Stay local for home-buying help

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With ads everywhere touting the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers, it may be easy to overlook other programs that can help home shoppers save big.

The best deals often go to buyers who take a combo-platter approach to home finance. Your state, city, employer and neighborhood improvement association may all have deals that you can tap with the $8,000 federal tax credit. Alumni associations and rural development agencies might also help reduce your housing costs.

Don’t forget the big three. The seller, builder and lender can kick in some serious sweeteners, according to mortgage brokers and real estate agents. And don’t lollygag: Mortgage incentive programs can change frequently and without notice. It pays to research what’s available right now.

“Research what programs are available in a given locale,” says John Karsten, broker and owner of Karsten Real Estate in Waupun, Wis. “You have to go item by item by item. Each lender is offering programs that are a little bit different.”

Often, you won’t find out about these public and private programs without putting in some time doing online and phone research that is tailored to your personal situation, including your exact location, income level and profession. Those who read each program’s fine print are the ones who win.

While the federal tax credit arrives only after you own the home, builders, sellers, lenders and some localities will give you cash when you need it most — to seal the deal at the closing table.

More help for homebuyers
  1. State governments.
  2. Cities and neighborhood funds.
  3. Small towns and rural areas.
  4. Sellers and builders.
  5. Employer programs.
  6. College alumni associations.

Start with the state

Some states offer excellent housing assistance. You may be able to double dip and get state help now and a federal credit later.

On June 8, 2009, despite its budget troubles, California reinstituted a down payment assistance loan program and special loans for homes owned by the California Housing Authority. The state’s Web site emphasizes that some buyers can get state help and the federal tax credit.

California offers low- and moderate-income deals, though “moderate” can be far from paltry. For example, in Marin County, Calif., a single borrower earning up to $81,300 is eligible for down payment help.

The down payment assistance is offered through a deferred payment junior loan of up to 3 percent of the purchase price or appraised value — whichever is less — for all homes, and up to 5 percent for homes in certain areas.

That down payment loan does not have to be repaid until the first mortgage is paid off, or the home is refinanced or sold. Currently, the interest rate for California’s down payment loan is 3.25 percent.

To find out what your state has, try the U.S. Housing and Urban Development site, which has a scroll-down, state-specific menu.

Note that the rule of “buyer beware” applies. No matter what your state offers, compare its mortgage deal with the low down payment programs offered through the Federal Housing Administration and those offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, if you served in the armed forces.

City perks and neighborhood funds

Even in this market, some cities and towns still have funds earmarked to help develop particular neighborhoods.

In Chicago, buyers in some areas can get up to 4 percent of the home price back in their choice of down payment assistance, closing costs or rate buy-down. That’s cash you don’t want to miss out on just because you weren’t aware of it or because you used the wrong bank.

In addition, the city’s TaxSmart program provides a tax credit equivalent to 20 percent of the interest paid on a mortgage for first-time buyers and those buyers who purchase in targeted areas. Specific participating lenders are listed on the city’s Web site, but other banks may match that deal to get your business. And it’s not just in Chicago.

“I’ve seen a few isolated cases of people getting grant money to help with their down payment from (other) local programs,” says Carolyn Warren, author of “Mortgage Rip-Offs and Money Savers,” and a banker-broker for Shelter Mortgage who lives in Bellevue, Wash. “One was in San Diego and the other was in Michigan.”

Sometimes, nonprofits team up with a particular bank to offer special deals for qualified buyers. In Washington, D.C., Manna Mortgage Corp. — affiliated with Neighborhood Housing Services of America, a national nonprofit that aims to revitalize neighborhoods — partners with Citibank, which kicks in up to $3,000 in closing costs. Meanwhile, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago offers fixed-rate loans with down payments as low as 1 percent plus “gap” loans that let borrowers avoid paying private mortgage insurance.

And don’t forget city tax deals. Washington, D.C., has a first-time homebuyer tax credit of up to $5,000. There is also a five-year, property-tax abatement program, and the city even has recording and transfer tax credits that can go toward closing costs, totaling up to 2.2 percent of the purchase price.

Rural areas and smaller towns

Government help is not just for people in big cities.

The Rural Development Association, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is still offering assistance to those who qualify. Depending on the exact location of the home, the USDA can offer longer terms, like 38 years instead of 30, and other attractive deals.

There’s also the self-help method of moving to a smaller and cheaper town if you can.

“We’re coming to a time when employment will be more diverse than it used to be,” says Karsten. “People can work from home or online, and if that’s a possibility for you, take a look at these smaller towns.”

Those who are “willing to drive, or just want a more peaceful lifestyle” can save big, he says.

Some rural municipalities offer generous help. NeighborWorks Montana provides up to $40,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance to qualifying buyers who meet income guidelines.

You can also help yourself just by moving to a less populated area. In rural Wisconsin, you can find homes with three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths on a nice lot for less than $80,000, as long as you’re willing to fix up the house, Karsten says.

Help from sellers and builders

Be sure to see what the seller can do for you.

“Ninety percent of the deals crossing my desk have some sort of seller concessions,” says Ryan Stone, vice president of mortgage banking at WCS Lending in Southfield, Mich.

The seller contribution can reach up to 6 percent of an FHA loan that allows a 3.5 percent down payment, and 3 percent of a conventional loan that requires a higher down payment, he says. “So if it’s a $200,000 home, the sales price is listed at $205,000, and the seller gets a check for $200,000, letting the buyer finance closing costs with that $5,000.”

Spreading that $5,000 cost over 30 years definitely decreases the bite.

Meanwhile, Karsten is seeing something slightly different in his typical sale of a first home that needs a little work. Sellers can’t offer much cash with that 6 percent cap, but they can do other things.

“Sellers are reducing the listed price in order to get the property sold,” Karsten says. “That reduction represents the cost of the repairs. If it needs a new roof, they get it done before it closes. Obviously, there are limits to that, but I am seeing that as a general strategy.”

Seller financing options appear to be on the rise, he says. In recent years, very few sellers in Waupun, Wis., have had to resort to seller financing because mortgages were easy to obtain. However, in mid-August, Karsten was at a closing for a 100 percent seller-financed home.

“Seller financing options may be appropriate in the near future for sellers who are looking to offer one more option to attract buyers,” Karsten says.

Builders also are desperate. Cash concessions are common, as are offers to pay points or some closing costs. Some builders even offer a special mortgage deal. At The Granville, a new condo development in Chicago, the builder is advertising 1.5 percent off published mortgage rates for qualified buyers who put at least 10 percent down and go with a designated bank.

But just because the builder offers it doesn’t mean it’s the best deal for you overall. Often, the builder rate is higher than what you could get on your own.

“I can’t tell you how many times buyers go with a builder with the higher rate, get the credit and then come to a broker like me to refinance,” says Stone. Alert buyers end up with the builder’s cash and a great rate.