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Get a Leg Up on Your Down Payment

Hundreds of years from now, when archaeologists pick through the electronic detritus of the early 21st century, they may unearth financial inventions like piggyback loans and zero-down mortgages and find them charming, even quaint.

While these things haven't gone the way of the dodo quite yet, it's clear that the housing meltdown has crimped the era of easy money. Even some borrowers with good credit are finding it hard to buy a home without putting down some cash.

The most recent Federal Reserve survey uncovered that 40% of bank lenders tightened standards on prime residential mortgages. Separately, more than one-third said they raised the down-payment requirements for prime jumbo mortgages.

Homebuyers shopping in areas with softening real estate markets may face the most restrictions. Lenders like JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) have already cut the maximum amount some borrowers can finance in regions with declining home prices.

This doesn't mean you'll be asked to fork over the traditional 20%, but even a 5% down payment can add up to a lot of cash. That's $10,000 on a $200,000 home, and there are plenty of places where homes don't come that cheap.

If you're a new homebuyer, where can you get that kind of money? Skipping the morning Starbucks and packing your lunch may get you there ... eventually ... but this kind of problem needs a more aggressive plan.

Cut your rent. That big rent payment you make every month may be the hurdle preventing you from achieving the American dream. It's probably your biggest expense. If you can stand to move temporarily into smaller and cheaper quarters -- and bank your resulting savings -- you'll make faster headway toward amassing a down payment.

Sell your toys. Cleaning out the attic and selling your old stuff on eBay probably won't add up to enough, unless you have a diamond tiara or some expensive toy tucked away. But if you're a two-car family that can get away with one vehicle, or if you live someplace with reliable public transportation, selling an extra vehicle may bring in needed cash.

Start small. Even if you dream of owning a vast estate, think about buying something affordable now and make plans to move up. You may achieve your dream faster that way.

Bank windfalls. While you're piling up savings, bank each and every windfall that comes your way -- from the $20 you find in an old jacket pocket to overtime pay and tax refunds. It's money you don't need for everyday expenses, anyway. If you really want to get into a home, you can live without the little luxuries you'd otherwise buy.

Work more. It will put a serious dent in your time, but a second job could be a fast way to build up a down payment. If you don't want to permanently take on a second job, consider occasional contracting, seasonal jobs, or the odd weekend work.

Borrow from yourself. Your retirement funds might hold enough money for you to get into your first home. Tread carefully here, and consider this option only if you're a fastidious retirement saver. In many cases a first-time homebuyer can withdraw up to $10,000 from an IRA without paying the usual penalties.

Ask for help. Numerous nonprofit groups and state and federal agencies offer down payment assistance programs. Look around, and you might be surprised at what you find.

For more house-hunting help, keep reading and see:


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