How to Afford a Down Payment on Your First Home

By Jody McMaster · January 04, 2024 · 10 minute read

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How to Afford a Down Payment on Your First Home

If you’re dreaming of a home of your own, pulling together a down payment is probably on your financial to-do list. That sum can seem hard to wrangle, but take heart: First-time homebuyers with good credit have an edge. They often can put just 3% down, and they have access to a host of down payment assistance programs. What’s more, there are other ways to gather cash for your property purchase.

In this guide, you’ll learn more about down payments and how to afford one for your first home.

What Is a Down Payment?

Simply put, a down payment is a sum of money, often a percentage of the purchase price, that a buyer pays upfront when purchasing a home or a car.

When talking about buying a home, many people believe that 20% in cash is required, but that’s not the case. Twenty percent is the figure needed to avoid paying PMI, or private mortgage insurance, but there are mortgages available with 3% or even 0% down payments in some situations.

💡 Quick Tip: When house hunting, don’t forget to lock in your home mortgage loan rate so there are no surprises if your offer is accepted.

How to Afford a Down Payment on Your First Home

There are many ways to afford a down payment on your first home. Below, you’ll learn some ways to save up and find low down payment options as well.

But first, consider some general ways to raise cash:

•   Start a side hustle to bring in more income. That could mean driving a rideshare, selling your ceramics on Etsy, walking dogs, or any number of other pursuits.

•   Sell your stuff. If you have gently used items, such as clothing, housewares, electronics, and jewelry, you might get cash by selling them.

•   Automate your finances. Have some money direct-deposited into savings with every paycheck. That can build your down payment, and the money doesn’t go into your checking account, where you might be tempted to spend it.

•   Make a better budget. If you’re not saving at all or as much as you’d like, evaluate your earnings, spending, and saving to optimize that. The 50/30/20 budget rule is one popular budgeting method.

Smart Ways to Save Up for a Down Payment

Here’s the lowdown on how to afford a down payment on a house. Read on before you go shopping for a mortgage.

1. Get a Low Down Payment Conventional Mortgages

Conventional loans, the most common type of mortgage, are offered by private mortgage lenders, such as banks, credit unions, and mortgage companies. If you can find one with a low down payment requirement, that can take some of the pressure off of accumulating a large down payment.

Some points to note:

•   Many lenders allow a down payment of 3% for a fixed-rate conventional conforming loan.

•   To qualify, borrowers usually will need to have a credit score of at least 620 and a debt-to-income ratio of 46% or less, though you might get approved with a DTI of 50%. Income limits may apply.

•   Putting 20% down, however, will allow a borrower to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI) on a conventional loan.

2. Focus on Government-Backed Loans

If you are a low- to moderate-income borrower or have a lower credit score, you might want to pursue a government-backed loan, like an FHA, VA, or USDA mortgage. These also can have lower down payment requirements.

•   An FHA loan requires as little as 3.5% down on one- to four-unit owner-occupied properties as long as the borrower occupies the building for at least one year. To qualify for 3.5% down, your credit score must be 580 or higher. Someone with a credit score between 500 and 579 may qualify to put 10% down.

•   A VA loan, for veterans, active-duty military personnel, National Guard and Selected Reserve members, and some surviving spouses, requires no down payment. Borrowers can buy a property with up to four units, as long as the borrower occupies the property throughout the ownership. There is no stated minimum credit score, but generally speaking, lenders require a minimum credit score in the low- to mid-600s to qualify.

•   A USDA loan, for properties in eligible rural and suburban areas, also requires no down payment. Lenders typically want to see a credit score of at least 640, and household income can’t exceed 115% of the area’s median household income.

USDA and VA loans typically come with lower interest rates than conventional or FHA loans, but a USDA loan requires a guarantee fee, a VA loan requires a funding fee, and an FHA loan, upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums (MIP). It pays to understand PMI vs. MIP to gain more insight onto the total costs of your loan.

💡 Quick Tip: A VA loan can make home buying simple for qualified borrowers. Because the VA guarantees a portion of the loan, you could skip a down payment. Plus, you could qualify for lower interest rates, enjoy lower closing costs, and even bypass mortgage insurance.†

3. Down Payment Gifts

“Hey, Mom and Dad (or Great-Aunt Beth), I’d love it if you gave me a large cash infusion to help me buy a house.” It just rolls off the tongue, right? But in fact, one or more loved ones may be willing to pitch in toward your down payment or closing costs. That could help lower the amount of cash you need to come up with.

Some details to know:

•   Under conventional loan guidelines, gift money for a principal or second home is allowed from someone related by blood, marriage, adoption, or legal guardianship, or from a domestic partner or fiance. There’s no limit to the gift, but conventional loans may require borrowers to come up with a portion of the down payment.

•   FHA guidelines allow gift money from relatives, an employer, a close friend, a charitable organization, or a government agency that provides homeownership assistance.

•   With USDA or VA loans, the only people who cannot provide gift funds are those who would benefit from the sale, such as the seller, lender, real estate agent, or developer. A mortgage gift letter signed by donor and recipient will be required, verifying that the down payment funds are not expected to be repaid. A lender may also want to track the gift money.

•   There are also gifts of equity, when a seller gives part of the home’s equity to the buyer to fund all or part of the down payment on principal or second homes. For FHA loans, only equity gifts from family members are acceptable. A signed gift letter will be required.

4. Crowdfunding a Down Payment

Crowdfunding to help buy a house? It’s possible with sites like GoFundMe, Feather the Nest, HomeFundIt, and even Honeyfund (which is set up as a crowdfunder for honeymoons). A couple of details to consider, because fees are often involved when you use these platforms:

•   GoFundMe charges 2.9% plus 30 cents per gift.

•   Feather the Nest isn’t associated with a mortgage lender, so donation seekers can decide where to go for a loan. It charges a fee of 5% for every contribution.

•   HomeFundIt charges no fees, but you must pre-qualify and then use CMG Financial for your home purchase. The site shows a money match toward closing costs for first-time buyers.

•   For Honeyfund, U.S. residents receiving U.S. dollars via PayPal are charged 3.5% plus 59 cents per transaction.

First-time homebuyers can
prequalify for a SoFi mortgage loan,
with as little as 3% down.

5. Retirement Account Withdrawals or Loans

It might be a good idea to explore all options for getting cash before tapping your 401(k) savings account.

As you probably know, taking money out of your 401k before age 59 ½, or before you turn 55 and have left or lost your job, is met with a 10% early withdrawal penalty and income tax on the amount. So withdrawing money early from this tax-deferred account has a painful cost and impairs long-term growth.

Here are other options if you want to tap retirement savings:

•   Borrowing from a 401k may be possible. Your employer’s plan might let you borrow money from your 401k and pay it back to your account over time, with interest, within five years, in most cases. You don’t have to pay taxes and penalties when you take a 401k loan, but if you leave your current job, you might have to repay the loan in full fairly quickly. If you can’t repay the loan for any reason, you’ll owe taxes and a 10% penalty if you’re under 59 ½.

•   A traditional IRA allows first-time homebuyers to take an early withdrawal up to $10,000 (the lifetime limit) to use as a down payment (or to help build a home) without having to pay the 10% early withdrawal penalty. They still will have to pay regular income tax on the withdrawal.

•   With a Roth IRA, if you take a distribution of its earnings before age 59 ½ and before the account is less than 5 years old, the withdrawal may be subject to taxes and penalties. You may be able to avoid penalties but not taxes if you use the withdrawal (up to a $10,000 lifetime maximum) to pay for a first-time home purchase.

If you’re under age 59 ½ and your Roth IRA has been open for five years or more, a withdrawal of earnings will not be subject to taxes if you use the withdrawal to pay for a first-time home purchase.

Recommended: First-Time Homebuyers Guide

First-Time Homebuyer Assistance Programs

Here’s another way to help make your home-buying dreams come true: State, county, and city governments and nonprofit organizations offer down payment assistance programs to help get first-time homebuyers into homes. (By the way, the definition of who qualifies as a first-time homebuyer is more expansive than it may seem.)

Down payment assistance may come in the form of grants or second mortgage loans with various repayment or loan forgiveness provisions.

HUD steers buyers to state and local programs, and the National Council of State Housing Agencies has a state-by-state list of housing finance agencies; each offers a wealth of information designed to boost housing affordability and accessibility.

First-Time Homebuyer Tips

As you save for your down payment, follow this advice to get ready to become a property owner:

•   Figure out how much house you can afford with a home affordability calculator. You want to budget appropriately.

•   Don’t forget to account for closing costs, which are typically 3% to 6% of your loan amount.

Check your credit score and credit report. Building your credit and eliminating any errors on your report can help you qualify for favorable rates.

Recommended: Most Affordable Places to Live in the US

The Takeaway

How to afford a down payment on your first house? Saving is, of course, part of the equation. But you may not need to accrue that 20% of the purchase price that so many people aim for. There can be mortgages available with as little as 3% or even 0% down. Also, first-time homebuyers may benefit from assistance programs, down payment gifts, and other forms of funding.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

SoFi Mortgages: simple, smart, and so affordable.


How much should I save for a down payment on my first house?

While many people aim for a 20% down payment to avoid paying PMI, there are mortgages available to qualified buyers with as little as 3% or even 0% down.

Can I borrow money for a down payment on a house?

You might be able to find a personal loan to use for a down payment, or you could see if a relative or significant other has funds to lend you. Check with your lender to see if this source of cash is acceptable, though.

What credit score do I need to buy a house with no money down?

You’ll typically need a credit score of at least 640 for the 0% USDA loan program. VA loans with no money down (and low down payment FHA and conforming loans) usually require a minimum credit score of 580 to 620.

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SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see Equal Housing Lender.

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Terms, conditions, and state restrictions apply. Not all products are available in all states. See for more information.

*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

Veterans, Service members, and members of the National Guard or Reserve may be eligible for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA loans are subject to unique terms and conditions established by VA and SoFi. Ask your SoFi loan officer for details about eligibility, documentation, and other requirements. VA loans typically require a one-time funding fee except as may be exempted by VA guidelines. The fee may be financed or paid at closing. The amount of the fee depends on the type of loan, the total amount of the loan, and, depending on loan type, prior use of VA eligibility and down payment amount. The VA funding fee is typically non-refundable. SoFi is not affiliated with any government agency.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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