Buying a home can be thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time, especially for a first-time homebuyer — it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect. The learning curve can be steep, but most of the issues can be resolved by doing a little financial homework.
Take these 15 steps to help make the process go more smoothly.
Are you planning to have kids? Will you be taking care of elderly relatives? You might be planning to live in your first home for only a few years. In that case, who is your target audience when it comes time to sell the house? If you buy a house in a very bad school district or a house on a very busy street, when you are ready to sell the house, most families with children will be out of your list of potential buyers.
Home-buying is an emotional process. Ideally, you should set aside all your emotions when evaluating a house. Practically, that is impossible. Instead, make a checklist of your must-haves, nice-to-haves and other essentials. Then print copies of this checklist. Every time you visit a house, take the checklist along with you; take photographs so you can cross each item off your list. If you fall in love with the house and your checklist shows that the house has none of your must-haves, it will at least make you pause and think.
When budgeting for the house, don’t stop with principal, interest, taxes and insurance; add in utilities, the cost of commuting and upgrades. Call the utility companies that service the house you are considering and ask for an estimate of what the cost will be, whether there are any budget plans available, etc. Will the gas budget for your car increase if you are moving further away from the places you frequently visit? Budget all of these expenses and see if you can still afford the house.
Our long term plan is to rent out the house, if and when we move away. With this in mind, once we identified the neighborhood we found most desirable, I asked for a copy of the HOA contract after going to an open house in the area. It turned out that none of the houses in that neighborhood could be rented out. If you are buying a house that is part of an HOA, it is absolutely essential to read the HOA contract before you do anything else.
When I was researching our mortgage options, I came across so many grants and funding sources I have never heard of before. I always thought the income limit for qualifying for these types of funding would be very low, but I was pleasantly surprised by the generous income limit on many of the options. There are many different options based on profession (grants for teachers, farmers, etc.) as well as the area of the potential house (whether it’s in a rural area, high-poverty area, etc.) Research all the grants and funding options you are eligible for before you automatically decide you won’t qualify for anything.
A house is probably the largest purchase you will ever make in your life, so make sure you understand the terms of your contract. If you don’t understand any of the terms, ask your mortgage broker and your real estate agent. If they won’t explain the terms clearly to you, fire them; there are enough people who will be more than happy to help you and work for your business.
If you are buying a house in a neighborhood full of renters, it only takes a few bad renters or bad landlords to drive the neighborhood down fast. If the neighborhood is full of single people, will you be happy there if you have very young kids?
Buy the view, not the house. A set of people in our neighborhood are at war with the county for approving a new development next to ours. The reason? There was a wetland and a nice wooded area with a view of snow-peaked mountains from their homes. They bought their homes for that view. Now, within a year of moving in, their view is gone. Unless you own the land between your house and the view, don’t buy a house for the view.
I read about staging while I was researching buying a home, but I never expected the amount of staging a house goes through. The psychology does work; staged houses look far better than houses that are still being occupied. One house we went to had nightstands with lamps on it next to the bed that really increased the appeal of the room. In reality, though, there were no plug points anywhere near the lights. So practically that setup would not have been possible without remodeling. When you are considering a house, mentally try to remove the staging. Pay more attention to the layout of the house and the structure itself. Ugly wallpaper and paint can be easily fixed later.
The homebuyer’s credit score is among the most important factors when it comes to qualifying for a loan these days.
“In addition, the standards are higher in terms of what score you need and how it affects the cost of the loan,” says Mike Winesburg, formerly a mortgage planner with McKinley Carter Wealth Services in Wheeling, West Virginia.
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Scour the reports for mistakes, unpaid accounts or collection accounts.
Just because you pay everything on time every month doesn’t mean your credit is stellar, however. The amount of credit you’re using relative to your available credit limit, or your credit utilization ratio, can sink a credit score.
The lower the utilization rate, the higher your score will be. Ideally, first-time homebuyers would have a lot of credit available, with less than a third of it used.
Repairing damaged credit takes time — and money, if you owe more than lenders would prefer to see relative to your income. If you think your credit may need work, begin the repair process at least 6 months before shopping for a home.
So you don’t owe too much money and your payments are up to date. But how do you spend your money? Do you have piles of money left over every month, or are you on a shoestring budget?
A first-time homebuyer should have a good idea of what is owed and what is coming in.
“You should understand a little bit about monthly cash flow,” says Winesburg.
“If I were a first-time homebuyer and I wanted to do everything right, I would probably try to track my spending for a couple of months to see where my money was going,” he says.
Additionally, buyers should have an idea of how lenders will view their income, and that requires becoming familiar with the basics of mortgage lending.
For instance, some professionals, such as the self-employed or straight commission salesperson, may have a more difficult time getting a loan than others.
According to Winesburg, the self-employed or independent contractor will need a solid 2 years’ earnings history to show.
When applying for mortgages, homebuyers must document income and taxes.
Typically, mortgage lenders will request 2 recent pay stubs, the previous 2 years’ W-2s, tax returns and the past 2 months of bank statements — every page, even the blank ones.
“Why it has to be every single last page, I don’t know. But that is what they want to see. I think they look for nonsufficient funds or odd money in or out,” says Floyd Walters, owner of BWA Mortgage in La Canada Flintridge, California.
Buying a home can take a long time, but knowing what you need and where to find it can save time when you’re ready.
Ideally, as a first-time homebuyer, you already know how much you can afford to spend before the mortgage lender tells you how much you qualify for. Bankrate’s “How much house can I afford?” calculator will help.
By calculating debt-to-income ratio and factoring in a down payment, you will have a good idea of what you can afford, both upfront and monthly.
Though there’s not a fixed debt-to-income ratio that lenders require, the old standard dictates that no more than 28% of your gross monthly income be devoted to housing costs. This percentage is called the front-end ratio.
The back-end ratio shows what portion of income covers all monthly debt obligations. Lenders prefer the back-end ratio to be 36% or less, but some borrowers get approved with back-end ratios of 45% or higher.
“Find out what you can afford and then you can back into everything else. We know the money you have available to put down, we know the monthly payment and we can solve (the equation) for the third variable — and that is the home price,” Winesburg says.
It takes effort to scrape together the down payment.
There are programs that can assist buyers with qualifying incomes and situations.
“I’ve helped arrange assistance loans for $10,000, which are interest- and payment-free, and forgivable after 5 years. Although considered a loan, they’re more like grants. Other programs can provide up to $40,000 interest-free,” says Winesburg.
“Each state is different, but most of this money comes from the HOME Investment Partnership Program, which is a federal block grant to create affordable housing,” he says.
Finally, speak with mortgage lenders when you’re starting the process. Check with friends, co-workers, and neighbors to find out which lenders they enjoyed working with and ask them questions about the process and what other steps first-time homebuyers should take.
Some examples — have an emergency fund, save for a down payment of 20 percent, get your credit into a better shape and don’t buy more than you can afford.