12 Tips for First-Time Homebuyers

By Dana Webb · November 08, 2023 · 8 minute read

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12 Tips for First-Time Homebuyers

If you’re getting ready to buy your first home, there are probably thousands of questions running through your mind. Questions about location, real estate services, expenses, and more — it’s a huge financial commitment and you probably want to make sure you have the best chance at getting exactly what you want. While it can be a difficult process to navigate, there is help for first-time homebuyers, from resources and advice to first-time homebuyer programs to help you finance a home.

If you’re worried you won’t ever be able to purchase a home, take a deep breath and a good look at your finances. You can start by reviewing your current financial situation and beginning to save for a down payment. (There are investment accounts and savings options that can help you reach your goal of buying a home, too.) Here are 12 helpful tips for first-time homebuyers.

1. Know Your Credit Score

Your credit score is typically very influential in determining what kind of interest rate you can get on a home mortgage loan. You can get one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax®, Experian®, and TransUnion®) every 12 months, and may also be able to view free reports more frequently online. You can review your credit report to spotlight any errors that may affect what lenders are willing to offer you.

If you find any errors, you can report them and have them removed. This process can sometimes take a while, even if the mistakes are obvious, so consider starting a credit report review early on in your home-buying process.

2. Calculate What You Can Afford

Do you know how to figure out how much house you can afford? While the size of your mortgage is generally determined by an evaluation of your personal finances and debt, there are a few rules of thumb that may be relevant.

One general guideline is that your housing costs, including your mortgage payment, should, ideally, be no more than 28% of your gross monthly income.

If you are paying off student loans, credit card debt, or have a car payment, you may want to adjust your budget accordingly. Some people try to keep their debt to 36% of their gross monthly income, so that they can still prioritize financial goals like saving for retirement. (This is just another rule of thumb and everyone’s financial goals are different.)

And having less debt may make you more appealing to mortgage lenders. Understanding how much money you feel comfortable spending on a house can, in turn, impact the properties you consider. As you build your budget, you can also check out SoFi’s mortgage calculator.

3. Look into First-Time Homebuyers’ Programs

While you are evaluating your options and creating your budget, it could be worth looking into some first-time homebuyers’ programs. Some programs offer down payment and closing cost assistance, or loans with reduced interest rates.

There are a variety of options available for first-time homebuyers looking for assistance. For example, the Federal Housing Administration offers a mortgage insured by the FHA. These loans often come with competitive interest rates and allow for smaller down payments.

The USDA also helps first-time homebuyers with a program focused in rural areas. And the VA loan program provides assistance to active duty military members, veterans, and surviving spouses. There are even more first-time homebuyer programs and loans available from various states as well.

4. Understand the Expenses

There are plenty of other expenses that come with purchasing a home beyond your down payment and closing costs. For example, when you’re renting property, you don’t have to worry about property tax or general maintenance. When you own property, you do.

In addition to property tax, you’ll likely also need insurance to protect your new home. And you’ll be responsible for maintaining the property, of course, which can include painting, replacing windows, updating the roof, replacing appliances, and more regular maintenance and upkeep.

You may also need to factor in additional purchases like a lawn mower or professional landscaping if the property you are looking at has a yard. Will you need to buy a snowblower to clear the driveway during long winters? These are all factors that can come into consideration when figuring out the cost of your new home.

Check out our Home Affordability
Calculator to estimate how much house
you can afford.

💡 Quick Tip: Jumbo mortgage loans are the answer for borrowers who need to borrow more than the conforming loan limit values set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency ($766,550 in most places, or $1,149,825 in many high-cost areas). If you have your eye on a pricier property, a jumbo loan could be a good solution.

5. Remember that Location Matters

Location is, obviously, important to many buyers. In some cases, you may have to decide if being in the neighborhood you want is more important than having extra square footage or other, similar trade-offs.

If you have kids or are planning to, you will likely be considering the school district each potential property falls in. Even if you aren’t planning to have kids, it could be worth considering the school district since it can have an impact on the value of your property and could make it easier to sell the house down the line.

6. Plan for the Future

Zoning laws and development plans are another factor to consider when house-hunting. If there is undeveloped land nearby, it can’t hurt to do some digging and see if there are any plans for development.

It may also be worth looking into the property value of other homes in the area. Have they been declining in recent years? If so, this could impact the future value of a home you’re considering.

7. Use Your Imagination

When shopping around for houses, you can take the opportunity to look at a property’s potential, as well as its current value. It’s easy to be distracted by the current owner’s décor, paint, carpet, or other factors that are easy to change. You can easily repaint or update the appliances, but you won’t be able to adjust the location, floorplan, or add rooms to the home as easily.

💡 Quick Tip: Backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), FHA loans provide those with a fair credit score the opportunity to buy a home. They’re a great option for first-time homebuyers.

8. Reserve Cash for Home Improvements

When you’re getting ready to put a down payment on a house, it may be tempting to clean out your savings account. And while that’s completely understandable, keeping your emergency fund close at hand may be a good idea when becoming a homeowner.

After closing costs have been sorted out and you’ve moved into your new home, you might find that unexpected repairs pop up. Having a reserve stash of cash can be helpful if the roof in your new home starts leaking, or you need to replace an appliance.

9. Get a Real Estate Agent

With all of the housing apps and free resources available on the internet, it may seem like a real estate agent is unnecessary. But in reality, navigating the housing market can be tricky and hiring an agent up front can save you time and help make your home-buying experience easier.

While you could spend your time going to open houses and scouring real estate listings, an agent can tailor the home search so that you spend less time looking at houses that don’t meet your criteria. They also can have access to new listings that aren’t yet on the market and may be willing to “preview” homes for you. A real estate agent can also help you navigate the intricacies of contract negotiations and paperwork. If you’re wondering how the real estate agent gets paid take heart: They are typically paid from the seller’s proceeds.

10. Know What to Expect from a Home Inspection

Having a home inspection completed is a critical step in buying a home. Inspection procedures vary from state to state, so it can be important to understand what is included in the home inspection in your state, since this is a great chance to truly examine the property and uncover any issues—before they become your issues.

Inspectors should have access to every part of the house including the roof and crawl spaces, and you should be able to attend the inspection yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask the inspector questions; the more information you have, the better prepared you can be to decide if this is the right house for you.

11. Negotiate the Offer

You’ll have an opportunity to negotiate when you’re making an offer on a house. A lot of factors can influence an offer and negotiating terms in your favor could result in serious savings, especially if you are in a buyer’s market.

If you are working with a real estate agent, they can help give you a good idea of what is considered a reasonable purchase bid by providing comparable sales. A “comparable” is a home similar to the one you are considering (and in the same condition and location) that has sold in the last three months. An agent can help give you an estimated price range and manage your expectations.

12. Find the Right Mortgage

Before committing to a mortgage, it’s smart to shop around and see what various lenders are willing to offer you. A few things to consider include the interest rates, loan terms, application process (Is it lengthy? Online only?), and any hidden fees included in applying for or repaying the mortgage. Familiarize yourself with the different types of mortgage loans available during this shopping process.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

SoFi Mortgages: simple, smart, and so affordable.

Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

*SoFi requires Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for conforming home loans with a loan-to-value (LTV) ratio greater than 80%. As little as 3% down payments are for qualifying first-time homebuyers only. 5% minimum applies to other borrowers. Other loan types may require different fees or insurance (e.g., VA funding fee, FHA Mortgage Insurance Premiums, etc.). Loan requirements may vary depending on your down payment amount, and minimum down payment varies by loan type.

¹FHA loans are subject to unique terms and conditions established by FHA and SoFi. Ask your SoFi loan officer for details about eligibility, documentation, and other requirements. FHA loans require an Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP), which may be financed or paid at closing, in addition to monthly Mortgage Insurance Premiums (MIP). Maximum loan amounts vary by county. The minimum FHA mortgage down payment is 3.5% for those who qualify financially for a primary purchase. SoFi is not affiliated with any government agency.


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