1. 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.
As you research neighborhoods, factor in how moving would change your transportation costs to work.
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. Read Credits For First-Time Home Buyers to learn more about these options. Take this information with you when you start looking for a mortgage.
3. Meet with lenders.
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.
4. 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. See Understanding FHA Home Loans.
When you’ve gotten 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.
5. 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.
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.
6. Find a realtor.
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. Mary Phillips, Realtor with Keller Willaims.
“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.
The service is free for a buyer, as sellers pay all the commission.
7. 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.
8. 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. Don’t overlook hidden costs such as the home inspection, home insurance, property taxes, homeowners association fees and more.
9. Look over utility bills.
First-time home buyers 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.
10. 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.
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.
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.