Buying a home is a complicated process, and it can be particularly daunting for the first-timer.
The timeline for shopping for a home starts at least one year before you hope to start seriously looking for a home. This is an ideal; you can arrange your finances and buy a home in less time, if necessary, but you’d be smart to walk through all of the steps in order. The more time you give yourself for this process, the better.
Deal with your debt. Most people needn’t pay off their student loans, auto loans or other generally low-rate debt before getting a mortgage. What you want to eradicate is “toxic” debt: credit-card balances and payday loans. These are signs you’re living beyond your means. If you don’t get your overspending problem fixed before you buy a home, your problems likely will get worse because homeownership typically involves plenty of big costs (property taxes, insurance, maintenance, repairs, improvements, decorating). Get your act together before you house shop.
Save, save, save. Stop eating out. Drop your cable-TV subscription. Do everything you can think of to put as much money aside as possible, using your desire to be a homeowner as a motivator. In today’s market, it’s best to have at least a 5% down payment; boost that to 10% and you’ll have even more financing options. Ideally, you’ll also have enough left over after you get your mortgage to cover the payments for two or three months.
Put your bills on automatic. A single 30-day late payment can knock 100 points off your score, and it can take many, many months to recover. Make sure every bill gets paid on time. If you don’t have a reliable bill-paying system, consider using automatic debits, so payments come directly from your checking account, or an online bill-payment system’s recurring-payment feature.
Be careful with the kind of loans you accept. A lot of people are losing their homes today because they didn’t understand what kind of loans or mortgage they had or they accepted bad advice. The low teaser payments that allowed them to buy a more expensive house have jumped skyward, leaving them unable to pay. It’s up to you to understand the risks of the different types of mortgages and to select the right one for your family.
Research all the costs of owning a home. Your mortgage will be just the start. You’ll have to pay property taxes and insurance on the home. There may be homeowners- or condo-association fees as well. You may face higher utility bills, and you’ll take on maintenance and repair costs as well. Decorating your new house can cost a pile of money as well: Have you shopped for window coverings lately? Your home-owning friends and a friendly real-estate agent or two can help fill you in so you know what to expect.
Adjust your saving strategies. What you’ve learned so far may inspire you to boost your savings. A bigger down payment, for example, can result in a larger home or a lower mortgage payment. Or you may simply want to build up your emergency fund so unexpected home expenses don’t knock your finances off the rails.
Having done all these, you can then proceed to do the following.
Don’t open or close any shopping accounts until the mortgage process is completed and you’ve moved into your new home, continue to avoid actions that could potentially harm your credit, such as opening credit accounts or closing old ones.
Begin researching neighborhoods and look for an agent. Check Internet listings, attend open houses and find an experienced guide to help you refine what you’re seeking.
Arrange for an appraisal, a home inspection and a walk-through. The appraisal is required for your loan to be approved. An inspection isn’t necessarily required, but don’t skip this essential step, which can alert you to serious problems before the deal closes. The walk-through is usually done within 24 hours of the deal closing, so you can make sure that the home sellers have performed any agreed-upon repairs and the place is in move-in condition.
Confirm how much money you’ll need at closing. “Closing” is when you sign all the paperwork and pay agreed-upon amounts, which can include your down payment and your share of legal fees, paperwork costs, property taxes and title insurance.
Liz Pulliam Weston