Buying your first home can be a daunting task. But millions of people have been there before you and survived. If you do your homework, you'll have the best possible chance of finding a place you can afford for a price you can handle. The big surprise for many first-timers is that they need to finish the first five steps on this list before they can even begin to look for a home.
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!”
As you research neighborhoods, factor in how moving would change your transportation costs to work. The Commute Solutions cost calculator takes into account your car's vehicle type along with car payments, gas, miles traveled and other factors to help you estimate the cost of a potential commute.
Check Benefits for First-Time Buyers
Before you start meeting with lenders, it's good to know what constitutes a good deal. And that includes looking into special programs that might make it easier for you to find a property you can afford. Take this information with you when you start looking for a mortgage.
(Read Credits for First-Time Homebuyers to learn more about these options.)
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?—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 homebuyer 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.
Shop Around for a Mortgage
Don’t be bound by loyalty when seeking a pre-approval or searching for a mortgage. “Shop lenders, even if you only qualify for one type of loan,” says Recchia.
Fees can be surprisingly varied. For example, an FHA loan may have different fees depending on if you’re applying for the loan through a local bank, credit union, mortgage banker, large bank or mortgage broker.
When you've got the best deal you can, get a mortgage pre-approval so you know how much house you can buy. And make sure you are pre-approved, not just pre-qualified.
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
Once you know how much you can afford and the loan amount you’ll qualify for, it’s time to find a real estate agent. Look for one who works with a team of people who can offer suggestions about home inspectors, insurance agents, etc.
“Realtors do a lot of your groundwork up front for you by contacting listing agents to set up showings and help you negotiate the purchase,” says Brandon Gentile, CEO of the Legacy Group Real Estate Team in Clarkston, Mich. “The best part is, a buyer doesn’t pay for working with a realtor. The service is free for a buyer, as sellers pay all the commission.”
Decide on a Neighborhood
You'll probably have an ideal location, but keep an open mind as you see how much house you can buy in different areas. Homes and land are less expensive the farther they are from a metropolitan area. On the other hand, imagining that the long commute won't matter that much is an easy trap to fall into. The stress and costs of a long commute can undermine marriages, finances, and mental health. Use the calculator in step 1 to see what that extra trip could add to your monthly bill.
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, President/CEO of Avanti Mortgage, who is based in the greater Salt Lake City area. Don’t overlook hidden costs such as the home inspection, home insurance, property taxes, homeowners association fees and more.
Look Over Utility Bills
First-time homebuyers are often moving from rentals that use less energy (gas, oil, electric, propane, etc.) and water than a larger new home will. It is easy to be ambushed by soaring rates when your new house has ceilings higher than your rental – or older windows that leak air. Then there are unexpected utilities, such as buying gas to power a lawnmower. These costs can blow a budget.
Before submitting a purchase offer, request the energy bills from the past 12 months to get an idea of the average monthly cost, suggests Marianne Cusato, an award-winning designer based in Miami, Fla., and co-author of The Just Right Home. Most utility companies can provide a homeowner copy upon request. “If you are in love with a house and everything else works but the energy bills, have an audit performed to assess what your options are for making it more energy efficient,” says Cusato. “In many cities, the electric company will come out and do the assessment for free.”
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.
(For more on what to look for, see 10 Reasons You Shouldn't Skip a Home Inspection.)
The Bottom Line
Purchasing your first home is perhaps the biggest financial decision you’ll ever make. Don't take on more of a financial obligation than you can handle. A small stretch may be worth it, but a big one could haunt you if life gets temporarily bumpy.
That’s why Recchia suggests keeping your risk tolerance in mind. “If you find great security in owning your house, save more money for a large down payment and find a loan that works for you. The higher the down payment, the less in debt you will be; the less debt, the better you will be able to weather economic storms and still own your house,” she says.