Many people dream of home ownership but it mandates homework, legwork and considerable effort on your part to ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible, and you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Here’s how to make your dream become a reality. This article assumes you will be using a lender.
Note: These instructions pertain to buying a house in the US.
- Strengthen your credit. The higher your FICO score, which ranges from 300 to 850, the better rate you’ll qualify for. Get a free copy of your credit report so you can see what the lenders see on your credit history. Pay off credit cards and resolve any credit disputes or delinquencies.
- Determine how much house you can afford, and how much you’ll likely be able to borrow.
- You will be expected to put down 10-20% of the appraised value of a home. (Note that the appraised value may be higher or lower than the selling price of the house.) If you have $30,000 saved for a down payment, for example, you can use it as a down payment for a home between $300k (10% down payment) or $150k (20% down payment). Putting down less often, but not always, requires you to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), which increases your monthly housing cost but is tax deductible.
- Find out what ratios lenders are using to determine if you qualify for a loan. “28 and 36” is a commonly used ratio. It means that 28% of your gross income (before you pay taxes) must cover your intended housing expenses (including principal and interest on the mortgage, as well as real estate taxes and insurance). Monthly payments on your outstanding debts, when combined with your housing expenses, must not exceed 36% of your gross income. Find each percentage for your monthly gross income (28% and 36% of $3750 = $1050 and $1350, respectively). Your monthly payments on outstanding debts cannot exceed the difference between the ($300) or else you will not be approved.
- Calculate your expected housing expenses. Estimate the annual real estate taxes and insurance costs in your area and add that to the average price of the home you’d like to buy. Also add how much you can expect to pay in closing costs. (These take in various charges that generally run between 3 to 6 percent of the money you’re borrowing. Credit unions often offer lower closing costs to their members.) Put the total into a mortgage calculator (you can find them online or make your own in a spreadsheet. If the figure is above 28% of your gross income (or whatever the lower percentage used by lenders in your situation) then you will have a hard time getting a mortgage.
- Determine whether you need to sell your current home in order to afford a new one. If so, any offer to buy that you make will be contingent on that sale. Contingent offers are more risky and less desirable for the seller, since the sale can’t be completed until the buyer’s house is sold. You may want to put your current house on the market first.
- Get pre-approved (not pre-qualified) to get the actual amount you can pay. Apply to several lenders within a two week period so that the inquiries do not damage your credit report. Do this before contacting a real estate agent so you have a firm idea of what you can afford, and you don’t accidentally fall in love with a house that you cannot afford.
- If you qualify, check out first-time buyers’ programs, which often have much lower down payment requirements. These are offered by various states and local governments. You may also be able to access up to $10,000 from your 401(k) or Roth IRA without penalty. Ask your broker or employer’s human resources department for specifics regarding borrowing against those assets.
- If you can’t afford a 10%-20% down payment on your home, but have good credit and steady income, a mortgage broker may assist you with a combination or FHA mortgage. In that, you’re taking out a first mortgage up to 80% of the value of the home, and a second mortgage for the remaining amount. While the rate on the second mortgage will be slightly higher, the interest on it is tax-deductible and combined payments should still be lower than a first mortgage with PMI. If you’re buying new, consider the Nehemiah Program to get assistance with your down-payment.
- Go house shopping. Unless you’re under the gun time-wise, look at as many homes as possible to get a sense of what’s available. Don’t rush into buying if you don’t have to. Read more in How to Find Your Ideal House.
- Sign up for an MLS (Multiple Listing Service) alert service to search on properties in your area so you can get a feeling for what is on the market in your price range. Your agent can do this for you. (If you sign up through a real estate agent, it is poor form to call the listing agent directly to see a house. Don’t ask an agent to do things for you unless you’re planning to have them represent you–they don’t get paid until a client buys a house and it’s not fair to ask them to work for free, knowing that you’re not going to use them to buy your home!)
- Find a good real estate agent to represent you in the search and negotiation process. The real estate agent should be: amiable, open, interested, relaxed, confident, and qualified. Learn the agent’s rates, methods, experience, and training. Go into exhaustive detail when describing what you want in a home: number of bathrooms and bedrooms, attached garage, land and anything else that may be important, like good light or a big enough yard for the kids. Read more in How to Select a Realtor.
- Define the area you’d like to live in. Scout out what’s available in the vicinity. Look at prices, home design, proximity to shopping, schools and other amenities. Read the town paper, if there is one, and chat with the locals. Look beyond the home to the neighborhood and the condition of nearby homes to make sure you aren’t buying the only gem in sight. The area in which your home is located is sometimes a bigger consideration than the home itself, since it has a major impact on your home’s resale value. Buying a fixer-upper in the right neighborhood can be a great investment, and being able to identify up-and-coming communities–where more people want to live–can lead you to a bargain property that will only appreciate in value.
- Visit a few open houses to gauge what’s on the market and see firsthand what you want, such as overall layout, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, kitchen amenities, and storage. Visit properties you’re seriously interested in at various times of the day to check traffic and congestion, available parking, noise levels and general activities. What may seem like a peaceful neighborhood at lunch can become a loud shortcut during rush hour, and you’d never know it if you drove by only once.
- If you are unsure about the price, have the home appraised by a local appraiser. Never buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood! When appraising a home, appraisers will look for “comparables” or “comps”, homes in the area which have similar features, size, etc. If your home is more expensive than the comps, or the appraiser has to find comps in a different subdivision or more than 1/2 mile away, beware! Your bank may balk at financing the home, and you probably won’t see your home appreciate in value very much. If you can, buy the least expensive home in a neighborhood — as homes around you sell for more money than you paid, your home’s value increases.
- Make an offer.
- Include earnest money with your offer.–usually $5,000 to $10,000. Once you sign an offer, you are officially in escrow, which means you are committed to buy the house or lose your deposit, unless you do not get final mortgage approval. During escrow (typically 30 to 90 days), your lender arranges for purchase financing and finalizes your mortgage.
- Make sure final acceptance is predicated on a suitable home inspection. Request the following surveys and reports: inspection, pests, dry rot, radon, hazardous materials, landslides, flood plains, earthquake faults and crime statistics. (You will generally have 7-10 days to complete inspections–be sure that your agent explains this fully to you when signing the purchase and sales contract.) A home inspection costs between $150 and $500, depending on the area, but it can prevent a $100,000 mistake. This is especially true with older homes, as you want to avoid financial landmines such as lead-paint, asbestos insulation and mold.
- If you use the inspection results to negotiate down the price of your purchase, do not refer to the inspection or bids for work in your contract. The lending institution may request to see a copy of your inspection, which will supersede their appraiser’s evaluation.
- Have a home energy audit completed on the house and ensure that the contract is contingent on the outcome. Getting a home energy audit is an essential part of the home buying experience. Not knowing what it really costs to heat and cool a home is a potential financial disaster waiting to happen. Home buyers make guesstimates when figuring out a new home budget. These estimates can be significantly incorrect and place families into dire financial circumstances.
- Close escrow. This is usually conducted in an escrow office and involves signing documents related to the property and your mortgage arrangements. The packet of papers includes the deed, proving you now own the house, and the title, which shows that no one else has any claim to it or lien against it. If any issues remain, money may be set aside in escrow until they are resolved, which acts as an incentive for the seller to quickly remedy any problem areas in order to receive all that is owed.Consider using a real-estate lawyer to review closing documents and represent you at closing. Realtors are unable to give you legal advice. Lawyers may charge $200-$400 for the few minutes they’re actually there, but they’re paid to look out for you.
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