Pay off your credit card debt.
There is such a thing as “good debt,” and that includes your mortgage payments. However, this makes other debts, like your credit card debt, “bad,” and that’s exactly what you don’t want heading into the homebuying process. Interest rates increase for this kind of debt over time, and can make it harder for you to afford a home. Take care of these payments before you consider buying.
Have money in the bank.
Most experts suggest that you have at least 20 percent of the house’s purchase price saved as a down payment. You can certainly buy a house without that – and many people do – but there are plenty of good reasons to put down at least 20 percent. For starters, you’ll almost certainly avoid paying private mortgage insurance, or you won’t have to pay it for long. PMI is typically 1 to 2 percent of the value of the loan, split into monthly payments. It may not seem like much, but if it adds, say, $100 to your monthly mortgage payment, you can see why you’d like to avoid it.
Review your financial health.
Before clicking through pages of online listings or falling in love with your dream home, do a serious audit of your finances.
First look at savings. Don’t even consider buying a home before you have an emergency savings account with three to six months of living expenses. Look at how much is left over in your savings and investment accounts that could go toward a down payment.
Next, review exactly how much you’re spending every month – and where it’s going. This will tell you how much you can allocate to a mortgage payment. “Make sure to account for every dollar you spend on utilities, kids’ activities, food, car maintenance and payments, clothing, entertainment, retirement savings, regular savings, miscellaneous little items, etc., to know how and where a new mortgage payment fits into your budget,” says Liz Recchia, owner/broker at We Sell Real Estate, LLC, in Phoenix, Ariz., and author of “HELP! I Can’t Make My House Payment!”
Meet with lenders.
Many realtors will not spend time with clients who haven’t clarified how much they can afford to spend. And in most instances, sellers will not even entertain an offer that’s not accompanied with a mortgage pre-approval. That’s why – if you don’t have all cash (how many first-time buyers do do?) – your next step is talking to a lender and/or mortgage broker.
A lender or broker will assess your credit score and the amount you can qualify for on a loan. He or she will also discuss your assets (savings, 401(k), etc.) and debt, as well as any local programs that might be available for down payment assistance. That’s where your homework on first-time home buyer programs can help. If you think you qualify, look for a lender that handles the program you hope to get.
Do some research online, but work with a live person who can review your situation, answer questions and, if necessary, suggest how you can improve your credit.“Online calculators do not always include insurance and taxes or PMI [private mortgage insurance required if the down payment is less than 20%] and are not always an accurate picture of what the payment or actual fees for the loan are,” says Anita Wagoner Brown, director of sales and marketing for Home Creations, the largest new home builder in Oklahoma.
Have a back-up lender.
Qualifying for a loan isn’t a guarantee your loan will eventually be funded: Underwriting guidelines shift, lender risk-analysis changes and investor markets can alter. “I have had clients who signed loan and escrow documents, and 24 to 48 hours before they were supposed to close were notified the lender froze funding on their loan program,” says Recchia. Having a second lender that has already qualified you for a mortgage gives you an alternate way to keep the process on, or close to, schedule
Find a real estate agent – a buyer’s agent!
Whether this is your first, second or third time buying a home, you’re always better off using a Realtor. Having that expertise on your side can help you find the right place, broker a deal, sift through all the complicated paperwork and meet key deadlines. Before you begin your search, first shop around for an agent that you trust and enjoy working with.
List Your Wants & Needs.
Going into the homebuying process with knowledge of your needs and wants will benefit you in several ways. Doing so will help you identify and prioritize features and help you eliminate homes that don’t meet your needs.
As you begin shopping for a home, it may be necessary to re-evaluate your list based on the local market.
Lean on your real estate agent when you’re unsure of whether your list meshes with your budget.
When you find a property, crunch your numbers again.
If you’re thinking about making an offer on a home, take another look at your budget. This time factor in closing costs, moving expenses and any immediate repairs and appliances you may need before you can move into the home, notes Felipe Pacheco, a division manager of Primary Residential Mortgage Inc. (PRMI), who is based in Salt Lake City. Don’t overlook hidden costs such as the home inspection, home insurance, property taxes, homeowners association fees and more.
Don’t forgo a home inspection.
After your offer has been accepted, splurge for a home inspection. Spending even $500 can educate you about the house and help you decide if you really want to pay for necessary repairs. You can also leverage your offer depending on the results of the inspection report and make the seller financially responsible for all or some of the repairs.
Consider the Future.
It’s impossible to perfectly predict the future of your chosen neighborhood, but paying attention to the information that is available to you now can help you avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.