New Rules for First-Time Home Buyers

Original Post Date: March 8, 2011

By: AnnaMaria Andriotis

Without a house to sell, first-time home buyers have had a field day in the depressed housing market. Until recently, anyway. A series of new rules, regulations and policies have changed the landscape, making buying that new home harder and more expensive.

Not long ago, first-time buyers accounted for 40% of home sales. Now they’re down to 29% and falling, experts say, as first-time buyers confront a steady accumulation of rising fees, costs, and rates. This month, fees on most new mortgages will rise by up to 0.50%. In April, fees on small-down-payment mortgages, a first-time buyer favorite, will spike. Meanwhile, more lenders are requiring larger down payments, and new proposals from the Obama administration call for mortgages to become more expensive and limited in size.

The new fees and higher barriers to entry are all a response to the sweeping mortgage losses of the last several years. Banks and other lenders lost billions of dollars on subprime and other risky mortgages, and some must now buy back bad loans they sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To cover those losses, banks and the agencies are raising fees on new mortgages, says Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH Associates, which tracks the mortgage market. Also, from the perspective of lenders and the government, making it harder and more expensive to get a mortgage will deter or cull the riskiest borrowers and minimize defaults.

But taken in total, all this reform means the window of opportunity for first-time buyers may be closing. Home prices still seem to be near the bottom, mortgages are still cheap and, though they have increased over the past five months, interest rates are still low. Of course, there are still reasons to wait to buy: The changes to the mortgage market could depress home sales and prices further. But for those who don’t want to wait, here are the new rules for first-time home buyers.

New rule: Put more money down.

Not because you’ll have to — it’s still possible to make a down payment of less than 5% — but because you want to. Insurance fees on the government-insured mortgages that require just 3.5% down have doubled in seven months, to up to 1.15% (as of April). On a 30-year, $300,000 mortgage, a buyer would pay $30,000 more in fees than if he had signed up for the mortgage in September. Also, between new lender requirements and cash-flush buyers, down payments have been rising since the last half of 2010 and now average 34% of the purchase price, according to the latest data by mortgage-data firm CoreLogic.

It’s unlikely that a first-time home buyer can save so much money for a down payment, especially in high-priced markets like New York and San Francisco, says Cameron Findlay, chief economist at, which tracks mortgage rates. Instead, first timers might need to consider alternative options to get cash , like grants offered by individual states. And most lenders still permit buyers to use cash gifts from family with a notarized letter from the donor stating that the money doesn’t need to be paid back, says Gumbinger. Or, a buyer who’s open to co-owning a home can sign up for a mortgage with a co-applicant who has extra cash to put down but wants a stake in the property.