BENTON HARBOR — It’s often said buying a house is one of the best investments a family can make.

For some, who are either inexperienced or feel overwhelmed by the experience, additional help is needed. That’s where the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency has been coming in since 2002.

The agency is again offering its Homebuyer Education Program, which incorporates two workshops to create a framework for families and individuals hoping to buy that first home.

The program is one of the rare initiatives offered at SMCAA that doesn’t require income or eligibility guidelines for participation.

Kim Smith Oldham, operations manager for SMCAA, said the free workshops are open to the public and differs in attendance.

“It started because there was a need in the tri-county area,” she said. “The Michigan State Housing Development Authority worked with HUD (Housing and Urban Development) to create these workshops. They’re meant to ease clients through issues they were having, whether it was credit or income.”

Each month, two three-hour classes are offered on back-to-back weekday nights. For those who work late, a longer Saturday class is offered once every other month.

Jacob Cogswell, a housing counselor at SMCAA, said each workshop begins by asking if buying a home is right for attendees.

“We cover what the process will entail,” Cogswell said. “Then we go right into money management because we have to create a budget and have a plan to accomplish our goals. Then we move into credit, which is my favorite part.”

The workshop has lenders and real estate agents who drop by for guest lectures on the process. They speak to what the normal procedure is in applying for loans and inspecting a house.

The biggest hurdle attendees come across in the house hunting process is credit, Cogswell said. As a result, Cogswell said he goes through different scenarios for those present,  including negotiating payments and consolidating debt.

About six months ago, SMCAA partnered with the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors to incorporate a sort of question-and-answer session with different realtors.

The workshop’s curriculum then hits buying home insurance, keeping up on mortgage payments and accounting for maintenance costs.

“That’s a shock to people,” Cogswell said. “You should see the reactions from people when they hear it can cost $15,000 for a new roof. It gets people looping back to this is why we’re saving money and why it’s important to budget.”

With 30 workshops each year, Smith Oldham said they’ve seen various levels of understanding when it comes to buying a home.

“There are people who come in and feel they know a lot. But it’s all worthwhile as long as they can walk away having learned at least one thing,” she said.

In one of the recent workshops, Cogswell had a couple that spent nine months researching the process in an attempt to do it on their own.

“They knew so much coming in,” he said. “When we got done, they were like, ‘If we would have just taken this class nine months ago, it would have saved us 100 hours worth of research.’ They still learned a couple things, but they were doing their due diligence.”

The workshops are often discovered by word of mouth or through the fliers the SMCAA passes out to nearby apartment complexes and banks.

Over the past two years, the program has seen about 100 clients take the workshops. During that same stretch, Smith Oldham surmised about half of them bought a house.

Smith Oldham said it’s nice to know the program is helping the economy. But at the end of the day, it’s about helping people achieve their dreams.

Cogswell said he’s hoping to shed light on a subject he was never taught in school.

“I was never taught about credit. I never took business in college,” Cogswell said. “Almost 98 percent of the people in my class have no clue about credit. I feel like the credit portion is what people get the most out of. A person’s credit score affects a lot of things, including what you end up paying on your car insurance.”

The next workshop series is June 4-5, as well as an alternative Saturday workshop June 23.

Anyone interested in the workshops must register by contacting Cogswell at jcogswell@smcaa.com or by calling 925-9077, Ext. 883. More information on the program can be found online at www.smcaa.com.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski