Why? Because, over shorter timeframes, market downturns can devastate savings goals. Imagine that you put $20,000 in the market between 2005 and 2007, on your way to an expected $40,000 down payment by 2009. Between mid-2007 and early 2009, U.S. markets lost roughly half their value. In other words, that $20,000 sum would have shrunk to just $10,000, assuming you added no new funds – no doubt crushing your dream of buying a home in 2009.

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:


The link between home down payments and interest rate aids lenders in calculating what mortgage industry professionals call the "loan-to-value" (LTV) ratio of the home. Loan-to-value, along with the debt-to-income ratio (i.e., the amount of money you owe weighed against the amount of income you earn) and your credit score are the primary factors a mortgage lender considers when making a home loan.

As a buyer, just keep in mind that mortgage pre-approval is different from mortgage pre-qualification. Pre-qualify, and you're undergoing a much simpler process that can give you a ballpark figure of what you can afford to borrow, but with no promise from the lender. Getting pre-approved is more of a pain since you'll have to provide tons of paperwork, but it's worth the trouble since it guarantees you're creditworthy and can truly buy a home.


Nevertheless, scraping together a down payment is a tall order, especially for first-time homebuyers in expensive coastal markets. According to CoreLogic, the average home price in California’s Bay Area topped $700,000 in 2016 – and that figure includes relatively inexpensive bungalows in East Bay suburbs, as well as ultra-pricey row houses in San Francisco proper.

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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.
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Each mortgage lender (LendingTree is just one example) will scrutinize your financial background—such as your debt-to-income ratio and assets—and use this info to determine whether to loan you money, and what size monthly payment you can realistically afford. This will help you target homes in your price range. And that's good, because a purchase price that's beyond your financial reach will make you sweat your mortgage payment and puts you at risk of defaulting on your loan.
Down payment size is a function of three overlapping factors: your desired initial loan-to-value (LTV) ratio, your time horizon (when you want to buy), and local housing market conditions. When people talk about budgeting for a future home purchase, they generally refer to list prices: “We’re willing to pay $300,000,” or “We can afford $250,000, but no more.”
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For lenders, whether it’s a bank, credit union, or other type of lender, a down payment helps offset their risk in making a mortgage loan because it means the borrower immediately has some skin in the game–an investment to protect. The more money you pay down, the less the lender stands to lose if you default on payments and the lender has to foreclose, especially early in the loan term. This is why borrowers who put less than 20 percent down usually have to get PMI, as it protects lenders by repaying the unpaid portion of the loan if the borrower defaults.
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Before you start looking for a home, you will need to know how much you can actually spend. The best way to do that is to get prequalified for a mortgage. To get prequalified, you just need to provide some financial information to your mortgage banker, such as your income and the amount of savings and investments you have. Your lender will review this information and tell you how much we can lend you. This will tell you the price range of the homes you should be looking at. Later, you can get preapproved for credit, which involves providing your financial documents (W-2 statements, paycheck stubs, bank account statements, etc.) so your lender can verify your financial status and credit.
It’s important to ensure you’re not depleting (or neglecting to fund) your retirement savings account or your emergency fund to buy a home. Doing so could put you at a disadvantage to retire comfortably later on. Draining your emergency fund isn’t ideal because you might need to make costly repairs after moving in or run into a financial hardship, and you won’t have a cushion to fall back on.

Pre-approval requires the lender to pull the credit information (see Step 1) and assess your financial situation. The lender will then give you a letter that states the amount they would be willing to lend you. If you get in a multiple-offer scenario, being pre-approved may give you an edge because the seller will have more confidence that you will be approved for a loan large enough to purchase their home.
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