In life there are some situations a person simply can’t prepare for, like locking the keys in a car full of groceries or having a head full of shampoo when the smoke alarm goes off. Luckily, purchasing a home doesn’t have to be one of those moments.
Buying a house is probably one of the biggest financial decisions many people will make in their lifetime, and the process can be lengthy and complex. From getting a bird’s-eye view of their overall financial picture to calculating housing costs and securing loan pre-approval, there are many actions for home buyers to take as they get ready to purchase a home.
With the right resources and a solid strategy, however, purchasing a house can be a smooth process.
8 Steps to Prepare for a Home Purchase
1. Determining Credit Score
A home buyer’s credit score can impact their ability to secure a mortgage loan with a desirable rate. It can also affect how much they’ll be required to pay as a down payment when it’s time to close.
In a recent report from the National Association of Realtors , home buyers who had debt said it hindered their ability to set aside funds for a down payment by a median of four years.
Credit score can be influenced by a variety of factors, from payment history to amount of debt (a.k.a. credit utilization ratio) to age of credit accounts, mix of credit accounts, and new credit inquiries.
Payment history is the main factor that affects a person’s credit score, accounting for 35% of an overall FICO® score. Missing a payment on any credit account—from unpaid student loans to credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages—can negatively impact a person’s credit score.
By making on-time payments, limiting the number of new inquiries on their credit file, and working to pay down outstanding balances, home buyers could potentially boost their credit score and qualify for a lower mortgage rate.
Is There a Credit Score “Sweet Spot?”
Many buyers wonder whether there’s a desired credit score range or “sweet spot” to obtain a mortgage. The 2020 Q1 Federal Reserve Report on Household Debt and Credit found that the median credit score of newly originating borrowers increased to 773 in the first quarter for mortgages—up 14 points from 2019.
That’s not necessarily to say a credit score of 773 is a must for securing a mortgage, but the difference between a credit score in the 600 range and one in the 700 range could amount to about half a percent less interest on a mortgage loan and add up to a lot of money over time.
Credit scores can also affect the amount of the down payment itself. Many mortgage lenders require at least 20% of the house’s sale price be put down, but might offer more flexibility if the buyer’s credit score is in the higher range. A lower credit score, on the other hand, could call for a larger down payment.
Whether home buyers have debt or not, checking credit reports is still a recommended first step to applying for a mortgage. Understanding the information on credit reports is invaluable in knowing whether time is needed to repair credit, which could potentially lead to a higher credit score and possibly lower mortgage loan rate.
2. Deciding How Much to Spend
Deciding how much to pay for a new home can be based on a variety of factors including expected and unexpected housing costs, up-front payments and closing costs, and how it all fits into the buyer’s overall budget.
Calculating Housing Costs
There are several housing costs for home purchasers to consider that might affect how much they can afford to offer for the house itself. The costs of ongoing fees like property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and interest—if the loan does not have a fixed rate—can all lead to an increase in the monthly mortgage payment.
Closing costs are fees associated with the final real estate transaction that go above and beyond the price of the property itself. These costs might include an origination fee paid to the bank or lender for their services in creating the loan (typically amounting to 0.5% to 1% of the mortgage), real estate attorney fees, escrow fees, title insurance fees, home inspection and appraisal fees and recording fees, to name a few. To get an idea on how this can impact your budget, use this home affordability calculator to estimate total purchase cost.
Last year, the average closing costs for a single-family property were $5,749 including taxes, and $3,339 excluding taxes, according to a recent report from ClosingCorp .
In addition to closing costs, expenses that potential home buyers might want to consider are repairs and updates they might want to make to a home, new furniture, moving costs, or even commuting costs.
Finally, unforeseen costs of a major life event like a layoff or the birth of a new child might not be the first expenses that come to mind, but some buyers could find themselves making a potential home buying mistake by not getting their finances in order to prepare for the unexpected.
Making a list of these estimated expenses can help home buyers calculate how much they can feasibly afford and create a budget that could help them avoid being overextended on housing costs, especially if they might be paying other debt or saving for other financial goals.
3. Saving for a Down Payment
Saving money for a house is one of the biggest financial goals many people will have in their lifetime. And how much they’re able to offer as a down payment can significantly impact the amount of their monthly mortgage payment.
A larger down payment can also be convincing to sellers who see it as evidence of solid finances, sometimes beating out other offers in a competitive housing market.
The average down payment on a house varies depending on the type of buyer, loan, location, and housing prices, but, according to Zillow’s 2019 Consumer Housing Trends Report , 56% of buyers put down less than the typical 20% down payment, 19% put down 20%, and 20% of home buyers put down more than 20%.
For first-time home buyers, 20% of the price of the home can seem like a daunting figure. Many buyers find that cutting spending on luxury or non-essential items and entertainment can help them save up the funds.
Other tactics could include getting gifts and loans from family members, applying for low-down-payment mortgages, withdrawing funds from retirement, or receiving assistance from state and local agencies.
For buyers who were also sellers, proceeds from another property could also fund the down payment.
4. Shopping for a Mortgage Lender
There are many mortgage lenders competing for the business of the 86% of home buyers who finance their home purchases. These lenders offer a variety of mortgages to apply for, with a few of the most common being conventional/fixed rate, adjustable rate, FHA loans, and VA loans.
Buyers might not realize they can—and should—shop around for a lender before selecting one to work with. Different lenders offer different variations in interest rates, terms, and closing costs, so it can be helpful to conduct adequate research before landing on a particular lender.
Mortgage lenders must provide a loan estimate within three business days of receiving a mortgage application. The form is standard—all lenders are required to use the same form, which makes it easier for the applicant to compare information from different lenders and make sure they are getting the best loan for their financial situation.
5. Getting Preapproved for a Loan
While it might seem like a bit of a nuance, getting prequalified for a loan versus pre-approved for a loan are two different things.
When a buyer is prequalified for a loan, their mortgage lender estimates the loan amount they are qualified for, based on financial information they provided.
When a buyer is preapproved, the lender conducts a thorough investigation into their finances that includes income verification, assets, and credit rating. Preapproval is not a guarantee but tells a buyer that a lender is likely to approve them for a certain amount, as long as they clear the underwriting process.
Having a preapproval letter in hand can help some buyers get ahead by appealing to the seller as a serious intention of purchase and a lender’s guarantee to back that purchase up.
6. Finding the Right Real Estate Agent
According to the National Association of Realtors 2020 Generational Trends Report :
• 89% of all buyers purchased their homes through a real estate agent.
• The primary method most used to find that agent was referral.
• All generations of buyers continued to utilize a real estate agent as their top resource for helping them buy a home.
While the internet and popular real estate search websites have made it easier for home buyers to hunt for a house online, most buyers still solicit the help of a real estate agent to find the right home and negotiate the price and purchase.
Also, many realtors are experts in their particular housing market, so for buyers who are searching in a specific location, a real estate agent may be able to offer valuable insights that might not be revealed online.
7. Exploring Different Neighborhoods
By researching neighborhoods where they might want to purchase a property (both in-person and online), home buyers can get a better sense of what living in their future community could look like.
Many real estate websites provide comparable listings to help determine a reasonable offer amount in a given neighborhood.
Check out housing market
trends, hot neighborhoods,
and demographics by city.
They may also highlight nearby school ratings, price and tax history, commute times, and neighborhood stats like home value fluctuations or predictions, and walkability ratings.
All of this information can help paint a picture of life in the area a home buyer chooses to settle in. Doing a deep dive into a desired neighborhood can help inform a more realistic decision on where to buy a house.
8. Kicking off the House Hunt
Once the neighborhoods are whittled down, the loan is secured, the real estate agent has been signed, and the savings are set aside, the official house hunt can begin.
For 55% of buyers, the most difficult step in the home buying process was finding the right property. Some had to undergo a considerable process before making the final purchase, with most searching for 10 weeks and seeing a median of nine homes first.
With the help of a trusted real estate agent and a housing market with adequate inventory, most home buyers can begin to book showings, attend open houses, and formally put down an offer on a house they like.
In particularly “hot” markets, houses could receive several offers, so home buyers might want to be prepared to go through the bidding process with a few properties before they get to that glorious final sale.
Home buyers might wish they could snap their fingers and move into their dream house as quickly and painlessly as possible. While that is not realistic, SoFi can help simplify the mortgage loan process.
Without any hidden fees or prepayment penalties, a SoFi home loan could be the right option for many homebuyers. For questions about buying a home, SoFi offers home loan resources, guides, and tips to steer future homeowners through the process. There are a lot of steps, but managing them can be easier with a helping hand.
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