When the housing market started to plunge in 2007, it looked like the days of low-down-payment mortgages were over. But surprisingly, just a few years later, even consumers with below-average credit can often buy a home with far less than 20% upfront.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the housing slide, consumers had a few options if their savings account was a little lacking. FHA mortgages, which require just 3.5% down, enjoyed a surge of popularity. And, for those who qualified, VA home loans allowed buyers to finance the full price of their home. 

These days, it’s also becoming easier to get a conventional loan with a low down payment. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which purchase the majority of mortgages from U.S. lenders, recently announced they would decrease their minimum down payment from 5% to 3%. In doing so, they opened the door for banks to compete for cash-strapped home buyers.

While it’s still possible to buy a home with very little down, whether it’s a good idea for consumers is another question. Does it make sense to build up your savings and wait to go home shopping until you can put in more cash at closing? And how much of your savings should you invest in housing? Here are some factors to consider. 

Lower Down Payment: Higher Long-Term Costs

Perhaps the first thing to think about with low-down payment loans is that, with few exceptions, they’ll cost you more in the long run. Because you’re financing more of the home price, your interest payments over the life of the loan are going to be considerably higher

For example, if you buy a $200,000 home with 5% down instead of 20%, you’ll pay roughly $35,000 more in interest over the course of a 30-year loan. Obviously, you’ll also be paying more to cover the principal of the loan as well. 

Considering how incredibly low today’s interest rates are, this alone might not deter you from buying a home sooner than later. The bigger concern is adding to your expenses the mortgage insurance premiums you’ll typically have to fork over if you buy a house or condo with less than 20% down. The point of these payments is to cover the lender’s loss if you default on your loan.

There are two basic types of mortgage insurance. If you take out an FHA loan, private lenders provide the funds for your home purchase, and the government acts as your insurer. If the home is worth less than $625,000, the annual mortgage insurance premium (MIP) is currently 0.80% or 0.85%, depending on the amount financed. You’ll also have to pay an upfront premium, which amounts to just over $3,000 for a $180,000 loan. 

If you obtain a conventional mortgage, you instead pay something called private mortgage insurance, or PMI. Typically, it costs anywhere from 0.3% and 1.15% per year, although in this case there’s no upfront fee. (For more, see: What's the difference between private mortgage insurance (PMI) and mortgage insurance premium (MIP)?)

A Down Payment Compromise

Does the prospect of mortgage insurance mean you should wait until you can put down a full 20% of the home’s cost? Not necessarily.

For starters, in some pricier cities, waiting is not always realistic. If you live in a part of the country where even modest homes cost $400,000, you’d have to scrounge up $80,000 before entering the market. And if you reside in an area where buying is less expensive than renting, there might be an extra disincentive to stay on the sidelines until you've saved enough to avoid mortgage insurance.

For some folks, the best option might be to find a middle ground between a minimal down payment and the traditional 20%. For instance, if you take out a FHA loan and put down 10%, your mortgage insurance will be cancelled after 11 years; otherwise, you’ll continue paying it for the entirety of the loan. Can you refinance at a later date to get rid of the insurance? Sure. But there’s no guarantee that interest rates will be at or near their historic lows when you do.

In addition your mortgage insurance premium (MIP) drops when you make a bigger down payment. When you take out a 15-year mortgage, for example, if you can pay 10% up front the annual payment drops from 0.70% to 0.45%. 

While the details are a little different with PMI, the same logic applies. The greater your down payment, the less you have to pay in premiums. One advantage of PMI, though, is that you can cancel it once you attain 20% equity in your home (see How To Outsmart Private Mortgage Insurance).

If the bank keeps your mortgage on their books – that is, it doesn’t sell it to an entity like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac – it may not require insurance at all. However, banks often charge an upfront fee or a higher interest rate if you opt for a low-down-payment loan to help mitigate the risk they’re assuming. Even an additional half of one percentage point can cost you several thousand dollars more over a 30-year period. The overall effect is the same: When you put more down, you can borrow for less.            

Risk of Going ‘Underwater'

Another pitfall of putting down the bare minimum when you buy a home is that you have less protection if the housing market drops. With only 3% or 4% down, you could easily find yourself owing more to the bank than your house is worth. That’s exactly what happened to many homeowners during the most recent housing collapse.

If you go “underwater” on your home and unexpectedly lose your job, for instance, you no longer have the option of borrowing against your property to pay expenses or the ability to sell the home without paying a big chunk of money to the lender.

While you’re not completely protected even if you put down 10% or 15%, you’re giving yourself a much larger buffer should home prices take a turn for the worse.

Keeping A Savings Cushion

Saving for a house is a major life goal. But as you assemble the down payment, be sure you don't leave yourself too short of cash. Not only is it good to have an emergency fund (ideally six months of living costs), you'll also need spare funds for the unexpected expenses that buying a home frequently entails. For more, see How Much Cash Should I Keep In The Bank?

Establish a strict budget before you start house hunting, so you know what you can afford to spend. And do what you can to build up your cash reserves as soon as you get settled and finish painting and replacing carpets and cabinets. Also, remember that people say it's good to live in a house a bit before doing renovations that aren't mandatory before you move in.

The Bottom Line

Can low-down-payment loans be a good choice for some homeowners? Absolutely. But calculate the long-term costs of mortgage insurance or the higher interest rate you’ll pay to make sure it’s worth it. for more, see Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford? and Top 10 Common Mortgage Scams To Avoid.