How much down payment do you need to buy a home?

Lenders prefer 20% down payments, but there are government-backed programs that require much less. Just keep your eye on the fees.

Coming up with enough cash to put down when buying a house is the single biggest roadblock for most hopeful home buyers. But how much do you really need?

What is a down payment?

A down payment is the cash you pay upfront to get a home loan. It’s deducted from the total amount of your mortgage and represents the beginning equity – your ownership stake – in a house and property.

Benefits of 20% down payment

Most lenders are looking for 20% down payments. That’s $60,000 on a $300,000 home. With 20% down, lenders will love you more. First off, you’ll have a better chance of getting approved. And you’ll earn a better mortgage interest rate. There are all sorts of other benefits too:

  • Lower upfront fees
  • Lower ongoing fees
  • More equity in your home right off the bat
  • A lower monthly payment

Of course there’s one big caveat: The down payment is not the only upfront money you have to deal with. There are loan closing costs and earnest money to consider as well.

Evaluating low down payment alternatives

You can actually buy a home with as little as 3% down.

The Federal Housing Administration is a government agency charged with helping home buyers – especially first timers – get approved. The FHA does that by assisting mortgage lenders in making loans by guaranteeing a portion of the balance.

Plus, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that drive the residential mortgage credit market, have 3% down payments on home loans. Some major commercial lenders are also offering low down payments – and even no down payments – as incentives to spur loan demand.

And if you’re an active or retired service member, or live in a rural area, you may have access to zero down payment programs through the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. It’s always a good idea to ask a lender about down payment options when you’re shopping for a mortgage.

What is the right down payment amount for you?

Do you want to put down $60,000 or $9,000 on that $300,000 home? Sounds like a pretty easy decision, right? But you knew there would be fine print.

A lower down payment makes you a bigger risk in the eyes of the lender. That’s why it’ll look for help from one of those government programs to guarantee a portion of the loan. The thing is, you pay for the guarantee. It’s called mortgage insurance. There will be an upfront fee and likely an ongoing charge built into your monthly payment.

Some of the programs don’t require mortgage insurance, but will charge a funding fee. And as a higher risk, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate for the life of the loan in addition to the other fees.

It’s tempting to go with the lowest all-in upfront charges when trying to buy a home. But the key to building net worth is to buy smart, especially when it comes to such a large purchase as a house.

Lenders are required to disclose all fees and it’s always a good idea to shop around with multiple mortgage providers to get your best deal. Plus, the more you explore your options, the more you’ll learn about the process. Taking time to compare the fees from different lenders can save you thousands of dollars over the long haul.

The down payment is just the first financial hurdle. The monthly payments last a lot longer.