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3% Down? Why Small Down Payment Mortgages Could Be a Bad Idea

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For prospective homeowners, the idea of saving up for a 20% down payment — usually tens of thousands of dollars — can often be paralyzing. As a result, small or no down payment mortgages are extremely attractive.

But as usual, taking a shortcut financially can come back to bite you. Mortgage loans that have a low-minimum down payment usually require extra fees or insurance to make it worth the lender’s while.

To determine whether a small down payment mortgage is right for you, it’s important that you know what you’re getting yourself into and how much it can cost you in the end.

Mortgages that require a small down payment

Small down payment mortgages are attractive primarily because they allow people to buy a home sooner than if they had to put a full 20% down.

This can be appealing for personal reasons since owning a house often makes it feel more like home. And it can occasionally be attractive for financial reasons, potentially saving you money compared with renting, particularly if you stay in the house for an extended period of time.

Additionally, there are several home loan programs that offer small or no down payment mortgages to those who qualify:

Veterans Affairs (VA) loans

These loans are insured by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for certain veterans, service members, spouses and other eligible beneficiaries.

They don’t require a down payment or mortgage insurance but do charge a one-time funding fee of 0.5% to 3.3%, depending on the type of loan, the size of the down payment and the nature of your military service.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans

The U.S. Department of Agriculture insures home loans for low- to moderate-income homebuyers in eligible rural areas.

Like VA loans, there is no down payment for a USDA loan. But there is an upfront fee of 1% and an ongoing annual fee of 0.35%, both of which apply to purchases and refinances.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans

Insured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), borrowers can get an FHA loan with a down payment as low as 3.5%.

Additional fees include an upfront mortgage insurance premium of 1.75% and an annual mortgage insurance premium of 0.45% to 1.05%, depending on the type, size and length of the loan and the size of the down payment.

Conventional loans

Some mortgage lenders offer small down payment mortgages — as little as 3% down payment — to borrowers who qualify.

These loans, however, aren’t insured by a government agency, so the lender will require private mortgage insurance (PMI). The cost of PMI varies but is often between 0.5% and 1% of the loan amount. You can typically request to have your PMI dropped once you have at least 20% equity in the home.

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The benefits of small down payment mortgages

These small and no-down payment mortgage options are designed for those with low- to moderate-incomes who either don’t have enough cash on hand for a large down payment or find it difficult to qualify for a conventional mortgage for credit reasons.

For example, you can get an FHA loan with a 3.5% down payment with a credit score as low as 580. VA loans technically don’t have any minimum credit score requirement, although you may still get denied if you don’t meet the lender’s financial criteria.

As a result, these small down payment mortgages are attractive because they make homeownership more accessible. You can save enough for a down payment much sooner than if you had to put the full 20% down, and you can secure a mortgage even if your credit isn’t perfect.

Why a small down payment could end up costing you more

Home loans with a small down payment are often billed as affordable options for homebuyers because of the fact that you don’t have to bring as much money to the table upfront. But the flipside is that you’ll likely spend more money over the life of your loan than if you waited until you had saved enough to make a larger down payment.

For example, let’s say you’re buying a $200,000 home, putting 3% down, and not rolling your closing costs into the loan. On a 30-year mortgage with a 4% interest rate, your monthly payment will consist of the following elements:

  • Principal: The amount of each payment that goes toward reducing your loan balance.
  • Interest: The amount of each payment that goes toward paying the interest on the loan.
  • PMI: Private mortgage insurance paid to a third party to protect the lender in case you default on your loan. For our example, we’ll assume a 0.75% rate.
  • Homeowners insurance: This covers certain damages to your home, the loss of personal belongings and covers your liability in the case that you accidentally injure someone or damage his or her property. Lenders typically require homeowners insurance and collect your payments in an escrow account, making payments to the insurance company for you. We’ll assume a $70 monthly insurance payment for our example.
  • Property tax: Your property tax rate will depend on your state and county. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use a 1% tax rate for our example.

Using MagnifyMoney’s parent company, LendingTree’s online mortgage calculator, here’s how your monthly payment will break down:

  • Principal and interest: $926.19
  • PMI: $121.25
  • Homeowners insurance: $70
  • Property tax: $166.67

If you total these up, your monthly payment will be $1,284.11.

Now, let’s compare that with your monthly payment if you make a 20% down payment instead.

 

3% Down Payment

20% Down Payment

Principal and interest

$926.19

$763.86

PMI

$121.25

$0

Homeowners insurance

$70

$70

Property tax

$166.67

$166.67

Total Monthly Payment

$1,284.11

$1,000.53

That’s a savings of $283.58 per month, for a total of $102,088.80 over the life of the loan.

What you could do with the money you saved by making a bigger down payment

Even if you don’t plan on staying in the home for the full 30 years, having an extra few hundred dollars per month can make a big difference for your budget. Here are just a few things you can do with that additional cash.

  • Invest: Whether for retirement or some other long-term goal, investing is the best way to get your money to work for you.
  • Pay down debt: Student loans, credit cards, and other debts are easier to pay off when you have extra room in your budget.
  • Save: Saving ahead for home repairs and routine maintenance, as well as building an emergency fund to handle big, unexpected expenses.
  • Travel: More disposable income makes it easier to travel, whether you want to explore somewhere new or simply visit friends and family.
  • Home improvement: If your new house isn’t your dream home, you can use the monthly savings to work on renovations.

If you do plan on staying in your house for the life of the loan, that extra $102,088.80 can go a long way toward securing every part of your financial future.

How to decide if a low down payment mortgage is for you

While it’s generally better to make a bigger down payment, there are some situations in which a small down payment mortgage may be the better option.

You don’t plan on staying in the home very long

Over a 30-year period, you can save tens of thousands of dollars by opting for a higher down payment. But if you’re only planning on staying in the home for a few years, the savings won’t be nearly as high.

That said, it’s important to also consider the transaction costs.

“The cost of buying and then selling a home runs about 8% to 10% of the purchase price, depending on where you live,” said Casey Fleming, mortgage advisor and author of “The Loan Guide.” “Buying with a low down payment only makes sense if you plan on being in the home long enough to make back at least your acquisition and sale costs.”

You need the liquidity

Even if you have enough money to make a large down payment, you may not want to part with all of it. For example, you might prefer to keep your emergency fund intact rather than deplete it. Or you might want to keep some cash available for repairs. Or you might want to invest some of that money with the hope of getting a better rate of return.

“With a larger down payment, you’re taking money that’s liquid and making it illiquid,” said Dan Green, founder of Growella and the branch manager for Waterstone Mortgage in Pewaukee, Wis. “The only way to get to your money is to refinance, sell your home or take a line of credit. It’s very important that before making a large down payment that you have a sufficient emergency fund, a budget set aside for home repairs.”

Ways to build up to a larger down payment

If you’ve set a goal of making a 10% to 20% down payment on your next home purchase, now is the time to start getting your strategy in place. While it can sometimes take years to save that kind of money, there are a few things you can do to speed up the process.

Find extra cash to save

Sometimes the best way to reach a financial goal is a good mix of offense and defense.

On offense, consider finding ways to earn more money either by negotiating a raise, starting a side hustle, getting a second job or booking the occasional side gig.

On defense, create and maintain a budget to find areas where you can cut back. Set a monthly goal for how much you want to save, automate that savings and funnel any extra cash toward your down payment fund. Tools like You Need a Budget and Mint.com can help you create and execute this plan.

Pros

  • The opportunities to earn extra money are virtually endless.
  • You have control over how and where you spend your money.
  • Negotiating a raise at your current job can provide extra money without requiring extra work.
  • Starting a side hustle could bring in extra income long after you’ve reached your down payment goal.

Cons

  • These strategies can require more time than other options.
  • If you have a lot of debt and other essential expenses, cutting back can be hard.
  • Creating new habits and sticking to them can be difficult. You have to be committed for the long run.

Borrowing from family or friends

If a friend or family member is willing to loan you money, you might not have to spend time finding extra cash. You may even be lucky enough to receive the money as a gift — subject to federal gift tax rules — which would provide the money at essentially no cost to you.

However, if you are structuring it as a loan, Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner and the founder of Credit Pilgrim, recommends adhering to the current guidelines for Applicable Federal Rate (AFR), which specify minimum interest rates for various types of loans.

Pros

  • You’ll get into your new house sooner.
  • You can often get a lower interest rate from family or friends than you’d get from a lender.
  • You may have more flexibility with the repayment terms.

Cons

  • It can damage your relationship if something goes wrong.
  • Your family members or friends may not consider you trustworthy enough to loan money.
  • Not all mortgage lenders allow you to borrow your down payment.

Borrow from your 401(k)

Qualified retirement accounts like a 401(k) typically penalize you for taking withdrawals before you’ve reached retirement age.

But many 401(k) plans offer loan programs that allow you to borrow from your account balance, often with relatively low-interest rates even if you have poor credit. And if you are using the money in order to purchase a primary residence, you may be able to pay the loan back over a period of 25 years, as opposed to the standard 5-year term for most 401(k) loans.

Pros

  • You can get into your new house sooner.
  • 401(k) loans often have lower interest rates than a personal loan.
  • The interest you pay goes back into your 401(k) account rather than to a lender.

Cons

  • You’re forfeiting potential investment gains on the borrowed money.
  • If you leave your employer for any reason, your loan may be due within 90 days, putting you in a difficult financial position.
  • Not all 401(k) plans offer loan programs.
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The bottom line

There are certain situations where a small down payment mortgage might be a good idea. It can get you into a home sooner, and many federally-insured mortgage programs can minimize the costs and allow you to buy a home with less-than-perfect credit.

But in many cases, it’s better to go above and beyond the minimum down payment required. A larger down payment can save you money both in the short term and the long term, helping you invest more in your future financial security.

Making the right choice for your personal situation involves both running the numbers and taking your personal goals into account. If you do your due diligence, you’ll be in a better position to make a good decision.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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The Pros and Cons of a Credit Union Mortgage

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co-op shared branching for credit unions
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Though banks are better known, their not-for-profit cousins known as credit unions still command a significant chunk of the mortgage market. During the first quarter of 2019, credit unions originated 8% of mortgages in the United States, according to credit union consulting firm Callahan & Associates.

Often overlooked, credit unions can be a good option when shopping for a mortgage. Joining a credit union can make it possible for you to reap benefits such as lower origination fees or a more competitive interest rate.

This article will explore whether homebuyers might get a better deal from a credit union mortgage and the implications a relationship with a credit union might bring.

How is a credit union different from a bank?

Although credit unions fall under the umbrella of financial institutions, they differ from commercial banks in several key ways.

Banks are typically owned by their shareholders, credit unions are not-for-profit organizations owned by their members. This often translates to better rates and terms on their financial products.

While banks can serve the entire nation, credit unions tend to be community-based institutions that play a significant role in serving people in a local area.

“Credit unions are a really important part of the financial services fabric,” said Barry Zigas, director of housing policy at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C.

On the other hand, credit unions typically don’t offer the same suite of products that a larger bank is often known for. While you can take advantage of a checking, savings or individual retirement account, for example, you may find it challenging to access financial planning or investment services.

Below we highlight how credit unions stack up against banks.

Credit UnionCommercial Bank
  • Not-for-profit organization
  • Member-owned
  • Typically have higher yields on deposit accounts
  • Typically have lower interest rates on credit and loan products
  • Membership is based on an affiliation or geographical location
  • Smaller branch and ATM networks
  • Federally insured up to $250,000 through the National Credit Union Administration
  • For-profit organization
  • Shareholder-owned
  • Yields are usually lower on deposit accounts
  • Interest rates on credit and loan products are usually higher
  • Anyone can establish a relationship with a bank
  • Larger branch and ATM networks
  • Federally insured up to $250,000 through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Getting a mortgage from a credit union

One of the main differences when applying for a mortgage through a credit union rather than a traditional bank is that you must be a member of the credit union before you can attempt to borrow money.

Credit union customers own “shares” in the institution, typically via a $5 deposit held in a particular savings account.

In order to become a member, you must meet the membership requirements outlined by the credit union you’re interested in joining. Credit union members have a common bond, which could be any of the following, according to the National Credit Union Administration:

  • An employer.
  • A geographical location where those interested in joining live, work, worship or attend school.
  • A group membership, such as a homeowners association or labor union.

Family members of credit union customers are also often eligible to join.

One of the key reasons for choosing a credit union: You may be able to save money on lender fees, said Bruce McClary, vice president of communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A credit union may also be more flexible with credit score requirements than a bank and may offer lower mortgage interest rates.

However, since credit unions are small organizations, there’s the risk that your credit union’s name or ownership could change. Your credit union could also sell the rights to service your mortgage to a third party, which may impact your customer service after your loan closes.

“Even though you may be saving money on origination fees and you may not be paying as many other fees with your mortgage — so it might be more affordable at the onset — you may end up having to deal with a servicer that you weren’t dealing with before, rather than dealing with your credit union,” McClary said.

It’s important to note that bank-originated mortgages can also be sold and handed over to other servicers, so this issue isn’t unique to credit unions.

Still, developing a relationship with a credit union over time — as in, the organization’s representatives are very familiar with you and your finances — could work in your favor when you decide to apply for a mortgage, McClary said.

“Being a member of the credit union might actually put you in an advantage in terms of approval or maybe in terms of negotiating terms of the mortgage in the application process,” he said.

Pros and cons of a credit union mortgage

Consider the following benefits and drawbacks of a credit union mortgage before you choose this type of lender for your home purchase.

Pros

  • Potentially lower origination fees and other lending costs.
  • Mortgage rates may be lower.
  • A greater sense of community, since the institution is member-owned.
  • Potential for more negotiating room during the mortgage lending process.
  • Shared branching benefits, which allow you to use the services of an outside credit union.

Cons

  • You must meet eligibility guidelines to join the credit union and become a member before applying for a mortgage.
  • Credit unions typically have smaller branch networks.
  • There’s the risk of your credit union closing, switching owners or going through some other changes, which can affect how your mortgage is serviced.
  • Typically carry fewer product offerings than traditional banks.
  • May have limited online banking capabilities.

The bottom line

A traditional bank isn’t your only option for getting a mortgage. Depending on what your lending needs are and how much you value building a relationship with your financial institution, a credit union might be right for you.

However, if you’re concerned about mortgage servicing, be sure to check with your credit union for more information about how they plan to handle your mortgage once it’s originated.

“I think consumers who are members of credit unions should certainly go to their credit union and find out what their loan terms are, what the application process is like and maybe even ask, ‘Are these loans that you hold or are these loans that you sell off?’” Zigas said.

Zigas also recommended practicing that same due diligence with other types of mortgage lenders and shopping around.

“It’s a very competitive environment, and there’s no assurance that your credit union will actually be offering you the best possible rate,” he said.

It pays to comparison shop before you settle on a particular mortgage lender. For example, if you were looking to buy a house that required a $300,000 mortgage, you could potentially save more than $42,000 in interest over the life of a 30-year term by shopping for the best rate, according to data from LendingTree’s latest Mortgage Rate Competition Index.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Crissinda Ponder is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Crissinda here

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We Downsized Our House So We Could Travel the World

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Purchase agreement for house

You’ve settled into your dream house and have called it home for years. But now you realize your family has more house than it actually needs, plus a large mortgage to match. Is it time to downsize?

The answer depends on what your financial and lifestyle goals are. Below, we share one story about a Florida-based family downsizing their home. Giving up 1,600 square feet allowed them to pay off their mortgage in a fraction of the time and achieve their goals of globe-trotting.

Keith and Nicole’s downsizing story

Keith and Nicole DeBickes loved their house in Delray Beach, Fla., but with more than 3,500 square feet of living space, it was perhaps larger than they actually needed at the time. “One day, I came to the realization that I had a 400-square-foot bathroom that I spent 20 minutes a day in, and we had this big formal dining room and formal living room that we never used,” Nicole said. “And we had a really big mortgage to cover it.”

She also wasn’t thrilled with the schools in the area — or with the idea of paying for private education. She and Keith knew they had to make a change.

The DeBickes (who work as an engineer manager and software engineer, respectively, and make between $100,000 and $200,000 combined annually) put their house on the market and started looking for a smaller home that was zoned for better schools.

They eventually settled on a 1,900-square-foot, four-bedroom house in Boca Raton. “We wanted to buy with the idea that we’d have a much smaller mortgage and we wouldn’t have to pay for private school,” Nicole said. “Then we could do things with our family like travel or retire earlier.”

The couple took out a 30-year mortgage for $110,000 in 2007, much smaller than what they had before. They then refinanced into a 15-year loan for $150,000 in 2009 to remodel their kitchen and upgrade their electrical work.

Pros and cons of downsizing your home

Deciding to downsize your house is a major decision that takes a good amount of effort and planning. Consider the following pros and cons before you choose to move forward.

Pros

  • Reduces your mortgage debt.
  • Potentially reduces other housing-related expenses, such as utilities.
  • Frees up cash to reduce or eliminate non-mortgage debt.
  • Gives you a smaller house to maintain.

Cons

  • Reduces your available square footage, giving you less space than you’re used to.
  • Unless you have enough equity to cover the purchase of your new home, you must qualify for a new mortgage.
  • You’ll have to sell your existing home.
  • You will have to shell out thousands of dollars for both your home sale and new home purchase.

Tips to pay off your mortgage more quickly

The DeBickes didn’t like the idea of having a mortgage on their downsized home. “We didn’t want to be working every month for a mortgage,” Nicole said. “We don’t like debt, and we wanted it to be gone.”

The couple buckled down and started making double and triple payments every month on their home loan. They drove older cars, carpooled to save on gas and maintenance and packed lunches to cut down on their food costs. The family took relatively modest vacations, staying with family or driving to the west coast of Florida.

All their diligence paid off — the DeBickles submitted their last mortgage payment in fall 2013.

If you’re on a mission to be mortgage-free sooner rather than later, here are tips to help you get there:

  • Make extra principal payments each month. Try rounding up your monthly mortgage payment. For example, if your payment is $1,325 every month, pay $1,400 instead or increase the amount by even more, if your budget allows. Be sure to communicate to your lender that you want the extra payments applied to your principal balance and not your interest.
  • Pay biweekly instead of monthly. Split your monthly mortgage payment into biweekly payments. Since there are 52 weeks in a year, you would make 26 half payments, or 13 full payments. Making one extra full payment each year could allow you to shave a few years off your mortgage term.
  • Consider recasting your mortgage. If you have at least $5,000 or $10,000 — depending on your lender’s requirements — you could use that lump sum to recast your mortgage. A mortgage recast allows you to lower your monthly payments by paying your lender a set amount of money to reduce your mortgage principal.
  • Dedicate windfalls to paying down your principal. Every time you get a tax refund, bonus or some other windfall, use it to pay down your outstanding loan balance.

Achieving financial freedom

Although they’re now mortgage-free, the DeBickes were still putting money away like crazy. They eventually quit their jobs (temporarily) and traveled abroad for two years with their boys, who were 10 and 7 in 2015. Without a mortgage payment, they were able to amass the $190,000 they thought they needed to travel for 28 months. “We have been living on one salary and saving or paying off the house with the other for 12 years,” Nicole said.

Despite their hefty savings goals, they’ve been able to take the boys to Europe and Costa Rica, too. “We want to really get them prepared for what travel is going to be like,” Nicole said.

The trip, which is outlined on the family’s website, FamilyWithLatitude.com, took the foursome everywhere from Ireland to France, among other spots. Nicole and Keith “road schooled” their children as they traveled, with the help of Florida’s virtual school program that allows them to take classes online.

They planned to rent their home while they were away, which will help finance part of the trip and cover some house expenses, such as insurance and property taxes. In the meantime, they are maxing out their 401(k)s and taking care of college funds for the boys.

“(In 2014) we were able to purchase the prepaid college plan for my youngest son in a lump sum,” said Nicole, who had already done the same thing for her eldest. “So I know that both boys have good college funds to take care of them.”

The bottom line

If you’re looking to move into a smaller home and save money in the process, it might make sense for you to downsize. Just be sure you’re clear on the benefits and drawbacks, and how the choice to cut down your square footage would align with your personal goals.

In the end, the lack of debt will allow the DeBickes the freedom to not only to travel the globe, but to hang out with the important people in their lives.

“With both of us working, we haven’t been able to spend as much time with the kids as we wanted,” Nicole said. “It’s a real luxury that we can do this. I’m looking forward to spending time together as a family.”

This article contains links to LendingTree, our parent company.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Kate Ashford
Kate Ashford |

Kate Ashford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kate at [email protected]

Crissinda Ponder
Crissinda Ponder |

Crissinda Ponder is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Crissinda here

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