Buying and owning a home comes with questions and hurdles under the best circumstances. Whether you’re struggling financially or just buying a home for the first time, those complications grow. Luckily, there are many options for low-cost or even free housing counseling services that can help answer your questions and clear the hurdles.
What Does A Housing Counselor Do?
Housing counselors are trained professionals who help people navigate financial decisions at any and every step of the homeownership journey, from the prospective stage through closing and beyond.
Some may specialize in a particular area, but usually housing counselors can handle any of the following topics:
Housing Counselors Vs. REALTORS®
Real estate agents and housing counselors serve distinct roles. Your REALTOR® will be able to help you find the house that meets your criteria. But remember that a real estate agent’s top priority is to sell, not to look out for your best interests.
A real estate agent is a great resource to have, but housing counselors have their place too. It's often advisable, especially for first time home buyers, to seek counseling at the start of your process.
Counselors have no financial stake in your home purchase. This means they can provide independent and unbiased advice on the best choices for your housing needs. They will verify whether or not you're ready to buy a home.
Counseling Types And Eligibility
In most cases housing counseling programs are optional. They can be an invaluable resource for any current or prospective homeowner regardless of financial situation.
Most services are affordable. Agencies must provide homelessness services and foreclosure prevention counseling at no cost. While you may be charged for other services, there are regulations that govern how much.
Services For Prospective Home Buyers
Buying a home is a complicated process that can seem daunting to first-time buyers. With seemingly endless paperwork and requirements, many people question whether they know how to make the right choices.
Housing counselors have the expertise to help you make informed decisions, even if you've never owned a home before. For example, a counselor can help you evaluate your mortgage options and choose the best plan for your financial situation.
They can even help you get your documentation for applications and review specific mortgage terms to determine whether the loan is in your best interest. Counselors have extensive knowledge of programs like FHA, VA and USDA loans, making them an excellent resource for affordable housing options.
Services For Current Homeowners
Your housing questions may not end when you close on a home. Counselors are prepared to help you through every hurdle that might arise once your mortgage payments begin.
Counselors can help you tackle your mortgage proactively by advising on a budget to meet your monthly payments or tapping into home equity without risking your financial security.
For homeowners who are already struggling, counselors can help communicate with mortgage lenders and reevaluate your loan. If you're concerned about foreclosure, you can ask a counselor for advice on next steps. With help, you may discover a way to save your home or emerge from the process with the least possible amount of financial loss.
Making the Most Of Your Counseling Session
Think housing counseling is right for you? Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Counseling is available whenever you need it, but you'll get the most out of it if you start talking to a counselor as soon as possible. The earlier you get started, the more help a counselor will be able to give you.
If you seek counseling when you begin to slip on mortgage payments, a counselor can help you budget and make a plan to avoid foreclosure. If you wait until foreclosure is imminent, your options will be more limited. Your counselor may only be able to help you minimize your losses.
Find A HUD-Certified Counselor
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) evaluates, approves and sponsors housing counseling agencies that meet HUD's standards for certification. A HUD-certified counselor has been trained to a high standard and must comply with government regulations on service fees.
The best place to find HUD housing counselors is at the official hud.gov website. Some unscrupulous businesses and scams may falsely represent their services as HUD-certified, so it's crucial to verify the agency you choose through official channels. This has become especially important in light of housing struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bring Important Documentation
Bring as much documentation and information as possible to your counseling session so your counselor gets the fullest picture of your situation.
What you bring depends on where you are in the homeownership process, but consider bringing the following information, if available:
- Mortgage statements
- Loan documentation
- Credit card statements
- Personal identification
- Proof of occupancy
- Tax returns
Prepare Questions In Advance
Think about what you want to learn and break your goals down into smaller questions. This will help you collect all the details you'll need.
If you're a first-time home buyer, consider asking about mortgage options, budget plans and down payment options. Regardless of why you're seeking counseling, ask about the forms and paperwork you need to reach your housing goals.
Set Expectations For Your Session
The most important step you can take before your counseling session is to recognize what your counselor can do for you. A housing counselor acts as an advisor, so you'll find the most success if you take the initiative to ask questions, prepare yourself for each session and follow through on your counselor's advice.
With a good working relationship, you and your counselor can team up and make it through whatever housing hurdles come your way.