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Buying real estate can be just as stressful as it is fun. If you're a first-time home buyer, it's really hard to know all the right questions to ask. To help you out, here are nine mistakes to avoid as you make your first home purchase.
You don't need a huge salary or big bank account balance to qualify for a mortgage. Lenders love borrowers who keep their debt low and pay their bills on time. It's a good idea to come to the table with some money set aside, but you might not need tens of thousands of dollars for a down payment. Look into top-rated mortgage lenders that will help you find a loan that fits your needs.
You don't need perfect credit to buy a home. In fact, it's possible to get a mortgage with bad credit. But it's true that people with lower credit scores usually pay higher interest rates. The interest rate increases the overall cost of the home you buy, which could make it harder to qualify for the loan you want. That's why it's so important to stay on top of your credit score. You can get a fresh copy of your credit report every week from each of the three major credit bureaus by visiting annualcreditreport.com, so check yours often. And if you find any discrepancies, start the correction process by disputing them while viewing your credit report online. Do this for every error, because some errors can negatively affect your score. If it's too complicated to correct with a click, the credit bureau should give you further instructions.
If you need more help, read our guide to learn how to increase your credit score.
Even if you qualify for a mortgage with a low down payment (or even no down payment), you will need to have some money in the bank to qualify. Some lenders want to see just one month's worth of funds in your savings account. Others want to see three months' worth. Although you can use this money any way you want the minute after your loan closes, you won't be able to use it toward the down payment or closing costs. It's a separate requirement called cash reserves.
To help you get ready, use our guide for how to save for a house.
RELATED: Need a savings account? Check out The Ascent's guide to the best savings accounts.
As the owner, you're responsible for every expense related to the home. Right away, you'll need to budget for homeowners insurance premiums and property taxes in addition to the monthly payment on your loan.
If you make a down payment smaller than 20%, there's a good chance you'll be paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI). The annual cost could be anywhere from about 0.25% to 2.25% or more of your loan amount. It depends on how much you borrow, how much you put down, your credit score, and other factors. At those rates, PMI on a $200,000 loan could add anywhere from $42 to $375 to your monthly payment.
Then you've got homeowners association (HOA) fees, a longer list of utilities, and maintenance expenses to factor in.
Being a homeowner costs a lot. You'll need to think way beyond the loan payment to come up with a realistic homeowner budget. A first-time home-buyer class can help walk you through that process.
For more information, read our guide on the expenses of homeownership.
After you set your price range for a home, your lender or real estate agent might tell you that you can afford more than what you've decided will work for you. That may not be a good idea.
You want to meet all of your financial obligations as a homeowner and still have money left over to save every month. Go with your own calculations and stay in your financial comfort zone. You won't regret having extra money in the bank, and you can always plan to upgrade to a nicer home or do a major remodel down the line.
To help you out, make sure to read our guide on how to create a first-time homeowners' budget.
You'll do yourself another big financial favor when you shop around with multiple lenders. Even a fraction of a difference in a mortgage rate from one lender could save you thousands of dollars or more over the life of the home loan. Besides the interest rate, lenders also differ in the fees they charge. For example, some charge an application fee while others offer free mortgage pre-approval.
Applying with multiple lenders helps you compare apples to apples. And it won't hurt your credit score as long as you apply for all of them in a short time frame. All mortgage applications made within a rate shopping window are counted as a single inquiry against your score. The rate shopping window is 14 to 45 days, depending on the credit scoring model used by the lender. Yes, you'll end up saying "no, thank you" to at least one lender, but submitting applications is the only way to comparison-shop genuine mortgage loan offers.
For more information, we've rounded up the best mortgage lenders for first-time home buyers.
Pre-approval and prequalification are each appropriate at different times in the home-buying process.
If you are just starting to entertain the idea of buying a home, a mortgage prequalification will tell you what loan amount you might qualify for, assuming everything you tell the lender about your finances and credit is accurate.
When you're ready to view homes, get pre-approved. The mortgage lender will verify your information and tell you what you qualify for. When you find the home you want, the lender will update the data and make sure nothing has changed, including your credit score, your debt balances, and the amount of money you have in savings. Assuming your financial situation has not worsened, your loan will be approved.
If you need more help, our guide on how to get pre-approved can walk you through each step of the pre-approval process.
Arguably the biggest obstacle to homeownership for most people is the down payment. However, there are several ways for a first-time buyer to remove or lower this hurdle, including a zero-down mortgage or down payment assistance (DPA).
Both a VA loan and a USDA loan allow for a zero down payment. VA loans are for eligible service members, veterans, and some spouses. USDA loans are for low- to moderate-income borrowers buying property in eligible locations, which are usually rural.
If VA and USDA loans aren't an option for you, there are a few zero-down mortgages out there that anyone can apply for. Guild Mortgage occasionally advertises a zero-down mortgage that combines an FHA loan with a second mortgage to cover the down payment, closing costs, or both. Credit unions here and there also offer zero-down mortgages.
Down payment assistance comes in the form of a down payment loan (payments are deferred or the loan is later forgiven entirely), or a non-repayable grant (free money). The best way to start your search for down payment assistance is to search online for programs in your city, county, and state.
If you can't get a zero-down mortgage or down payment assistance, look into 3% down payment loans. And if you don't qualify for those, an FHA loan requires only 3.5% down.
For more information, check out our home buyer checklist for everything you need to do before buying a home.
The home-buying process can be stressful, and things might happen that you weren't expecting. It's not uncommon for first-time home buyers to be outbid and outmaneuvered by investors and other buyers. Your home budget might need to be adjusted, and it can be dejecting to find out that you need to save even more money. You might fall in love with a home that you don't get to buy.
Relax. Take your time. Do the math before you make an offer on a house, and stick with your goal. Persistence will eventually pay off, and you'll learn a lot along the way.
To help you stay the course, use our guide on how to get a mortgage.
Avoid rushing. A home is a major commitment that you might live with for a long time. Getting the numbers right is important.
Avoid making any changes to your credit profile. You don't want your credit score to drop. That means you should not make a late payment or increase your debt. Don't close or open any credit card or bank accounts. Don't pay off a collection account unless your mortgage loan officer tells you to do so. Also, it's best not to quit your job, even for a better one, during the home-buying process.
Avoid viewing homes too early. Make sure your finances and credit are ready and you've got a mortgage pre-approval in hand. Otherwise, you might be wasting your time since today's homes for sale might no longer be on the market when you're ready to make offers.
According to the National Association of Realtors, the average down payment in 2022 was 6%.
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