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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Deciding whether you want to buy a house involves taking a good, hard look at its structure and its features, but there are many other topics that are every bit as important to your purchase. You might want to consider having a home inspection to flush out hidden problems, or even talk to the neighbors to get firsthand opinions of the neighborhood.
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.
If you and your spouse both have IRAs, you can both withdraw up to $10,000, for a total of $20,000. Depending on the projected size of your down payment, that could be a sizable boost. And, on Roth IRAs held longer than five years, you can withdraw tax- and penalty-free contributions in excess of $10,000, though any withdrawn earnings are taxable at your normal rate.
"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.