Step 1: Start gathering a down payment
The very first step every first-time home buyer should tackle is to figure out their finances. Buying a new home (particularly for the first time) requires a mortgage, where a lender fronts you the money and you pay it back over time. However, in order to get a mortgage, you’ll need some sort of down payment.
So how much do you need?
Ideally a down payment on a mortgage should be 20% of the home’s price to avoid added fees, but if you don’t have that much of a down payment, don’t worry. A mortgage down payment can be as low as 10%, 5%, or even 0% for certain types of mortgages (e.g., VA loans or a USDA loan).
Step 2: Check your credit score
Did you forget to pay off a couple of credit cards? Unfortunately, it’ll affect your credit score.
In addition to having a down payment, a first-time home buyer will need a decent credit score. This three-digit number is a numerical summary of your credit report, a detailed document outlining how well you’ve paid off past debts like for credit cards and college student loans.
A lender will check your score and report in order to estimate the odds that you will deliver your monthly payment, too.
In turn, the lender will use this info to decide whether or not to loan you money, as well as how much and at what interest rate. If a lender sees some late payments on your credit cards or other blemishes in your credit report, this can lower your odds of getting a loan with a great interest rate, or perhaps even jeopardize your chances of getting any loan at all.
So it’s essential to know your credit score, and take steps with those overextended credit cards and high-interest debts to bring your credit score up to snuff. Here’s more on how to check your credit score and what number is best to buy a first home.
Step 3: Get pre-approved for a mortgage
Before you head out home buying, you should seek pre-approval from a lender for a home loan. This is where you meet with a loan officer, ideally a few at various mortgage companies.
Each mortgage lender (LendingTree is just one example) will scrutinize your financial background—such as your debt-to-income ratio and assets—and use this info to determine whether to loan you money, and what size monthly payment you can realistically afford. This will help you target homes in your price range. And that’s good, because a purchase price that’s beyond your financial reach will make you sweat your mortgage payment and puts you at risk of defaulting on your loan.
As a buyer, just keep in mind that mortgage pre-approval is different from mortgage pre-qualification. Pre-qualify, and you’re undergoing a much simpler process that can give you a ballpark figure of what you can afford to borrow, but with no promise from the lender. Getting pre-approved is more of a pain since you’ll have to provide tons of paperwork, but it’s worth the trouble since it guarantees you’re creditworthy and can truly buy a home.
Before they even meet with a lender, one step home buyers can take to begin understanding what they can afford as a monthly mortgage payment is to plug their info into an online home affordability calculator. This will calculate the maximum amount you can afford as a monthly payment.
Step 4: Find a real estate agent
Want a trusty home-buying guide by your side? Most first-timers will want a great real estate agent—specifically a buyer’s agent, who will help them find the right houses, negotiate a great real estate deal, and explain all of the nuances of home buying along the way.
The best part? The agent’s services are free to first-time home buyers (because the seller pays the sales commission).
Here’s how to find a real estate agent in your area. Note: There is a subtle difference between a real estate agent and a Realtor®; the latter is a member of the National Association of Realtors® and adheres to a code of ethics. Consider having a Realtor additional insurance that you’ll get the help you need to ace the process.
Step 5: Go shop for a home!
This is the fun part! As a home buyer, you can peruse thousands of real estate listings on sites such as realtor.com, then ask your agent to set up appointments to see your favorites in person.
Since the sheer number of homes can become overwhelming, it’s best to separate your must-haves from those features you’d like, but don’t really need. Do you really want a new home or do you prefer a fixer-upper? Make a list of your wants and needs to get started, and whittle down your options.
Step 6: Make an offer
Found your dream home? Then it’s time to make an offer to the seller.
Here’s more on how to make an offer on a house that a seller can’t refuse.
Step 7: Get a home inspection
A home inspection is where you hire a home inspector to check out the house from top to bottom to determine if there are any problems with it that might make you think twice about moving forward. Think: termites, faulty foundation, mold, asbestos, etc. Sure, a lot can go wrong, but rest assured that most problems are fixable.
Step 8: Get a home appraisal
Even if you got pre-approved for your home loan, your lender will want to conduct a home appraisal. This is where the lender checks out the house to make sure it’s a good investment. It’s similar to a home inspection, but for your lender.
Here’s more about the home appraisal process and what to expect as a buyer.
Step 9: Head to closing
Closing, which in different parts of the country is also known as settlement or escrow, brings together a variety of parties who are part of the real estate transaction, including the buyer, seller, mortgage representative, and others.
Closing is the day you officially get the keys to your new home—and pay all the various parties involved. That will include your down payment for your loan, plus closing costs, the extra fees you pay to process your loan.
Closing costs can be sizable, averaging anywhere from 2% to 7% of the home price.
Here’s more on closing costs for home buyers.
Step 10: Move in!
Done with closing? Got your loan? Congratulations, you’ve officially graduated from a home buyer to a homeowner! See, the long-term process of buying a first home wasn’t so scary after all, right? Now it’s time to kick back and enjoy the many benefits of becoming a homeowner.