Buying a home for the first time? Use this list of dos and don’ts as your guide.
Your first home purchase is an exciting moment, but it’s important to not rush any part of the process. Taking your time has numerous benefits and can prevent costly mistakes.
Shopping around for lenders instead of jumping at the first one who offers you a mortgage, for example, can save you over $5,000 on closing costs and interest over the lifetime of the loan.
Meticulously going through each piece of paperwork will help prevent big problems. Skimming because you’re in a hurry could cause you to miss details and cause delays—or worse, land you in a contract with clauses you didn’t fully read. Your real estate agent has your back, and their expert eye will help you avoid this type of problem, but it’s best to come into the home purchase process with a level, detail-oriented, and patient mindset. This will also help you remain stress-free if delays or problems arise for other reasons.
Where else should you stop to take a breath? The creation of the must-have list. Slow down and create a comprehensive picture of your dream home that includes location, size, number of beds and baths, amenities, and anything else you can’t live without. Categorize the list into dealbreakers (things that really are must-haves in order for you to buy) and flexible items that you’d enjoy, but be willing to let go if necessary (also called nice-to-haves). Don’t forget the items that you don’t want to see on the property, like a certain type of heating or any landscaping features that could trigger your allergies. Taking the time to think through every detail will ensure that you’re happy with your home purchase for years to come.
Don’t: Sign anything you don’t understand.
Real estate legalese is complex enough to give anyone a headache, and it’s common to feel confused or overwhelmed when you’re trying to process it—especially under pressure. It’s totally fine (and recommended!) to ask an expert for help at this stage. Your real estate agent should go clause-by-clause through your purchase agreement to make sure you understand and feel comfortable with every aspect. Likewise, your lender should have no problem walking you through your mortgage paperwork so that you know exactly what you’re getting into.
Don’t: Forget about closing costs.
When you’re coming up with your home purchase budget, you likely know how much you need for a downpayment and how much you can afford in monthly payments. But as a first-time homebuyer, you might not be aware that you’ll need around 3% to 6% of the home’s purchase price to cover closing costs. Last month’s median sale price in the U.S. was $400,528, and at that value, you’d need between $12,000 and $24,000 for closing costs (in addition to your downpayment).
What are closing costs? They’re the fees associated with the real estate transaction itself. They include items like the deed transfer, title search, loan origination, home inspection, appraisal, and more. Some are paid for by the buyer and some are paid by the seller—and who traditionally pays for what depends on the laws in the state where you live.
Sometimes you can ask a seller to cover some or all of the closing costs as part of your negotiation—but whether or not they accept will depend on the competitiveness of your local market. If a seller has multiple offers on their home, they’ll likely take one that doesn’t ask for a seller . But if the home has been sitting on the market for a while and they’re struggling to find a buyer, you might be in luck. Ask your real estate agent their thoughts on including this in your offer.
Don’t: Be afraid to walk away.
FOMO can be strong during the home shopping experience, but don’t jump into a home purchase that doesn’t feel quite right because you’re afraid someone else is going to snag it. You should feel 100% confident that you’ve found the home for you—at the right price with the right terms—before you agree to buy it.
Remember those complete and detailed must-have list you made earlier? Stick to it. If you find that your budget and your list don’t align, then you can make adjustments—but don’t go for any house just because it’s available. You’re likely to live in the home you buy for several years at least, so you want to make sure it’s the right one. Ignore the pressure, and hang in there until you find that dream home.
Do: Be realistic.
Speaking of the must-have list—do you really need a fourth bedroom, or can that move into the nice-to-have category? Does the home need to be in exactly this neighborhood, or will a few streets over work just as well?
This isn’t to say that you should compromise on every item. But taking a clear-eyed look at each one and asking yourself, “Do I need this to be happy, or am I just being stubborn?” will help you narrow down the list to something manageable. One way to do this is to think of each item’s actual use. If you need a fourth bedroom because you work from home or because you frequently host guests, then it stays. But if you can’t say exactly why you want it, or you want it because you just do, consider moving it to the nice-to-haves so that finding your home in your budget is easier for you.
Ah—the budget. This is another area where being a first-time homebuyer can be challenging. First-time homebuyers don’t have the equity of another property to fund their home purchase, so budgets tend to be smaller—and that’s okay! But it’s important to understand the market in the area where you’re home shopping and be realistic about what you can get for the amount you have. If you’re preapproved for financing up to $500,000, you’re probably not going to have any luck shopping in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes. Additionally, if $500,000 is the average cost of a three-bedroom home in your area, you might have a hard time finding five bedrooms at that price.
Talk with your real estate agent about your budget and your expectations, and they can provide information about the market to see if anything needs adjusting.
Do: Get preapproved.
You should get preapproved before you start your home search. Why? Preapproval:
- Gives you a clear picture of your budget.
- Locks in your mortgage rate for a set period of time.
- Lets sellers know you’re capable of and serious about buying.
- Speeds up your financing down the line because the bank already has your documentation.
How do you get preapproved? Start by shopping around for quotes. When you’re ready to apply, you’ll need to gather a variety of paperwork, including tax records, pay stubs, bank statements, a list of your monthly debts, employment verification, and identification. If any part of your downpayment is a gift, you’ll need a gift letter verifying that the money doesn’t need to be paid back. You may also be asked to provide rental information and landlord references if you’re a renter.
Once you fill out the application, your lender will analyze your information and tell you whether or not you qualify for a mortgage. If you do, they’ll issue a preapproval letter that’s usually valid for 90 days. You can use this as part of your offer to show a seller that financing won’t be a problem for you—which makes your offer more competitive!
Do: Ask questions.
It’s normal to have questions throughout the home shopping process, and you should never hesitate to ask. Whether it’s a complex question about real estate laws, or a small detail about a house you went to see, your real estate agent can help. There’s no question too big or too small, and the only silly questions are the ones you don’t ask. It’s important to be as informed as possible so you feel comfortable and confident when you purchase your home—so ask away.
Do: Look into first-time homebuyer programs.
Most states as well as some counties and cities have financing programs for first-time homebuyers to help you qualify for a mortgage. These programs can include grants or forgivable loans to assist with your downpayment or closing costs, and they can also help you get a lower interest rate.
How do you find them? Take to Google, ask your real estate agent, or talk to your lender. Keep in mind that most of these programs have income limits, and many require you to take a short homebuyer educational session before you qualify, so start early.
Do: Hire the right real estate agent.
Everyone should hire an experienced real estate agent when they’re shopping for a new home, but it’s especially important if you’re new to the real estate industry. An expert real estate agent will provide you with insight into the market, help you make a competitive offer, negotiate to get you the best deal, and ultimately, find you your dream home. They’re your guide for every step of a complex process, and you can depend on them to provide you with accurate information and help you make important decisions.
Don’t have a real estate agent yet? Get in touch. We can’t wait to help you buy your first home.
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