To begin, check your credit report to make sure there are no errors on it. Credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, are available for free once every 12 months. If there are errors, then contact each agency and report the mistake. You can also check your credit score for free with Bankrate. The goal is to raise your credit score before you shop for mortgages.
Common contingency clauses include appraisal, financing and home inspection. For example, if the appraisal comes in lower than the sale price, the appraisal contingency allows the buyer to back out of the contract. The same goes for financing and home appraisal. In the event the buyer’s loan doesn’t go through or the inspection report shows significant problems, the buyer can get out of the contract without losing their earnest money.
Try also to get an idea about the real estate market in the area. For example, if homes are selling close to or even above the asking price, that shows the area is desirable. If you have the flexibility, consider doing your house hunt in the off-season -- meaning, generally, the colder months of the year. You'll have less competition and sellers may be more willing to negotiate.
Want a trusty home-buying guide by your side? Most first-timers will want a great real estate agent—specifically a buyer's agent, who will help you find the right houses, negotiate a great real estate deal, and explain all the nuances of home buying along the way. The best part? Their services are free to first-time home buyers (since the seller pays the sales commission). Here's how to find a real estate agent in your area.
“Realtors do a lot of your groundwork up front for you by contacting listing agents to set up showings and help you negotiate the purchase,” says Brandon Gentile, CEO of the Legacy Group Real Estate Team in Clarkston, Mich. “The best part is, a buyer doesn’t pay for working with a realtor. The service is free for a buyer, as sellers pay all the commission.” For more, see How to Find the Best Real Estate Agent.
Your mortgage lender will also be working on the underwriting for the loan, including an appraisal of the property to ensure the purchase price matches its value, based on other sales of similar properties in the area. If the appraiser determines the house isn’t valued at the agreed-upon sale price, you may have to come up with cash to make up the difference, or try to negotiate the price down with the seller. You'll likely have to provide updated proof of income, details on your existing debts and assets, information about your tax return and, of course, the address of the property you're buying along with the price of the house and amount you'd like to borrow.
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.
The spender in me knows that’s easier said than done. When my husband, Winston, and I moved into our first home, I had so many visions for what our home could look like! It was hard for me to accept the fact that I could only decorate one room at a time, but I knew our future money goals were more important than me spending all our savings at the furniture and home stores.
As a buyer, just keep in mind that mortgage pre-approval is different from mortgage pre-qualification. Pre-qualify, and you're undergoing a much simpler process that can give you a ballpark figure of what you can afford to borrow, but with no promise from the lender. Getting pre-approved is more of a pain since you'll have to provide tons of paperwork, but it's worth the trouble since it guarantees you're creditworthy and can truly buy a home.
Most home sale contracts give the buyer about 10 days to complete a home inspection. If you’re getting a mortgage to buy the house, your lender will likely require you to use a certified home inspector. (Even if you’re not required to get a home inspection, it’s best to get one anyway to make sure you’re not buying a house full of expensive problems.)
Take as much time as you need to find the right home. Then work with your real estate agent to negotiate a fair offer based on the value of comparable homes in the same neighborhood. Once you and the seller have reached agreement on a price, the house will go into escrow, which is the period of time it takes to complete all of the remaining steps in the home buying process.