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While government regulations and student-loan debt are making it even more difficult for the first-time homebuyer to secure a mortgage, Zywiciel emphasizes that lenders do not hold the sole solution. “Policy needs to drive the solution. Perhaps some sort of incentive for owner-occupants. There needs to be more attention on driving policies that favor owner-occupancy, and more checks and balances with rental properties.”

In the meantime, says Zywiciel, homebuyers—whether first-timers, minorities, immigrants, or otherwise—need affordable mortgage options.

“People need affordable mortgage options that are flexible, yet have responsible underwriting,” she explains. “This is a tricky line to tow because the industry has been criticized for being too lenient in the past. However, a lot of the subprime lending and ‘loosey-goosey’ underwriting that occurred in the past was for very affluent people who didn’t have to state their income or assets. The mortgage meltdown really happened on both ends of the spectrum. Often, just the lower-income market is blamed for the crash, but the industry was also very liberal with people they considered a good risk.

“What’s important now is a balanced approach. But we still need flexibility in lending—not everyone has a 9-to-5 job or a banking history—and we need education.”

To that end, Citibank offers a Community Program for borrowers who may have a lower FICO score and/or who need down-payment assistance, issues that are common to many, but that are often intensified within the diverse and first-time homebuyer segments. To take advantage of this program, Citibank requires borrowers to participate in at least eight hours of homeownership counseling, which covers a wide array of topics, from mortgages to neighborhood beautification to budgeting to what to do if the water heater breaks.

According to Zywiciel, Citibank also has proprietary programs that offer lower down-payment options and flexible underwriting options. This program also requires counseling. As Zywiciel says, “An educated consumer will perform better.”

While bumps in the road and uncertainty lie ahead, Zywiciel expects a consistently brightening outlook for U.S. homeownership. “There’s less uncertainty among lenders because we’re starting to see a new normal. Borrowers are more prepared than they were 10 years ago. Mortgage brokers out there today are the ones that survived; the unscrupulous ones are out of business. The bigger and better lenders are the ones that are compliant and have a lot of checks and balances.

“The mortgage meltdown was such a dark time and the pendulum swung to the extreme opposite,” adds Zywiciel. “Now it’s coming back to the middle and things are getting better.”

Advice for First-time Homebuyers: Follow the Three Cs
Maria_ZywicielCitibank’s Maria Zywiciel suggests that first-time homebuyers follow these steps to help secure their first home:

Cash: Dispel the notion that everyone needs 20 percent down. There are programs available that require little out-of-pocket, such as down-payment programs through lenders like Citibank, and municipalities and cities that are looking to spark reinvestment back into the community. Check with your local mortgage loan officer to see if these programs exist in your area.

Credit: Know your credit score and do your homework to find out what must be done if it needs to be repaired. Look for non-profit agencies that will work with you and that can also help identify errors in your credit report.

Confidence: Build confidence by getting informed: know what your credit score is; know what your down-payment options are; know what your closing costs are. Work with a real estate professional and lender to get pre-approval on a home so that you are comfortable and confident, and partner with a lender that will guide you through the entire process.

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