real estate

Stay local for home-buying help

Employer programs can help

Before you decide on a mortgage, make sure to contact your employer's human resources office. Major companies and nonprofits like universities often have arrangements with lenders or local government to help employees. Saint-Gobain Containers, a manufacturer of building materials in Worcester, Mass., has an employee program that includes up to $5,000 in homebuying assistance in partnership with the state's MassWorks program.

The state matches employer contributions. Homebuyers also get discounts from local retailers after their purchase.

Portland Community College in Portland, Ore., has an employee mortgage program that includes up to $500 savings on closing costs as well as discounts on appraisal reports, credit reports and escrow fees. The college is working with Kirkland, Wash.-based Eagle Home Mortgage LLC with offices in Oregon.

In Chicago, Northern Trust Bank offered 0.35 percent off the going rate of an adjustable-rate mortgage, plus $1,000 toward closing costs to employees of Columbia College-Chicago. The only way to find these programs is to ask. Lenders generally don't advertise their special employee deals, so you'll have to do some digging.

Sometimes smaller employers have a program, too. For example, in Maryland, employees of Able Locksmiths LLC of Frederick, Md., and Academy Coffee Partners LLC of Annapolis, Md., can access the Maryland Mortgage Program. Some qualified buyers of participating companies can qualify for a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $5,000 for down-payment and closing-cost assistance.

Read every clause of the employee program to maximize your savings. Deadlines and exact mortgage types are items to look for. Discounts may vary depending on whether the rate is adjustable or fixed or if the deal is a purchase and refinance.

If asking your human resources department yields nothing, try typing "employee mortgage program" and the name of your state or particular profession into an Internet search engine to see if you qualify for a particular deal.

Sometimes, the deal comes directly from the bank or state, and not from an employer. This is particularly true if you work in public service. Bank of America has a special mortgage program for teachers, police officers, firefighters and medical workers. It includes slightly more flexible credit guidelines and bank-paid accidental death and dismemberment insurance. For those in specialized professions, a 12-month payment history is required instead of a more lengthy credit history for a conventional mortgage.

Some localities have mortgage plans for teachers that can have appealing terms and incentives, and those local programs may be better than what the bank has on tap. Connecticut is one example.

Connecticut-certified full-time and part-time public school teachers in districts that are considered "priority or transitional" and those teaching in "shortage areas" like bilingual education, math and music can qualify for an attractive fixed-rate mortgage plus down-payment assistance. They must be first-time homebuyers or not have had an ownership interest in a principal residence for the past three years.

But watch it. Your employer may not have the best deal, and the "everyone" plan may be better than the teacher plan.

Alumni associations offer credits

Some college graduates can find a helping hand with a home.

Jason Norris, president of MFG Mortgage Services, in Reno, Nev., offers 0.25 percent off the 1 percent mortgage origination fee for alumni of University of Nevada-Reno.

"That can save thousands," Norris says. "On a $400,000 house, that's $1,000 right there."

For graduates of The College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. of Sun Prairie, Wis., gives alumni a $500 credit toward closing costs.

Also, check the credit union associated with your alma mater or its alumni association. In Palo Alto, Calif., graduates of Stanford University are eligible for a $500 rebate on first mortgage loan fees from Stanford's credit union, plus an additional $300 rebate if they open a home equity line of credit.

There's another home-related benefit: Many alumni groups offer special rates on homeowner's insurance. It pays to ask before you pick an insurer.

And with alumni membership often running $50 or less per year, a return of 1,000 percent is not bad for that investment if a new home is in the cards for you.

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