This story was originally published on page 1 of BGC’s The Bulletin.
For many low- to moderate-income households, homeownership feels like a far-off dream—something for more affluent people, or a goal that is feasible only in the distant future. A program from Dollar Bank helps transform these dreams into realities by bringing the whole enterprise of homeownership within reach of working-class households.
Potential homeowners receive expert counseling and assistance with meeting the requirements of a down payment and closing costs. As the only financial institution in western PA that offers comprehensive, in-house credit counseling and homebuyer education, Dollar’s position in the lending marketplace is relatively unique. As a mutual bank, it is not beholden to outside shareholders, and can therefore offer more comprehensive programs.
Ray Garofalo, vice president, Community Development, attributes the program’s success to Dollar’s community focus. The goal of the program is to get people “mortgage ready.”
The only requirements for entering the program: the participant has not been listed on a deed or mortgage in the last three years; and the participant earns no less than $26,000 a year.
Household income can include salary and wages, social security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), court-mandated child support payments, and pensions; tenants who participate in the city housing authority’s Housing Choice Voucher Program may enroll in Dollar’s program once they have been qualified under the authority’s homeownership program.
“You have to have some income to be able to manage,” Garofalo said, “but we want to keep the window open as wide as possible to counsel people.”
The program starts with a confidential one-on-one session with a Dollar Bank credit consultant. Together, they review the participant’s employment history, credit profile, and available funds to determine which areas could be strengthened.
Garofalo explained that, in many cases, people are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and are completely new to budgeting. The program teaches them how to track every penny spent for a period of time, from a snack at the vending machine to monthly rent payments.
“We always get the same comments from people like ‘Hey, I never realized I earned that much money!’ They didn’t get a big raise. They’re just spending their money more carefully, managing their money better,” he said.
Once a participant’s credit and savings are in better shape, they move on to the next level of the program: homeownership training. Participants go through a course that teaches everything they need to know about the home-buying process. Garofalo believes the program is successful because it takes fear out of the equation.
“When you’ve never done it before, it’s scary, right? That’s why the training explains everything – from how to shop for a home, and dealing with real estate agents, to what happens during the closing, and all the documents you’re bound to see – as well as what to expect in your life as a homeowner,” he explained.
While the program prides itself on making people smart, savvy buyers, its financial counselors always emphasize how getting a house is only the first step to keeping a house. The idea is for participants to learn everything they need to know upfront, so that they can build on this knowledge for the rest of their lives as homeowners.
After the training, Dollar checks to see what kind of down payment and closing cost assistance a participant might be eligible for; the bank’s “3-2-1” program matches up to $1,000 from a participant’s savings with $3,000 of bank funds, for a total of up to $4,000. The grant can be used in addition to other grants and gifts from other sources.
In his two decades at the bank, Garofalo has seen hundreds of people go through the program to become first-time homebuyers. Still, he noted that the program only works for those who are willing to put in the work.
Visit dollar.bank/Company/About/Community-Development or call 412-261- 8109 to learn more. Dollar Bank also offers “Mortgages for Mothers” workshops to help single mothers become homeowners; the next session is scheduled for June 12th.