The $8,000 First-Time Home Buyer Tax Credit Program Expands: 5 Things to Know

Home buyers won't have to wait to access this federal tax incentive any longer.

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As the historic housing plunge rumbles on, Uncle Sam is offering a fresh incentive to get first-time home buyers off the sidelines. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan on Friday unveiled a policy change that would provide home buyers with quicker access to a recently enacted first-time home buyer tax credit. Buyers would be free to put the funds toward closing costs and a portion of their down payment. The federal government hopes that the measure will stimulate housing demand, something desperately needed to help mop up the glut of unsold inventory.

[See New Home Buyer Tax Credit: 7 Things You Need to Know]

Here are five things you need to know about the policy change:

1. Less waiting: President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan—which was signed into law in mid-February—included a tax credit worth up to $8,000 for qualified first-time home buyers. These buyers, however, couldn't get their hands on the cash until after tax season. The new HUD initiative would enable these borrowers to obtain short-term loans allowing them to tap the tax credit before going to closing. "Families will now be able to apply their anticipated tax credit toward their home purchase right away," Donovan said in a news release. "What we're doing today will not only help these families to purchase their first home but will present an enormous benefit for communities struggling to deal with an oversupply of housing."

[Check out 7 Simple Steps to a Dirt-Cheap Mortgage.]

2. Initial 3.5 percent: The measure, however, comes with several key limitations. First, it only applies to Federal Housing Administration mortgages. More importantly, the short-term loans can't be used to pay for the minimum 3.5 percent down payment that FHA loans require. Instead, the loan can be used for closing costs and to finance the portion of the down payment that exceeds the 3.5 percent threshold. The administration opted to have borrowers come up with the initial 3.5 percent themselves to ensure that buyers have "some skin in the game," which may reduce the likelihood of default, says Howard Glaser, a mortgage industry consultant and a former HUD official. In so doing, federal officials had to strike a delicate balance. "On the one hand, you want to make sure that homes are affordable to first time home buyers, but you don't want to set the bar so low that people who can't afford homes are buying homes," Glaser says.

3. Closing costs: Despite these limitations, the benefits of the program should not be overlooked, says Guy Cecala, publisher of the trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance. "The down payment is probably the biggest chunk of change you have got to pay [when purchasing a home], but it is not the only thing," Cecala says. "Even with a typical FHA loan, there are probably $3,000 to $4,000 in closing costs, title insurance, and [additional fees]." By chipping in toward such costs, the program "could just grease the wheels for a couple more people to get into FHA," says Keith Gumbinger of HSH.com. At the same time, borrowers who use the short-term loan to increase the size of their down payment could obtain a lower mortgage rate.

4. Impact? Cecala doesn't believe the new measure is a game changer for the battered real estate market. "I think it will be helpful to a first-time home buyer," he says. "Is it going to generate a lot more housing activity? No." Cecala argues that would-be buyers remain on the fence largely out of a concern that a home will lose value after the purchase. Such concerns will continue with or without the policy change.

Glaser, however, is more optimistic. "This is the missing piece," he says. "Home prices are coming down significantly in some markets, interest rates at historic lows, and now, by addressing cash on the table at closing, I think that borrowers who wouldn't have otherwise been in the market are going to feel more confident about investing in a home."

5. State efforts: The details of the HUD initiative come after several states have enacted similar programs. Missouri, for example, has had a program in place since January that enables home buyers to put the tax credit towards closing costs or their down payment.