Whether you are just starting to think about buying a home or are ready to take the plunge, you’re likely to have some questions on how to begin the journey. Check out our frequently asked questions to help you prepare and stay ahead of the curve.
Tax benefits. The U.S. Tax Code lets you deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage, your property taxes, and some of the costs involved in buying a home.
Appreciation. Historically, real estate has had a long-term, stable growth in value. In fact, median single-family existing-home sale prices have increased on average 5.2 percent each year from 1972 through 2014, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. The recent housing crisis has caused some to question the long-term value of real estate, but even in the most recent 10 years, which included quite a few very bad years for housing, values are still up 7.0 percent on a cumulative basis. In addition, the number of U.S. households is expected to rise 10 to15 percent over the next decade, creating continued high demand for housing.
Equity. Money paid for rent is money that you’ll never see again, but mortgage payments let you build equity ownership interest in your home.
Savings. Building equity in your home is a ready-made savings plan. And when you sell, you can generally take up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple) as gain without owing any federal income tax.
Predictability. Unlike rent, your fixed-rate mortgage payments don’t rise over the years so your housing costs may actually decline as you own the home longer. However, keep in mind that property taxes and insurance costs will likely increase.
Freedom. The home is yours. You can decorate any way you want and choose the types of upgrades and new amenities that appeal to your lifestyle.
Stability. Remaining in one neighborhood for several years allows you and your family time to build long-lasting relationships within the community. It also offers children the benefit of educational and social continuity.
REALTORS® are members of the National Association of REALTORS® and subscribe to its strict Code of Ethics. When you're buying a home, here's what an agent who's a REALTOR® can do for you.
Act as an expert guide. Buying a home typically requires a variety of forms, reports, disclosures, and other legal and financial documents. A knowledgeable real estate agent will know what's required in your market, helping you avoid delays and costly mistakes. Also, there’s a lot of jargon involved in a real estate transaction; you want to work with a professional who can speak the language.
Offer objective information and opinions. A great real estate agent will guide you through the home search with an unbiased eye, helping you meet your buying objectives while staying within your budget. Agents are also a great source when you have questions about local amenities, utilities, zoning rules, contractors, and more.
Give you expanded search power. You want access to the full range of opportunities. Using a cooperative system called the multiple listing service, your agent can help you evaluate all active listings that meet your criteria, alert you to listings soon to come on the market, and provide data on recent sales. Your agent can also save you time by helping you winnow away properties that are still appearing on public sites but are no longer on the market.
Stand in your corner during negotiations. There are many factors up for discussion in any real estate transaction—from price to repairs to possession date. A real estate professional who’s representing you will look at the transaction from your perspective, helping you negotiate a purchase agreement that meets your needs and allows you to do due diligence before you’re bound to the purchase.
Ensure an up-to-date experience. Most people buy only a few homes in a lifetime, usually with quite a few years between purchases. Even if you’ve bought a home before, laws and regulations change. Real estate practitioners may handle hundreds or thousands of transactions over the course of their career.
Be your rock during emotional moments. A home is so much more than four walls and a roof. And for most buyers, a home is the biggest purchase they’ll ever make. Having a concerned, but objective, third party helps you stay focused on the issues most important to you when emotions threaten to sink an otherwise sound transaction.
Provide fair and ethical treatment. When you're interviewing agents, ask if they're a REALTOR®, a member of the National Association of REALTORS®. Every member must adhere to the REALTOR® Code of Ethics, which is based on professionalism, serving the interests of clients, and protecting the public.
Know that there’s no “right” time to buy.
If you find the perfect home now, don’t risk losing it because you’re trying to guess where the housing market and interest rates are going. Those factors usually don’t change fast enough to make a difference in an individual home’s price.
Don’t ask for too many opinions.
It’s natural to want reassurance for such a big decision, but too many ideas from too many people will make it much harder to make a decision. Focus on the wants and needs of the people who will actually be living in the home.
Accept that no house is ever perfect.
If it’s in the right location, the yard may be a bit smaller than you had hoped. The kitchen may be perfect, but the roof needs repair. Make a list of your top priorities and focus in on things that are most important to you. Let the minor ones go. Also, accept that a little buyer’s remorse is inevitable and will most likely pass.
Don’t try to be a killer negotiator.
Negotiation is definitely a part of the real estate process, but trying to “win” by getting an extra-low price or refusing to budge may cost you the home you love.
Remember your home doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Don’t get so caught up in the physical aspects of the house itself that you forget about important issues such as noise level, access to amenities, and other aspects that also have a big impact on your quality of life.
Don’t wait until you’ve found a home to get approved for a mortgage, investigate insurance, or consider a moving schedule. Being prepared will make your bid more attractive to sellers.
Choose a home first because you love it; then think about appreciation.
A home is still considered a great investment, but its most important role is as a comfortable, safe place to live.
Talk to mortgage brokers.
Many first-time home buyers don’t take the time to get prequalified. They also often don’t take the time to shop around to find the best mortgage for their particular situation. It’s important to ask plenty of questions and make sure you understand the home loan process completely.
Be ready to move.
This is especially true in markets with a low inventory of homes for sale. It’s very common for home buyers to miss out on the first home they wish to purchase because they don’t act quickly enough. By the time they’ve made their decision, they may find that someone else has already purchased the house.
Find a trusted partner.
It’s absolutely vital that you find a real estate professional who understands your goals and who is ready and able to guide you through the home buying process.
Make a good offer.
Remember that your offer is very unlikely to be the only one on the table. Do what you can to ensure it’s appealing to a seller.
Factor maintenance and repair costs into your buying budget.
Even brand-new homes will require some work. Don’t leave yourself short and let your home deteriorate.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your present needs, but you should also think about reselling the home before you buy. The average first-time buyer expects to stay in a home for around 10 years, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2013 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.
Develop your home/neighborhood wish list.
Prioritize these items from most important to least.
Select where you want to live.
Compile a list of three or four neighborhoods you’d like to live in, taking into account nearby schools, recreational facilities, area expansion plans, and safety.
Develop a budget.
Instead of telling yourself what you’d like to spend, use receipts to create a budget that reflects your actual habits over the last several months. This approach will better factor in unexpected expenses alongside more predictable costs such as utility bills and groceries. You’ll probably spot some ways to save, whether it’s cutting out that morning trip to Starbucks or eating dinner at home more often.
Lenders generally look for a debt load of no more than 36 percent of income. This figure includes your mortgage, which typically ranges between 25 and 28 percent of your net household income. So you need to get monthly payments on the rest of your installment debt—car loans, student loans, and revolving balances on credit cards — down to between 8 and 10 percent of your net monthly income.
Increase your income.
Now’s the time to ask for a raise! If that’s not an option, you may want to consider taking on a second job to get your income at a level high enough to qualify for the home you want.
Save for a down payment.
Designate a certain amount of money each month to put away in your savings account. Although it’s possible to get a mortgage with 5 percent down or less, you can usually get a better rate if you put down a larger percentage of the total purchase. Aim for a 20 percent down payment.
Keep your job.
While you don’t need to be in the same job forever to qualify for a home loan, having a job for less than two years may mean you have to pay a higher interest rate.
Establish a good credit history.
Get a credit card and make payments by the due date. Do the same for all your other bills, too. Pay off entire balances as promptly as possible.
Do you have enough money saved to qualify for a mortgage and cover your down payment? Ideally, you should have 20 percent of the purchase price saved as a down payment. Also, don’t forget to factor in closing costs, which can average between 2 and 7 percent of the home price.
Obtain a copy of your credit report.
Make sure it is accurate and correct any errors immediately. A credit report provides a history of your credit, bad debts, and any late payments.
Decide what kind of mortgage you can afford.
Generally, you want to look for homes valued between two and three times your gross income, but a financing professional can help determine the size of loan for which you’ll qualify. Find out what kind of mortgage (30-year or 15-year? Fixed or adjustable rate?) is best for you. Also, gather the documentation a lender will need to preapprove you for a loan, such as W-2s, pay stub copies, account numbers, and copies of two to four months of bank or credit union statements. Don’t forget property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and association fees, if applicable.
Seek down payment help.
Check with your state and local government to find out whether you qualify for special mortgage or down payment assistance programs. If you have an IRA account, you can use the money you’ve saved to buy your first home without paying a penalty for early withdrawal.
Credit scores range between 200 and 850, with scores above 620 considered desirable for obtaining a mortgage. The following factors affect your score:
Your payment history.
Did you pay your credit card bills on time? Bankruptcy filing, liens, and collection activity also affect your history.
How much you owe and where.
If you owe a great deal of money on numerous accounts, it can indicate that you are overextended. However, spreading debt among several accounts can help you avoid approaching the maximum on any individual credit line.
The length of your credit history.
In general, the longer an account has been open, the better.
How much new credit you have.
New credit—whether in the form of installment plans or new credit cards—is considered more risky, even if you pay down the debt promptly.
The types of credit you use.
Generally, it’s desirable to have more than one type of credit—such as installment loans, credit cards, and a mortgage.
Check for errors in your credit report.
Thanks to an act of Congress, you can download one free credit report each year at annualcreditreport.com. If you find any errors, correct them immediately.
Pay down credit card bills.
If possible, pay off the entire balance every month. Transferring credit card debt from one card to another could lower your score.
Don’t charge your credit cards to the max.
Pay down as much as you can every month.
Wait 12 months after credit difficulties to apply for a mortgage.
You’re penalized less severely for problems after a year.
Don’t order items for your new home on credit.
Wait until after your home loan is approved to charge appliances and furniture, as that will add to your debt.
Don’t open new credit card accounts.
If you’re applying for a mortgage, having too much available credit can lower your score.
Shop for mortgage rates all at once.
Having too many credit applications can lower your score. However, multiple inquiries about your credit score from the same type of lender are counted as one if submitted over a short period of time.
Avoid finance companies.
Even if you pay off their loan on time, the interest is high and it may be considered a sign of poor credit management.
Once you are under contract, your lender will send out an appraiser to make sure the purchase price is in line with the property’s value.
Appraisals help guide mortgage terms.
The appraised value of a home is an important factor in the loan underwriting process. Although lenders may use the sale price to determine the amount of the mortgage they will offer, they generally only do so when the property is sold for less than the appraisal amount. Also, the loan-to-value ratio is based on the appraised value and helps lenders figure out how much money may be borrowed to purchase the property and under what terms. If the LTV is high, the lender is more likely to require the borrower to purchase private mortgage insurance.
Appraised value is not a concrete number.
Appraisals provide a professional opinion of value, but they aren’t an exact science. Appraisals may differ quite a bit depending on when they’re done and who’s doing them. Also, changes in market conditions can dramatically alter appraised value.
Appraised value doesn’t represent the whole picture of home prices.
There are special considerations that appraised value doesn’t take into account, such as the need to sell rapidly.
Appraisers use data from the recent past.
Appraisals are often considered somewhat backward looking, because they use sold data from comparable properties (often nicknamed “comps”) to help come up with a reasonable price.
There are uses for appraised value outside of the purchase process.
For buying purposes, appraisals are usually used to determine market value or factor into the pricing equation. But other appraisals are used to determine insurance value, replacement value, and assessed value for property tax purposes.
Some items should always be examined.
The home’s “skeleton” should be able to stand up to weather, gravity, and the earth that surrounds it. Structural components include items such as the foundation and the framing.
The inspector should look at sidewalks, driveways, steps, windows, doors, siding, trim, and surface drainage. They should also examine any attached porches, decks, and balconies.
A good inspector will provide very important information about your roof, including its age, roof draining systems, buckled shingles, and loose gutters and downspouts. They should also inform you of the condition of any skylights and chimneys as well as the potential for pooling water.
They should thoroughly examine the water supply and drainage systems, water heating equipment, and fuel storage systems. Drainage pumps and sump pumps also fall under this category. Poor water pressure, banging pipes, rust spots, or corrosion can indicate larger problems.
You should be informed of the condition of service entrance wires, service panels, breakers and fuses, and disconnects. Also take note of the number of outlets in each room.
Heating and air conditioning
The home’s vents, flues, and chimneys should be inspected. The inspector should be able to tell you the water heater’s age, its energy rating, and whether the size is adequate for the house. They should also describe and inspect all the central air and through-wall cooling equipment.
Your inspector should take a close look at walls, ceilings and floors; steps, stairways, and railings; countertops and cabinets; and garage systems. These areas can reveal leaks, insect damage, rot, construction defects, and more.
Inspectors should check for adequate insulation and ventilation in the attic and in unfinished areas such as crawl spaces. Insulation should be appropriate for the climate. Without proper ventilation, excess moisture can lead to mold and water damage.
They’re charming, but fireplaces can be dangerous if they’re not properly installed. Inspectors should examine the vent and flue, and describe solid fuel-burning appliances.
Increase your chances of getting your dream house in a competitive housing market.
Get prequalified for a mortgage.
You’ll be able to make a firm commitment to buy and your offer will be more desirable to the seller.
Stay in close contact with your real estate agent.
Your agent will be on the lookout for the newest listings that meet your criteria. Be ready to see a house as soon as it goes on the market — if it’s a great home, it will go fast.
Scout out new listings yourself.
Browse sources such as realtor.com and local real estate listing sites. Set up alerts for the neighborhoods and characteristics you’re looking for. Drive through your target neighborhoods, and if you see a home you like for-sale, send the address and listing agent’s name to your agent, who can schedule a showing for you.
Be ready to make a decision.
Spend plenty of time in advance deciding what you can afford and must have in a home so you won’t hesitate when you have the chance to make an offer.
Your first inclination may be to start out offering something less than the absolute highest price you can afford, but if you go too low in a tight market, you will likely lose out.
Keep contingencies to a minimum.
Restrictions such as needing to sell your home before you move can make your offer unappealing. Remember that, if the market is tight, you’ll probably be able to sell your house rapidly. You can also talk to your lender about getting a bridge loan to cover both mortgages for a short period.
But don’t get caught in a buying frenzy.
Just because there’s competition for a home doesn’t mean you should buy it. And even though you want to make your offer attractive, don’t neglect inspections that help ensure the house is a sound investment.
If a home is being sold for less than what the current owner owes on the property—and the seller does not have other funds to make up the difference at closing—the sale is considered a short sale.
A short sale is different from a foreclosure, which is when the seller's lender has taken title of the home and is selling it directly. Home owners often try to accomplish a short sale in order to avoid foreclosure. But a short sale holds many potential pitfalls for buyers. Answering these questions will help you determine if a short sale is a good fit for you.
Are you very patient?
Even after you come to agreement with the seller to buy a short-sale property, the seller’s lender (or lenders, if there is more than one mortgage) still has to approve the sale. When there is only one mortgage, lender approval typically takes about two months. If there is more than one mortgage with different lenders, it can take four months or longer. If you make an offer tremendously lower than the fair market value of the home, the lender could make a counteroffer, which will lengthen the process.
Is your financing in order?
Lenders like cash offers. But even if you can’t pay cash, it’s important to show you’re well qualified. If you're preapproved, have a large down payment, and can close at any time, your offer will be viewed more favorably than that of a buyer whose financing is less secure.
Do you have any contingencies?
Lenders like flexible terms. If you must sell a home before you can close, or you need to be in your new home by a certain time, a short sale may not be for you. Also, you will most likely be asked to take the property “as is.” Lenders are already taking a loss on the property and may not agree to requests for repair credits.
Can you take rejection?
Even when a lender approves a short sale, it could require that the sellers sign a promissory note to repay the deficient amount of the loan, which may not be acceptable to some financially strapped sellers. Lenders also can change any of the terms of the contract that you’ve already negotiated, which may not be agreeable to you.
If you're serious about purchasing a short-sale property, it's important for you to have expert assistance. Here are some people you’ll want by your side:
Experienced real estate attorney.
A real estate attorney who's knowledgeable about the short-sale process will increase your chances getting an approved contract. The attorney will also be indispensable if you want any provisions or specialized language written into the purchase contract.
Qualified real estate professional.
You may have close friends or relatives in real estate, but they aren’t truly knowledgeable about short sales, they may hurt your chances of a successful closing. Interview a few practitioners and ask them how many buyers they've represented in a short sale and, of those, how many have successfully closed. A qualified real estate professional will help you find short-sale listings, negotiate the purchase, and have smooth communications with the lender. You might also seek out pros who have the Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource (SFR®) certification, which generally identifies REALTORS® who have learned the skills needed to help buyers and sellers of distressed properties.
It’s a good idea to have a title officer do an initial title search on a short-sale property to examine all the liens attached to the property. If there are multiple lien holders (second or third mortgage/lines of credit, real estate tax lien, mechanic’s lien, homeowners association lien, etc.), it's much tougher to get the contract to the closing table. Any of the lien holders could put a kink in the process even after you’ve waited months for lender approval. If you don’t know a title officer, your real estate attorney or real estate professional should be able to recommend a few.
The risks of a short sale are considerable. But if you have the time, patience, and iron will to see it through, a short sale can be a win-win for you and the sellers.
Condominiums, townhomes, and properties located within a homeowner association offer certain perks, but it’s important to consider them in your decision process.
How much storage is available?
Some properties include storage lockers, but there may not be attics or basements to hold extra belongings.
How’s the outdoor space?
Your yard may be smaller than you’d find in a traditional single-family home, so if you like to garden or entertain outdoors, this may not be a good fit. But if you dread yard work, it may be the perfect option.
Are amenities important?
Many properties offer swimming pools, fitness centers, and other facilities that would cost much more in a single-family setting.
Who handles maintenance and security?
Property managers often hire professionals to care for common areas and perform in-unit repairs. Keyed entries and doormen may regulate access to your home when you’re not there (good news if you travel).
Are there required reserve funds and association fees? How much are they?
Although fees generally help pay for amenities and provide savings for future repairs, the HOA or condo board determines these fees, and you’ll have to pay them even if you’re not in favor of the improvements.
What are the association rules?
Although you have a vote on future changes, association rules can dictate how you use your property. Some condos prohibit home-based businesses; others prohibit pets or don’t allow owners to rent out their units. Read the covenants, restrictions, and bylaws carefully before you make an offer.
What’s the average vacancy rate?
It’s never too early to be thinking about resale. The ease of selling your unit may depend on what else is for sale in your building, since units are similar.
How many units are owned by investors?
Some lenders require a certain percentage of the building to be owner-occupied and may not be able to offer you financing if the ratio is too low.
Can I meet other residents before making an offer?
You will share space and decision-making duties with your neighbors when part of a homeowner association, so it’s important to make sure you can work together. If possible, try to meet your closest prospective neighbors before you decide on a place.
A homeowners’ insurance policy protects you against certain losses your new home may experience. Coverage is generally required by lenders prior to closing. Some lenders collect the homeowners’ insurance premium as part of your monthly mortgage payment, place it in an escrow account, and pay the insurer on your behalf.
There are two types of coverage provided by a homeowners’ policy: 1) Named Peril coverage; and 2) “Open” Peril coverage. Coverage provided on a “Named Peril” basis responds and pays only if the damage is caused by a specifically listed peril (cause of loss) such as fire, wind, or other specifically named causes of loss. Coverage provided on an “Open Peril” basis pays when the damage is NOT caused by a specifically excluded event.
Coverage for damage to your house is most commonly provided on an “Open Peril” basis. However, coverage for your contents (your personal property) is often provided on a “Named Peril” basis. Most insurance policies exclude damage caused by flood or earthquake. You may need to buy these types of coverage separately. If you are in a “high hazard” flood zone, you may be required by the lender to purchase flood insurance.
Dollar limitations on claims:
Even if you are covered for a risk, there may be a limit on how much the insurer will pay. For example, many policies limit the amount paid for stolen jewelry unless items are insured separately.
Your home is insured on a replacement cost basis. This means there is no deduction for depreciation due to the home’s age or even condition. But you will never be paid more the amount of coverage you purchased, so be sure your limit is sufficient. However, endorsements exist that allow you to purchase additional coverage after a loss if unexpected events increase the cost of rebuilding.
Actual cash value:
Actual cash value applies depreciation to the insurance carrier’s loss payment calculation. Coverage for your personal property is provided on an actual cash value basis. You also only get actual cash value on your house if it is destroyed and you choose to not have it rebuilt.
Generally, your homeowner’s insurance covers your liability for accidents that happen to other people on your property, including medical care, court costs, and awards by the court. However, there is usually an upper limit to the amount of coverage provided.
The first step is to shop around; quotes on the same home can vary significantly from company to company.
Review the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange report.
CLUE reports detail the property’s claims history for the last five years, which insurers may use to deny coverage. Make the sale contingent on a home inspection to ensure that problems identified in the CLUE report have been resolved.
Seek insurance coverage as soon as your offer is approved.
You must obtain insurance in order to buy your home. And you don’t want to find out at closing time that the insurer has denied you coverage.
Maintain good credit.
Insurers often use credit-based insurance scores to determine premiums.
Buy your homeowner’s and auto policies from the same company.
Companies will often offer a bundling discount. But make sure the discount really yields the lowest price.
Raise your deductible.
If you can afford to pay more toward a loss that occurs, your premiums will be lower. Also, avoid making claims for losses of less than $1,000.
Ask about other discounts.
For example, retirees who tend to be home more than full-time workers may qualify for a discount on theft insurance. You also may be able to obtain discounts for having smoke detectors, a security system, and high-quality locks.
Seek group discounts.
If you belong to any associations or alumni organizations, check to see if they offer deals on coverage.
Conduct an annual review.
Take a look at your policy limits and the value of your home and possessions every year. Some items depreciate and may not need as much coverage.
Investigate a government-backed insurance plan.
In some high-risk areas, the federal or state government may back plans to lower rates. Ask your agent what’s available.
Insure your house for the correct amount.
Remember, you’re covering replacement cost, not market value.
Title insurance protects your ownership right to your home, both from fraudulent claims against your ownership and from mistakes made in earlier sales, such as misspellings of a person’s name or an inaccurate description of the property. In some states it is customary for the seller to purchase the policy on your behalf.
Your mortgage lender will require it.
Title insurance protects the lender (and the secondary markets to which they sell loans) from defects in the title to your home—which could include mistakes made in the local property office, forged documents, and claims from unknown parties. It ensures the validity and enforceability of the mortgage document. The amount of the policy is equal to the amount of your mortgage at its inception. The fee is typically a one-time payment rolled into closing costs.
There are two different policies to consider purchasing.
The first policy, the one your lender will require, protects the lenders investment. You may also purchase an owner’s policy that provides coverage up to the purchase price of the home you are buying.
You have the right to choose your provider.
You can shop around for a lower insurance premium rate at a wide variety of sites online. You should first request quotes from a few companies and then reach out and speak to them. Ask about hidden fees and charges that could make one quote seem more attractive than another. Also, find out if you’re eligible for any discounts. Discounts are sometimes available if the home has been bought within only a few years since the last purchase as not as much work is required to check the title. You can also ask your lender or real estate professional for advice or help with getting quotes. Make sure the title insurance company you choose has a favorable Financial Stability Rating with Demotech Inc.
Even new construction needs coverage.
Even if your home is brand-new, the land isn’t. There may be claims to the land or liens that were placed during construction that could negatively impact your title.