There are many barriers to homeownership. Many of them are economic, and unfortunately no small percentage of them are the result of discrimination. But one very frequent barrier to homeownership is lack of understanding of the process. Plenty of people who can afford to buy don’t think they can, or don’t think they should, because of misconceptions about mortgages.
One myth that, despite repeated attempts by experts to clarify it, continues to plague prospective homebuyers is the 20% down payment requirement. There is actually no such requirement — it’s a suggestion. It’s a rather economically sound suggestion in many cases, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy with a lower down payment. The reason it’s so heavily suggested is that not only does a higher down payment translate to reduced loan value and potentially a lower interest rate, but it also avoids private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI is an additional cost that you won’t incur if your down payment is at least 20%. So a minimum of 20% down payment significantly reduces your overall monthly cost. These high monthly costs are perhaps what’s leading people to believe that renting is cheaper than buying. It can be, in the short term, but almost never is in the long term. But the reason it can be cheaper in the short term is not high mortgage costs; it’s actually the upfront cost of buying a home. Monthly rents usually go up at the same time house prices do, and are often fairly close to monthly mortgage payments. Moreover, buying a home builds equity and allows for resale, while there is no return on investment for renting. Another misperception that leads people to think they can’t get a mortgage is credit requirements. Lenders do look at your credit, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Most people do not have perfect credit. As long as the lender believes you could reasonably pay back the mortgage, you can qualify with a credit rating as low as 500, though you may only qualify for mortgages with higher interest rates.
The misunderstanding doesn’t stop with whether or not one can qualify for a mortgage. Even once a prospective homebuyer gets to the stage of choosing a mortgage option, there is some confusion about which mortgage options are the best for you. Many people categorically refuse adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and always pick the loan with the lowest interest rate. Neither of these are necessarily the right idea. Fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) definitely offer stability and can be excellent for people who plan to keep their new home for a while or who are uncertain about their future. On the other hand, ARMs typically have a lower initial interest rate than FRMs. This means they can be more financially sound for people who don’t plan to own the home very long, or who are better positioned to take risks. A low interest rate is obviously a good thing, but it’s far from the only cost associated with getting a loan. If you need to pay PMI, that’s also a factor. But even if you don’t, there will always be closing costs, property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and maintenance costs. Some of these depend on the price of the home, but some depend on the lender, so be sure to get a breakdown of all the costs before committing to a loan.