The challenge of buying a home for the first time can seem so daunting that it’s tempting to either just go with the first place in your price range or continue to rent. To help you demystify the process and get the most out of the purchase, we’ll examine what you’ll need to consider before you buy, what you can expect from the buying process itself, and some handy tips to make life easier after you purchase your first home.
Who Is a First-Time Homebuyer?
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a first-time homebuyer is someone who meets any of the following conditions:
- An individual who has not owned a principal residence for three years. A spouse is also considered a first-time homebuyer if he or she meets the above criteria. If you’ve owned a home but your spouse has not, then you can purchase a place together as first-time homebuyers.
- A single parent who has only owned a home with a former spouse while married.
- A displaced homemaker who has only owned with a spouse.
- An individual who has only owned a principal residence not permanently affixed to a permanent foundation in accordance with applicable regulations.
- An individual who has only owned a property that was not in compliance with state, local or model building codes—and which cannot be brought into compliance for less than the cost of constructing a permanent structure.
Considerations Before You Buy
The first thing you’ll need to determine is what your long-term goals are and then how home ownership fits in with those plans. Some people are simply looking to transform all those “wasted” rent payments into mortgage payments that actually give them something tangible. Others see home ownership as a sign of their independence and enjoy the idea of being their own landlord. Narrowing down your big-picture homeownership goals will point you in the right direction. Here are five questions to ask yourself:
- What type of home best suits your needs?
You have several options when purchasing a residential property: a traditional single-family home, a duplex, a townhouse, a condo, a co-op (housing cooperative) or a multi-family building with two to four units. Each option has its pros and cons, depending on your homeownership goals, so you need to decide which type of property will help you reach those goals. You can also save on the purchase price in any category by choosing a fixer-upper, although the amount of time, sweat equity and money involved to turn a fixer-upper into your dream home might be much more than you bargained for.
- What specific features will your ideal home have?
While it’s good to retain some flexibility in this list, you’re making perhaps the biggest purchase of your life, and you deserve to have that purchase fit both your needs and wants as closely as possible. Your list should include basic desires, like neighborhood and size, all the way down to smaller details like bathroom layout and a kitchen that comes with trustworthy appliances.
- How much mortgage do you qualify for?
Before you start shopping, it’s important to get an idea of how much a lender will actually be willing to give you to purchase your first home. You may think you can afford a $300,000 home, but lenders may think you’re only good for $200,000 depending on factors like how much other debt you have, your monthly income and how long you’ve been at your current job. In addition, many realtors will not spend time with clients who haven’t clarified how much they can afford to spend.
It’ll behoove you to make sure your personal finances are in order. Generally, in order to qualify for a home loan, you have to have good credit, a history of paying your bills on time and a maximum debt-to-income ratio of 43%. Lenders these days generally prefer to limit housing expenses (principal, interest, taxes and homeowners insurance) to about 30% of the borrowers’ monthly gross income, though this figure can vary widely, depending on the local real estate market.
Make sure to get pre-approved for a loan before placing an offer on a home: In many instances, sellers will not even entertain an offer that’s not accompanied with a mortgage pre-approval. You do this basically by applying for a mortgage and completing the necessary paperwork. It is beneficial to shop around for a lender and to compare interest rates and fees using a tool like a mortgage calculator or Google.
Once you’ve settled on a lender and applied, the lender will verify all of the financial information provided (checking credit scores, verifying employment information, calculating debt-to-income ratios, etc.). The lender can pre-approve the borrower for a certain amount. Be aware that even if you have been pre-approved for a mortgage, your loan can fall through at the last minute if you do something to alter your credit score, like finance a car purchase.
4. How much home can you actually afford?
On the other hand, sometimes a bank will give you a loan for more house than you really want to pay for. Just because a bank says it will lend you $300,000 doesn’t mean you should actually borrow that much. Many first-time homebuyers make this mistake and end up “house-poor” – meaning after they pay their monthly mortgage payment they have no funds left over for other costs, such as clothing, utilities, vacations, entertainment or even food.
Just like with the purchase of a new car, you’ll want to look at the house’s total cost, not just the monthly mortgage payments. Of course, that monthly payment is also important, along with how much down payment you can afford, how high the property taxes are in your chosen neighborhood, how much homeowners’ insurance will cost, how much you anticipate spending to maintain or improve the house, and how much your closing costs will be. If you’re interested in purchasing a condo, bear in mind you’ll have to pay maintenance costs monthly because you’ll be part of a homeowner’s association, which collects a couple hundred dollars a month from the owners of each unit in the building in the form of condominium fees. Co-op owners also pay monthly maintenance fees, though these are partially tax-deductible.
5. Do you have serious savings?
Even if you qualify for a sizeable mortgage, there will be considerable upfront costs (like the down payment on the home, typically 20% of the total purchase price) and closing costs too. So you need to have money put away. When it comes to investing with an eye toward purchasing a home — a short-term goal — one of the biggest challenges is keeping savings in an accessible, relatively safe vehicle that still affords a return. If you have one year to three years to realize your goal than a certificate of deposit may be a viable option. It’s not going to make you rich, but you aren’t going to lose money either. The…