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Down Payments: How Much Do You Need to Qualify for a Mortgage?

The amount of your down payment impacts how much interest you'll pay over the lifetime of your home loan.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’re in the market to buy a house, you’re about to make one of the most significant purchases of your life. And the most expensive aspect of buying your new home will likely be your down payment. 

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always have to put down 20% to buy a home. With conventional loans, if you have good credit, you may have the option to put down as little as 3%. That’s why it’s critical to pay off high-interest debt and start building up your savings before you’re ready to buy a home. Having solid credit and cash in the bank will make you a more attractive candidate to mortgage lenders, and even help you secure a lower interest rate for your home loan.

Here’s everything you need to know about down payments, how to save for one and what the right down payment amount is for you. 

Why do you need a down payment?

Most lenders require you to make a significant payment up front as part of securing a mortgage, which is your down payment. Depending on your income and credit history, as well as the type of mortgage and a lender’s specific requirements, you can expect to make a down payment that’s between 3% and 20% of the purchase price.

The bottom line: The more you put down, the less you have to borrow -- which may help you snag a lower interest rate and reduce your total loan cost. 

Down payment requirements

The specifics of a down payment depend on a range of factors, including the particulars of your financial background and any special requirements from your lender. That noted, each type of mortgage has its own set of rules.

Conventional mortgages: With conventional mortgages, your lender determines your down payment. Typically, you can make a down payment as low as 3% to 5%. With conventional mortgages, if you do not make a down payment of 20%, you will have to carry private mortgage insurance. Lenders can add the PMI to your monthly premium. 

FHA loans: Your down payment for an FHA loan depends on your credit score. You could have a down payment as low as 3.5% if your score exceeds 580. If it doesn’t, your down payment will be 10%. 

VA loans: VA loans are for military personnel and veterans, provided they meet the criteria. You can view all the eligibility criteria on the Department of Veteran Affairs’ website. If you do qualify for a VA mortgage, you do not have to make a down payment. 

USDA loans: With USDA loans, you do not need to make a down payment. However, you do need to meet eligibility requirements to qualify. 

Fannie Mae HomeReady: With Fannie Mae, you could have a down payment as low as 3%. The HomeReady program suits those with lower income who have a credit score of at least 620, though if you have a score above 680, you could receive better rates. 

Freddie Mac Home Possible: The program gives homeowners a chance to qualify for a down payment as low as 3%. It’s useful for first-time homebuyers, seniors or those wanting to upgrade to larger homes. 

Benefits of a large down payment

A larger down payment can give you more equity in your home from the start. Think of it this way: If the purchase price is $200,000 and you make a $40,000 down payment, your mortgage will be only $160,000, giving you up to 20% equity off the bat. It helps you avoid private mortgage insurance and lowers your monthly payment relative to making a smaller down payment. It will also save you money in the long run because you will not have to pay interest on that $40,000.

Here is an illustration of what your payments look like when making a 3.5% down payment versus a 20% one on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage:

Down payment types, compared

Purchase priceDown payment amountPercent downInterest rateMonthly principal and interestTotal monthly payment with insurance and tax

While the $139 difference might seem negligible on the surface, consider that you’re saving over $100 a month for 30 years. In turn, that represents a savings of up to $50,040, making the initial investment of 20% well worth it. 

How much of a down payment should you make?

While your lender sets requirements as to what you must put down to receive mortgage approval, you can put more down if you want. It’s vital to budget beforehand to be sure that the down payment you want to make will not infringe on your other financial goals. 

You can use CNET’s mortgage payment calculator to determine different down payment amounts and how each influences your monthly payment. Using this tool can help you determine the right fit for your financial needs. 

How to save for a down payment 

“Saving for a down payment is really about putting a plan together and following it,” says Michigan-based Jason Gelios, the author of Think Like a Realtor.

“Hitting your target savings amount could be as simple as getting a side gig, asking for a gift from family (provided the loan allows this), cutting out unnecessary items from your daily or monthly spending and finding additional ways to increase your income,” he says.

Other sources you could use to fund your down payment include selling assets like cars, valuable artwork or jewelry. You can also borrow money from your retirement account -- if your broker allows it. However, if you do not repay the loan within the time allotted, you could face expensive tax liabilities. 

When you’re ready to make a down payment, you must show proof of where the funds came from. Mortgage lender Dan Green, whose company Homebuyer is aimed at first-time buyers, recommends “keeping a proper paper trail because mortgage lenders examine banking deposits for fraud and money laundering. For deposits they cannot verify, they will not be able to apply toward the purchase of a home.”

There are also down payment assistance programs available to help homebuyers, though you will have to meet income, residential and other requirements to qualify. 

Pitfalls to avoid

Meanwhile, there are methods you want to avoid when putting together a down payment as well. To start, you don’t want to drain your savings account to make the down payment. For one, it does not leave you with anything in reserve: If a surprise expense comes up, then you might have to put it on credit.

Your down payment isn’t the only cost you have to account for when buying a home. You have closing costs, home appraisal fees and expenses associated with moving and furnishing your new place. It’s important to strike the right balance between making a healthy down payment and leaving plenty in the bank to account for other expenses.

Why do mortgage lenders require a down payment?

“The point of a down payment is it gives the borrower some skin in the game, and helps ensure the lender will be able to recoup its money in the event the borrower doesn’t pay,” says Matt Frankel, a CFP and mortgage analyst with The Ascent. “A buyer who just paid $50,000 out of their own pocket toward a home purchase is more likely to try to avoid foreclosure than one who didn’t pay anything at all.”

Overall, while the down payment is a critical part of the process, there are other factors you should consider as part of the big picture. Green suggests, “Spend less time planning for a down payment, and more planning a monthly budget. The down payment is a one-time event. The mortgage payment is ongoing.”

First published on April 16, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. PT.

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Sean Jackson is a creative copywriter living in Florida. He's had work published with, theScore, ESPN, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In his free time, Sean likes to play drums, fail miserably at improv and spend time at the beach.
Alix is a staff writer for CNET Money where she focuses on real estate, housing and the mortgage industry. She previously reported on retirement and investing for and was a staff writer at Time magazine. She has written for various publications, such as Fortune, InStyle and Travel + Leisure, and she also worked in social media and digital production at NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and NY1. She graduated from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and Villanova University. When not checking Twitter, Alix likes to hike, play tennis and watch her neighbors' dogs. Now based out of Los Angeles, Alix doesn't miss the New York City subway one bit.