So you’ve decided to take the leap and join the ranks of first-time homebuyers. Congratulations! You’re about to enter an exciting new world full of possibility and potential.
However, the homebuying process is not without its twists, turns, and challenges — especially in today’s competitive market.
That’s where the first-time homebuyer checklist below comes in: This practical guide can help you reach this meaningful and momentous milestone with fewer surprises, less stress, and a greater chance of finding yourself one day very soon unpacking boxes in the home of your dreams. Here are the basic steps to buying a house:
Step 1. Assemble your team
While it’s obviously wise to do your own market research and familiarize yourself with the details of the homebuying process, it’s also essential to recognize that, for most people, there are limits to the degree of expertise you can acquire without taking away time and attention from your real goal: finding and purchasing a home that fits your unique needs and wants.
In practice, that means seeking the services of seasoned professionals you can trust to help you navigate the process: a real estate agent who understands your desired location and price point, a reputable banker or mortgage broker, a top-notch real estate lawyer, an eagle-eyed home inspector and beyond.
Think of it this way: You’re on a mission and now it’s time to assemble the sort of crackerjack team that is willing to go all-in with you to make it a success.
Step 2. Gather important documents
There is, of course, one area where you absolutely need to be the expert: your own personal finances. And not simply so you can set realistic expectations for yourself. The truth is, you can assemble the greatest house-hunting/buying team on the planet, but if they’re working with incomplete information, their ability to tailor their efforts to your short- and long-term needs and goals will be limited.
Here’s where to start:
Request your credit report from all three credit rating agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Be sure to do more with it than look at your credit score number and move on. You’ll want to go through the entire report to make sure there aren’t any errors marring your credit unnecessarily.
Gather paperwork including tax returns, W-2 forms from the past two years, current pay stubs, bank statements from the past several months, current asset statements and other relevant financial documents.
Apply for mortgage prequalification/preapproval.* This is key in competitive markets.
Step 3. Set a (realistic) budget
Once you get out in the world of open houses and guided afternoon realtor tours, it is very easy to get caught up in the thrill of the hunt and lose sight of the fundamentals. Which is why it’s smart to set your budget before you begin that part of the process — and make sure your team is aware of the sturdiness of that self-imposed ceiling and your commitment to it.
By narrowing your search down to properties you can truly afford, you’ll save yourself plenty of time, avoid clouding your mind with the amenities and layouts of homes you have no intention of actually purchasing, and eliminate the temptation to stretch your resources into precarious territory.
Keep in mind that your budget cannot be based upon list price alone. You’ll also need to take into account down payment and closing costs — closing costs for co-ops, for example, are generally lower than those for townhouses or condos — moving costs, renovations, taxes and other everyday expenses. Further, to provide yourself some protection from the unexpected, it makes sense to set aside cash to cover maintenance costs and mortgage payments for one to two years after purchase.
Many of us go to more than one grocery store to shop around for deals on certain foods and necessities. We’ll alternate between a couple different gas stations to save two or three cents a gallon. Why wouldn’t you do the same when it comes to what is almost certainly the largest purchase of your life? Remember, we’re talking about price tags high enough that a quarter-point difference in interest rate or lower closing fees could have a very real effect on your bottom line.
So don’t rush. Don’t settle. Take the time necessary to seek out the best deal for someone with your unique mix of circumstances and resources. Weigh the pros and cons of different mortgage providers and products (a 30-year fixed mortgage may not be ideal if you're only planning to stay for six years). Get prequalified/preapproved for a mortgagewith terms that best serve you and your finances not only today but tomorrow and many tomorrows after that. (Take the long view, in other words. This is a serious commitment.)
Step 5. Start house hunting
By drawing together the right team, building a realistic budget and obtaining a bank preapproval letter, you have already significantly streamlined the house hunting process. Now you are free to focus on finding a home that comes as close as possible to what you’re looking for.
Sort through your list of must-haves, research neighborhoods, look at online listings and visit open houses and private showings. Invite your realtor to coffee regularly. Be engaged and patient. But also, be prepared to jump into action when a “just right” listing presents itself.
Step 6. Submit your offer and prepare for closing
Alas, no one hands you a deed or mortgage payment book the moment you’ve happened upon a house you love. You must submit an offer for the seller to consider — a delicate dance almost always, but particularly in a competitive market where multiple offers are not the exception but the rule. This is yet another area where the guidance and expertise of your realtor will prove essential.
With that in mind, be sure to:
Discuss the closing process with your real estate broker, which may vary greatly by neighborhood or region
Keep track of deadlines for any purchase contingencies or co-op board packages
Arrange, complete and review the home inspection report and other disclosures
As with most any major move — financial or otherwise — preparation is key. Here’s to hoping this first-time homebuyer guide illuminates the path to your new front door. Happy hunting!
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