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Don't fear the 'M' word

Getting a mortgage isn't as scary as you might think

July 26, 2012|By Megan Crepeau | For RedEye

Is it just me, or is the American Dream terrifying? I mean, not the dream itself, but how expensive it is. Around here, those quaint little white-picket-fence houses cost close to a million dollars. I've never had a million pennies in my bank account, let alone a million dollars.

Believe it or not, though, this is actually not a bad time to buy a house. It is, in the long run, cheaper than renting. You get major brownie points with the credit bureaus, and home equity will make you feel richer than you are.

But the house's sticker price is only the beginning. Even if you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money for a down payment on Dream Condo, you'd have to pay closing costs, property taxes and condo fees. You'll have to pay an inspector and do all your own maintenance. You'll have interest on that mortgage. (What's that George Carlin line? "It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.")

But. None of that matters if you can't come up with the damn down payment. Here are three ways to help you reach goal. And hurry up--it won't be a buyer's market forever.

Fun fact: You don't actually have to come up with a 20 percent down payment unless you really really want to. If you qualify for a Federal Housing Authority-insured loan, it could be as low as 3.5 percent of the sticker price--and they can roll closing costs and other fees into your mortgage.

As far as actually saving the money? Try starting a Roth IRA. It's technically a retirement account, but you can withdraw up to $10,000 penalty-free if you use the money for a down payment on a first home. Find one with a low starting balance requirement and a nice high interest rate, set up automatic deposits from your checking account, and in a few years you'll be browsing Zillow.

Are you looking locally? Depending on how much money you make, you could qualify for assistance from Chicago's Neighborhood Housing Services. Their "Home Buyer Education" program includes individualized mortgage counseling, pre-approval for a mortgage, and programs that can knock your down payment to 3 percent.

Oh, and--really, this should just be at the end of every column--keep your credit score up. Without it, you might as well kiss Dream Condo goodbye.

Megan Crepeau is a RedEye special contributor. She's a twenty-something college grad navigating this dumpy job market just like the rest of us.

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