It appears that even in the dead of winter, the housing market is smoking hot.
The supply of homes for sale, according to REALTOR.com, is still scarce while buyer demand continues to increase. Sales of existing homes in January 2017 hit a 10-year high, with indications that February would also remain strong as houses flew off the market 5% more quickly than a year ago. And, prices remain at record highs.
What does it all mean? Looks like another banner year for sellers.
But if you’re a buyer, especially a first-time one, don’t despair. There are plenty of ways you can – and should – prepare to buy a home in this market. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- 1. Save, save, save: The amount of the down payment and requirement for mortgage insurance will depend on the type of loan program. Generally speaking, first-time buyers will need a down payment of 3% to 20% of the purchase price. Options do vary, especially state to state, and first-time homebuyers can sometimes be eligible for a zero down payment. It obviously pays to do your research beforehand.
- 2. And then save again: In addition to the down payment (and possible mortgage insurance) there are also closing costs to consider, which can run in the thousands, as well as property/land surveys, inspections, title searches and property taxes. It is possible to have the seller pay for some or all of the closing costs. You should discuss this with your REALTOR® or real estate agent. And don’t forget, you’ll also need to save for your “maintenance” fund which you’ll need to dip into whenever things break down – which they inevitably do. Homeownership means there is no landlord to fix (and pay for) clogged toilets, broken windows, or other emergencies, as well as routine maintenance.
- 3. Know your credit score: Lest you think we’re saying this just because we’re in the business, this is probably the most consistently made point across the internet. Why? Because when you know your score (and whether there are any fixable errors in it), you can get it where it needs to be (if necessary) before you start house shopping. The higher your score, the lower the rate. That can equal thousands of dollars over the life of a loan.
- 4. Shop your loan and get pre-approved: Mama always said, “It pays to shop around” and when it comes to mortgage loans, she’s definitely right. Different institutions offer different programs and rates. Armed with your credit score, visit various lenders (including ones with whom you may already have a relationship) and shop your best deal.
The process for getting pre-approved (application, fees, documentation) is more comprehensive than pre-qualifying (usually just a verbal overview of your debt, income and assets) but obtaining both before shopping means you will know just how much home you can afford before you begin searching. Plus, it signals the seller that you are a serious buyer. In a competitive market like we have today, being pre-approved can strengthen your offer and give you a leg up on the competition.
- 5. Making a list, checking it twice: What does your dream house look like? Where is it located? Are you a little bit country, or all city rock-and-roll? Now is the time to list your priorities and figure out what you are willing (or not!) to compromise on. Getting these things down on paper helps clarify them and will lessen frustrations later. Plus, it can help narrow your search when applied against the purchase price you know you can comfortably afford.
- 6. Work with a trusted partner: Your home is most likely the single biggest purchase you will ever make, so working with a partner you can trust is important. Go online and research the real estate professionals (buyer’s agents) in your area, looking at any client reviews, licensing, training, and more. Take the time to interview several because you will have to sign a Buyer Representation Agreement with the one you choose, and if the relationship sours you will not be able to work with any other buyer’s agents until that contract expires.
Obviously, purchasing your first home can be an overwhelming experience, but with the right preparation you can lessen the anxiety. It’s important to remember that, like life, nothing’s perfect. Compromise is required, as are realistic expectations. Though the old adage stresses “location, location, location,” most people prioritize size and price, too.
When buying a home for the first time, it may be difficult to get all three at once, but thorough preparation will make it much easier to find a happy medium that you can enjoy for years.