Buying a home is a huge investment. Many approach the process with anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience. Before you jump into the wonderful world of home-ownership make sure you are prepared with the following 10 steps.
Step 1: Strengthen your credit score.
Credit reports are kept by the three major credit agencies, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. They show whether you are habitually late with payments and whether you have run into serious credit problems in the past.
A credit score is a number calculated from a formula created by Fair Isaac based on the information in your credit report. You have three different credit scores, one for each of your credit reports.
A low credit score may hurt your chances for getting the best interest rate, or getting financing at all. So get a copy of your reports and know your credit scores.
Errors are common. If you find any, contact the agencies directly to correct them, which can take two or three months to resolve. If the report is accurate but shows past problems, be prepared to explain them to a loan officer.
Step 2: Figure out what you can afford – budget.
Before you start shopping for a home, there is one thing you absolutely must do: have an annual budget. I’m not talking about a stab in the dark at what you think you spend in a year. I mean cold, hard, well-crunched numbers based data – your spending from the previous year or more.
Before purchasing, shop around for the best interest rate. Just be sure to get a fixed rate. If rates drop after your home purchase, crunch the numbers for refinancing. While finance fees will lengthen the time till you recoup the upfront expense, a lower interest rate over the long haul could be very beneficial.
A fortunate few receive all or part of a down payment as a gift or from an inheritance. If this is the case—congrats! What a wonderful gift. But this makes it all the more important that you carefully inspect your budget and confidently know what you can afford. I’ve seen people buy too much house this way and it’s not a pretty sight.
- How can you set a home price budget without knowing what type of monthly payment you can afford?
- How can you determine what you can afford without knowing how much you spend now?
I realize that people compare mortgage payments to their current rent prices, and that makes sense to some extent, but you also must account for the hidden costs like closing fees, property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, utilities, repairs and maintenance, furnishing, and moving. This stuff definitely adds up over time, making home appreciation less profitable than you might think. Plus, you can’t walk away from a 15- or 30-year commitment easily as you can at the end of a lease.
Choosing a good neighborhood could not only improve your home value over time, but also reduce the cost of home owner’s insurance.
Researching insurance alternatives can help reduce this cost. For example, protecting your home with a wireless security system could save you nearly $700 in insurance fees over the course of a year.
Another indirect type of “insurance” is making sure your home’s electrical is updated to avoid property damage due to fire. For example: just last week, Neil’s cousin lost his home to a fire. Fortunately no one was harmed, but of course it is very difficult to start over after losing your home and belongings.
Take a look at this guide from Reviews.com comparing 99 homeowners insurance providers.
And don’t even consider your monthly budget: not until you account for all those annual or biannual expenses like vacations, Christmas, gifts, other holidays, and the like. Once you’ve determined those expenses, either spread them out evenly over your monthly expenses (total them up & divide by 12), or subtract them from your take-home pay and pretend that money isn’t even yours. Then put it in a separate savings account.
I also recommend that you set your budget based on one income, even if you are a dual income house, if you ever conceivably might have kids. Even if you both plan to keep working. Even if you don’t think you’ll want kids. You simply do not know what the future may hold, and how having a child could change your plans.
Aside from having kids, you also never know when one partner could become unemployed. So do yourself a huge favor and buy a place you can afford on one person’s income. If you both keep killing it at work, you can pay it off fast and be done with the mortgage.
Step 3: Save for down payment and closing costs while also building a healthy savings account.
If you’re working toward home ownership, the best advice I have to give is to start saving for a 20% down payment. In the lagniappe below I’ll detail why that’s critical and why you may regret buying a house without one. Plus, practicing the discipline required to save up that big of a chunk of change is a good sign that you’re financially responsible enough to take on a mortgage.
I can’t recommend enough that you save a 20% down payment before purchasing a home. Sure, you probably know someone who bought with nothing down and lived to tell about it. But there are many good reasons to begin home ownership with some equity.
First, putting 20% down is the best way to avoid paying PMI, which is a form of insurance against your loan. In other words, you pay money to the bank every month that does not build any type of equity. Secondly, you could easily end up upside-down in your loan, owing more than you own, should your home value dip and you want or need to sell. While it may not seem likely, plenty of homeowners have found themselves in this unfortunate situation. Lastly, you’ll decrease your loan amount, and therefore your monthly payments and the amount of interest you’ll pay overall.
Step 4: Get pre approved for a mortgage.
A mortgage pre-qualification can be useful as an estimate of how much you can afford to spend on your home, but a pre-approval is much more valuable because this means the lender has actually checked your credit and verified your documentation to approve a specific loan amount (usually for a particular time period such as 90 days). Final loan approval occurs when you have an appraisal done and the loan is applied to a particular property.
Step 5: Find an Agent (optional).
Most sellers list their homes through an agent — but those agents work for the seller, not you. They’re paid based on a percentage, usually 5 to 7% of the purchase price, so their interest will be in getting you to pay more.
You need an “exclusive buyer agent.” Sometimes buyer agents are paid directly by you, on an hourly or contracted fee. Other times they split the commission that the seller’s agent gets upon sale. A buyer’s representative has the same access to homes for sale that a seller’s agent does, but his or her allegiance is supposed to be only to you.
Step 6: Search for a home.
Your first step here is to figure out what city or neighborhood you want to live in. Look for signs of economic vitality: a mixture of young families and older couples, low unemployment and good incomes.
Pay special attention to districts with good schools, even if you don’t have school-age children. When it comes time to sell, you’ll find that a strong school system is a major advantage in helping your home retain or gain value.
Try also to get an idea about the real estate market in the area. For example, if homes are selling close to or even above the asking price, that shows the area is desirable. If you have the flexibility, consider doing your house hunt in the off-season — meaning, generally, the colder months of the year. You’ll have less competition and sellers may be more willing to negotiate.
Be wary of choosing search criteria that are too restrictive. For example, select a price range 10% above and 10% below your true range. Add a 10-mile cushion to the location you specify.
Step 7: Make an offer and enter into a contract.
Once you find the house you want, move quickly to make your bid. If you’re working with a buyer’s broker, then get advice from him or her on an initial offer. If you’re working with a seller’s agent, devise the strategy yourself.
There’s no foolproof system for negotiating a fair price. Occasionally it’s best to deal directly with the seller yourself. More often it’s better to work exclusively through intermediaries.
Be creative about finding ways to satisfy the seller’s needs. For instance, ask if the seller would throw in kitchen and laundry appliances if you meet his price — or take them away in exchange for a lower price.
Once you reach a mutually acceptable price, the seller’s agent will draw up an offer to purchase that includes an estimated closing date (usually 45 to 60 days from acceptance of the offer).
Have your lawyer or agent review this document to make sure the deal is contingent upon:
- You obtaining a mortgage
- A home inspection that shows no significant defects
- A guarantee that you may conduct a walk-through inspection 24 hours before closing.
You also need to make a good-faith deposit — usually 1% to 10% of the purchase price — that should be deposited into an escrow account. The seller will receive this money after the deal has closed. If the deal falls through, you will get the money back only if you or the home failed any of the contingency clauses.
Step 8: Secure a loan.
Now call your mortgage broker or lender and move quickly to agree on terms, if you have not already done so. This is when you decide whether to go with the fixed rate or adjustable rate mortgage and whether to pay points. Expect to pay $50 to $75 for a credit check at this point, and another $150, on average to $300 for an appraisal of the home. Most other fees will be due at the closing.
If you don’t already have one, look into taking out a homeowner’s insurance policy, too. Most lenders require that you have homeowner’s insurance in place before they’ll approve your loan.
Step 9: Get an inspection.
A home inspection is another important step before purchasing. It may be tempting to skip the inspection since they run $300-400 or more, depending on your location. But an inspectors’ knowledge can save you a lot of trouble and money over time. We passed on buying one house after the inspection revealed foundation problems. Many issues can be fixed, but it’s nice to have that information up front so you can ask the seller to make the repairs or lower the purchase price. It’s hard to determine a good price for a home without the inspection results.
Step 10: Buy a house you like – how much house?
The age of the starter home seems to be over. According to Zillow’s research on millennial homebuyers, “millennials tend to buy larger homes with more square footage and a higher price tag. The median millennial home purchase is $217,000, which is just 11 percent less than Generation X home purchases and slightly costlier compared to Baby Boomer homes.” Knowing your monthly budget will help you avoid getting in over your head.
With your budget in mind, determine how much you’d like to spend on a mortgage, including principle, interest, taxes, and insurance (PITI). Don’t forget to estimate 1-3% annually of the home’s value for maintenance—believe me, you’ll need it. Houses are made of wood, drywall, paint, and lots of other materials that wear out over time. They are also full of expensive appliances which are ticking time bombs for a financial emergency, if you’re not prepared.
Now that you’ve got a real monthly number that’s based on data (i.e. your past spending), go play with some online mortgage calculators. Zillow reports that two-thirds of millennials use mortgage and affordability calculators while considering home ownership. Friends, let’s make that number 100%.
And don’t be fooled by incomplete calculations. Watch out for those real estate web site calculators that report the monthly price for that gorgeous turnkey house is less than you’re paying in rent. They’re often assuming a 30 year term with 20% down, and may not be counting hundreds of dollars per month for property taxes.
While you’re playing with those calculators, select a 15 year term, which will NOT be the default. I know there’s a raging debate over whether or not to take a 30 year and invest the difference, earning a higher interest rate than you’re paying. But let’s just be real. Most normal people are NOT going to be putting the difference into the stock market. If you are really going to invest like crazy, I trust you to navigate this decision. For everyone else, I highly recommend the 15-year. Otherwise, the interest you pay will likely devour the appreciation. It basically works out to a rental agreement (with the bank), but you’re also allowed to hemorrhage money on maintenance and remodeling.
Conventional wisdom says not to spend more than 25% of your income on your mortgage. I concur. And let’s be conservative and say 25% of your take-home pay, and include all of PITI when calculating your housing costs. Naturally, you don’t have to spend this much, but don’t surpass it.
Remember, I’m giving this information because I don’t want to see you strapped by your mortgage, let alone upside down in it. Even if you’re making payments easily, you don’t want it to prevent you from traveling, being generous, or having the financial flexibility to work less or retire someday. Happy house hunting!