage Insurance Premium. For VA loans, it’s called a Funding Fee. The insurance covers potential losses suffered by mortgage lenders when borrowers default. Because insurance protects lenders from losses, they are willing to allow these low down payments.
Before contacting a lender, it’s smart to check your credit report. By law, you can get a free report once a year through Annualcreditreport.com. The report pulls data from the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Having the information in hand before you talk with a lender lets you dispute any errors in the reporting. Based on your credit report, Fair Isaac & Co. (FICO) assigns you a credit score ranging from 350 to 850. The higher your credit score, the lower the interest rate on your mortgage. Scores are based on:
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Outside of these Fannie Mae, FHA, VA and USDA loan types, there are state and local assistance programs that can help you get into a home with a low-down payment. There are also towns that offer incentives to move there, ranging from student loan forgiveness to free lots of land to build on. Even though these programs don’t cover your down payment for you, they can help you save money elsewhere if you can come up with the initial down payment up front.

FHA Loans. FHA mortgage loans are insured, but not originated, by the federal government – specifically, the Federal Housing Administration. Known as 203b mortgage loans, they require just 3.5% down. They can be used on one- to four-family homes and typically carry lower interest rates than conventional mortgage loans, though your exact rate will depend on your creditworthiness and other factors. Underwriting standards are also much looser than on conventional mortgages – you can qualify with a credit score below 600.
Typically, you have to put between 3 and 20 percent of your home’s sale price down in cash to qualify for a conventional loan (30-year fixed mortgage), but there are exceptions. If you meet eligibility guidelines, you might qualify for a home loan with a zero-down payment through Veterans Affairs (VA loans) or the Department of Agriculture (USDA loan) programs.
You need to worry about common closing costs such as your home inspection, lender appraisal, and title insurance. Taken together, these expenses are nothing to sneeze at – depending on your situation, they can amount to anywhere from 3% to 6% of the total purchase price. In buyers’ markets, you might have luck convincing your seller to pay some closing costs, but that’s far from guaranteed.
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Paying off credit card debt isn’t always straightforward, though. Focus on your highest-interest debt first (debt avalanche method), even if that means putting as little as $25 or $50 extra toward your payment each month. As your high-interest debt load shrinks, you can move onto lower-interest credit card debt, and you’ll likely accelerate your progress toward a $0 balance. With lower (or no) interest charges eating into your spending and saving power, you can then direct your dollars toward your down payment fund.
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