You'll want to know in advance that you likely qualify for a home loan, and that's where a credit check can prove invaluable when you buy a house. Your credit check will track your financial health using data from the three primary credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Your credit score from each agency can range anywhere from 350 to 800. The higher the credit score, the more likely you'll be granted a home loan, and the more likely you'll pay a lower interest rate when securing a home mortgage (that's because a high credit score will be viewed by a mortgage lender as a lower-risk loan proposition). In your run-up to your credit check, avoid taking out any loans or credit -- that will raise your credit risk level in the eyes of lenders -- and make sure you pay down any debt owed, and ensure you've got a good track record of paying your bills on time.
In addition to saving for a down payment, you’ll need to budget for the money required to close your mortgage, which can be significant. Closing costs generally run between 2% and 5% of your loan amount. You can shop around and compare prices for certain closing expenses, such as homeowners insurance, home inspections and title searches. You can also defray costs by asking the seller to pay for a portion of your closing costs or negotiating your real estate agent's commission. Calculate your expected closing costs to help you set your budget.
When you’ve found a local lender, you’ll have to submit your financial information to get pre-approved, including tax forms and W-2s, recent pay stubs, savings, retirement accounts, and debt obligations. After reviewing all of this information, the lender will let you know the size mortgage for which you can qualify and provide a letter that shows you’re pre-qualified. In the meantime, keep track of all those financial forms and add new pay stubs and bank statements to the file, as you’ll need them again. That pre-approval letter usually expires after 60 or 90 days, so if you haven’t found your home before it expires, you’ll just have to resubmit the paperwork.
Or better yet, decide how much you’re willing to pay. Just because you can qualify for a larger mortgage doesn’t mean you want to have that kind of payment each month. Use the mortgage affordability calculator to help determine what you can afford. Now is also a good time to research your housing market and start going to open houses in your prospective neighborhood to give you a good sense of what your money will get you.
Keep your options open. Some homes might be listed as a two-bedroom, but if the square footage is in the same range as three-bedrooms you’ve been looking at. This could be a sign that it’s a hidden gem with a “secret” third bedroom. Secret bedrooms are often sunrooms that can be easily converted into a bedroom or an extra-large master that could be divided with some drywall.
Having a good real estate agent on your side can help you eliminate the homes that don't meet your unique needs, and hone in on the home that does meet those needs. A savvy real estate agent knows the good homes in the good neighborhoods and communities, and can help you negotiate a better price once you've focused on a single property. A real estate agent will also be there with you when you close on the house, and can steer you away from making any last-minute mistakes, and help you cut down on often-onerous home closing costs.
When you find the home you want—and you will—it’s time to make an offer. Talk to your agent about the right price to offer; it's common to make the first offer below the listed price, but in a very competitive market, you may need to offer the asking price or even more. Your real estate agent can help you gauge this, and often can get the scoop on how much competition there is for a certain home.
Getting prequalified is the first step in the mortgage process (it’s usually pretty simple). You give your lender your overall financial picture, the lender evaluates your information, and then the lender gives you an idea of the mortgage amount that you will qualify for. Note, that prequalification is not a done deal – you may not in fact qualify for the loan for which you are preapproved (it’s a general idea).
Thank you for the wonderful advice. I particularly liked what you said about considering the mortgage fees, and all other things that you will have to pay for when getting a house, to ensure you know what you can afford. My brother is in the market for a home, and was wondering what he should know. If he were to consider these things into his budget, he could know what house he could afford, and move forward with peace of mind.
Your agent may generally know which home you are going to choose, due to experience and intuition. However, make sure that you don't feel your agent is trying to steer you toward any specific property, and choose the home without interference from the agent because it's your choice as the buyer alone to make. Keep in mind, however, that real estate agents are required to point out defects and should help buyers feel confident that the home selected meets the buyer's stated search parameters.
Mortgage insurance terms: In general, home buyers who pay less than 20% in their down payment have to pay mortgage insurance until their loan-to-value ratio is 80%. So, if you borrowed $270,000 on a $300,000 home -- in other words, your down payment came to 10% -- your LTV ratio (that is, the loan amount, $270,000, divided by the price of the house, $300,000) would be 90%. Your monthly payments on that policy would continue until you paid your mortgage down by another $30,000 to a balance of $240,000, or 80% of the full price.
I often also recommend using the site, LendingTree to quickly get four or five competing mortgage rates from different banks. These rates will be more accurate than the ones you see in advertisements and websites because banks provide real rates based upon your credit profile and the location and value of the home you want to buy. Learn more about getting mortgage quotes and pre-approval from LendingTree.
You can get pre-qualified for a mortgage, which simply gives you an estimate of how much a lender may be willing to lend based on your income and debts. But as you get closer to buying a home, it’s smart to get a preapproval, where the lender thoroughly examines your finances and confirms in writing how much it's willing to lend you, and under what terms. Having a preapproval letter in hand makes you look much more serious to a seller and can give you an upper hand over buyers who haven’t taken this step.
In any case, consider picking a mortgage with a fixed rate for the longest time that you think you'll be keeping the home. That's because you could see your monthly payments jump up on a variable rate mortgage if interest rates keep climbing. On the other hand, fixed rate mortgages start with higher interest rates so it may not make sense to pay more to lock in a fixed rate for longer than you need it.
My tip – STICK TO YOUR PRICE RANGE! We looked at 10 houses in our price range and one house just north of our price range. Of course – the more expensive house looked better. We fell in love with it and we stretched our budget to afford it! We didn’t have a chance to view any other prices in that higher price range either so didn’t know if our offer was too high (it was in hindsight). Just a tip!
If a lender sees some late payments or other blemishes in your credit report, this can lower your odds of getting a loan with a great interest rate, or perhaps even jeopardize your chances of getting any loan at all. So, it's essential to know your score, and take steps now if necessary to bring it up to snuff. Here's more on how to check your credit score and what number is best to buy a home.
When you’ve made an offer that’s within your budget, your Realtor will prepare the paperwork for you to sign and will submit it, along with your pre-approval letter and your earnest money, which is a good-faith deposit of about 1 percent of the purchase price. All this usually happens quickly, especially if other buyers are interested in the same property.
In a seller’s market, experts advise buyers to overlook cosmetic issues, such as loose fixtures, water stains (as long as it’s not the symptom of a larger problem), failed window seals and cracked tiles. However, some buyers might be in the position to negotiate these repairs with the seller. One option is to ask for a cash-back credit at the close of escrow. This will save you some money and you can oversee the repairs yourself.