25 Tips for First-Time Home Buyers
Buying a home can be stressful, especially if you’re a first-time home buyer. Not only is it probably the biggest purchase of your life, but the process is complicated and fraught with unfamiliar lingo and surprise expenses.
To make the first-time home buying journey a little less stressful, we have compiled these 25 tips to help you navigate the process more smoothly and save money. We’ve divided our list into three sections.
It’s common to put 20% down, but many lenders now permit much less, and first-time home buyer programs allow as little as 3% down. But putting down less than 20% may mean higher costs and paying for private mortgage insurance, and even a small down payment can still be hefty. For example, a 5% down payment on a $200,000 home is $10,000.
Play around with a down payment calculator to help you land on a goal amount. Some tips for saving for a down payment include setting aside tax refunds and work bonuses, setting up an automatic savings plan and using an app to track your progress.
Before you start looking for your dream home, you need to know what’s actually within your price range. Use a home affordability calculator to determine how much you can safely afford to spend.
When you’re taking out a mortgage loan, your credit will be one of the key factors in whether you’re approved, and it will help determine your interest rate and possibly the loan terms.
So check your credit before you begin the home buying process. Dispute any errors that could be dragging down your credit score and look for opportunities to improve your credit, such as making a dent in any outstanding debts.
Any time you open a new credit account, whether to take out an auto loan or get a new credit card, the lender runs a hard inquiry, which can temporarily ding your credit score. If you’re applying for a mortgage soon, avoid opening new credit accounts to keep your score from dipping.
In addition to federal programs, many states offer assistance programs for first-time home buyers with perks such as tax credits, low down payment loans and interest free loans up to a certain amount. Your county or municipality may also have first-time home buyer programs.
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.
Sorry, that’s not all you need to save up for before home shopping. Once you’ve saved for your down payment and budgeted for closing costs, you should also set aside a buffer to pay for what will go inside the house. This includes furnishings, appliances, rugs, updated fixtures, new paint and any other touches you’ll want to have when you move in.
You may assume you’ll buy a single-family home, and that could be ideal if you want a large lot or a lot of room. But if you’re willing to sacrifice space for less maintenance and extra amenities, and you don’t mind paying a homeowners association fee, a condo or townhome could be a better fit.
Is a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage a given, or is another loan type right for you? If you can afford larger monthly payments, you can get a lower interest rate with a 20-year or 15-year fixed loan. Use our calculator to determine if a 15-year or 30-year fixed mortgage is a better fit for you. Or you may prefer an adjustable-rate mortgage, which is riskier but guarantees a low interest rate for the first few years of your mortgage.
Many homebuyers get a rate quote from only one lender, but this often leaves money on the table. Comparing mortgage rates from at least three lenders can save you more than $3,500 over the first five years of your loan, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Get at least three quotes and compare both rates and fees.
Lenders often allow you to buy discount points, which means prepaying interest upfront to secure a lower interest rate. There may also be an option for negative points, in which the lender pays some of your closing costs in exchange for a higher interest rate. How long you plan to stay in the house is one of the key factors in whether buying points makes sense. You’ll need to do some calculations or speak to a mortgage broker or loan officer to help you decide if buying points is worth it for you.
You can get prequalified, 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 at 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.
You’ll be working closely with your real estate agent, so it’s essential that you find someone you get along with well. The right buyers agent should be highly skilled, motivated and knowledgeable about the area.
As your agent shows you homes, look for properties that cost a little less than the amount you were approved for. While you can technically afford that amount, it’s the ceiling — and it doesn’t account for a broken washer or dryer or any other expenses that arise during homeownership, especially right after you buy. Rather than maxing out that amount, set a lower purchase budget to leave yourself wiggle room for unexpected costs.
Finding the right neighborhood is just as important as locating the right house. Research the schools, even if you don’t have kids, since that affects a home’s value. Look at local safety and crime statistics. How close are the nearest hospital, pharmacy, grocery store and other amenities you’ll use? Also, drive through the neighborhood on various days and at different times to check out traffic, noise and activity levels.
Use this as another opportunity to scope out the neighborhood and your potential neighbors. During the open house, pay close attention to the home’s overall condition and look for any smells, stains or items in disrepair. Ask a lot of questions about the home, such as when it was built, when items were last replaced and how old key systems like the air conditioning and the heating are. If several other potential buyers are viewing the home at the same time as you, don’t hesitate to schedule a second or third visit to get a closer look and ask more questions.
It’s easy to look at properties that meet your current needs. But if you plan to start or expand your family, it may be preferable to buy a larger home you can grow into. Consider your future needs and wants and whether this home will suit them.
When you’re looking at a home, it’s easy to get caught up on superficial details like paint color, fixtures and carpets. These features are easy to change once the home is yours, so don’t let those little details get in the way.
It’s rare to find a house that’s perfect in every way, so think carefully about what you’re willing to compromise on and what you’re not. Perhaps no walk-in closet in the master bedroom is a deal breaker, but an outdated guest bathroom will be tolerable until you can renovate it.
Your real estate agent can help you with this, but consider how much under or over the asking price you’re willing to pay to obtain your dream home. If there are multiple bids, think about tactics to win over the seller, such as a personalized letter.
In a competitive real estate market with limited inventory, it’s likely you’ll bidding on houses that get multiple offers. When you find a home you love, it’s tempting to make a high-priced offer that’s sure to win. But don’t let your emotions take over; stick to your purchase budget to avoid getting stuck with a mortgage payment you can’t afford.
A lot can be up for negotiation in the homebuying process, which can result in major savings. Are there any major repairs you can get the seller to cover, either by fully handling them or by giving you a credit adjustment at closing? Is the seller willing to pay for any of the closing costs? If you’re in a buyers market, you may find the seller will bargain with you to get the house off the market.
Before you close on your new house, your lender will require you to buy homeowners insurance. Shop around and compare rates to find the best price. Look closely at what’s covered in the policies; going with a less expensive policy usually means fewer protections and more out-of-pocket expenses if you file a claim. Be aware that your insurer can drop your property if it thinks the home’s condition isn’t up to snuff, so you may have to be prepared to find a new policy quickly if it sends someone out to look at the property and isn’t happy with what it finds. Also, flood damage isn’t covered by homeowners insurance, so if your new home is in a flood-prone area, you may want to buy separate flood insurance.
Once your offer is accepted, you’ll pay for a home inspection to examine the property’s condition inside and out. But not all inspections test for things like radon, mold or pests, so be sure you know what’s included. Make sure the inspector can access every part of the home, such as the roof and any crawl spaces. Attend the inspection and pay close attention. Don’t be afraid to ask your inspector to take a look — or a closer look — at something and ask questions. No inspector will answer the question, “Should I buy this house?”, so you’ll have to make this decision after reviewing the reports and seeing what the seller is willing to fix.
How Much Down Payment Do You Need to Buy a Home?
The down payment. Cue the dramatic, fear-filled suspense music. Yeah, it’s scary. Coming up with enough cash to put down when buying a house is the single biggest roadblock for most hopeful home buyers. But how much do you really need?
A down payment is the cash you pay upfront to get a home loan. It is deducted from the total amount of your mortgage and represents the beginning equity — your ownership stake — in a house and property.
Most lenders are looking for 20% down payments. That’s $60,000 on a $300,000 home. (There’s that scary music again.) With 20% down, lenders will love you more. First off, you’ll have a better chance of getting approved for a loan. And you’ll earn a better mortgage interest rate. There are all sorts of other benefits too:
Of course there is one big, juicy caveat: The down payment is not the only upfront money you have to deal with. There are loan closing costs and earnest money to consider as well. Before the dramatic music returns, let’s explore some lower down payment options.
You can actually buy a home with as little as 3% down. Why did we wait so long to give you that good news? Well, let’s provide the details first before we weigh the pros and cons.
The Federal Housing Administration is a government agency charged with helping home buyers — especially first timers — get approved. The FHA does that by assisting mortgage lenders in making loans by guaranteeing a portion of the balance. That’s how you can put less money down — in fact, as little as 3.5%. And FHA loan rates are among some of the lowest you’ll find.
Plus, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that drive the residential mortgage credit market, have 3% down payments on home loans. Some major commercial lenders are also offering low down payments — and even no down payments — as incentives to spur loan demand.
And if you’re an active or retired service member, or live in a rural area, you may have access to zero down payment programs through the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. It’s always a good idea to ask a lender about down payment options when you’re shopping for a mortgage.
So, which is it: Do you want to put down $60,000 or $9,000 on that $300,000 home? Or does zero down make you spring into a happy dance? Sounds like a pretty easy decision, right? But you knew there would be fine print.
A lower down payment makes you a bigger risk in the eyes of the lender. That’s why it will look for help from one of those government programs to guarantee a portion of the loan. The thing is, you pay for the guarantee. It’s called mortgage insurance. There will be an upfront fee and likely an ongoing charge built into your monthly payment.
Some of the programs don’t require mortgage insurance, but will charge an “upfront guarantee fee” or “funding fee.” Whatever you call it, a fee is a fee. And as a higher risk, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate for the life of the loan in addition to the other fees.
It’s tempting to go with the lowest all-in upfront charges when trying to buy a home. But the key to building net worth is to buy smart, especially when it comes to such a large purchase as a house.
Lenders are required to disclose all fees and it’s always a good idea to shop around with multiple mortgage providers to get your best deal. Plus, the more you explore your options, the more you’ll learn about the process. Taking time to compare the fees from different lenders can save you thousands of dollars over the long haul.
The down payment is just the first financial hurdle. The monthly payments last a lot longer. Let’s get out of here before that spooky music comes back.
How to Get the Best Mortgage Rate
Buying a home is a huge financial commitment. Finding the right mortgage (and how to get the best mortgage rate) can be a confusing process — especially for first-time homebuyers. Comparison shopping is the key to getting the best deal, and you’ll want to ask yourself, “How much house can I afford?” before getting too far into the process.
Mortgages generally come in two forms: fixed or adjustable rate. Fixed-rate mortgages lock you into a consistent interest rate that you’ll pay over the life of the loan. The part of your mortgage payment that goes toward principal plus interest remains constant throughout the loan term, though insurance, property taxes and other costs may fluctuate.
The interest rate on an adjustable-rate mortgage fluctuates over the life of the loan. An ARM usually begins with an introductory period of 10, seven, five or even one year, during which your interest rate holds steady. After that, your rate changes based on an interest rate index chosen by the bank.
ARMs look good to a lot of homebuyers because they usually offer lower introductory rates. But remember, your rate could go up after your introductory period, so be sure you’re comfortable with the chance your monthly mortgage payment could rise substantially in the future. As you try to figure out how to get the best mortgage rate, use the terms of the loan to calculate what your payment might look like in different rate scenarios.
A point is an upfront fee — 1% of the total mortgage amount — paid to lower the ongoing interest rate by a fixed amount, usually 0.125%. For example, if you take out a $200,000 loan at 4.25% interest, you might be able to pay a $2,000 fee to reduce the rate to 4.125%.
Paying for points makes sense if you plan to keep the loan for a long time, but since the average homeowner stays in his or her house for about nine years, the upfront costs often outweigh interest rate savings over time.
Alternatively, there are negative points. It’s the opposite of paying points: A lender reduces its fees in exchange for a higher ongoing interest rate. It’s tempting to reduce your upfront fees, but the additional interest you pay over the life of the loan can be significant. Carefully consider your short-term savings and your long-term costs before taking negative points.
Closing costs usually amount to about 3% of the purchase price of your home and are paid at the time you close, or finalize, the purchase of a house. Closing costs are made up of a variety of fees charged by lenders, including underwriting and processing charges, title insurance fees and appraisal costs, among others.
You’re allowed to shop around for lower fees in some cases, and the Loan Estimate form will tell you which ones those are. Shopping for the right lenderis a good way to find the best mortgage rate, and save money on a mortgage and associated fees.
Before you settle on a mortgage, find out if you’re eligible for any special programs that make home-buying less costly. For example:
Generally speaking, a lower down payment leads to a higher interest rate and paying more money overall. If you can, pay 20% of your home’s purchase price in your down payment. However, if you don’t have that kind of cash, don’t worry. Many lenders will accept down payments as low as 5% of your home’s purchase price.
Be aware: Low-down-payment loans often require private mortgage insurance, which adds to your overall cost, and you’ll probably pay a higher interest rate. Put down as much as you can while maintaining enough of a financial cushion to weather potential emergencies. As you ask potential lenders how to get the best mortgage rate, many will tell you that the more money you put down, the lower your rate will be.
Remember these last tips as you’re buying a home:
How to Refinance Your Mortgage
You made it through one of the toughest challenges: buying a home. Now, perhaps just a few years later, you’re ready to refinance your mortgage. How hard can it be? You may be surprised to find that it’s not a couple-of-emails-and-a-phone-call-or-two process. In fact, there may be more paperwork involved this time around than when you first bought your home.
Let’s consider some important initial steps of a mortgage refinance — and then run through the rest of the process step by step.
Before you begin, it’s important to consider why you want to refinance your home loan in the first place. That guides the mortgage refinance process from the very beginning.
Lowering your payment is usually the goal. And it’s tempting to refinance with another full 30-year term to really knock down that monthly payment. But that means you’ll end up taking even longer to pay off your house and paying more interest.
You’ll want to take into account how much interest you’ve already paid on your old loan and how much you’ll pay with the refinance. Loans are front-loaded with interest, so the longer you’ve been paying, the more each payment is going toward paying off the principal balance — and the more interest you’ve already paid. Comparing what you’ve paid in interest so far and what you will pay on your current loan versus the refi will give you a solid idea of your total loan costs for either option.
By resisting the urge to extend your loan term, you can instead refinance to reduce the term and to get a lower interest rate, which could significantly reduce the amount of interest you pay over the life of the loan.
Choosing a suitable loan term for your mortgage refinance is a balancing act between an affordable monthly payment and reducing your borrowing costs.
Once you know you have a good reason and you’ve determined it’s the right time to refinance, it’s time to work the numbers. Using a mortgage refinance calculator can help you shop for the best mortgage.
You’ll need to know (or make some educated guesses about) your new interest rate and your new loan amount.
After you input the data, the tool will calculate your monthly savings, new payment, and lifetime savings, taking into account the estimated costs of your refinance.
Working with a refinance calculator will give you a good idea of what to expect. Even better, when you have a few estimates from mortgage lenders you can enter the terms they offer you into the calculator to help determine which one offers the best deal.
Now it’s time for a little legwork — or more likely web work and phone calls. You want to shop for your best mortgage refinance rate and get a loan estimate from each lender. Each potential lender is required to issue the estimate within three days of receiving your basic information.
The estimate is a pretty simple three-page document that details the loan terms, projected payments, estimated closing costs and other fees.
Compare the loan details from each lender and decide which one is best for you. This is a good time to really work that mortgage refinance calculator.
Ready to tackle the whole refinance process? Go!
If you owe more than your home is worth, you may want to consider whether a government-sponsored mortgage program can be a part of your refinance solution. These programs come and go — and change names from time to time — but they generally allow homeowners to refinance their mortgage no matter how little equity they have in their home.
And for any refinance, be sure to consider how long it will take for you to recoup the fees and expenses.
But refinancing — for the right reason, with a good rate and a suitable term — can enhance your financial position.
Alternative Mortgage Lenders Are Changing Home Buying
If you’re looking for a mortgage, there’s one less reason to walk into a bank these days. Alternative mortgage lenders — non-bank companies without customer deposits — are transforming the mortgage industry. Their goal: to offer mortgage rate transparency and help you complete the home loan process quickly, efficiently and mostly (if not completely) online.
The biggest banks, once major players in the $1.5 trillion mortgage industry, have backed away from a large portion of the business, citing low profit margins and high legal risks. It’s a result of the enhanced regulatory environment that followed the 2008 housing meltdown.
A number of new players jumped into the void — alternative lenders testing new business models and leveraging technology to improve the process of getting a home loan or mortgage refinance:
But the structure and capabilities of these alternative lenders vary widely. Here’s how to navigate the field.
Alternative lenders are online mortgage originators that are becoming more of a force in the industry. In fact, the largest of them, Quicken Loans, has become one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country. And the company is looking to become even more entrenched with its recent introduction of a “Rocket Mortgage” service, promising full mortgage or refinance approvals online in as little as eight minutes.
That kind of near real-time approval is an example of how radically the mortgage process is changing. Next-gen lenders strip away layers of delays built into the old system by using automated loan-decision algorithms, electronic document gathering and secure online communications.
Seeing an opportunity to shave off a sliver of the monumental home loan market, new players are making a move to mortgages. Online student-loan refinance service SoFi now offers mortgage loans. And in just five years, Loan Depot has grown to 5,000 employees, offering mortgages as well as consumer loans to residents in all 50 states.
Another example is Lenda, a recent addition to the home loan landscape, which so far serves only a limited number of states but is a direct online lender offering purchase and refinance loans.
The easiest way for tech startups to enter the mortgage market is by serving as a middleman. So that’s what you’ll encounter most in your search for an online mortgage.
Mortgage marketplaces, like LendingTree, Mortgage Hippo, Zillow and eLoan, are lead generators for loan originators. Here’s how that works: Their mortgage rate algorithms take your basic application info and present you a roster of potential lenders. You choose one, or several, of the rate options, and the referring marketplace site receives a fee for the lead. You then complete the process with the lender.
Online mortgage brokers offer another twist on the process. Some companies provide a concierge service, with advisors guiding you through the home loan selection process. It’s more of a hands-on process, in which the broker works closely with you and the lender to complete your loan package.
In some ways, the mortgage industry is coming full circle, back to where it started. Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and other huge lenders — battered by Justice Department fines, federal lawsuits and growing regulation as a result of the housing crisis — are shying away from mortgage lending, especially FHA loans, which have long catered to first-time homebuyers and borrowers with lower credit scores. As more of the large, national banks move to lending only to the most-qualified borrowers, community home lenders are filling the void.
Non-bank lenders are much like the original mortgage bankers; many are locally owned and family-run businesses serving their hometowns. These smaller lenders often face fewer federal regulations and still welcome borrowers with less-than-perfect credit, and they have bolstered the FHA-backed lending that big banks have been avoiding.
Credit unions also play a growing role. They originated more than 8% of U.S. mortgages in 2015, nearly double their amount in 2010, according to the CUNA Mutual Group.
There are non-bank mortgage lenders with national footprints, such as PennyMac, but just like their local counterparts, they are built more for phone and face-to-face transactions than for a strictly online loan process.
Alternative mortgage lenders now account for almost half (45%) of all home loans, according to the Federal Reserve — the largest share in 20 years. These originators are transforming the mortgage loan process with faster approvals plus online application and document processing, and they are powering a more competitive market.
But getting a mortgage online is not always strictly a keyboard- or smartphone-only transaction. While the paperwork process is moving more and more to e-documents, with some online services you’ll still have to visit a closing attorney or notary to finalize the loan.
Choosing whether to go with a mortgage middleman or a direct lender is a personal choice, based on your comfort and familiarity with the home loan process and how much guidance and advice you prefer.
But it’s empowering to know that when it comes to financing a home, you have more options than ever.
Helpful Mortgage and Refinance Guides
LendingTree is an online lending exchange that connects consumers with multiple lenders, banks, and credit partners who compete for business. LendingTree is not a direct supplier of loans; it is instead a comprehensive tool to manage your personal finance. Since being founded in 1998 LendingTree has facilitated more than 32 million loan requests. It is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. LendingTree also provides financing tools, comparative loan searches and borrowing information.