You’ve crunched the numbers, thought about your lifestyle and made the decision to buy a home. It can be a complicated, stressful process. But knowing what to expect can reduce some of that anxiety and help you confidently find your way to your new home.
To help, here’s a step-by-step guide to the home-buying process. You could swap the order of a few early steps – you can get pre-approved before finding an agent, for example. But you don’t want to find the perfect place first, only to have a better-prepared buyer swoop in and snag it.
Step 1: Check your credit report and score
Before contacting a lender, it’s smart to check your credit report. By law, you can get a free report once a year through Annualcreditreport.com. The report pulls data from the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Having the information in hand before you talk with a lender lets you dispute any errors in the reporting. Based on your credit report, Fair Isaac & Co. (FICO) assigns you a credit score ranging from 350 to 850. The higher your credit score, the lower the interest rate on your mortgage. Scores are based on:
• Payment history: Have you paid your bills on time?
• Amounts owed: What is your overall debt?
• Length of credit history: How long have you been borrowing money? Mortgage lenders like to see a long credit history.
• New credit: Have you applied for new credit?
• Types of credit: Lenders like to see a variety of types such as bank cards, car loans and student loans.
So what is a good credit score? You can expect a good mortgage rate at anything above 720. Home buyers who pursue an FHA loan can usually secure a loan if their credit is 580 or over. FICO scores are available at www.myfico.com for a one-time or monthly fee. Once you know your score, you can find out what interest rate you will likely qualify for by researching interest rates on Zillow.
Step 2: Figure out how much you can afford
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.
Step 3: Find a real estate agent
This person will be your lifeline through the process. Not so long ago, people didn’t have much to go on when selecting an agent. A postcard in the mail or a name on a sign might have been all you had to consider if you didn’t have a personal referral. But now it’s a breeze to check reviews online. Go ahead and meet with a few agents and ask some questions. Your agent is your chief advocate, confidante and hand-holder in the process so you want to find a good fit.
Step 4: Get pre-approved by a lender
It’s a smart move to get pre-approved for a loan early in your home search. Zillow has an easy-to-use tool that lets you find a licensed lender in your area with a history of positive customer ratings, who can help you get pre-approved.
Pre-approval requires the lender to pull the credit information (see Step 1) and assess your financial situation. The lender will then give you a letter that states the amount they would be willing to lend you. If you get in a multiple-offer scenario, being pre-approved may give you an edge because the seller will have more confidence that you will be approved for a loan large enough to purchase their home.
You are not obligated to get a loan from the lender who you get a mortgage pre-approval from. When it’s time to officially apply for a mortgage, it’s best to get loan estimates from at least three lenders to compare their interest rates and fees.
Step 5: Start looking at homes
Let the serious shopping begin! By now you’ve talked things over with your agent and you both know what you really want and need in a home. Armed with this, your price range and knowledge of the local area, look at listings online and with your agent, who will come up with properties for you to tour. Chances are you’ll discover some new things to love or hate about homes and refine your search.
Step 6: Make an offer
For most buyers, this is when the butterflies really show up. Once you’ve found a home you want your agent will work with you to craft an offer. Remember, the listing price is only a starting point. Your agent will understand the market and help guide you to make the most attractive offer, whether it’s below, at or above listing price. Are there any contingencies to your offer? Will you require an inspection? These are all things your agent will help you with. Once you’ve submitted the offer you get to wait. It will seem interminable. You may get neither a simple yes or no but a counteroffer to consider. It can be something of a dance. If you get a solid “no,” it’s back to Step 5. If you get to a “yes,” celebrate!
Step 7: Home inspection day
If your offer called for a home inspection, this is a big day. Sure, you get to have a home inspector look over the home to make sure there are no unseen defects you want to negotiate to have fixed. But more importantly, this is the most time you’ll get to spend in your new home until closing. Go ahead and start measuring things and figuring out what goes where. This may be the last time you are inside the home until it is yours, several weeks from now.
Step 8: Get insurance and establish utilities
If you already own a home, simply call your insurance agent and let them know you’re buying a new home. They will handle writing a new policy. If you don’t have an insurance agent, now’s the time to find one because your lender will require homeowners insurance. Even if you don’t have a mortgage, insurance is a critical part of protecting your investment. You’ll also want to give utility companies your move-in date to establish service. There’s nothing like moving into a cold, dark house because you didn’t get an account with the power company!
Step 9: Closing day
This is the big day. You’ll read and sign papers and then read and sign some more. Even though you’re just sitting around a table, it can be exhausting. But it also means you’re nearing the finish line.
Step 10: Get the keys and move in!
This is it. You did it. You are now a homeowner! Your sale contract will specify exactly how soon you get to move in. Sometimes it’s by a certain time on the day you sign closing papers. Sometimes possession happens a few days after closing. Whenever it is, you’ve just ended the adventure of home buying and started the adventure of homeownership.