For those with no down payment, a low or moderate income, and borderline bad credit, USDA rural mortgages can be the fairy godmother. But, unlike FHA or VA, which just guarantee mortgages underwritten by private mortgage lenders, USDA, through its direct lending program, actually funds those loans. That means the agency can run out of money.

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USDA loans have a lot to recommend them. The interest rate can be subsidized if you qualify. You can finance up to 102% of the property's appraised value if it needs repairs, and there is no mortgage insurance or funding fee. But if you miss the boat, there's no more money until October, when the federal government starts a new fiscal year.

Other programs aren't unlimited either. While down payment assistance in the form of grants, loans, or both are available courtesy of state, county, and city governments, plus charitable organizations, the money tap does turn off. And demand is higher than ever, thanks to first time buyer tax credits fueling interest in these programs.

Get thee to a mortgage or housing counselor. You can find them on the HUD Web site. Just go to the State Pages, choose your state, then select "Learn About Home Ownership" for a list of housing resources. A housing counselor can help you determine which programs you qualify for and when you should apply to increase your chance of success.

Charitable organizations can help too. Just make sure if you plan to use an FHA mortgage that your assistance comes from an approved group. You can find out by contacting your nearest HUD home ownership center.