If you’ve never owned a home before, you might qualify for a first-time homebuyer loan with a better mortgage interest rate, lower down payment requirement and other upsides like down payment and closing costs assistance. Below is a comprehensive guide to your options.

Low-down payment conventional loans

Conventional loans are the most popular type of mortgage, and only require 3 percent down. This makes them an attractive option for first-time homebuyers who might not have considerable savings to draw from. These low-down payment loans include the:

  • Conventional 97 mortgage – This conventional loan, backed by government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, requires just 3 percent down and a minimum credit score of 620. It also requires you to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI), a type of policy that protects your mortgage lender should you stop paying back your loan. You’ll pay these premiums until you pay down your balance to 80 percent of the value of your home.
  • HomeReady mortgage – Similar to the Conventional 97 program, Fannie Mae’s HomeReady mortgage program also requires just 3 percent down (with PMI, although it might be less expensive).
  • Home Possible mortgage – Freddie Mac’s Home Possible mortgage program is the counterpart to the HomeReady mortgage, with a 3 percent minimum down payment requirement.
  • HomeOne mortgage – This Freddie Mac-backed mortgage also allows for just 3 percent down with PMI, but is available only to first-time homebuyers.

You won’t get your low-down payment conventional loan directly from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Instead, you’ll work with a mortgage lender of your choosing, which might be your bank or credit union, for example, or an online provider.

Through state housing finance agencies (HFAs), Fannie and Freddie also back another set of 3 percent down payment programs, called HFA Preferred and HFA Advantage, respectively.

Down payment assistance (DPA)

Down payment assistance loans

Many first-time homebuyer programs offer a lower-cost first mortgage to help you buy the home, then a second mortgage to help you cover your down payment and closing costs. These second mortgages are commonly structured as either:

  • Low-interest loans –  A low-interest second mortgage you’ll repay over the course of a few years
  • Deferred-payment loans – A no-interest second mortgage you’ll repay when you sell the home or refinance or pay off your first mortgage
  • Forgivable loans – A second mortgage you won’t have to pay back so long as you stay in the home for a certain amount of time (the exact period depends on the program) and stay up-to-date with your mortgage payments

Down payment savings match

Down payment savings match programs do just that: help grow your down payment by matching your savings. These programs only provide matched funds up to a certain amount, and the money can only be used for your down payment and closing costs.

One type of matched savings program: an Individual Development Account (IDA). If you qualify, you’ll work with an assigned counselor to deposit funds into an IDA over a set period of time. If you follow the savings plan, you’ll receive the match when you close on the home.

Down payment grants

A down payment or first-time homebuyer grant is essentially free money to help you cover your down payment or closing costs. They’re usually awarded to low- or moderate-income borrowers, typically defined as those earning no more than 80 percent of the median income in their area. They might have other qualifying criteria, too, like a minimum credit score and maximum home purchase price.

Government-backed mortgages

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) back mortgage programs that are often an option for first-time homebuyers. These loans aren’t created or funded by these agencies, however; they’re offered through approved mortgage lenders throughout the U.S. Some lenders even specialize in certain types. Here’s an overview:

  • FHA loan – Insured by the Federal Housing Administration, FHA loans allow you to buy a home with a minimum credit score of 580 and as little as 3.5 percent down, or a credit score as low as 500 with at least 10 percent down. If you put down less than 20 percent, you’ll pay FHA mortgage insurance premiums (MIP), similar to the insurance you’d pay for a low-down payment conventional loan. The difference, though: You can’t stop paying FHA MIP unless you refinance out of an FHA loan entirely.
  • VA loan – The VA guarantees home loans for eligible U.S. military members (active duty, veterans and surviving spouses). These don’t require a down payment, though there is a funding fee.
  • USDA loan – If you’re buying a home in a rural area, you might qualify for a no-down payment USDA loan.

Good Neighbor Next Door

The Good Neighbor Next Door program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is geared toward law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. If you work in one of these professions, you could buy a home in a “revitalization area” for 50 percent off, provided you live in the home for at least three years. You can search for properties available in your state on the program’s website.

HomePath ReadyBuyer Program

Fannie Mae’s HomePath ReadyBuyer program is geared toward first-time buyers interested in a foreclosed home. After taking a required online homebuyer education course, you can receive up to 3 percent in closing cost assistance toward the purchase of a property that’s been foreclosed and is now owned by Fannie Mae.This program isn’t for everyone, however: Not only are you limited in your choice of properties, but the options (like many foreclosed homes) might need lots of repairs.

Energy-efficient mortgage (EEM)

Making green upgrades can be costly, but you can get an energy-efficient mortgage (EEM) (either a conventional loan or one backed by the FHA or VA) to help finance them. This type of mortgage allows you to tack the cost of energy-efficient upgrades (think new insulation, a more efficient HVAC system or double-pane windows) onto your primary loan, without requiring a larger down payment.

However, EEMs come with larger mortgage payments (since you’re borrowing more), and there are certain requirements, including an energy assessment. Those larger payments might be worth it, though, as you could wind up saving on your utility bills in the long run.

Native American Direct Loan (NADL) and Section 184 program

The Native American Direct Loan (NADL), guaranteed by the VA, and Section 184 loan, guaranteed by HUD, provide financing to eligible Native American homebuyers. A Section 184 loan requires just 2.25 percent down. The NADL program has no down payment requirement, but is only for Native American veterans and their spouses.

First-time homebuyer programs by state

Nonprofit programs

Nonprofit programs can offer exceptional value to first-time homebuyers seeking an affordable mortgage. These options tend to be reserved for homebuyers with paychecks that are significantly smaller than the median income in their area and distinguish them as a low- or moderate-income buyer, or buyers who fit certain demographic or other criteria.

Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America

The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America is a nonprofit that provides low-rate mortgages to low- and moderate-income borrowers without requiring a down payment or closing costs or any mortgage insurance. The nonprofit doesn’t use credit scores to qualify you, either: Instead, it looks at other factors such as rent payment history.

Habitat for Humanity

If your annual income is 60 percent or less of the median income in your area, you might qualify for Habitat for Humanity’s homeownership program. Along with not exceeding the income threshold, you’ll need to contribute sweat equity​​ — in other words, help build the home or a home for another applicant — to qualify.

Employer-sponsored programs

Employer-assisted housing (EAH) programs help employees with housing needs, usually in neighborhoods near the workplace. This assistance can come in many forms, such as a forgivable loan coupled with required homeownership education. Many large companies offer some type of mortgage assistance, including Amazon, Walmart and the Chicago Public School District.

EAH programs are often limited to certain occupations, and there could be other restrictions, such as a first-time homebuyer or specific tenure requirement, or income limits.

First-time homebuyer programs for students

If you recently graduated from college, you might be eligible for help buying your first home. For example, the state of Ohio offers a Grants for Grads program with up to 5 percent down payment assistance for anyone who finished an academic program in the last 48 months. These programs typically come with a requirement to stay put for a given time (in Ohio, it’s five years), or else you’ll need to repay the funds.

First-time homebuyer FAQ

  • A first-time homebuyer refers to a homebuyer who hasn’t owned a home previously. However, in terms of qualifying for a first-time buyer program, it often doesn’t have to be your very first time. Many programs define “first-time homebuyer” as a buyer who hasn’t owned a home within the last three years.
  • Your mortgage lender can help you determine whether you qualify for a first-time homebuyer program, as well as apply for one if you do. You can also check out your state’s housing finance agency (HFA) website to learn eligibility criteria and take next steps to apply.
  • First-time homebuyer programs help you purchase a home even if you don’t have the best credit or substantial savings. Many programs also require you to take a homebuyer education class, which prepares you for the responsibilities of homeownership.
  • First-time homebuyer education programs are designed to help you understand the various aspects of owning a home. To qualify for many first-time buyer loan programs, you’ll need to take this course to demonstrate you’re ready for homeownership.