First Time Home Buyer Programs for Veterans


Peter Warden
Military VA Loan contributor

Numerous programs exist to help veterans and service members who are first-time buyers with their closing costs and other expenses.

Indeed, it’s perfectly possible for those who are eligible for VA home loans to become homeowners with very little — or even nothing — in the way of savings.

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Advantages of VA home loans for first-time buyers

The most famous housing benefit associated with the VA loan program is the zero down payment requirement. That can be hugely valuable for first time home buyers.

But it’s just one of a whole range of advantages that come with a VA home loan. Here are some more.

Low mortgage rates for VA loans

According to the Ellie Mae Origination Report, in September 2020, the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage backed by the VA was just 2.78%. That compares with 3.02% for conventional loans (ones not backed by the government) and 3.01% for FHA loans.

So VA home loans have lower rates. And that wasn’t just a one-time fluke. VA mortgage rates are lower on average than those for other loans — month after month, year after year.

Lower funding fees for first-time buyers

When you buy a home with a VA loan, you need to pay a funding fee. However, you can choose to pay it on closing or add it to your loan so you pay it down with the rest of your mortgage.

But, as a first-time buyer, you get a lower rate. For you, it’s 2.3% of the loan amount (instead of 3.6% for repeat purchasers) if you make a down payment between zero and 5%.

That’s $2,300 for every $100,000 borrowed, which can be wrapped into the loan amount. It’s a savings of $1,300 per $100,000 versus repeat buyers.

Put down more and your funding fee drops whether or not you’re a first-time buyer. So it’s 1.65% if you put down 5% or more, and 1.4% if you put down 10% or more.

Although it might seem like just another fee, the VA funding fee is well worth the cost since it buys you the significant financial benefits of a VA home loan.

No mortgage insurance for VA loans

Mortgage insurance is what non-VA borrowers usually have to pay if they don’t have a 20 percent down payment. Private mortgage insurance typically takes the form of a payment on closing, along with monthly payments going forward.

That’s no small benefit since mortgage insurance can represent a significant amount of money. For example, FHA home buyers pay over $130 per month on a $200,000 loan — for years.

Mortgage insurance vs funding fee

Let’s do a side-by-side comparison of the mortgage insurance vs. funding fee costs of a $200,000 loan:

  VA Loan FHA Loan
Payable on closing $4,600* $3,500
Payable monthly $0 $133 per month**
Paid after five years (60 months) $4,600 $11,500

*First-time buyer rate with zero down payment: 2.3%. $200,000 x 2.3% = $4,600
** $200,000 loan x 0.8% annual mortgage insurance = $1,600 per year. That’s $8,000 over five years. $1,600 divided by 12 months = $133.33 every month

It’s clear that mortgage insurance can be a real financial burden — and that the funding fee is a great deal for eligible borrowers.

Better yet, that makes a difference to your buying power. Because, absent mortgage insurance, you’re $133 a month better off. And that means you can afford a higher home purchase price with the same housing expenses.

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Types of first-time homebuyer programs for VA loans

You may find two main types of assistance as a first-time buyer:

  1. Down payment or closing cost assistance
  2. Mortgage credit certificates

Down payment and closing cost assistance

There are thousands of down payment assistance programs (DAPs) across the United States and that includes at least one in each state. Many states have several.

Each DAP is independent and sets its own rules and offerings. So, unfortunately, we can’t say, “You’re in line to get this …” because “this” varies so much from program to program.

Some help with closing costs as well and down payments. Some give you a low-interest loan that you pay down in parallel with your main mortgage. Others give “forgivable” loans that you don’t pay back — providing you stay in the home for a set period. And some give outright grants: effectively gifts.

Mortgage credit certificates (MCCs)

The name pretty much says it all. In some states, the housing finance agency or its equivalent issues mortgage credit certificates (MCCs) to homebuyers — especially first-time ones — that let them pay less in federal taxes.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation explains on its website (PDF):

“MCCs are issued directly to qualifying homebuyers who are then entitled to take a nonrefundable federal tax credit equal to a specified percentage of the interest paid on their mortgage loan each year. These tax credits can be taken at the time the borrowers file their tax returns. Alternatively, borrowers can amend their W-4 tax withholding forms from their employer to reduce the amount of federal income tax withheld from their paychecks in order to receive the benefit on a monthly basis.”

In other words, MCCs allow you to pay less federal tax. And that means you can afford a better, more expensive home than the one you could get without them.

Speak with a mortgage specialist today.

Dream Makers program

Unlike most DAPs, the Dream Makers Home Buying Assistance program from the PenFed Foundation is open only to those who’ve provided active duty, reserve, national guard, or veteran service.

You must also be a first-time buyer, although that’s defined as those who haven’t owned their own home within the previous three years. And you may qualify if you’ve lost your home to a disaster or a divorce.

But this help isn’t intended for the rich. Your income must be equal to or less than 80% of the median for the area in which you’re buying. However, that’s adjustable according to the size of your household. So if you have a spouse or dependents, you can earn more.

It’s all a bit complicated. So it’s just as well that PenFed has a lookup tool (on the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD’s) website) that lets you discover the income limits and median family income where you want to buy.

What help does the Dream Makers program offer?

You’ll need a mortgage pre-approval or pre-qualification letter from an established lender to proceed. But then you stand to receive funds from the foundation as follows:

“The amount of the grant is determined by a 2-to-1 match of the borrower’s contribution to their mortgage in earnest deposit and cash brought at closing with a maximum grant of $5,000. The borrower must contribute a minimum of $500. No cash back can be received by the borrower at closing.”

So supposing you have $2,000 saved. The foundation could add $4,000 (2-to-1 match), giving you $6,000. In many places, that might easily be enough to see you become a homeowner.

You don’t have to use that money for a VA loan. You could opt for an FHA or conventional mortgage. But, given the advantages that come with VA loans, why would you?

The Dream Makers program is probably the most famous of those offering assistance to vets and service members. But there are plenty of others, many of which are locally based.

For example, residents of New York should check out that state’s Homes for Veterans program. That can provide up to $15,000 for those who qualify, whether or not they’re first-time buyers.

Start your home buying journey here.

State-By-State Home Buyer Assistance Programs

We promised to tell you how to find those thousands of DAPs — and the MCC programs that are available in many states.

It takes a little work to find all the ones that might be able to help you. But you should be able to track them down from the comfort of your own home, online and over the phone.

A good place to start is the HUD local homebuying programs lookup tool. Select the state where you want to buy then select a link and look for “assistance programs.”

Your best starting point is probably the state’s housing finance office though it might be called something slightly different. You should find details of programs or just a list of counties with phone numbers. Call the number where you want to buy, explain your situation and ask for advice. It’s their agents’ jobs to point you to local, state, or national programs that can help you.

If you look in the right place, you could secure some very worthwhile financial help to assist you in buying your first home.

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