CECIL COUNTY — The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development has kicked off a program aimed at increasing the number of first-time homebuyers in the county.

The new Maryland Mortgage Program was launched June 1 that gives a quarter-percent discount on interest rates plus assistance with the down payment and closing costs.

“It’s our way of trying to make sure there’s increased participation in our programs,” said Bill Ariano, deputy director of the division of development financing.

Working with the Internal Revenue Service and Housing and Urban Development, MMP offers incentives worth more than $9,500.

In conjunction with 62 private lenders, Ariano said the program, as offered last year, helped 14 homebuyers in Cecil County by securing $2.9 million in mortgages.

“What the Maryland Mortgage Program does is overcomes the barriers to purchasing a home,” said Heidi Ford, a vice president with 1st Home Mortgage in White Marsh. “They may not have the assets to pay 5-percent down or for closing costs.”

In Harford and Cecil County combined, 125 homes were purchased at the reduced interest rate, aided by help with down payments, closing costs and by providing tax breaks.

“The definition of a first-time homebuyer is someone who has not owned a home anywhere in the last three years,” Ariano said Wednesday.

The process begins with finding the right realtor, according to Ford.

“When you meet with a realtor, they will give you a couple of recommendations of lenders they work with,” Ford said. “Or contact a Maryland Mortgage Program experienced lender. You can find them on the MMP website.:

“The reason why that’s important is there are homebuyer’s education requirements which need to be done prior to entering into a contract,” Ford said. “Your experienced loan officer can walk you through the process.”

Ford said the requirements protect the buyer from the predatory practices that caused the housing bubble to burst a decade ago.

“Home ownership is a wonderful thing, but it requires a lot,” Ford said. The coursework includes budgeting and a discussion on how expensive a home the buyer can afford.

“It’s not overwhelming, but there are certain extra steps,” she said.

For a list of participating lenders or other information on the Maryland Mortgage Program, go to www.mmp.maryland.gov.

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