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In the short and medium run, it’s much safer to invest in FDIC-insured instruments such as traditional savings accounts, certificates of deposits (CDs), and money market accounts. Though these instruments have relatively low yields – currently below 2% APY in most cases (UFB Direct is currently at 2.45%) – the risk of principal loss is extremely low. If you want your down payment to actually be there, in full, when you need it, save investments in FDIC-insured accounts are your ticket.
Your state and perhaps local governments may offer down payment assistance programs as well. For instance, in my native Minneapolis, the Minnesota Homeownership Center has a handy Down Payment Assistance finder that tells prospective homeowners about down payment financing and non-financial assistance resources available in their areas. In California, Golden State Finance Authority provides direct, need-based grants (with some strings attached) worth up to 5% of the loan amount – not an insignificant sum in pricey California metro areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
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The amount you’ll be required to put down on a home depends on the type of loan you get and on the lender’s requirements. Generally, it can be difficult to qualify for a conventional mortgage loan–one available through or guaranteed by a private lender or either of two government-sponsored entities, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac–with a down payment of less than 10 percent. Factors including income, cash on hand, credit score and debt-to-income ratio.
VA Loans. If you or your spouse is a current or former member of the military, your family may qualify for a VA home loan backed by the federal government (Department of Veterans Affairs). On the down payment front, VA loans are even better than FHA loans – they require no money down, though you’re free to put money down and reduce the total amount you must borrow. If interest rates drop after you’ve been in your house for a while, look into VA streamline refinance loans (IRRRL), which can reduce your rates significantly at a lower cost than a conventional refinance loan.
"Down payment": It's amazing that these two little words have such a profound influence on your homeownership process—and your life! Ask most people what is an acceptable down payment on a house, and nine times out 10 they'll tell you it's 20% of your home's selling price. So you do the math, figure you'd have to put down $50,000 on a $250,000 house, and break out in hives when you realize that the chances of your getting out of that tiny one-bedroom apartment are slim.