Buying a home is a big decision. The financial and emotional stakes are high, but the rewards can make it all worth it. This material can help you prepare to start your home-buying journey.
The Benefits of Home Ownership
Plain and simple, owning a home can improve your quality of life, provide stability and give you a sense of control you just can’t get from renting. You have a place to live when you rent, but buying is something much deeper – and better.
The tangibles are tough to measure, but there are other benefits you can quantify:
- Financial investment: Your monthly mortgage payment creates equity for you, not your landlord.
- The interest on your mortgage is a tax deduction: While this isn’t a reason in itself to buy a home, it’s nice to get a break at tax time.
- Fixed monthly housing payment: If you opt for a fixed-rate mortgage, the monthly rate of your mortgage won’t change for the length of the term.
- Tax-free gain:
When it’s time to sell your home, you don’t pay taxes on the proceeds of the sale that are above what you paid (with some restrictions – see information on capital gains).
The Importance of a Buyer’s Agent
A real estate transaction is a complex process involving stacks of paperwork and a number of outside service providers and contractors.
An experienced buyer’s agent can guide you through the process, answer your questions, and serve as your advocate. Your agent will help you find the property that fits your needs, submit offers and counteroffers, suggest a good property inspector and other professionals, and provide all sorts of relevant advice.
With a buyer’s agent, you’ll have someone on your side, looking out for your interests every step of the way.
What are the costs involved in hiring a Buyer’s Agent?
As a buyer, you don’t pay your agent directly. Instead, the agent receives an agreed-upon portion of the listing agent’s sales commission (usually about half), which is paid by the seller.
If you’re thinking this structure works against you by giving your buyer’s agent an incentive to let you pay more than you need to, consider this:
The increase in a buyer’s agent commission on, say, a $5,000 to $10,000 jump in price would be only $125 to $250. Good buyer’s agents – those who are productive and engaged in the business full time – aren’t going to risk their reputations. Your satisfaction – which can generate referrals to your friends and family – is the lifeblood of their careers. See Tips on Choosing and Working With a Realtor.
Deciding Where to Live
If you’re unfamiliar with the area where you’re moving, your buyer’s agent is an invaluable resource. He or she can offer insider knowledge on neighborhoods, schools, access to recreation and shopping districts, and the many other details on local neighborhoods and subdivisions.
It’s important to have a clear picture on the features that matter most to you in a home or location. Creating a list of “must haves” and flexible “nice-to-haves” from the start will make things a lot easier for you.
Factors to consider:
- Size of Home – square footage, number of bathrooms, rooms, etc.
- Home Features – updated fixtures/appliances, property size, garage, storage, etc.
- Location – proximity to schools, open space, entertainment, work, etc.
- Neighborhood – older or newer homes? Families, retirees or singles?
- Room to grow – planning to have more children?
- Condition – move-in ready or a less expensive home in need of improvements?
Your Buyer’s Agent can offer advice on the countless items you should consider according to your lifestyle, budget and particulars.
Anatomy of a Home Purchase
For most people, finding the right home begins with a house-hunting strategy combining personal preferences, guidance from others (including an agent), and a mix of neighborhood exploring and online search.
For some, the search takes a while; others find what they want right away. In either case, your real estate agent can be a huge resource of insight and guidance, working through issues or complications that arise along the way.
Here’s a general outline of what to expect during a home purchase, from the buyer's perspective:
- Buyers make a purchase offer. This is it! You’ve found the home of your dreams, looked over disclosure documents, reviewed comparable sales data, talked it over with your agent and submitted an offer. The sellers may accept your first offer, but more often will return a counteroffer. In fact, additional negotiations are common and your agent will help you through this generally stressful stage.
- The sellers accept. Once everyone is happy with the terms, the parties have reached what is known as mutual acceptance and enter into a purchase and sale agreement.
- Buyers put up earnest money. To solidify your intent to buy, you’ll place a deposit, or earnest money, on the property. The amount varies, but is generally at least 1 percent of the purchase price. You’ll write the check to the escrow company, not the seller. Note: This money counts toward your down payment later.
- Escrow opens. The earnest money deposit goes into an escrow account, where all funds will be held until closing, when they are then distributed to the right people (lender, mortgage broker, title insurer, real estate agents, etc.).
- Buyers apply for a mortgage. This step is streamlined if you’ve already been pre-approved for a loan (which is a smart thing to do). If not, you’ll begin the loan application process now. The lender inspects title history and orders a property appraisal. The lender needs key information about the property before granting a loan. This is when potential problems can come to light. For example, the appraisal could show a lower value than the purchase price, or the lender could have trouble finding comparable homes. Also, the title search could turn up liens or other problems.
- A home inspection takes place. You’ll hire an inspector – generally, your agent will suggest one, or provide several options – to check the home and point out minor and major problems that should be fixed before closing. At this point, you still have the option of backing out of the deal. Through your agent, you’ll submit a list of requested work and the sellers have the option to complete the tasks, do some of them but not others, or reject the request. The sides will negotiate until reaching an agreement.
- Removing contingencies. If the house passes inspection, appraisal, and title search and everything is good to go, then all contingencies can be removed, paving the way to a closing.
- Closing time arrives. Once contingencies are removed and financing is set, all parties sign a seemingly endless stack of documents and the transaction closes.
- Packing begins! When the final signatures are in place, it’s time to put down the pens, shake hands, exchange smiles, and start packing for the move!
How Much House Can You Afford?
Knowing how much you can afford to pay is a crucial step in your search. Nailing down your budget early will make the overall process more focused and less stressful.
Here’s a good way to figure out how much you can afford – The 28/36 Rule
The 28/36 rule is an established benchmark used by many lenders to determine how much credit to offer you. Here’s how it works:
The “28” refers to the notion that no more than 28 percent of your gross monthly household income should go toward housing costs, which include mortgage principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.
To calculate, simply multiply your gross monthly income (amount before taxes) by .28. Use this amount as a guide for how much house you can afford.
Example: You earn an annual salary of $70,000. Divide 70,000 by 12, giving you a monthly gross income of $5,833. Multiply that by 0.28 and you’ll find you should spend no more than $1,633 each month on total housing costs.
The “36” part of the 28/36 rule refers to your overall debt, which shouldn’t exceed 36 percent of your income. This is important to consider because other high monthly debt loads – such as car and credit card payments – impact the amount you can afford to spend on housing.
For first-time home buyers, the tricky part is knowing how much to budget for taxes and insurance. An experienced real estate professional can assist you with this.