While Alabama isn’t among the biggest U.S. states, it is one of the states in its region that’s added the highest number of residents over the past decade. In fact, Alabama ranks in the middle among all Southern states when it comes to population increase since 2010.

The state’s population growth has a knock-on effect of forcing the housing market in the state to become more robust and active, and home values have risen as a result. Like the rest of the country, Alabama has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but according to housing experts in the state, buyers will continue to consider their options in Alabama.

For those considering buying their first home, the options, terminology, and decisions to make can seem overwhelming. But first-time buyers in Alabama should know their options, including programs that are designed to make it easier to make a first home purchase.

Alabama First-Time Home Buyer Options

Unless you’re flush with cash, you’ll probably need to take out a home loan, better known as a mortgage, in order to purchase your first home. Mortgages are available from a multitude of lenders, and these types of loan fall into two camps — conventional and government.

Here’s a look at the key differences between the two types of home loans:

Conventional

  • Provided by private bank or other lender, not backed or guaranteed by public agency
  • Typically allows borrowers to pay less in interest
  • Usually requires buyers to make a down payment of as much as 20% and as little as 5%
  • Requires applicants to have a solid credit score, usually at least 640; those with higher scores will qualify for lower interest rates

Government-backed

  • Issued by a private lender and guaranteed by a public agency; the most common in the mortgage lending space are the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Income and loan limits and other eligibility rules vary by agency.
  • Lower down payment, usually 3.5% for buyers with credit scores over 580, and 10% for borrowers with lower credit scores
  • Interest rate is higher than with conventional loan options
  • Lower credit score required, though borrowers with scores below 580 typically have to make larger down payment

Repayment options

A 30-year mortgage is intimidating, but it’s still the way that about 90% of Americans buy their homes. However, there are other popular loan types that are ideal for specific buyers.

ARM: A mortgage in which the interest rate the buyer pays varies throughout the term of the loan, and the specific terms vary. These types of loans are ideal for buyers who will be able to pay off the loan in full before the rate adjusts or those who intend to sell the home before the rate adjusts, though if this is your plan, be sure to go with a lender that does not apply a penalty for doing so.

5/1 ARM: This is one of the most popular types of ARM loans in which the buyer pays a fixed rate for the first five of the 30-year term. After the first five years, the rate adjusts annually, hence the 5/1 name. Similar ARM loans come in terms like 5/5 in which the rate adjusts every five years after the first five. Generally, interest rates within these mortgages tend to adjust upwards instead of downwards, though this depends on broader economic forces, since the interest rates are based on an economic index plus an established margin.

15-year: Some first-time home buyers may be interested in paying off their loan sooner than three decades from now. For those with the funds to do so, a 15-year mortgage is an excellent option, as it gives buyers the chance to save thousands of dollars in interest costs vs. a 30-year mortgage. These types of mortgages have the added benefit of typically being offered with slightly lower interest rates. It’s important to ensure you can afford the higher monthly payment, which will probably depend on the security of your income.

Other terms to know

Specifics related to your mortgage loan aren’t the only considerations to make when deciding on a first home to purchase. Here’s a look at some other terms you’ll need to be familiar with when you purchase your first Alabama home:

Mortgage insurance: Typically, if you make a down payment of less than 20% of the purchase price, you will be required to pay private mortgage insurance until the loan balance reaches 80% of its original value. Lenders are legally required to drop PMI after the borrower reaches 78%, and you can request this if you’ve gotten to that 80% mark and remained in good standing.

Equity: The difference between what you owe on your house and what it’s worth is called equity. If you were to sell your house, the profit you’d make would depend on how much equity you had in the house compared to its selling price. But having a good amount of equity in your home also gives you a degree of financial freedom, and for many homeowners, refinancing their mortgage to take advantage of increased equity allows them to make improvements, take vacations or do other things with the added cash. There are two ways to increase the equity in your home — pay down (or pay off) the loan, and make improvements to the value of the home.

Closing costs: These are one-time fees paid by both buyer and seller, though they vary by location and are typically based on the selling price of a home. In Alabama, buyers should expect to pay between 2% and 5% in closing costs, covering things like inspections, title fees, Realtor commission, and more.

Housing Market in Alabama

Over the past 10 years, Alabama has added more than 100,000 residents, which equates to a growth rate of about 2.5%. While that puts Alabama in the middle of the pack nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it also means the state ranks near the middle in the South, excluding the huge states of Florida and Texas. All that growth is having a major effect on the housing market in Alabama.

Southern states by population change in numbers, 2010-2020

Texas 3,738,767
Florida 2,634,411
North Carolina 926,526
Georgia 904,836
South Carolina 512,402
Virginia 510,902
Tennessee 472,277
Maryland 259,698
Oklahoma 195,269
Kentucky 121,407
Alabama 117,887
Louisiana 104,566
District of Columbia 101,296
Arkansas 96,198
Delaware 73,995
Mississippi 6,113
West Virginia -61,826

According to Zillow data, Alabama has had one of the most rapid increases in the median home value over just the past year. So, despite the pandemic, considering a home purchase in Alabama could be an excellent investment.

Top 15 states by year-over-year increase in median home value, 2019-2020

Idaho 12.6%
Arizona 12.3%
Washington 11.4%
Utah 10.0%
Maine 9.7%
New Hampshire 9.0%
Rhode Island 8.4%
California 8.3%
Tennessee 8.1%
New Mexico 8.0%
Massachusetts 8.0%
Ohio 7.7%
Alabama 7.6%
Oregon 7.5%
Michigan 7.4%

In addition to rising values, market action is heating up in Alabama as well. The state’s largest city, Birmingham, has seen properties remain on the market for less and less time, which makes the metro Birmingham area’s housing market increasingly competitive. In fact, just a couple of years ago, the median time to a pending sale in Birmingham was 26 days; these days, that number has shrunk to just seven — one of the biggest declines among the nearly 100 metro areas with available data.

Percentage change in median days to pending sale by metro area, 2018-2020

Syracuse, NY -83.7%
Memphis, TN -82.1%
Tulsa, OK -81.0%
Albuquerque, NM -80.6%
Cincinnati, OH -78.9%
Oklahoma City, OK -78.4%
Columbia, SC -77.5%
Austin, TX -77.4%
Richmond, VA -77.3%
Provo, UT -77.3%
Baltimore, MD -77.1%
New Haven, CT -76.9%
Knoxville, TN -76.2%
Dayton, OH -76.2%
Portland, OR -75.9%
Jackson, MS -75.7%
Ogden, UT -75.0%
Toledo, OH -75.0%
San Diego, CA -75.0%
Allentown, PA -74.5%
Hartford, CT -74.3%
St. Louis, MO -74.1%
Birmingham, AL -73.1%
Harrisburg, PA -72.7%
Indianapolis, IN -72.2%

While home values vary across the state, most Alabama communities have seen positive growth in this figure over the past half-decade. In fact, of the 500-plus cities and towns with available data, just over a dozen have seen the median home value decrease since 2016. Most of the 25 cities with the highest increase in median home value are in one of the state’s major metro areas.

Top 25 Alabama cities by percentage change in median home value, 2016-2020

North Courtland 48.0%
Little River 45.3%
Birmingham 43.9%
Graysville 42.6%
Pine Apple 42.5%
Adamsville 41.3%
Hobson City 39.6%
Muscadine 39.5%
Fruithurst 39.3%
Orange Beach 39.2%
Monroeville 39.1%
Center Point 38.8%
Elberta 38.1%
Bon Secour 37.7%
New Hope 37.2%
Wagarville 37.1%
Goldville 37.0%
Forestdale 36.4%
Bessemer 36.4%
Gallant 36.0%
Hazel Green 36.0%
Loachapoka 35.8%
Midway 35.6%
Sawyerville 35.1%
West Jefferson 34.8%

Resources for Alabama Home Buyers

There are many programs set up to help Alabama home buyers, and many are designed specifically for those making their very first home purchase. Be sure to explore your options and do the math before you come to a final decision.

Mobile County: Moderate- to low-income first-time home buyers purchasing homes in Mobile County can seek up to $10,000 in down payment assistance in the form of an interest-free deferred loan that’s forgiven if the buyer maintains the home as their primary residence for at least five years. Income limits apply and are revised annually.

Alabama Housing Finance Authority: A pair of state-funded programs can help people purchase homes in the state of Alabama. The Step Up program provides low-interest rate second mortgages to help buyers make down payments on their homes, and income limits apply. Step Up second mortgages have 10-year terms, and buyers can get up to 3.5% down payment assistance on FHA mortgages and 3% on conventional loans. A separate program provides grants to assist with closing costs that vary depending on household income. Borrowers can apply for up to 1% of their mortgage amount as a closing cost grant.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA): Mortgages backed by the FHA and offered through private lenders can help people secure affordable housing, but the agency establishes loan limits that change regularly and vary across the country. In every county in Alabama, the current FHA loan limit is $331,760 for a single-family dwelling.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): The USDA Rural Development Single Family Housing Direct Loan Program sets eligibility limits for households based on their income. These limits help determine how much financing a family could receive via a direct USDA loan to purchase a home in a rural area or another eligible community. Here’s a look at the limits to be considered a low-income, four-person family in metro areas and non-metro counties in Alabama:

  • Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville: $48,500
  • Auburn-Opelika: $61,200
  • Birmingham-Hoover: $59,500
  • Columbus: $49,850
  • Daphne-Fairhope-Foley: $64,800
  • Decatur: $50,900
  • Dothan: $49,050
  • Florence-Muscle Shoals: $51,350
  • Gadsden: $49,300
  • Huntsville: $68,250
  • Mobile: $49,100
  • Montgomery: $52,700
  • Tuscaloosa: $54,250
  • Barbour County: $42,900
  • Bullock County: $42,900
  • Butler County: $42,900
  • Chambers County: $42,900
  • Cherokee County: $42,900
  • Choctaw County: $42,900
  • Clarke County: $42,950
  • Clay County: $42,900
  • Cleburne County: $43,300
  • Coffee County: $53,500
  • Conecuh County: $42,900
  • Coosa County: $42,900
  • Covington County: $43,850
  • Crenshaw County: $44,500
  • Cullman County: $45,850
  • Dale County: $47,600
  • Dallas County: $42,900
  • DeKalb County: $42,900
  • Escambia County: $42,900
  • Fayette County: $42,900
  • Franklin County: $42,900
  • Greene County: $45,200
  • Jackson County: $42,900
  • Lamar County: $42,900
  • Macon County: $42,900
  • Marengo County: $42,950
  • Marion County: $42,900
  • Marshall County: $43,750
  • Monroe County: $42,900
  • Perry County: $42,900
  • Pike County: $42,900
  • Randolph County: $42,900
  • Sumter County: $42,900
  • Talladega County: $44,400
  • Tallapoosa County: $45,200
  • Washington County: $45,350
  • Wilcox County: $42,900
  • Winston County: $42,900

VA: Military veterans often use the Veterans Affairs department to help them secure home loans, and while the VA does not set a total loan limit that veterans may be approved for, the agency does have limits for the total amount of a loan it will back. This varies by state, and in Alabama, it’s $548,250.

Conclusion

Making your first home purchase can be a rewarding and challenging experience, and it’s understandable to find the process intimidating. But by doing your due diligence throughout the process, you can ensure that your first home is a good investment in your future.

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