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Programs hold key to homeownership

March 5, 2010

By SUZETTE PORTER
Article published on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010 at www.tbnweekly.com

There has never been a better time to buy your own home.

Real estate prices are down. Stimulus money is available as is federal dollars for county and municipalities to purchase and rehab property in eligible neighborhoods throughout Pinellas.

“Now is a great time to purchase a home,” said Daphne Johnson-Mccluster, senior community planning specialist with Pinellas County’s Housing Finance Authority and Community Development Department.

One of the reasons now is such a good time, especially for first-time homebuyers, is the up to $8,000 in federal homebuyer tax credit for qualified buyers who purchase a home before April 30, she said.

A tax credit of up to $6,500 also is available for buyers who have owned and used the same home as a primary residence for at least five consecutive years out of the past eight years.

An obstacle for many potential homebuyers, who would like to take advantage of the tax credit, is coming up with the money for a down payment and closing costs.

Johnson-McCluster said HFA could help.

The county currently is working with qualified buyers to help them get money they need to buy a house now and then repay the loan when they receive their stimulus refund.

Generally, the program is available to veterans and people who have not owned a home in the past three years with certain income restrictions. Repayment of the no interest loans is due 10 days after receipt of the tax refund. In some cases, longer repayment plans can be arranged.

Properties located inside the city limits of Clearwater, Largo, St. Petersburg and Belleair Shore are not eligible. However, Johnson-McCluster said some of those municipalities offer other programs that help with cost of buying a home.

Johnson-McCluster said HFA also offers additional programs all aimed at helping people afford their own homes. She said programs differ depending on the potential buyer’s income.

She encourages people who have been thinking about buying a home but need some financial assistance to give the county at call at 464-8210. People interested in the tax credit program can call Flo Harding at 464-8237.

Johnson-McCluster advises anyone thinking about buying a home to attend a homebuyer education class. She said the classes teach people important information such as the terminology used by the banks and Realtors. She said people learn what to expect from the home-buying process, how to get credit, home inspections and budgeting to afford a home.

She said some FHA programs require participants to attend class to qualify.

She said after people get educated about what it takes to buy a home, they should request a copy of their credit report. She said if necessary, they should contact a nonprofit credit counseling service, such as Consumer Credit Counseling and Homebuyer’s Club of Tampa Bay, for help.

Next, Johnson-McCluster recommends people contact a mortgage broker to get pre-qualified or pre-approved. For a list of current mortgage companies and lenders participating in the county’s programs, call 464-8210.

Once a person is pre-qualified and knows how much house they can afford, Johnson-McCluster recommends calling a licensed Realtor for help. The county does not recommend Realtors.

“We have homes looking for good owners,” Johnson-McCluster said. “And we’re going to have more property to sell to income qualified people thanks to the neighborhood stabilization funds.”

Johnson-McCluster is talking about the county’s receipt of $17.8 million for neighborhood stabilization from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to a press release, the funding is part of a $50 million award to Florida Suncoast Partners, a consortium consisting of Neighborhood Lending Partners, Pasco County, and Pinellas County.

The cities of Clearwater and Largo also collaborated with the consortium to prepare the grant. Pinellas County’s share will be used in eligible neighborhoods throughout unincorporated Pinellas, Largo, Clearwater, Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar that represent a high number of foreclosures.

The money will be used to help halt the decline of property values in neighborhoods that have been heavily impacted by the foreclosure crisis, the press release said.

Single-family and multi-family properties in physical decline will be purchased and renovated. Once properties have been refurbished, they will be sold or rented to income-qualified households.

Help with down payment and closing costs will also be available under the new program.

Johnson-McCluster admits that homeownership is not for everyone. She said people have to be realistic about what they can afford and understand they will be responsible for their property.

However, for people who are ready, the rewards in terms of tax benefits and stability are worth it, she said.

“Homeowners help make the community a better place,” she said. “Our staff is willing ready and able to help.”

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