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After years of moving around the country for his job with Marriott hotels, John Eddleman wanted to put down roots.

Last month, he bought a brick bungalow on Des Moines' south side, taking advantage of a recent federal policy change that allows down payments as low as 3 percent.

"It came at just the right time because otherwise I would have had to scrape a lot more money together," Eddleman, 49, said. "At 3 percent down, you can't pass that up."

A collection of new policies — including lower down payment requirements, decreased mortgage insurance premiums and looser lending standards — are intended to make it easier for first-time buyers like Eddleman to get a loan.

Some say the changes won't remove the underlying hurdles for first-time buyers, like slow wage growth and student loan debt. And some lawmakers have criticized the policies as a step toward the risky lending practices that led to the 2007 housing crash. But lenders and real estate officials say they expect the changes to bring a wave of new home buyers in 2015.

"It's being predicted in Iowa and across the country: This is going to be a year when we see a lot of millennials and first-time homebuyers get into the market," said Brennan Buckley, general manager of Iowa Realty.

Easing the road to homeownership

Recent policy changes aim to improve access to home loans in several ways:

In December, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced they would reduce the minimum down payment on certain mortgages from 5 percent to 3 percent. For someone buying a $150,000 home, the change means the difference between a down payment of $7,500 and $4,500.

In January, the Federal Housing Administration announced it was reducing mortgage insurance premiums by 50 basis points. The White House said the reduction would save the average homebuyer about $900 a year and would enable about 250,000 people to buy a home.

Lenders have been lowering some of the requirements on borrowers in response to federal regulators clarifying mortgage lending rules created in the wake of the 2007 housing crash.

Brad Blackwell, executive vice president with West Des Moines-based Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said he expects first-time home sales to grow less than 10 percent in 2015, but said it would still be a "meaningful" increase.

Wells Fargo, the largest mortgage lender in the country, is offering two types of 3-percent-down mortgages. It's still a bit early to gauge demand, "but we've seen a lot of excitement about them," Blackwell said.

In the past year, Wells Fargo has rolled back several borrower requirements. The company increased the amount of "gift money," like cash from a homebuyer's parents, that a borrower can use toward a down payment on some loans. It also reduced the minimum credit scores for certain loans.

To qualify for a 3-percent-down mortgage from Wells Fargo, borrowers need a credit score of at least 620. But without a good job and a solid explanation for credit blemishes, buyers will probably need a score of 660 to 680, Blackwell said. The minimum score for FHA mortgages is 600.

Millennials enter the marketplace

Easier access to credit will be one factor in getting first-time homebuyers into the market. A bigger factor may be that millennials are finally starting to settle down, Blackwell said.

"We're starting to see them become homebuyers," he said. "Forget the financial end. The pure demographics are going increase the number of first-time homebuyers in the market."

Frank Nothaft, chief economist at the real estate research firm Corelogic and the former chief economist for Freddie Mac, said lower down payments and mortgage insurance premiums come at the right time. Interest rates remain low, and the spring buying season is around the corner. But they're not a cure-all.

"It doesn't mean everyone who is renting right now will suddenly qualify for a mortgage," he said. "There are still plenty of challenges in the marketplace. Many younger households are still struggling to find good paying jobs and may not have the income or savings to qualify for a mortgage."

Millennials have been slow to jump into homeownership. The generation of 18- to 34-year-olds came of age in the recession and they're starting to buy homes in their early 30s, not their mid- to late-20s like previous generations, Blackwell said.

This year, millennials are poised to overtake baby boomers as the nation's largest generation, so getting them to trade rent checks for mortgages is seen as critical to strengthening the housing market.

First-time homebuyers accounted for only 33 percent of home sales in 2014, the smallest share since 1987, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors.

Historically, first-time buyers have accounted for more than 40 percent of sales and have played a key role in the market, allowing established homeowners to trade up for pricier houses.

"There is an upward domino effect," said Buckley, the Iowa Realty executive. "When they enter the market, it can kick off two or three home sales right up the line."

Optimism in Des Moines area

Iowa real estate agents are entering the spring buying season with sense of optimism. Des Moines area home sales in January were up 13 percent.

"I think by the middle of March, we're going to be so busy we're not going to be able to breathe," said Monica Janelle, an Ankeny-based agent who is currently working with three 20-something clients looking for their first homes.

Laura Quint, 25, of Huxley, is looking for a two-bedroom townhouse in Ankeny with a garage and an open kitchen. She has been pre-approved for a 3 percent down conventional mortgage and a 3.5 percent down FHA mortgage.

"It definitely makes me want to buy now rather than keep renting," she said. "It's some incentive to start putting equity into a place."

Eddleman ended up putting down about $2,400 on his house. He plans to refinish the floors, renovate the kitchen and turn a bedroom into his art studio. The smell of paint still hung in the living room last week after he finished covering the pea-soup-green walls with a more muted color.

"It was a great deal for me," he said of the 3-percent down loan. "The money I would have spent on the down payment I'm going to be able to spend on the house."

Down payments at a glance

The minimum down payment on loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is decreasing from 5 percent to 3 percent.

Fannie Mae started accepting 3 percent down payment mortgages in December. Freddie Mac will begin March 23.

The Federal Housing Administration offers mortgages with down payments as low as 3.5 percent, but FHA loans require borrowers to pay private mortgage insurance premiums during the life of the loan. On loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, borrowers are allowed to cancel their mortgage insurance after their loan-to-value ratio drops below 80 percent.

Zero-down mortgages are offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fannie and Freddie who?

The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac ) are private, government-backed entities created by Congress to make mortgages more available. The largest players in the secondary mortgage market, Fannie and Freddie buy mortgages from lenders and package them to sell as mortgage-backed securities.

By selling mortgages to Fannie and Freddie, lenders are able to reinvest their assets into more mortgages.

Following the 2007 housing crash, Fannie and Freddie were bailed out by the government and put under the control of the Federal Housing Finance Authority.

Mortgages bought by Fannie and Freddie have to meet certain requirements. Notably, the minimum down payment is dropping form 5 percent to 3 percent. Since major lenders sell their mortgages to Fannie and Freddie this means more banks are beginning to offer such low down payment loans.

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