Purchasing a home is an extremely exciting adventure in the life journey – in fact, more than anything it might represent achieving the American dream. For all the excitement though, it can be confusing, challenging, and stressful. And even for those who’ve done it before, today’s real estate and credit markets are significantly different from even five years ago.
So, whether you’re embarking on this journey as a first-time home buyer, taking advantage of record-low interest rates, or just planning on downsizing or upgrading, follow our guide to help get you in great home-buying shape.
Phase 1: Prepping and Planning
1. Decide how much you can afford – If you’re like many, your home is the largest purchase you’ll ever make – so the biggest question is around how much you can comfortably afford. This is determined according to your income, debt, credit score, location, and more. Then there’s the down payment, for which you’ll probably need to have a savings plan to reach (typical amount is 10-20% of the home value). You can use a home affordability calculator or, better yet, talk to a financial planner.
2. Put your financial ducks in a row – You’ll want to be in good financial shape before house shopping. That means paying off all or most of your debt and making sure you have an emergency fund. The latter will be helpful for those unexpected expenses you’ll have as a new homeowner (that you didn’t have to worry about as a renter!). You’ll also want to save for closing costs (typically 2-5% of loan amount), moving expenses, repairs, and other various expenses.
3. Strengthen your credit – Your credit score affects what loans you will qualify for, so you want it as strong as possible. Get free credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion and make sure there aren’t any errors. Then build your score by making sure to pay all bills on time and keeping card balances low. If you don’t have much credit history, quickly start building your score by putting a utility bill or two in your name and staying current on your payments.
4. Educate yourself – Get familiar with all the steps of the process, including all the costs along the way and the people who will be involved. Your main contact (and person working on your behalf) will be your real estate agent, but you will/may also be working with a seller’s agent, broker, loan officer, underwriter, appraiser, listing agent, loan servicer, home inspector, and others.
5. Work with recommended professionals – The most important of these is your real estate agent, who will be representing you and your interests through the process. Ask for recommendations in your circle. Pro tip: You may get referrals to “real estate agents,” “realtors,” and “real estate brokers.” What’s the difference? The first is a licensed professional representing buyers or sellers, the second is a real estate agent who’s a member of the realtors’ association, and the last generally has more training and may work independently or have their own firm.
6. Explore your mortgage options – You can go with all kinds of lenders – all of which have a different down payment and eligibility requirements. Make sure you look at the range of loans, including conventional mortgages as well as loans offered by the FHA, USDA, and VA. As a first-time homebuyer, be sure to research federal or local assistance programs for your buying cohort – they typically offer advantages and savings not offered to other home buyers! After your research, carefully compare the different loan fees and rates.
7. Get pre-approved – After you’ve chosen a preferred lender, apply for pre-approval. Having a pre-approval letter (which specifies the lender’s offer amount) shows real estate agents and home sellers that you’re serious about buying, which can put you at the front of the bidder line.
Phase 2: House Shopping
8. Research the area – Smart buyers don’t make buying decisions based on the property and house alone. Make sure you thoroughly research the neighborhood (visiting it at different times and days) and think about proximity to schools and workplaces. Research crime rates and consider traffic congestion and freeway access. Also, know the value of homes in the area – a price per square foot average is a great yardstick for making sure you don’t end up paying over market value.
9. Go to open houses – The pandemic has made online home-viewing easier than ever. Take advantage of 3D home tours, which will let you filter out homes that don’t fit your needs. From there, you can attend in-person open houses only at those homes you’re most interested in.
10. Get an inspection – Paying for a home inspection is money well spent and can save you very expensive headaches down the road. A typical inspection covers things like structural elements, grounds, attic, heating and cooling systems, roof, exterior surfaces, basement, insulation, electrical system, and all other parts of the home.
11. Make an offer – Once you’ve found the home you want and can afford, you’ll make an offer to the seller. If you’re not sure how much that should be, lean on your agent for their expertise! They can also help guide you through any negotiating (on say, repairs) or other terms or conditions. Finally, a personalized offer letter never hurts!
12. Know the market – You may be buying in a seller’s market, a buyer’s market, or somewhere in between. Knowing the larger marketplace will help ensure you don’t over-or underbid (again, your agent should be your guide here!). If the market is especially hot you’ll be competing against lots of other offers – know your top price going in so that you don’t get saddled with debt you can’t afford.
13. Get adequate home insurance – Your lender will require homeowners insurance, so start shopping for coverage early (at least 30 days before closing). Get quotes and make sure you understand what’s covered, what’s not, what the terms are, and any additional coverage your home may need. Have questions? Give us a call – we offer special benefits to educators, firefighters, nurses, and peace officers!
Congratulations on embarking on the exciting home-buying journey! With a little extra effort, a plan, and a solid understanding of the process, you’ll be settled into the home of your dreams in no time.
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