First Time Home Buyer Assistance Programs: Locally Based

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One of the things people keep asking about is first time buyer programs. They exist, but lenders are not the first place to ask. Why? Because many, if not most lenders, actually charge a quarter of a point or so for first time buyers, in addition to their regular rates. They do this because so many of them fall out, and they want some money for their trouble. Also, interfacing with local first time buyer programs is a bit of a hassle, and it often takes much longer to close the loan, if it does close. Yes, you need to tell them if you are using a first time buyer program, but if you start at the lender you may get hit with the charge for your loan, and then find out at the last minute that that particular lender does not participate on the first time buyer program for that city.

The place to ask about first time buyer programs is the government of the city that you intend to buy in, usually the housing department, but sometimes the planning department. If you intend to buy outside of city limits, call the county housing department. Yes, you do need to know ahead of time where you're intending to buy. I know how many people hate to plan, hate to "limit themselves" and hate to do preparatory work, especially multiple sets with multiple cities if they're not certain where they will buy, but it's necessary if you're going to achieve a positive result.

Most first time buyer programs are funded with money that the municipality gets from the federal government. You'd think they would be similar, that funding would be consistent, and that participating lender lists would be mostly compatible. You could not be more wrong.

Once each city gets the money, they are still subject to federal oversight, but that is broad and there's a lot of latitude. One of the things that all of them have in common is that they charge a fee for a lender to participate every year. Unless that lender gets a lot of business through that program, it's not cost effective to automatically renew every year. I only routinely pay the fees for the much broader Mortgage Credit Certificate program every year - I wait until someone wants a given city's program before I pay the fees associated with that program. So the list of approved lenders is going to concentrate heavily on major direct lenders with offices in that city. This has the effect of limiting the competition, although brokers who are willing to sign up still have all of the advantages of brokers, because for the vast majority of these programs, it only matters that the originating office participate, not that the funding office does. Once I'm signed up with most programs, it does not matter what funding lender I use because originating office is what's important, not the actual funders of the loan.

Now, each and every first time buyer program will be different. Any similarities between any two programs are basically coincidence. Income limits, qualifying properties, amount of funding, how long it lasts into the fiscal year (or quarter), how much money they get from the federal government relative to the population and cost of living, and most importantly, whether they have any funds at the time you want them and qualify.

Even the form that the first time buyer program takes is wildly variable. Most common is a second (or third) mortgage with nominal payments and a nominal rate. For instance, one east county city requires a 3% interest only payment. Also very popular is a "silent" second (or third) mortgage with no payments, but it needs to be paid back in full if you sell, and in many cases, if you refinance. Some first time buyer programs work off of a "shared equity" basis, with no payments and no interest charged, but they own a fixed share of the property and are entitled to payment in full at sale, and in many cases, of the base loan amount plus appreciation if you refinance. This lessens the financial benefits of home ownership, because normally the appreciation belongs entirely to the homeowner. Nonetheless, without the program, you wouldn't have had any of the benefits of ownership, economic or otherwise. Still other cities have programs geared towards maintaining a pool of limited income housing in that area, and the price you sell for when you sell will be restricted, negating most of the financial benefits of ownership. Some programs are even tiered based upon income, and those making a lower amount will get more favorable terms that those who still qualify, but make more than people in the first group, and there may be more funding available for the lower tiers. It all depends upon the locality where you buy, and if you apply and qualify for a first time buyer program in City A but end up buying outside of that City limits, you are out of luck. For this reason, you need to work with a buyer's agent who knows the programs and their boundaries and is careful about them. Just because it has the appropriate ZIP Code or telephone prefix does not necessarily mean anything, and I find properties with the wrong ZIP Code in MLS quite often. For instance, properties that are actually in northern Pacific Beach here in San Diego will quite often have the more upscale La Jolla Zip in MLS. Before making an offer, you can always call to make certain the property is within the boundaries covered by the program, of course. You want to double check, because you will pay a fee, usually several hundred dollars, when you apply to the first time buyer program, and I don't know of any that refunds the money if you don't qualify, if you are outside the area, or if you just don't get the funds because they are out of money right then.

Please note that one other feature all first time buyer programs have in common is that they require owner occupancy of a single occupancy dwelling. These are not intended to help investors grow their real estate empire. These programs are intended for people who would not otherwise be able to afford the property and intend to live in it. In some cases, moving out triggers a requirement for immediate repayment in full (and just when it got more expensive to refinance because it's now investment property, too!). In others, so long as you live in it for a given number of years, you can keep it going providing you don't break other rules. Every program has it's own little twists on the owner occupancy requirement. None of them permit you to buy residences suitable for more than one family, either. Duplexes and apartment buildings are disallowed from every program I've worked with.

First time buyer programs are not grants. I've dealt with them all over southern California, and I don't know of any that are outright grants. In many cases, that would be more cost effective, not only to the buyer but to the city as well, than the hoops that have to get jumped through. So I suspect that outright grants are prohibited by the enabling federal legislation, although I've never read the regulations.

Some first time buyer programs do have mechanisms for forgiveness of the loans after a certain period of time. The requirements and length of time vary. I've seen those that have the forgiveness feature be as short as five years and as long as fifteen.

Prospects for subordination if you refinance are also variable depending upon where you buy. Some require payment in full if you refinance at all, while others will allow themselves to be subordinated to new First Trust Deeds providing certain requirements are met. Chief among these are usually requirements that essentially prohibit cash out refinancing unless you pay off the first time buyer program.

One final caveat to these programs is that most of them will not pre-approve you. In other words, they won't look at your application before you've got a fully negotiated purchase contract. I know of only one program that will pre-approve applicants, and none that will commit funds before you have a fully negotiated purchase contract. If they run out of money in the meantime, that's just too bad. - you're out the application fee. For this reason, you need to stay on top of not only the program requirements and boundaries, but also the funding status as well. If they don't have any money when you actually have a contract to buy, you are wasting the time and money to apply.

Now I don't mean to say these programs are not worthwhile. They can and do make the difference between being able to afford the property and being forced to continue to ride the rent escalator. I should also note that they are basically a band-aid to treat the gaping economic wound caused by artificial restrictions to the housing supply. But if the conditions are right for the band-aid to help you, there is no reason why you shouldn't take advantage of it.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 25, 2008 7:00 AM.

Hot Bargain Property April 24th, 2008 was the previous entry in this blog.

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