Explained: New Legislation Promises Aid (Downpayment Money) for First Time Homebuyers

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It’s here, as promised during President Biden’s campaign. Congress is on the cusp of considering two new pieces of legislation to promote equity in housing and first-time home ownership. Both drafts target lower income households. And with good reason: as we recently covered, home prices are up a jaw-dropping 12%. With home prices skyrocketing, legislators are looking into new ways to incentivize and enable socially and economically disadvantaged groups to make the leap into home ownership.

If they come to fruition, these proposals would go beyond existing downpayment assistance programs. But how far beyond? And who qualifies? Let’s take a look and compare these two pieces of legislation.

The First-time Homebuyer Act

The First-time Homebuyer Act secures a $15,000 tax credit to those who bought their first home after December 31, 2020. The tax credit is refundable, meaning if the buyer owes $5,000 in taxes next year, they’ll still get a return of $10,000. Sounds pretty nice, right?

Limitations still exist for who qualifies, though. First, the buyer can’t have owned a home in the past 3 years. And applicants must meet an income requirement: 160% or less than their area’s median income. Additionally, the home in question must be valued at 110% or less than the area’s median purchase price. What that last one means, essentially, is that this tax credit won’t be applied for someone to purchase a house well outside of their means. This provision protects the program from anyone taking advantage of the tax credit. But it also protects the consumer from overspending. Finally, the homebuyer must also live in the home, as their primary residence, for at least 4 years. If you move before then, you’ll face taxes that recoup part of the $15,000.

At the end of March, Rep Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Oregon’s own Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced the First-time Homebuyer Act to Congress. The legislation truly counts as legislation, now that it’s an official bill. So far we haven’t heard word of when the House votes on it, but we’ll be keeping an eye out.

The Downpayment Toward Equality Act

If you’ve vaguely heard word of new housing legislation, it’s likely you’ve seen the number $25,000 bandied about alongside the number $15,000. But the Downpayment Toward Equality Act is a separate piece of legislation. Both spring from President Biden’s push for housing reform, and Biden spoke of both as part of his campaign platform. They will, however, be put before Congress separately.

The Downpayment Toward Equality Act provides grants of up to $25,000 to socially and economically disadvantaged groups. These grants must be put towards a downpayment and are meant to encourage home ownership in under-served communities. Unlike similar programs, this plan does not require the homebuyer to repay the loan. As with the First-Time Homebuyer Act, buyers must meet certain qualifications. To receive $20,000, a homebuyer must earn 120% or less than the area’s median income. For those in a “high-cost” area, the bar is set a little lower at 180% or less. (The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development designates what areas are high-cost.) To receive an extra $5,000, the applicant must identify as part of a socially disadvantaged group, or a group that experiences “racial or ethnic prejudice.”

But the big requirement to pay attention to concerns background. The same first-time homebuyer qualifications apply here – no owning a house for the past 3 years. But this act goes further. The buyer’s parents must also not own or have owned a house; the grants go to first generation homebuyers only. The thinking goes that families of homeowners pass down both the financial ability and the knowledge needed for buying a home. The Downpayment Toward Equality Act aims to draw disadvantaged communities into home ownership for the long run.

Now, so far lawmakers have not introduced this legislation on the House floor. They published a draft in mid-April, which signals they intend to move forward.

The Two Acts Compared

So how do these two pieces of legislation look side by side? Check the graph to see if you might qualify for either:

The Fine PrintFirst-time Homebuyer ActDownpayment Toward Equality Act
Incentive amount:$15,000$20-25,000
Incentive type:refundable tax creditgrant
Income requirements:160% or less of area median income120% or less of area median income, or 180% in high-cost area
Other requirements:house at 110% or less than area median purchase priceapplicant is a first generation homeowner
Must live in home for:4 years5 years
Status:in the House, no scheduled votestill a draft

If you’re wondering about your area’s median income, you aren’t alone. It can be tricky to wade through HUD’s bureaucratic red tape. One option we recommend is Fannie Mae’s Area Median Income Lookup Tool. Search for your address, and you’ll have at least a ballpark number.

Will Congress Pass Legislation to Aid First-Time Homebuyers?

The short answer here is it’s going to take some time to see if either of these proposals has legs in Congress. You might need to brush up on your School House Rock. But for now, know that the First-time Homebuyer Act has some hoops to jump through. It still faces a committee, hearings, and the ultimate vote. And that’s just in the House! It’s likely both of these pieces of legislation (if the downpayment act becomes a bill) will meet stronger opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate. You never know, though – the Bush administration championed first-time homebuyer tax credits as well. So, it’s not unprecedented.

As for the future of the Downpayment Toward Equality Act, currently the White House assures us that it won’t be wrapped into Biden’s massive infrastructure bill. But some members of the press have questioned whether that may come to pass. Most notably, folding it into a larger piece of legislation would streamline the process, possibly making it easier to pass. At the moment, though, lawmakers haven’t announced any plans of that nature.

In the meantime, be aware of predatory “news stories” claiming that Congress passed legislation and promising you money. Reports of fraudulent Facebook posts of this nature are on the rise. To be fair, we can understand how that’s easy click bait. But trust that we will keep you updated on the official status of the legislation. Until then, don’t give out personal information to an untrustworthy source.

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