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.
Down payments also protect buyers from negative equity if the market suffers a downturn. If you put 3 percent down and the market value of the home soon falls by 5 percent, you’ll be upside down on your mortgage by 2 percent; you’ll owe more than what the house is worth. However, if you had put down 20 percent, then you’ll still have equity in the home. A substantial down payment to reduce negative equity risk is not only attractive to lenders, but is also helpful in the event that owners need to sell the home for some reason.
You might be surprised to find that some private mortgage programs also have low down payment requirements. Most conventional loans have guidelines set by either Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. Because these loans must conform to this set of guidelines, they are called “conforming” loans. To offset the risk of lending with smaller down payments, conventional lenders require borrowers to purchase private mortgage insurance, or PMI, when they put less than 20 percent down on a home.
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Buying a home is often one of the most expensive endeavors one will take throughout their life, so it’s not surprising that saving for a down payment remains a major hurdle for many Americans on their path to homeownership. But although a 20 percent down payment is considered ideal, it’s not actually as common as you might think, nor is it a necessity to buying a home.
Because repeat buyers can often put some of the money from their previous home sale towards their down payment, they’re more likely than first-time buyers to put down larger lump sums. First-time buyers, however, are more likely to put down between 3 and 9 percent. According to a Zillow survey, only 37 percent of first-time buyers pay 20 percent or more.
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.
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.
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