The Myth and Facts of the 20% Down Payment 

First-time homebuyers may find themselves wondering how much a down payment is on a house.

Prospective homeowners often believe that a 20% down payment on a house is a hard rule. This figure has been etched into the minds of the homebuying public as a seemingly non-negotiable fact. 

What's in this article?

Whats the deal with down payments?
The 20% down payment explained
Alternatives to the 20% down payment
How to decide on your down payment
Is it better to put a 20% down payment on a house? The bottom line:

However, this belief is not as cut-and-dried as it may seem. Home financing has evolved, offering more flexibility than ever before. 

This article aims to demystify the “20% down payment for a house” standard, exploring its origins, its benefits and whether it remains a necessity in today’s real estate market. 

By understanding the true role and implications of a down payment in the home-buying process, you can make more informed decisions, potentially opening the door to homeownership sooner than you might think possible.

Whats the deal with down payments?

A down payment is the up-front portion of the total purchase price of a home that the buyer pays out of pocket, with the rest generally financed through a mortgage loan. 

This payment is a key component of the home buying process, serving at least two important purposes. 

  1. The down payment demonstrates to lenders the buyer’s financial commitment and stability and signals a lower risk of default.
  2. The down payment directly affects the terms of the mortgage, including the interest rate and monthly payment amount (depending on the amount—or percentage—of the down payment).

A larger down payment often results in more favorable loan conditions as it lowers the lender’s risk by reducing the loan-to-value ratio, an important metric for a mortgage loan. 

Moreover, the percentage of the down payment amount can influence the overall affordability of a home by affecting the need for private mortgage insurance (PMI) as well as the total interest paid over the life of the loan. 

The down payment is one of the fundamental aspects of the mortgage process. It’s almost impossible to plan a family budget effectively without understanding the impact of the down payment.

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The 20% down payment explained

The 20% down payment standard has its roots in traditional mortgage lending practices. 

Historically, lenders found that requiring a fifth of the home’s purchase price up front effectively balanced the risk of lending with the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. 

Of course, some buyers couldn’t afford to pay 20% upfront. The solution for these buyers was the creation of private mortgage insurance (PMI). 


The requirement for PMI was created to protect the lender in case of default, but it is paid for by the borrower. PMI kicks in with most conventional loans when the borrower pays a down payment of less than 20%. 

Unless paid up front, PMI premiums increase monthly mortgage payments.

20% (or more) translates into better rates

Furthermore, making a 20% down payment often secures lower interest rates, as lenders view borrowers who can afford such a down payment as less risky. 

Lower rates translate into lower payments

Adding to the benefits of 20% down, a lower rate leads to lower monthly payments. You also achieve lower payments because you’ve reduced the total amount being financed.

But . . .  20% is not a requirement

Despite these benefits, the 20% down payment is not a strict requirement for all home purchases today. 

For many of us, the time and effort it takes to save thousands of dollars on top of all other monthly costs is too difficult. 

Therefore, various loan programs and options available in the market allow for lower down payments, opening the door to homeownership for a broader segment of the population. 

Alternatives to the 20% down payment

One of the big benefits of the mortgage market in the United States is that there are several mortgage options which cater to buyers unable to meet this traditional benchmark. 

Each option carries its own unique advantages and considerations. 

Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans

FHA loans, for example, are backed by the federal government and allow down payments as low as 3.5% for borrowers with a credit score of 580 or higher. 

These loans are particularly appealing to first-time homebuyers and those with limited savings.

VA loans

For veterans, active military members, and their families, VA loans (obtainable through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs) offer an incredible benefit: zero down payment requirements. 

These loans also come without PMI, a rare advantage that can significantly lower monthly housing costs. 

USDA loans

Similarly, USDA loans target buyers in rural and some suburban areas, offering 100% financing with no down payment for eligible homes and buyers. (USDA signifies U.S. Department of Agriculture, established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.)

The flip side of these programs

While these alternatives expand access to homeownership, they often come with specific stipulations, such as higher interest rates or the necessity of PMI for down payments under 20%. 

FHA loans, for instance, require borrowers to pay a mortgage insurance premium (MIP)—up front and annually—regardless of the down payment size. 

How to decide on your down payment

Deciding on the size of your down payment involves a careful examination of your finances and long-term goals. 

Start by assessing your savings—considering both the down payment and additional costs of buying a home—such as: 

  • Closing costs
  • Moving expenses
  • An emergency fund for unforeseen repairs

Tools and resources like online mortgage calculators can offer a preliminary look at how different down payment sizes affect your monthly payments and long-term financial commitments.

The savings equation

Consider whether a large down payment is ultimately preferable to investing those funds elsewhere. 

For some, a smaller down payment that frees up cash for other investments or financial goals might be the optimal choice. 

Consulting with a financial advisor or mortgage professional can provide personalized insights based on your financial health and homeownership aspirations.

Is it better to put a 20% down payment on a house? The bottom line:

Alternative loan programs reveal a lot of flexibility regarding down payment requirements in today’s mortgage market. 

The sheer number of government and lender options should put to rest the myth that a 20% down payment for a house is universally necessary. 

While the traditional 20% down offers benefits like lower monthly payments and no PMI, alternatives exist to accommodate a range of financial situations and objectives. 

Prospective buyers should explore all available mortgage options, considering both immediate affordability and long-term financial implications. 

Compass Mortgage: Finding the right mortgage solution

Compass Mortgage offers many homebuying choices with many down payment options. From the standard 20% down payment to no money down whatsoever. 

Reach out to Compass Mortgage today. Your mortgage option is out there, let’s find it together.