For many first time buyers, saving for a down payment is one of the most challenging steps in fulfilling their dream of purchasing a home. Oftentimes, they know they can afford their potential monthly mortgages (which could be less or equal their current rents), but the upfront costs of buying, such as down payment and closing costs, may be too much for them to pay.
This is why it's possible to get a little help in the form of a down payment gift from a family member or relative, close friend, or even a charitable organization. And it’s actually becoming more popular, especially among millennials. In the National Association of REALTORS® 2020 Generational Trends Report, 13 percent of home buyers (and 27 percent for ages 22 to 29) indicated their source of down payment to be a gift from their relative or friend.
So if you’re lucky enough to find down payment fund as one of your gifts under the Christmas tree this year (or maybe you’re the one who wants to give it), it may not be as simple as opening your cash gift (or handing someone a wad of cash) and going straight to the lender to use it to buy a home.
Down payment gift funds, whether you’re giving or receiving it, are closely regulated by lenders and must meet certain requirements. Here are certain rules that the gift giver and recipient should know to avoid trouble down the road.
While we may automatically consider a family member, like parents or siblings, when thinking about who can give a mortgage down payment gift, there are other entities who could also be eligible gift sources. But because cash can come with strings attached, and lenders want to make sure that the gift money is nothing but a gift (which will be discussed later on), there are restrictions on who can give money (or who you can give money to) to help purchase a home.
If you are getting a loan through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, gifts can only be from a family member or relative. This may be your spouse, child, siblings, parents, grandparents, or anyone related by blood, marriage, adoption, or legal guardianship. Soon-to-be family members such as your domestic partner, fiancé, or even future in-laws are also eligible to give funds for a down payment.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has its own set of rules when it comes to giving or receiving down payment gifts, although they offer a broader eligibility range. If you are getting an FHA loan, you can receive down payment funds from family members, friends who have a clearly defined and documented interest in your life, employers, labor unions, government agencies, and even charitable organizations.
VA loans (backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) and USDA mortgages (given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture)may have fewer restrictions, but the down payment gift funds cannot come from anyone who would benefit from the proceeds of the purchase, such as the seller, developer, builder, your real estate agent, and some other entity.
There are no limits on the amount of money someone can give you for a down payment or to cover closing costs. However, rules still apply depending on the type of loan and property you're purchasing. Some types of loans may need you to contribute a certain amount of the down. The key is to check with your lender for the latest regulations on how much you can really use.
Likewise, there can be tax implications on the person giving the gift funds. They may be liable if the amount exceeds the gift tax exclusion limit. As of 2020, for instance, any individual can give funds up to $15,000 without a tax penalty. On the other hand, parents who are married and are filing jointly can give up to $30,000 per child for a mortgage down payment (or any other purpose), without incurring the gift tax. For a down payment gift that exceeds the said amounts, the donor must file a gift tax return to disclose the gift.
If you're fortunate enough to have a family member or any eligible entity who can give you funds towards your home’s down payment, you’ll need to confirm your relationship with the gift-giver and provide your mortgage underwriter more information about where the funds came from.
For lenders to confirm that the new money isn’t a loan, you’ll need these things:
1. A down payment gift letter - If your lender has a template letter for this purpose, you will need to send it to the funds’ donor. If there isn’t a template, you might want to ask what information should be included so you can draft your own.
The letter typically includes details about the gift-giver, such as the name, address, contact phone, relationship to the borrower, and address of the property to be purchased. The date when the gift was transferred and the amount of funds given to the borrower must also be indicated. The donor should also write a sentence explaining that the fund is a gift and that there isn’t any expectation of repayment. The letter must be signed by both the gift-giver and the borrower.
2. The gift-giver’s bank statements - This is to show they have the funds to give the buyer as much money as promised.
3. A bank slip from the buyer’s account - This is to indicate when the money was transferred, to verify that the cash is from a legitimate source and that the borrower has an appropriate relationship with the donor, and to confirm the information provided in the letter.
Down payment gift funds need to be just like that—a gift and not a loan that is expected to be paid. You need to make it clear with your mortgage lender that the money you received was entirely gifted and not something that you need to pay back eventually, because by then it will be considered mortgage or loan fraud. Besides, it can also put your loan qualification at risk since your debt-to-income ratio will be factored when you get a mortgage.
It might make more sense to try and make your gift money “seasoned”, especially if you know that someone is going to help you buy a home (often in the case of parents or other relatives). Lenders refer to it as seasoned money when it has been sitting in your bank account for some time, at least for two months. When the gifted money is given in advance, you often don't have to worry about writing gift letter documentation.
Down payment gift funds make it easier for first-time home buyers to afford a home. If you anticipate accepting help, remember to consider the rules above so you can accept such a gift in a proper manner. Be upfront with your mortgage lender if you plan on using gift funds for the down payment. Don't forget to also talk to the individual or entities who are planning to give you money about the tax implications and other considerations.