Buying your first home is a major milestone and it is important that you acquire as much information as possible before taking this big leap. While my clients generally ask me questions about improving their credit and getting a lower interest rate, this outline covers the entire process to, hopefully, make it an enjoyable and stress-free experience.
1. Be Prepared & Knowledgeable – Sign a contract with a buyer’s agent who is familiar with the area in which you want to buy a home; independently search your local MLS and realtor.com; and find a mortgage broker who inspires confidence and has a solid reputation.
2. Getting Pre-Approved – Before you actually visit any homes, research and select a lender such as Quicken Loans, AmeriQuest, or Wells Fargo. After you have chosen the one that is right for you, get pre-approved to determine your price range and show potential sellers that you are a serious buyer, which can also increase your bargaining power when you find your dream home.
3. Understand Your Loan – There are various types of mortgages, 30 year fixed, 15 years fixed, 5/1 ARM, 3/1 ARM, etc., that you need to be familiar with before you can sign on the dotted line. While a 15 or 30 year fixed mortgage with 20% to 25% down is the best option for most first time buyers, I occasionally advise some people to do an 80 / 10 / 10. 20% down may seem excessive and unexpected, but paying 20% down or more towards the note allows you to avoid the PMI (Private Mortgage Insurance) cost that can be expensive and useless.
As a general rule, avoid exotic loans so you don’t need to worry about fluctuating costs from month to month and changing interest rates. If interest rates plummet from what you signed up for, in many instances you can refinance.
4. Preparing Your Credit – While everyone knows that their credit score will be an important element in determining their mortgage payments, most do not follow a few simple tips for improving their score in the months leading up to the closing. First, make sure you keep the balance on your credit cards under a quarter of the total line of credit. Also, avoid large purchases or transfers that might appear out of the ordinary. And finally, pay off debts such as student loans that may be keeping your score down.
5. Gather Data – Your lender will generally require 2 years of tax returns, a year of bank statements, W-2’s and 1099’s from the past 2 years, and a list of your current debts such as car and student loans. By having these prepared before they ask for them, you can save yourself a lot of time and avoid unnecessary stress.
6. Learn The Local Market – Many realtors will offer you “comps” on recently sold homes in your area of interest. Be sure to look over these carefully, particularly the asking price of the homes, what they sold for, and the price per square foot. With this information in hand, you can submit a more competitive first offer and come across as a serious buyer.
7. Compare Lenders – After your offer is accepted, I strongly suggest using the quick, easy, and free services of LendingTree to compare interest rates for your mortgage. While you may have found already found a trusted lender for your pre-approval, there is no guarantee that he will give you the best rate. One thing you can do, however, is take the best rate you receive from LendingTree and discuss this rate with your local bank and trusted lender. With this bargaining power, you can determine who really wants your business, get the best possible interest rate, and save the most money in the long run.
8. Avoid Pricey Closing Costs – As you narrow down your list of mortgage lenders and receive some great quotes on interest rates, ask for a good faith estimate so you can estimate your closing costs. Although many individuals overlook these one-time, up-front costs, they can add up quickly and are an important element in selecting a lender who is right for you.
9. Get an Inspection – When your offer is accepted and it seems that the process is almost over, do not get too attached and believe that the home is already yours. Although it can be a major stumbling block in the negotiations, you absolutely need to have a qualified inspector look for termites, pests, foundation problems, and numerous other things that cannot be seen when you stroll through a home. Sometimes the inspector will only find minor problems, but other times there are extremely expensive issues that may make your purchase impossible. Under any circumstances, you cannot skip this step.
10. RELAX – It can be expected that this major milestone is going to be somewhat stressful considering the major investment and lifestyle change you are making. However, it should also be fun so take pictures of the homes you like, both inside and outside, and write notes about each place you see. At the end of the day, if you follow the above steps and listen to your heart, you are bound to be one happy homeowner.
Good luck and happy house hunting!