From Spotlight: Fables, Fiction, and Folk Tales Home Buyers Believe

‘I Need 20% Down’ and Other Home-Buying Myths About Mortgages

Tips for shopping around for a mortgage — even if you think you don’t qualify.

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Think you're not ready to unlock home ownership yet? That the financial hurdles are too high? You may be short-changing yourself. Many of the things renters believe about home-buying are myths.

Here's the real deal.

Myth: I Have to Put Down 20%

Saving 20% of the price of a home in many places isn't just a challenge; it's a roadblock. And it's not a must-do. In fact, the typical down payment for first-time buyers is 8%, according to the National Association of REALTORS® "Profile of Home Buyers & Sellers." How can you become part of the ?

  • FHA loans: The Federal Housing Association is an old friend to first-time buyers and others who are ready to become homeowners with less than a 20% down payment. If you qualify, you may be able to get a loan with as little as 3.5% down if your credit score is at least 580.
  • and NeighborWorksSome local and state agencies sponsor down-payment assistance programs that help prospective home buyers in different ways. Follow the links to find out if any are available near you.
  • VA, USDA, and Navy Federal Credit Union loans: Three government-related lenders offer mortgages with as little as zero down. The VA, which is for veterans and their family members, doesn't require a down payment; however, lenders may require down payments for some borrowers using a VA loan. The USDA — for buyers in qualifying, typically rural, locations — doesn't typically require a down payment. The Navy Federal Credit Union offers loans for the military, their family members, and some government employees, and its mortgage options don’t require money down.
  • Gift funds: Twenty-three percent of buyers ask friends or relatives to help jump-start their home ownership with a gift. Talk to your lender first, though. They may limit the amount of gifted funds they'll accept, and they may require your benefactor to sign some paperwork.

Related: 6 Ways to Find More Money for Your Down Payment

Myth: My Low Credit Score Means I Can't Buy a Home

So, your credit could use a tune-up. That doesn't mean you have to forgo your home-buying dreams. Here are some options for those with a less-than-stellar credit score.

  • FHA loan: With a credit score of 500, you can apply for an FHA loan, but you'll need a 10% down payment to offset the risk. If your score is a tick better (580), you can participate in their down-payment assistance program, requiring only 3.5%.
  • A higher down payment: On the off chance you have enough cash on hand to put down more than 20%, the higher down payment can help those with lower credit scores be less risky for lenders.
  • A co-signer: Find someone with better credit to cosign the loan. But understand that if you don't make the payments, the cosigner will be financially responsible (and their credit will also suffer).
  • Check your credit report: Maybe your credit isn't that low after all. Order a copy of your report from all three reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian). If you find inaccurate or old information, ask the agencies to correct it. (You can order a free report from each of the bureaus once a year at

Myth: I Can't Afford the Agent's Commission

Here are some facts. The free market sets broker commission costs within markets based on factors like service, consumer preference, and what the market can bear. Compensation is always negotiable between agents and their clients.

Keep in mind that the seller's agent works for the seller, not for you. If you want a pro in your corner, you'll need to contract with a buyer's agent. Money well spent.

Myth: My Bank Will Give Me the Best Mortgage

There are a lot of positive things to say about working with your local bank, but assuming they'll give you the best mortgage is a mistake.

Banks are only one type of mortgage lender. Others include credit unions and mortgage companies. Mortgage rates aren't the same across the board, so contact several institutions to compare prices.

Or, if you prefer to let the lenders come to you, consider getting a loan through a mortgage broker. Brokers have access to several lenders, and they'll shop their market, getting you a wider selection of loans. But unless you contract with one, brokers aren't obligated to find the best deal for you. So you'll want to shop around for a broker, just as you would for a lender.

Related: 5 Common Mortgage Mistakes That Are Easy to Avoid

Myth: I Was Preapproved. I Got The Loan!

Well, no. Don't order that couch from West Elm or start packing just yet.

You don't get the loan until:

(a) The seller accepts your offer

(b) Your lender approves the loan

(c) You sign the loan papers 

Between (a) and (c), the lender will have the home appraised to check that its value is in line with the purchase price, check your credit again, and ask you for more documents than you ever knew existed.

So what does preapproved mean for a loan? It tells sellers you're eligible for a loan and shows them you're a serious, qualified buyer. This gives them confidence in your offer, increasing your chances that (a), (b), and (c) will actually happen.

Myth: The Interest Rate Is What Matters Most

A low interest rate is important, but it's not the only factor to consider. When shopping for a loan, check the annual percentage rate. It includes all loan costs, such as origination and processing fees, which can vary widely from lender to lender, in addition to the interest rate.

One loan may have a lower interest rate, but the up-front fees may cost more than you'd save in interest. The APR lets you compare apples to apples.

Before you sign the loan, your lender will give you a loan estimate, a line-by-line estimate of fees. You'll find the APR there. Use that rate to compare the loans you're considering.

How about that? You may be closer to home ownership than you thought. Happy house hunting!

Related: How to Prepare Your Finances for Home Ownership

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Kelley Walters

Kelley Walters is a Southern writer and editor. She focuses on interior design and home improvement at outlets from HGTV to Paintzen. She lives in Italy a month every year, drinking Negronis and writing in internet cafes.