Chris and his wife, Nichole, had only been married for a couple of years when they bought their first home in 2004. Like most young couples, they didn’t have enough income for a giant mortgage or pile of cash for the down payment. To make matters worse, Chris and Nichole were house hunting in Hawaii, the most expensive housing market in the nation.
The median housing price in Hawaii then was $460,000, a big number for a couple of 21-year-olds living on an Army salary. But Chris and Nichole had an edge: a Veterans Administration loan, or VA Loan. This is a type of home financing guaranteed by the federal government that helps current and former military families buy a home or pay for home improvements.
Here’s how a VA loan helped them reach their homeownership goals.
It got them into the market with no down payment.
Chris and Nichole made a home-buying budget work for one reason: they didn’t have to pay a dime for a down payment. One of, if not the best thing about a VA home loan is that it allows veterans to buy without putting any money down. As anyone who has bought a home knows, you can spend half your life saving enough cash for some mortgages. Chris and Nichole would have needed $32,000 for a 20% down payment on a $160,000 mortgage—more than his entire salary for 18 months.
But with zero down, they were able to budget for a $160,000 home. Chris was stationed at Schofield Barracks outside Honolulu, so he looked at housing in nearby Kapolei, a planned community developed in the 1950s. They looked at condos because a single-family home was not in their budget. He and Nichole ended up buying a 660-square-foot condo home.
It earned them great terms.
Plenty of young home buyers know they can be trusted with a mortgage, but lenders don’t take people’s word for it. You know whose word they do trust? The government’s. While many first-time home buyers end up paying extra fees and interest until they can prove themselves super credit-worthy, VA loans help veterans and active service members get into homeownership without those extra costs.
Since VA loans are backed by the government, lenders consider them to be less risky and grant favorable terms to buyers with a good credit score and the ability to repay the loan. Chris and Nichole got a competitive interest rate and didn’t have to pay closing costs or get PMI (private mortgage insurance). “We got cash back at closing,” Chris says. “And not having PMI knocked quite a bit off our monthly payment compared to a traditional loan.”
VA loans helped them grow—even during the recession.
Fast forward to 2009. Chris was a Bronze Star recipient back from a tour of duty in Iraq. He has left the Army and is working for a software firm in Hawaii. Nichole is pregnant with their first child, so it was time for them to look for a bigger place to live.
There was one problem. The Great Recession had hit two years earlier, and housing prices had collapsed. It wasn’t a great time to sell, so they wanted to hang on to their condo and rent it out, but they weren’t in a position to both keep it and make a down payment. Once again, a VA loan saved the day, even though Chris was now a civilian. Veterans can get VA loans after they leave the service. It’s a benefit they keep for the rest of their lives.
They bought a 1,400-square-foot house in Waipahu, an area of Honolulu, for $575,000, with no money down. And instead of selling the condo and taking a loss, they refinanced it with a traditional lender and turned it into a rental property. “We had to refinance with a regular lender to stay under the VA lending limit with the house,” he says.
Two years later, in 2011, his job took him to the East Coast, where they decided to rent. They also rented out their house in Hawaii, along with their condo because it still wasn’t a good market for sellers.
“We owed $25,000 more for the house than we could sell it for, and we would have agent fees on top of that,” Chris says. “We definitely didn’t have the cash at that point to make up the difference.”
A third VA loan allowed them to arrive at their ideal home.
In 2013, Chris took a job as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area with Trulia. Nichole was pregnant with baby number three, and she sent Chris off to California with clear instructions. “She told me ‘Buy me a fricking house,’” Chris says. “She did not want to live in a hotel.”
It took him just three weeks. “I looked at thousands of places online, but only a dozen in person,” he says. He ended up buying a 2,336-square-foot house in Pleasant Hill for $700,000—a great deal in a town with a median sale price of $813,500. Again, he bought with a VA loan.
The neighborhood, Gregory Gardens, is vibrant and full of trees. “You felt like you were in the forest, even though you were in a neighborhood,” Chris says. There’s a Bay Area Rapid Transit station nearby for easy commuting. His three kids have a big yard and plenty of neighborhood children to pal around with.
Between Chris’s career taking his family through some of the priciest housing markets in the country and the housing market crash nearly derailing their finances, VA loans truly came to the rescue for Chris and Nichole—an appropriate benefit for the veterans, active service members, and their families who come to their nation’s rescue all the time.
“(VA loans are) one of the best military benefits,” Chris says. “We couldn’t have bought our first home without it, and we wouldn’t be where we are now without them.”
Wondering what homes you might be able to buy with a VA loan? See what’s available now on Trulia.