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First-time home buyer loan programs: What are the options?

No matter where you are in life - a recent college grad, newlywed or just someone who is finally ready to make the leap - first-time homeownership is a big decision. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), roughly 33% of the market is composed of first-timers, a share that's remained fairly consistent over the past several years. That's a significant figure and it's understandable, given that buying a house is something that most people hope to accomplish at some point.

Regardless of your situation, you probably have lots of questions which, stacked on top of one another, might rival the height of a skyscraper: How much can I afford? Should I live in the country or the city? What is the application process like? Who are the mortgage lenders and which should I choose? What will my interest rate be? Are there any assistance programs available? You get the picture - and that's just a few of the burning questions first-time buyers may ponder. 

Here's the good news: As numerous as your questions may be, almost equally as abundant are your options, particularly when it comes to loan programs. So, which one should you choose? Here are the details on a few of them that can help guide your decision:

FHA Loans

Backed by the Federal Housing Administration, FHA loans are among the more popular options, particularly for first-time buyers. The reason for this is the qualification standards are a bit looser compared to others. Although the FHA operates the program, FHA loans are sold through private lenders.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of FHA loans, aside from their wide availability, is the fact that many people are eligible. For example, even if your credit score is lower than what's considered ideal, that isn't always a deal breaker. Furthermore, you're not expected to come up with a sizeable down payment, as this can be as low as 3.5% of the purchase price.

USDA-RD Loans

Another government-backed mortgage option is the program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Similar to FHA loans, USDA-RD loans are sold through private lenders and are geared toward homebuyers whose incomes are considered low to moderate. You fall into this bracket if your combined household income is between 50% and 80% of the median salary in your geographic area, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

They're a loan type ideal for first-time buyers, but USDA-RD loans are exclusively for those who live in rural parts of the U.S. What defines "rural"? There's actually no official definition, but generally speaking, according to the Census Bureau, it's any place that is not considered a metropolitan statistical area (MSA). From a geographical perspective, MSAs are the exception, not the rule, so even if you don't think you live in a rural enclave, don't discount your eligibility. Why? Because 97% of the U.S. populace resides in a location the USDA-RD loan program covers.

Here's another attractive aspect of USDA-RD loans: a down payment is optional. Surveys by the NAR show that the down payment is often the biggest obstacle for prospective buyers; USDA-RD loans help make homeownership possible. That said, there are a few prerequisites in order to be considered eligible. Your FICO® score (that's your credit score) and household income must meet a certain total, depending on the size of your family. The more there are of you, the more you're able to earn.

Keep in mind that even though you're not required to make a down payment with a USDA-RD loan, you are expected to purchase mortgage insurance. Even here, though, premiums tend to be more affordable compared to traditional loan products.

Conventional 3% Down

Otherwise referred to as a conventional 97 LTV (loan-to-value) mortgage, the 3% down loan program is aptly named, because it's custom-made for individuals who may not be able to afford a large lump sum going toward the down payment. Developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the conventional 97 program requires an upfront expense of just 3% of the home's value, which is lower than the mandatory amount for FHA loans. As noted on Fannie Mae's website, there are a few other eligibility standards to be mindful about. It's for fixed-rate mortgages only, as opposed to adjustable rate mortgages, and the requested loan amount can't be higher than $484,350. Additionally, while repeat buyers are free to apply, it has to have been at least three years since you last were a homeowner.

VA Loans

If you're an active or retired member of the military, you may be uniquely qualified to apply for an affordable mortgage product thanks to the Veterans Administration. VA loans are backed by this government department but sold through most private lenders. As with USDA-RD loans, they do not necessitate a down payment. VA loans are available to individuals who serve or have served in any of the five military branches - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard - or reserves, for a period of at least 90 days at wartime or 181 during peace. Closing costs and monthly payments tend to be more affordable with VA loans as well.

What type of loan is the best option for a first-time buyer?

Given that there are so many mortgage options to select from, you may wonder which is the very best. When it comes down to it, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Everybody's situation is different and not only that, participating lenders vary. Assistance programs aren't universally available either. That's why it's so important to consult with a mortgage professional who is well-positioned to assess your specific situation and go from there.

Armed with this information, you can enter the market with a better idea of what loan to go with and what you can expect as far as qualification is concerned. Contact your local RMS loan officer for a free consultation.