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Buying a House As a Non-U.S. Citizen: What You Should Know

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American culture is synonymous with baseball, hot dogs, and… buying real estate? You might not think of home buying as a cultural artifact of the U.S., but the laws and customs around it are as unique to America as apple pie.

This can pose a distinct challenge for those who wish to become homeowners in the States but don’t have citizenship. People in this situation have to navigate an idiosyncratic system while wondering if American homeownership is even possible for them.

The good news is that you can buy a house as an immigrant, regardless of your immigration status. But buying a house can be a complicated process, and buying a house as a non-U.S. citizen is even more complex.

We break down this multifaceted issue and answer the following and point you to the resources you need if you’re buying a house as a non-U.S. citizen.

Who can buy a house in the U.S.?

It can be tricky, even impossible, to buy property as a non-citizen in countries around the world. Greece, Mexico, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the most challenging markets for foreigners to buy in. However, the United States has no citizenship requirements for home buyers, and outside of the typical stress of buying a home, there are few additional barriers to homeownership for non-U.S. citizens.

In fact, in 2021, foreign buyers bought a total of $54.4 billion worth of property in the U.S. That impressive number comes with some caveats for non-citizen homebuyers, like additional steps or a higher burden of proof. We’ll break down some of these intricacies in the sections below.

How does immigration status impact buying a home?

If you’re house hunting, you may be wondering how your immigration status will make a difference in your home buying process. The biggest impact it will have is likely on your ability to qualify for a mortgage. This is significant because of the portion of home sales that wouldn’t be possible without a mortgage: According to the National Association of Realtors, 87% of recent homebuyers financed their purchase.

The types of financing available to non-citizen homebuyers will depend on their specific immigration status. We broke down the implications for some of the most common statuses below:

Foreign nationals

Broadly speaking, foreign nationals will need to jump through some hoops to purchase property in the U.S. While some financing may be available to them, buying cash is a disproportionately popular option. The National Association of Realtors found that of foreign nationals who bought property in the U.S. in 2021, 39% paid cash as opposed to just 19% of home purchases overall that were paid for with cash.

Foreign nationals should obtain the following to begin the process of applying for a mortgage:

  • A social security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) — a number issued by the IRS to those who are not eligible for a social security number
  • A credit score
  • Bank statements and proof of reserves
  • Tax returns

Lawful permanent residents and green card holders

Immigrants who are lawful permanent residents or green card holders have access to most of the same services as U.S. citizens. That includes government-sponsored mortgages like FHA loans and those that are backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 

Just be sure to work with a lender who has worked with foreign nationals before — not all lenders are aware of the complexities of issuing mortgages to immigrants with this status, and they might not be the best equipped to empower you in your home buying process.

Refugees and asylum seekers

Those who are granted refugee status or asylum are eligible for the same financing that U.S. citizens are, including government-backed and conventional loans. However, they will have to wait until they are granted their green card, which typically takes two years or more.

DACA recipients

Those who have been granted DACA status will have a harder time financing their home purchase. While DACA recipients are eligible for social security numbers, they don’t qualify for most mortgages. DACA recipients with a credit score of 620 or higher, though, who are buying a property that will serve as their primary residence can apply for an FHA loan.

Undocumented

Undocumented persons have the fewest options when it comes to securing financing. Lenders disqualify them from government-backed mortgages and conventional ones. Many people who are undocumented will have to pay cash for their homes. However, there is one option for undocumented immigrants to secure some financing for their homes: ITIN mortgages.

ITIN mortgages were designed for those who aren’t eligible for a social security number and who want to finance the purchase of their primary residence. Many undocumented immigrants are eligible for this type of financing through their ITIN that they received when filing income taxes. Specific requirements for the loan will vary by lender, but generally speaking, borrowers will need to have a strong credit and employment history and a record of paying rent on time.

Can undocumented immigrants buy a house?

Undocumented immigrants can buy a house in the United States. However, their citizenship status creates unique challenges, like difficulty securing financing and additional friction navigating bureaucracy without standard documentation. Still, according to a 2019 analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau by the Migration Policy Institute, more than 3 million undocumented immigrants are homeowners — making up a significant portion of the $3.6 billion in property taxes that the undocumented population pays every year. 

Complications of deportation

Without documentation to establish residency or citizenship, undocumented immigrants risk deportation. In addition to a myriad of other concerns, homeowners who face deportation must also think about their property.

There are two options for those in this situation: Gift the home to a friend or family member, or sell your home. These options come with their own complications, like dealing with real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and tax requirements. For more information on how to deal with your property if you’re facing deportation, see the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Checklist for Homeownership.

Unfortunately, in many cases, homeowners who are deported and financed their home face foreclosure due to the loss of income and an inability to make the required payments. People who face deportation can also contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office to file an appeal, but please note that appeals are rarely successful.

Who to talk to talk to about home buying as a non-U.S. citizen

Whether you’re a citizen or not, speaking with a real estate agent is the best place to start your home buying journey. They will be able to help walk you through all your options for budgets, financing, and additional resources that may be a service to you. When looking for an agent, seek out those who have experience working with immigrant clients to ensure that your agent is up-to-date on all the requirements and resources for these buyers.

Additionally, reaching out to local advocacy organizations can be a beneficial step for immigrants, especially for those without documentation. These groups can serve as your advocate in a hyper-competitive market and provide helpful insight into a complicated process.

Lastly, remember that discrimination is illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects people from discrimination based on race, religion, sex, familial status, disability, and national origin (including immigration status) in all housing related activities — like buying a home or securing a mortgage. If you suspect you have been discriminated against, you may file a complaint with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

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