Suffolk County to assist first-time home buyers

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With her family financially pressed to afford a down payment on a home, Vita Stears typed the words “Suffolk County Down Payment” into the AOL search engine on her computer. Lo and behold, what appeared seconds later was information about a program that provides up to $14,000 in federal down payment assistance through the Suffolk County Community Development Agency.

That made all the difference to the Stears family.

“My husband and I could pay closing costs, or a down payment, but not both,” Mrs. Stears recounted in an interview last week.

With the $14,000 in assistance, the Stears family—Brian, Vita and their children, Joseph, 13, and Grace, 4—were able, for a relatively affordable $270,000, to purchase a three-bedroom home in Mastic.

Without the help, they would most likely still be living in her in-laws home in East Moriches, Mrs. Stears said. They were “wonderful, but as a young couple you want your own house,” she added.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy celebrated the assistance program at a press conference in Hauppauge last week. It has helped more than 1,000 Suffolk County homeowners since its inception.

And there is presently $1 million in down payment assistance available to help new home owners, he said.

“One of the largest obstacles to home ownership for young working families is that large down payment,” Mr. Levy said.

“Upon taking office in 2004, I lobbied the federal government to double the maximum allowable grant for this region in recognition of the high cost of housing.”

At the press conference, the Stears family stood proudly supporting the program. Mrs. Stears spoke of their having lived with her in-laws for three-and-a-half years in order to save money “just for closing costs.”

“Without this program, it would have taken another three or four years of saving to be able to cover the down payment,” she told the small crowd assembled.

Back home, Mrs. Stears proudly spoke of the house they moved into in October.

“We actually were looking at a house across the street, but things weren’t going too well with it,” she said.

Then they noticed the house they eventually bought.

“But it was so beautiful, we never thought we would be able to afford it. Three bedrooms, one bath, a stand-alone garage, a shed, an above-ground pool, a patio,” she said.

Yet the price turned out to be reasonable.

Still, the impacts of a down payment coupled with closing costs, which turned out to be $20,000, were just too much. Mr. Stears, 33, who grew up in East Moriches, works for SCAN Security in Bridgehampton. Mrs. Stears, 34, raised in Ridge, had worked for Automatic Data Processing, the payroll support company, but suddenly became permanently disabled.

“One day I woke up and I couldn’t feel my leg,” she recounted.

Together, the couple just wasn’t making enough money to cover all the costs. That is, until they discovered the county assistance program.

There was one “hiccup” in the transaction, recalled Mrs. Stears. A mortgage had been arranged with American Home Mortgage, but suddenly the firm “closed its doors—a week before our closing date!” Mrs. Stears got a whiff that something might be wrong with the company when she was getting the closing date from a woman at its Melville headquarters. While providing the closing date, “she was talking to a man who was removing vending machines from the office. … It was like a red flag.”

“We scrambled,” she said, and eventually got a mortgage from Wells Fargo.

Mr. Levy explained last week that eligibility for the down payment assistance program is based on family size and gross annual income in relation to “area median income.” A family of four, for example, would be eligible for up to $12,000 if its income is $77,000, according to a chart distributed at the press conference. With an income of $52,450, a family of four would be eligible for up to $14,000.

The grants under the program are considered deferred payment non-interest bearing loans. If the home is sold by the home buyers within the first five years of purchase, it must be repaid. If the home buyers hold on to the house, it is “forgiven” as a loan.

Mrs. Stears said she and her husband were delighted to provide a personal testimonial about the down payment assistance initiative. “We agreed because we really want people to know this is available and that, if it wasn’t for it, we would have waited twice as long to get a house,” she said. “We’re thrilled!”

Applications are accepted on a first come, first served basis and can be ?obtained by calling the Suffolk ?County Office of Community Development at (631) 853-5705 or writing to the department at the H. Lee Dennison Building, P.O. Box 6100, Veterans Memorial Highway, Hauppauge, New York, 11788.

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