Rear View Of Loving Couple Walking Towards House

The median home value of owner-occupied homes in Maryland from 2014 to 2018 was $305,500. (Getty Images)

You've saved up for a home for years, but even with low mortgage rates and less competition for properties, you worry about affording both the down payment and the monthly costs that come with homeownership.

If you live in Maryland, know that owning a home in the state isn't cheap. The median home value of owner-occupied homes from 2014 to 2018 was $305,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to the national median of $204,900. For Maryland homeowners with a mortgage, median monthly costs, which include insurance, utilities, homeowners association fees and more, were $1,987 during that period, more than $400 above the national median.

Luckily, Maryland residents not only have federal loan programs, but ample state and local programs that can make it easier to get a mortgage they can afford as well as help cover their down payment and closing costs.

Even with all these programs, the best way residents can set themselves up for homeownership success is by making sure they have the credit score and credit history needed to qualify for these programs. "Once you improve the credit score, then it opens the door to all these great mortgage programs," says Mary Hunter, director of the housing counseling program at the Housing Initiative Partnership in Hyattsville, Maryland.

[Read: The Guide to Buying a Home.]

Here are nine types of first-time homebuyer programs for Maryland residents:



Federal Mortgage Programs

In addition to state and local first-time homebuyer programs, be sure to take a look at options offered by the federal government, including Federal Housing Administration loans, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of these loans offer options for people with bad credit, as well as low down payment options and loan products that help keep your interest rate low.

1st Time Advantage

This program from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development is part of the Maryland Mortgage Program, which oversees all statewide mortgage assistance. It offers eligible first-time buyers the lowest interest rate out of any state program for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages.

There are three ways a buyer may be eligible for this program: He or she must not have owned a home in the last three years, he or she is an honorably discharged veteran who has not previously used the program or he or she is purchasing the home in an area these programs are targeting to encourage homeownership and does not own another home prior to closing.

One option in the 1st Time Advantage program provides buyers with a zero percent loan of $5,000 to help cover the down payment and closing costs. The 1st Time Advantage 3% Loan is another option that provides 3% of the mortgage amount with zero percent interest. These are both considered a second lien on the home, and the loan is due when you refinance, repay or transfer the mortgage, or when you sell the home.

Flex Loans

A Flex Direct loan offers competitive interest rates that are applicable to both conventional and government loans through the FHA, VA and USDA. Additionally, borrowers utilizing these programs are able to take advantage of the Maryland HomeCredit, which is a tax credit.

Other Flex programs include Flex 5000, Flex 3% Loan, Flex 3% Grant and Flex 4% Grant, which offer down payment assistance. The Flex 5000 and Flex 3% Loan are considered second liens and must be repaid eventually with zero percent interest, while the grants do not need to be repaid.

Partner Match

If you're using either the 1st Time Advantage 5000 or Flex 5000 loan programs, you may also qualify for additional assistance through a partner match program. This may come from your participating employer, real estate developers, local organizations or even the local government. A participating partner will provide up to $2,500 for additional down payment assistance to the homebuyer as a no-interest loan, working as a second lien on the home.

[Read: What to Expect From the Housing Market in 2020.]

Special Assistance Grant

If you're purchasing a home with a Freddie Mac HFA Advantage conventional mortgage, you may qualify for this state grant aimed at helping you cover the down payment and closing costs. Borrowers with an income that does not exceed 50% of the area median income can qualify for $2,500, while those with an income between 50% and 80% of the area median income can receive $1,500.

These eligibility requirements are common among other programs throughout the state, but Hunter notes that they include more people than you may think. In the 2019 fiscal year, single-person households earning $42,500 in the Maryland parts of the Washington, D.C., metro area qualified for the $2,500 special assistance grant. In the same area, a family of four bringing in $77,600 annually would still qualify for the $1,500 special assistance grant, based on the local area median income.

Grants don't have to be repaid, and they can be combined with other down payment assistance loans or grants, as well as with other government loans, as long as they don't remove your eligibility for the Freddie Mac Advantage conventional mortgage.

Maryland HomeCredit

This tax credit program allows a homeowner to claim a federal tax credit equivalent to 25% of their mortgage interest payments each year, up to $2,000. Even if you take the standard deduction and don't itemize on your tax return, the credit reduces the total taxes you owe.

Maryland SmartBuy

This program helps homebuyers who have student debt pay off that debt during the home purchase. Eligible homes for purchase under this program are move-in ready and owned by the state of Maryland. Under the SmartBuy 2.0 program, however, the home does not have to be owned by the state but must meet eligibility requirements, including being located in an area targeted by the state to promote homeownership.

The program provides buyers who have student debt of at least $1,000 with up to 15% of the home purchase price to pay off their outstanding student debt. The entirety of the student debt must be paid off by the time of the home purchase. If your total student debt is more than 15% of your home purchase price, you're expected to make up the difference on your own to fully pay off the debt prior to closing.

City and County Loan Programs and Down Payment Assistance

In addition to what the state of Maryland offers first-time homebuyers, there are numerous loan and down payment assistance programs available through city and county governments. In many cases, these programs operate in conjunction with the Maryland Mortgage Program, offering additional assistance to the same eligible homebuyers.

You may be able to find program information through an online search of your city or county and "first-time homebuyer programs." Loan officers or your local HUD-approved housing counseling agency can also be helpful resources.

[Read: 8 Things You Can Learn From a First-Time Homebuyer Boot Camp.]

First-Time Homebuyer Classes

Many state programs require completion of a first-time homebuyer class, either in person or online, to qualify for mortgage or down payment assistance. There are multiple options throughout Maryland, and the state's website provides details for classes depending on where you live. Many nonprofit organizations, counseling agencies and local government departments offer housing counseling in multiple languages as well.

Most first-time homebuyer courses will teach you more than just how to apply for a specific mortgage program. Depending on the class, instructors may also cover how to find a real estate agent, establish a monthly housing budget and the ins and outs of the closing process. HUD-approved housing counseling agencies also offer one-on-one sessions for free to review your finances, answer questions and help you feel more confident with the next step in the homebuying process.


The Best Apps for House Hunting

Browse for homes – and maybe even close a deal.

Woman on smartphone

(Getty Images)

Luckily for homebuyers, house hunting apps are growing in number and sophistication. As the online real estate marketing industry becomes more competitive, mobile apps are getting better at helping consumers find accurate housing information while offering features to help users narrow down their search. Read on for some of the most popular and helpful apps to use when searching for your next house. All apps are available on both iOS and Android.

Updated on Nov. 6, 2019: This slideshow was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Zillow

Zillow

(Courtesy of Zillow)

This is the most downloaded real estate app for both Apple and Android phones, and it includes Zillow's signature map and home value estimate tools. With more than 100 million homes in its database, Zillow's app is the most popular method for users to explore the platform. In fact, Zillow reports that more than two-thirds of its usage takes place on a mobile device, jumping to more than three-quarters on the weekends.

Best feature: The app’s dashboard includes a Your Home tab that allows you to store your property’s information and see how its value estimate changes over time.

Pro: You have the option to filter your saved searches by property listings that have recently changed, so you don’t have to scroll far to see if a house's asking price dropped.

Con: As much as you may want it to be, the Zillow Zestimate isn’t a guarantee of what your home will sell for.

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

(Courtesy of Realtor.com)

Filters on this app's search function allow you to include specific details on your must-have list, such as multiple floors, a fireplace, central air and even community swimming pools or security features.

Best feature: With the Sign Snap feature, you can take a photo of a real estate sign you see in a neighborhood and get details about the property right away.

Pro: You have the option to connect with a real estate agent who can represent you as the buyer in a deal, but you can also see the contact information of the listing agent if you want to talk to him or her directly.

Con: The more specific filters rely on listing agents using the right keywords, so if you’re struggling to find everything you want in a house, you may have to widen your search and keep an eye out for details in listing photos.

Trulia

Trulia

Fascia and Ridge of Gable Roof

(Getty Images)

Trulia’s app gives users a desktop-like experience in a mobile platform, with a focus on design that makes it easy to use.

Best feature: Trulia polls its online users who live in specific neighborhoods and includes the results on the app. For example, you might find that 93% of one neighborhood's respondents feel comfortable walking alone at night or that 76% say kids play outside regularly.

Pros: On each property profile, Trulia lists local legal protections, noting whether there is legislation in the area to protect against discrimination for gender identity or sexual orientation in employment, housing or public accommodations.

Cons: On any property profile, you’re prompted to call or email an agent about the property. While this is convenient if you’re serious about buying but don’t have an agent, it can get in the way if you’re just browsing.

Redfin Real Estate

Redfin Real Estate

Stock image of someone holding a smart phone.

(Getty Images)

Since Redfin utilizes an out-of-the-box business model with agents and professionals specializing in different steps of the homebuying and selling process, the company’s app serves as a way for users and Redfin agents to communicate. A map indicates which properties are listed by Redfin or another broker and also notes homes that are likely to sell fast through its Hot Homes feature.

Best feature: You can schedule a tour with a Redfin agent directly through the app. The app even lists the next available tour time.

Pro: You can click the heart symbol to keep a property you like on your radar, and you can also nix properties so they don’t keep popping up in searches.

Con: If you don’t live in one of the 80 markets where Redfin has agents, the app offers local listing information pulled from the MLS, but you won't be able to utilize the features that connect you with Redfin agents.

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

(Courtesy of Homesnap)

Homesnap gives house hunters the reins with this app. A signature feature allows users to take a photo of a home, and the app will identify the property and provide details about it from the local multiple listing service or public records.

Best feature: The beginning of each property profile details the property history, including previous sale prices and when it last went on market.

Pro: Each home has a section that allows you to determine your commute route and time and see both map and street views of the property.

Con: The property details are in list form, which you can expand to see everything from the home's architectural style to number of bathrooms and homeowners association fees. The depth of information is helpful, but long lists can make it easy to lose focus and miss key criteria.

Homes.com

Homes.com

Woman on her phone

(Getty Images)

On this app, you can search based on your needs and desires, including buying versus renting, home value information for properties on the market and what neighborhoods are ideal based on your preferred commute time.

Best feature: An exclamation point in the corner of a property profile lets you know that it’s a new listing, which can help you move quickly to avoid competition with other buyers.

Pro: If you'd like to get in touch with a local agent, the bottom of a property's profile often lists more than one option, making it easier for you to shop around for the right agent.

Con: While Homes.com has much of the same property information as other house hunting platforms, the app doesn't offer much in the way of neighborhood information.

Estately Real Estate

Estately Real Estate

Mature businesswoman at cafe

(Getty Images)

Estately aims to connect consumers with the right local real estate agent, and its app offers multiple ways to get in touch with agents.

Best feature: Users can click on icons on property profiles for quick information on taxes, utilities, appliances, schools and more. Profiles also include scores on things like area noise pollution and internet speed – details that aren’t always considered but could be deal-breakers.

Pro: The app encourages you to see houses in person, with multiple opportunities on a property profile to schedule a day and time to visit.

Con: Estately only covers markets in 40 states, so those looking for homes in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky and several others are out of luck.

Century 21 Local

Century 21 Local

(Courtesy of Century 21)

A longstanding national brokerage, Century 21 provides consumers with access to home listing information pulled from the local multiple listing services. The app can particularly come in handy if you plan to use a Century 21 agent, as that’s who you'll be in touch with if you would like to inquire more about a property.

Best feature: The app provides a notes section for every property, so you can keep track of your impressions as you compare homes.

Pro: If you start searching for homes in a different city, information about the local Century 21 brokerage you should contact changes accordingly, although you can still see listings from brokerages outside Century 21.

Con: This app pulls from Zillow to provide home value estimates, but occasionally lists "unavailable" even if the property has a Zestimate available on Zillow.

The best apps for house hunting include:

The best apps for house hunting include:

A row of detached homes in an idyllic community in Fredericksburg, Virginia

(Getty Images)

  • Zillow.
  • Realtor.com Real Estate Search.
  • Trulia.
  • Redfin Real Estate.
  • Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals.
  • Homes.com.
  • Estately Real Estate.
  • Century 21 Local.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, home prices, existing home sales, pending home sales, new home sales, Maryland, mortgages


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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