Couple posing in front of a wall in a home

Buying a home is one of those things that many of us end up doing at some point, but very few of us are taught how to do it. Sure, you know it involves touring houses, finding a real estate agent and getting a loan, but you might be less clear on where to go or who to talk to about doing those things, or in what order you should be doing them.

Fear not. Here’s our step-by-step guide to home buying, for absolute beginners.

Get Your Finances in Order

Unless you’re fabulously wealthy, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to simply decide, “I think I’ll buy a house now” and breeze through the process in a few weeks.

You’re probably wondering about loan preapproval, house hunting and real estate agents, but the process of preparing to buy a home actually starts months or even years before you start looking at mortgage rates.

You need to be financially ready. This means looking at your current financial situation and seeing how it lines up with what mortgage lenders look for in a borrower, figuring out what you can afford and saving for a down payment and closing costs.

What Lenders Are Looking For

Here are some of the basic requirements you’ll likely need to fulfill to be approved for a mortgage. Keep in mind, these are general guidelines and may vary depending on your lender and what type of loan you get:

  • Minimum credit score of 620 for conventional loans; 580 for FHA loans
  • Good credit history
  • Proof of reliable source of income
  • Debt-to-income ratio below 50%

If you meet only the minimum requirements, you may want to work on improving your credit score before applying for a mortgage, as this can get you access to better rates.

Determining How Much You Can Afford

You’ll have to get preapproved for a mortgage to know exactly how much you’ll be able to spend on a home, but figuring out what your monthly budget might be if you take on a mortgage will help you decide if you can realistically afford a home.

There are many home-affordability calculators that estimate how much home you can afford and what your monthly payments might be. You may find that you’re able to get a mortgage with a lower monthly payment than what you’re currently paying towards rent. However, keep in mind that homeownership comes with all kinds of new costs, so factor in things like taxes, insurance and maintenance when looking at what your overall costs would be.

Saving for a Down Payment

Saving for your down payment can take a while, especially if you plan to put  20% down.

Luckily, there are plenty of options for those who can’t pull together that kind of cash. FHA loans require only 3.5% down, and there are conventional-loan options that allow you to go as low as 3% down – with the caveat that mortgage insurance will be included. If you qualify for a VA or USDA loan, you could get a home with 0% down.

The reason 20% is the oft-quoted number is because that’s the minimum you can put down while avoiding mortgage insurance. On top of that, the larger down payment you make, the lower your monthly payments will be.

When you’re figuring out how much you need to save, don’t forget to factor in closing costs. Your individual closing costs will vary depending on your situation, but usually end up being around 2% – 5% of the home’s value.

You’ll need to provide two months of bank statements to prove you’ve had your down payment funds in an account for at least 60 days for them to be eligible for you to use. Lenders require this documentation to ensure that you aren’t taking out another loan to cover your down payment.

Get Preapproved

Once you’re confident you’re ready to begin the process, getting preapproved for a mortgage should be at the top of your to-do list. Preapproval tells you how much you can borrow and shows sellers that you’re serious.

For preapproval, a lender will look at your credit report  to make sure that you have a qualifying credit score and see if you have any major debts or blemishes such as bankruptcy. The lender will also look at how much debt you have relative to your income and ask you for information about your income and assets. It helps to have documentation including recent W-2s, paystubs, bank statements and any other relevant paperwork ready to go, to make the process as smooth as possible.

Once you’re preapproved for a mortgage, be careful not to make any big changes to your financial profile, such as taking on additional debt or switching jobs, as this could put your approval at risk.

Find a Good Real Estate Agent

The right real estate agent will guide you through the process, make everything go faster and more smoothly and help reduce your first-time homebuyer anxiety.

When looking for a good real estate agent, online reviews or an in-person interview with anyone you’re considering can be a big help. You want someone who is going to be an advocate for you and honor your wants and needs, but who will also be honest with you and help you set realistic expectations.

Find the Right House

The first step to finding the right house is knowing what you’re looking for. Make a list of your wants and needs, and rate them in order of importance. This could include things like number of bedrooms, proximity to your workplace, school district or yard size.

To make your search easier, start out by looking for homes online. By checking out online listings, you can get a feel for what’s on the market and prescreen any homes within your price range, so you’ll only tour places you’re truly considering.

If you’re having trouble finding a house that feels like home, consult your real estate agent. Agents aren’t just experts on helping people find a home; they’re also experts on the local housing market, and they can help you set realistic expectations and keep you motivated when you’re feeling like you’ll never find the right house.

Make an Offer

When you find a house you like, don’t hesitate. Your real estate agent will help you with the particulars of making the offer. What you’ll need to decide is how much you want to pay and negotiate. In a hot market, you may not have the luxury of negotiation and may even have to pay above asking price to get the home you want. In a colder market, you’re more likely to have the seller agree to a lower price or certain seller concessions. Ask your real estate agent for guidance when figuring out the details of your offer.

Your offer will spell out the terms of the sale, including any contingencies. Contingencies allow you to withdraw from the deal if certain circumstances aren’t met, such as a home inspection that reveals a need for significant repairs.

Get Ready to Close

Now is the time to get your mortgage approved. Your lender may ask for additional or updated documentation, and if house hunting took longer than expected and your preapproval expired, the lender  may need to pull your credit again.

Your lender will also set up an appraisal, for which a professional will evaluate the house and compare it to similar properties in the area, and then decide how much the house is worth. This process protects both you and your lender from overpaying on a home. You can also set up your home inspection at this time (if you have a specified inspection period, be sure to get it done within that timeframe).

If the house is appraised for less than the asking price, you can ask the seller to lower the price or you can pay the difference out-of-pocket at closing.

Once your mortgage is approved and all the details are worked out, you’re ready for the big event: closing day.

Make sure to find out ahead of time what you need to bring to closing, and if you need to wire your down payment funds in advance. At minimum, you’ll need a valid form of ID, like a driver’s license or passport, and a cashier’s or certified check with the funds to cover closing costs. Depending on your situation, you may also need to bring proof of insurance or other supporting documentation.

At the closing table, you’ll spend time reading and signing a bunch of paperwork. Make sure you read everything; this is one of the biggest purchases you’ll make in your life, after all.

Then comes the moment you’ve been waiting for, when you’re handed the keys to your home. That’s right, your home. Take a moment to bask in the glory, not just of becoming a homeowner but of finally being done with the homebuying process. Go relax in your new house. You’ve earned it.

Ready to start your journey to homeownership? Get started online or give one of our Home Loan Experts a call at (800) 785-4788. If you still have questions, you can ask them in the comments.

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