The path to owning a home may seem like a daunting one. But don’t fret. It isn’t the riddle-of-the-sphinx territory, and RealtyHop is here to help!
Set yourself up for success by following this 7-step guide:
- Ask: How Much Home Can I Afford?
- Get Pre-Approved
- Shop For A Home
- Make An Offer
- Book An Inspection And Appraisal
- Are Any Repairs Needed?
- Final Walk Through & Close
Read on to see what each step entails and what you’ll learn along the way.
1. Ask yourself: how much home can I afford?
Before starting your home search, take a look at your monthly income, expenses, ongoing debt, and investment earnings. Keep in mind the unwritten 28/36 rule: Don’t spend more than 28% of your gross monthly income on home-related costs, and no more than 36% on total debts — including your mortgage, credit cards, and other loans like auto and student loans.
Examine your current debts as well. This includes credit cards, student loans, car payments, or any other unpaid tabs. Your debt-to-income ratio will determine how much money you can reasonably put toward the standard 20% down payment as well as the mortgage bill each month.
If you can clear out those old debts first — do it.
You’ll also have to factor in property taxes, homeowners insurance, potential upkeep costs, and closing fees (usually 1-4% of the home’s purchase price). If you’re considering a condo or co-op, consider what the homeowners association (HOA) fees will be. They vary but could be as high as $1,500.
Plus, city living tends to be more pricey than suburban and rural living. Having trouble determining a number?
2. Check your credit & get pre-approved
A pre-approval letter from a mortgage lender lets a seller know you are poised to get financing for the deal.
To get one, you’ll need to check your credit score. Most mortgage lenders use FICO — the go-to standard credit scoring model — to gauge your creditworthiness. Three companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — can figure out your score. Scores range from 300 to 850. Higher scores represent a better credit history and make you eligible for lower interest rates. Credit scores that hover between:
- The mid-to-high-700s or above yield the best mortgage rates
- The high-600s to the low-700s require you to pay higher rates.
- The low- to mid-600s require you to pay very high rates
Is your score below 600? Well, improve your credit before applying for a mortgage.
Related Link: Credit Score — What Is It And Why Is It Important?
If your credit is in good financial standing, it’s time to secure a lender. But which one is right for you?
There’s the quick-and-easy online type. There are also banking giants staffed with agents offering face-to-face consultation. Whichever you prefer, there are plenty of options: Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), Chase (NYSE: JPM), Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC), Better Mortgage, Lending Tree (NASDAQ: TREE), Rocket Mortgage, or credit unions like Navy Federal Credit Union, PenFed Credit Union and Connexus Credit Union. There are also regional banks, such as SunTrust, Emigrant Bank, and Lone Star Bank.
These lenders always ask for some information about your history and financial health:
- Social security number
- Marital status
- W-2s, tax returns, rent payment stubs to prove income.
- The address and sale price of the home you’re considering
- The loan amount you intend to borrow (price minus down payment)
- Addresses of previous residences
- References, including landlords over the past 24 months
- Checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, real estate holdings, etc.
- Debts to establish debt-to-income ratio.
- The kind of loan you’d prefer [i.e. Fixed Rate Mortgages (FRM) vs Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARM); Balloon Mortgages; Reverse Mortgages]
Consider reaching out to more than one lender to hear their offers. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), 77% of mortgage applicants seek out just one lender. However, by applying to several lenders rather than just one, you can compare costs and potentially save more than $3,500 in just the first five years.
3. Shop for a home
ready to tap your coffers and buy a home, consult a realtor. Recall our 10 Things You Should Know Before Purchasing a Home post. It’s a common misconception that using a realtor drives up the cost of a new home. It’s the seller who pays the commission for the realtor. A good realtor can help you navigate the home-buying process as well as the contract negotiations.
Ask family members and friends for a direct referral to ethical and reliable agents in your area or the neighborhood where you’re house hunting. To avoid spending too much time looking at the wrong house, establish your criteria. Go to listing sites like RealtyHop, and search based on neighborhoods. It will give you a good sense of what kinds of property are out there, and help you set up some guidelines.
Related Link: 10 Tips For First-Time Home-Buyers
Here’s a list of the usual priorities.
- Size (Square footage)
- Condition (a fixer-upper or move-in ready)
- Number of bedrooms
- Proximity to your workplace
- Backyard/swimming pool
- Local school district ranking
- Property value trends
- Property/real estate taxes
Rank these priorities from most to least important and show the list to your agent. Don’t get discouraged if your search seems challenging. Only you can decide which property is right for you. Make sure you see plenty of homes before you decide which one you want to make an offer on. Like much of the homebuying process, you can do a great deal of your house hunting online.
Related Link: Buying A New Home For Your Family
Once you find a property you like that fits your needs and budget, it’s time to make an offer.
4. Make an offer
Keep in mind that just because you’re pre-approved for a certain amount doesn’t mean you have to spend that amount. Be realistic about your income and foreseeable monthly expenses so you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
In this vein, be sure to visit plenty of homes so you get a good sense of what the market has to offer. The larger your sample size of viewed homes the more confident you’ll be in determining what is a good deal and what is overpriced. When you eventually find the house you want to buy, it’s time to work with your agent to structure an offer.
Submit an offer letter in writing. Some brokerages have forms you can fill out, or you can simply ask your broker to draft the offer letter as an email. It will include standard details like your name, current address, the price you’re willing to pay for the home as well as a deposit (perhaps 1% – 2% of the purchase price).
Your offer basically details how much you’re willing to put down in earnest money to take the home off the market. The funds are released from escrow and applied to your down payment at closing. If your offer is accepted, it becomes a binding agreement for both you and the seller, so be sure you structure it with a professional who has handled this process before.
Lastly, the letter should cordially mention a deadline for the seller to respond.
From here, the seller may accept, reject or counter offer. In that scenario, you can either accept the counteroffer, reject it, or make another one. This back-and-forth can go on for some time, so allow your real estate agent to help you manage expectations.
If you can’t reach an agreement, feel free to walk away. But if you and the seller agree to an offer, it’s time for the inspection and appraisal.
5. Inspection & appraisal
It’s essential for both an inspector and an appraiser to conduct a complete visual inspection of the interior and exterior to see if there are any needed repairs. But there are differences between the two.
Inspection: This is generally done at the time of sale and is an inexpensive way to make sure the home you are buying isn’t a money pit of incredibly expensive fixes. Doing the inspection first may ultimately save you money on an appraisal, which tends to be more costly. Like an appraiser, an inspector conducts a complete visual examination of the interior and exterior of a home to determine its quality, and if there are any needed repairs.
If the inspection comes back with major red flags, that’ll hurt the value of the home and you may not want to proceed with the appraisal let alone a purchase.
The inspector should also be a trained and educated expert who will make sure the HVAC system works; the roof is in good condition; the foundation is solid; and the electricity systems are safe and up to code.
Appraisers: The lender will order an appraisal to determine whether the home’s contract price is appropriate given the home’s condition, location, and features. Appraisers take note of any conditions that adversely affect the property’s value. Typically, appraisers use the Uniform Residential Appraisal Report from Fannie Mae for single-family homes. The report asks the appraiser to describe the property, the neighborhood, and nearby comparable sales. The appraiser then provides an unbiased analysis of the property’s value. Generally speaking, a buyer would want the property to be appraised as high as possible — or at least in line with the offer price.
What you don’t want is the appraisal to come back too low. That means you’ll be over-borrowing for the property. After all, the home serves as collateral for the mortgage.
Take note: Mortgage lenders use an appraiser-determined value to input the “value” part of your mortgage’s loan-to-value (LTV) calculation. If the appraised value is less than the purchase price, lenders use that value to determine your LTV. They take the loan amount and divide it by the property’s determined value. So a $400,000 valued home with a $380,000 mortgage has a 95% LTV.
In the event that the home goes into foreclosure, the lender will sell it to recoup the money it lent. An appraisal also costs several hundred dollars and, generally, the borrower pays this fee. If a bad appraisal is standing between you and your home purchase, get a second opinion via another appraisal or simply present a factual case for a higher value to the original appraiser. They may agree with you and tweak the evaluation.
6. Check for repairs
If any red flags were found, and they’re substantial, your real estate agent will likely bring them to your attention. You can either ask for a discounted purchase price or request that the seller give you credits to cover some of your closing costs.
You can also consult a real estate attorney. Their expertise comes in handy because they can assess what is and isn’t standard, what buyers can negotiate for, and what they can’t.
The seller may offer to fix the problems before you close. If you’re buying a house that’s for sale by the owner (FSBO), your agent will negotiate with the seller directly. If your seller rejects your request, it’s up to you to decide how to proceed. If you have an inspection contingency in your offer letter, you can walk away from the sale and keep your earnest money deposit.
7. Final walk-through and closing
Make sure that everything is in working order. Pay close attention to all the areas of the house where repairs were requested. Also, did the seller leave any belongings? If everything looks good, it’s time for you to confidently move toward closing. That’s when your lender is required to give you your Closing Disclosure, which tells you what you need to pay at closing and summarizes your loan details, three days before closing. Read through your Closing Disclosure and make sure the numbers don’t vary too much from your Loan Estimate, which you would have received three days after your initial application.
Related Link: Fees You Should Expect When Closing A House
Once you’ve reviewed your Closing Disclosure, it’s time to attend your closing meeting. Bring your ID, a copy of your Closing Disclosure, and proof of funds for your closing costs. You’ll sign a settlement statement, which lists all costs related to the home sale. This is when you pay your down payment and closing costs. You’ll also sign the mortgage note, which states that you promise to repay the loan. Finally, you’ll sign the mortgage or deed of trust to secure the mortgage note. After closing finishes, congratulations — you’re officially a homeowner.