NEPTUNE, NEW JERSEY – My time with the Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA) began at the end of April, a little more than a month out from the start of National Homeownership Month. Since I’ve yet to experience the pleasure of purchasing a home myself and to better understand one of the AHA’s major strengths, I reached out to two people who would have the knowledge and know-how to explain the process of becoming a first-time homeowner.
I started by reaching out to Lydia Chomenko. Lydia is one of our HUD-Certified Housing Counseling Specialists and has been with the Affordable Housing Alliance since 2015. In her over five years of service, she has helped countless individuals and families make their dream of homeownership a reality. With a background in real estate, Lydia can walk people through the process of finding, applying, qualifying, and purchasing a new place to call their own.
While an insider’s perspective on becoming a homeowner was crucial to develop an understating of the AHA’s processes, I knew I’d need to speak with someone who had made the transition from renter to a homeowner with the help of the Affordable Housing Alliance to fully understand the program. Lydia was quick to suggest Sarah Roberts, a Monmouth County resident she had recently helped navigate our Home Buyer Counseling Program. Sarah and her husband had been long-time renters who were eager to get out of their apartment and into a home, but they were faced with challenges including overcoming the financial burden, a lack of affordable housing in the area, as well as the complexity of various national, state, and local programs. With the help of the Affordable Housing Alliance and the multitude of supporting organizations and partners we collaborate with, Sarah and her family now have a new home to call their own.
You’d been renting for almost 20 years, what made you say “Now is the time for a change.”?
Sarah: My husband and I had been thinking about getting away from renting for a while, but we had been put off by the prices in Monmouth County that seemed to consistently price us out of homes that could fit our needs.
Lydia: See, that is one of the biggest problems facing renters looking to transition into homeownership. A lot of families aren’t looking for a condo or a townhouse, rather a small, single-family home, and when they begin to test the market many of them are disappointed with what they find. There is an oversaturation of buyers, which puts first-time buyers at a distinct disadvantage.
So Sarah, were the market conditions you encountered one of the reasons you looked into obtaining help through this process?
Sarah: Absolutely. All of this is daunting to do on your own, especially if you are a family with a moderate income. We’d often find ourselves overwhelmed and beginning to become hopeless. We started thinking “There is no way we can afford this.” Especially given our hope of staying in Monmouth County.
Lydia: An important part of what we do, one that sometimes gets lost in all the technical talk with documentation and applications, is simply being a calming, assuring voice for people like Sarah who simply don’t have a background in home buying and real estate.
I guess that is where an organization like the Affordable Housing Alliance can make a real difference in the process, by having someone trained and knowledgeable in the field walk through those who are new to all of this.
Lydia: Exactly, there are so many different programs and grants to be aware of that it can be a lot to manage on your own. Some of them are local or state-run, while others are funded federally or through national organizations. Sarah and her family were lucky in the sense that they were approved through Habitat for Humanity for their new home; not only did they move into a newly constructed house, but they were also able to receive financial support from Habitat for Humanity on the purchase price.
So not only were you able to move out of your older rental unit and into a newly constructed home Sarah, but you were also able to receive support with the finances?
Sarah: Yes, and thank goodness for that. I had initially ‘Googled’ “affordable housing” which put me in touch with Habitat for Humanity. After completing an application with them and finding out we had been approved, the Affordable Housing Alliance was suggested as our source for the courses and information required of first-time homebuyers.
Lydia: Sarah was in a much better position than some of the residents that come in for support through this process. A lot of times I have people come in who have no idea where to start, all they know is that ‘the AHA is the beginning’. So for individuals like that, we start with applying for local and state grants and moving on from there.
Did you or your husband have any reservations about reaching out for help through this?
Sarah: No, not at all. I get that for some people it may be a ‘pride’ thing, but for me, it was like “Forget that, this is how we are going to own our own home! We are doing it.” I’m so grateful we decided to pursue this dream, and forever thankful for all the support we received from the AHA in achieving it.
Lydia: Sarah and her husband definitely had a lot of drive to make this happen.
Can you explain the Homebuyer Counseling Program a bit for those who are not aware of what that entails?
Lydia: Of course. So what we do is put together a folder of resources before the scheduled counseling appointment. In that folder is a spreadsheet on what documents to gather for when they’ll be providing them to their mortgage lender. We review their FICO credit score, our processors run their credit score and produce a liabilities page. From this, we review their monthly debt obligations, all of which affects their back mortgage ratio, and work with the resident to make sure they can afford their mortgage.
We provide everyone who participates in our Homebuyer Counseling Program a list of approved lenders who have been certified to handle low and affordable-income lending, as well as realtors in the area that they are looking to move into. Habitat for Humanity transactions are a little different since they will already have a property, so we tend to review the contract of sale with each resident to ensure that there are no items of concern and that they fully understand all the documentation.
Are participants done with the program once the counseling sessions have completed?
Lydia: Not just yet. So an important step of the process, one that we do before beginning any counseling sessions, is that each first-time homebuyer will have to go through an educational course. This course is $99, and while we used to do an in-person homebuyer workshop every three months or so, our current offerings are exclusively online for the time being. It is a bit intensive at about 5-6 hours, but it can be split up for convenience. After the course is completed, the resident is provided with a certificate of completion which is required for the First-time Homebuyer Grant, to purchase an affordable unit, to obtain financing, and to qualify for other programs like Habitat for Humanity.
Sarah: Honestly, I loved the fact that the course was online instead of in-person. My husband and I both work full-time jobs and take care of our two children so we were able to take our time with the online aspects of the program while still receiving help and feedback from the AHA throughout. I can say without a doubt that the information we took away from the course will help us for a lifetime.
So now that you’ve completed our Homebuyer Counseling Program and you’ve moved into your new home I have to ask, do you miss anything about renting?
Sarah: No way! I pray we never have to go back to that situation.
And how do you compare the feeling of being a homeowner to that of being a renter?
Sarah: It really comes down to feeling a sense of pride, not only in yourself but in your housing situation as a whole. We don’t have to answer to a landlord, we don’t have to work and live on someone else’s schedule, and we don’t need to work through someone to get things fixed and addressed. It really is OUR home in every sense of the word.
As we end our conversation, was there anything the two of you would like to share with residents of New Jersey who are thinking about making the move towards homeownership or are feeling overwhelmed by the process?
Lydia: For so many people, the idea of owning your own home is an integral part of the American dream. When someone reaches out to the AHA we are courteous and respectful and understand the challenges facing a first-time homebuyer. Regardless of which step of the home buying process you are on, the talented, dedicated team of problem-solvers at the Affordable Housing Alliance is always here to help.
Sarah: To reach out to the AHA! But also just do the research and find all of the available programs that are there to help. We found that applying for government grants was one of the bigger challenges, I know you can do it on your own, but it is hard navigating all of those documents and sites. The AHA did a great job in walking us through that entire process, and we are forever grateful for everything Lydia, Maria, and the entire Affordable Housing Alliance did in helping me and my family achieve our dream of homeownership.
– Jordan Mabe
To find out about the Homebuyer Counseling Program, or any of the AHA’s other services, please visit us at https://housingall.org/