Bill to let public servants buy home with $100 down

Nation's Housing

March 26, 2000|By Kenneth Harney

MILLIONS OF public and private schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers and other local government employees nationwide could qualify to buy homes with minimal down payment cash and deeply discounted property prices under federal legislation heading for final action in the House of Representatives.

If enacted by the Senate later this session, as expected, the law could open the possibility of buying a home to large numbers of middle-income public employees and private school personnel who currently find little or nothing affordable in the communities where they work. The new initiatives are part of the American Homeownership and Economic Opportunity Act of 2000, a bipartisan housing reform package crafted by the House banking committee.

Under the bill, teachers and "uniformed municipal employees" -- primarily law enforcement and medical emergency personnel -- will be able to obtain 1 percent down payment mortgages up to $219,849 in the continental United States through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The maximum loan limit will vary from area to area; in the very highest cost markets of Alaska and Hawaii, the ceiling will be $329,774.

The 1 percent down payment requirement will sharply reduce what teachers and other beneficiaries of the program will need to bring to the settlement table. Under regular FHA rules, a homebuyer generally must be able to contribute at least 3 percent of the cost of the property with his or her own funds.

On a $150,000 house, for example, a buyer would need $4,500 in cash, including gifts from relatives or friends, in the form of a down payment. The buyers would also need to come up with another 2 percent to handle closing costs, prepaid expenses, title insurance, etc., either with their own cash or with contributions from the seller.

"Putting together $6,000 or $7,000 [to buy a house] can be very tough for a lot of people, especially public employees," says Michael Nester, senior loan officer for Irwin Mortgage Corp., one of the largest FHA lenders in the country.

On a $150,000 property, the rock-bottom down payment a teacher or firefighter would need would be $1,500. To qualify, teachers and school administrators would have to be "employed on a full-time basis -- in a public or private school that provides elementary or secondary education," and must not have owned a home in the local school district during the previous 12 months, according to the House bill. That means a teacher who owns a home outside the school district could qualify to buy a home inside the district using the 1 percent down payment plan.

For full-time police, firefighting, rescue or ambulance employees of local public agencies, the 1 percent down payment plan would carry the same 12-month requirement.

The program would also allow qualifying private and public school teachers and public safety employees to defer payment of the usual FHA loan insurance premium, typically around 2 percent of the mortgage amount. The deferred premium would become due and payable if the borrower either sold the house or ceased to be a teacher or local public employee eligible for the program. However, the amount of the premium payable would decrease by 20 percent per year during the period of homeownership, completely disappearing after the fifth anniversary of the closing.

Public and private school teachers would get additional home buying help under the new legislation: the opportunity to buy houses at 50 percent discounts off appraised market values, and for $100 down payments. Under a section of the bill entitled the "Neighborhood Teachers Act," qualified teachers would be able to buy houses that the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) owns because of defaults or foreclosures by prior FHA borrowers.

To obtain the 50 percent markdown, teachers would have to agree to use the house as a principal residence for at least three years. Though teachers could finance their home with a conventional mortgage, those who used an FHA-insured mortgage could qualify for one of the smallest down payments available anywhere -- just $100 cash. Law enforcement officers -- local, state and federal -- could qualify for zero down payments if they buy homes in "locally designated high crime areas," and use FHA financing. As long as the officers buy a house for no more than its appraised value, they could obtain a nothing-down FHA mortgage, with closing costs and origination fees rolled into the loan amount. The officers themselves would have to agree in writing to use their new property as their principal residence for at least three years. The outlook on timing for the attractive new home finance programs: Assuming speedy Senate passage of a companion bill and speedy regulation drafting by HUD, nothing-down, $100 down and 1 percent down payment deals could be available late in 2000.

Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.

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