What Is a First-Time Homebuyer?

A parent and infant look out the front door of their home.

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A first-time homebuyer is a person prepared to purchase a home who, in many cases, has not owned a home in the past three years.

Key Takeaways

  • The goal of distinguishing first-time homebuyers from other homebuyers is generally to offer additional education and incentives to help a person or household's first experience with homeownership be more successful.
  • Some programs allow people who have technically owned property before to qualify as first-timers because they're still part of a target group that would benefit from homeownership incentives.
  • It doesn't mean that an incentive or benefit is right for you just because it's available and you qualify. Consider each program in light of your own context and goals, and seek additional details from lenders before opting immediately into a program targeting first-time homebuyers.

Definition and Example of a First-Time Homebuyer

The definition of a first-time homeowner is often taken at face value: someone who hasn't owned a home before. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of a first-time homebuyer is pretty broad. It includes:

  • An individual and their spouse who haven't owned a home in a three-year period prior to their purchase
  • Single parents
  • Displaced homemakers, even if they recently owned a home with a spouse
  • Those who live in a non-permanent home such as an RV

The importance of these definitions comes into play when someone is applying for down payment assistance, such as the American Dream Downpayment Initiative grant. There are income requirements to apply for this type of incentive, but you must also be a first-time homebuyer as defined by HUD.


Be sure to verify whether other assistance programs use HUD's definition or another definition of a first-time homebuyer.

How First-Time Homebuying Works

Plenty of people purchase a home for the first time using a conventional loan or another home loan product that's available to all buyers, not just first-timers. Your first-time homebuying process might be identical to what others experience as a result.

But the process can be intimidating if this is the first time you've bought a home. There's the expectation of having to save up a fairly large down payment, often at least 5% of the purchase price of the home and as much as 20% in some cases. You'll face in-depth credit checks, tons of paperwork, the appraisal, a home inspection, and all the corresponding stress.

The distinction of being a first-time homebuyer allows you access to other tiers of incentives as well, such as down-payment assistance or government-insured loan products. Low-down-payment loans such as FHA loans aren't specifically for first-time homebuyers, but they often appeal to first-timers who wouldn't qualify for other types of loans.

You may have to meet some conditions that go above and beyond a typical home purchase process if you choose a federally insured loan, such as an FHA loan, or if you receive some form of grant or assistance for a down payment or closing costs. For example, Alabama's FHA Step Up program provides down payment assistance for homebuyers who earn $130,600 or less and have credit scores of at least 640 or 680, depending on the type of mortgage.


Fannie Mae offers substantial homeownership education and housing counseling that first-time homebuyers are often required to complete.

Types of First-Time Homebuyer Programs

Look into any programs available for first-time homebuyers, but be aware that other incentives also exist. This is particularly the case if you're moving into an area where local or state governments want to promote people moving there. Factors such as your job or income level can also qualify you for incentive programs. It's worth exploring the HUD website for all its programs.

State and Local Closing Costs Assistance

States and many municipalities also offer a variety of forgivable loans that incentivize home purchases in particular areas. First-time homebuyer programs often include interest-free loans for closing costs or your down payment. You'll have to immediately pay back part or all of the loan if you move before the period of time that's stated by the loan documents. But the loan can be forgiven if you stay as a resident for the correct amount of time. You won't have to repay it at all.

You can research your state's offerings through its housing finance agency.


A down-payment-assistance program may use premium pricing to fund your assistance loan in some cases. This means that you may have to pay a higher interest rate on your mortgage to make up for the cost of the money that's put toward your down payment.

Fannie Mae Mortgages, FHA Loans, and Other Government-Insured Loans

A variety of government-insured loan products are available to both first-time homebuyers and people who already own a home. Still, FHA and Fannie Mae mortgages can sometimes be more attractive to first-time homebuyers. These loans focus on borrowers who may struggle to afford the larger down payment and higher credit score requirements of conventional loans.

Ask whether you'd qualify for any low-down-payment loans in addition to conventional loans when you're shopping for a lender. You can also get valuable homeownership education resources if you opt for certain government-backed loans and if all borrowers involved are first-time homebuyers. These resources can help contextualize some of the more complicated choices you'll face in the homebuying process.


Learn as much as you can about the exceptions, requirements, and rules of any program that focuses on first-time homebuyers. The programs are designed to incentivize certain actions. You may be better off choosing a different loan product, grant, or path to homeownership if your homebuying goals don't quite align.

Other First-Time Homebuyer Benefits

You may also see a tax break that's associated with being officially recognized as a first-time homebuyer. The IRS lets certain first-timers avoid a tax penalty if they withdraw money from an IRA to help pay for their home.

The IRS has its own definition of a first-time homebuyer. Again, don't assume that each organization or government entity uses HUD's definition. This is a great example of a benefit that works for some people but not for others.

Let's say Homebuyer A has enough cash in savings to pay their down payment without dipping into their IRA funds. Homebuyer B has found their perfect house but would need a little help from their IRA to make a down payment. Only Homebuyer B, who really needs that money to make the home purchase happen, should consider it.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "How Does HUD Define a First-Time Homebuyer?"

  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Determine Your Down Payment."

  3. Alabama Housing Finance Authority. "Homebuyers."

  4. Inman. "Understanding the Funding Sources for Down Payment Assistance."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 557 Additional Tax on Early Distributions From Traditional and Roth IRAs."

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