From assembling your team to making your wish list, here’s how to get your home-buying journey off to a strong start.
For the first time in years, home buyers are shopping with more time and bargaining power, and even price cuts in some areas — meaning you may be facing less competition on that home you’ve been eyeing. If that’s inspiring you to make your home buying goal a reality, it’s time to get prepared. Having your finances in order and a robust home buying team can go a long way towards ensuring you’re well-positioned to put in a winning offer. This checklist walks you through how to prepare to buy a house, with 10 steps you can work on right now to get off to a running start.
1. Review your credit scores
Your credit scores play a vital role in whether a loan officer will approve you for a mortgage. They also affect what type of interest rate lenders will offer for the specific type of loan you want.
Many banks and other financial companies offer free credit scores to customers, based on data in your credit reports. You can get free copies of your reports from the three major credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com.
If your scores need a boost, make all your payments on time every month, utilize no more than 30% of your available credit and don’t apply for new credit that you don’t need. Asking the credit agencies to correct any errors in your reports could also raise your scores.
2. Choose a mortgage loan officer
When you’re thinking about buying a home, it’s never too early to talk to a loan officer. In your initial conversation, you don’t have to share your financial situation, authorize a credit check or even be ready to be pre-qualified or pre-approved for financing.
A loan officer can:
Educate you about the loan application and approval process.
Explain the down payment requirements for different loan programs.
Update you on interest rate trends and how your payment may be affected.
Help you figure out how much you can spend on buying a home.
Give estimates of your closing costs.
If you’re buying for the first time or haven’t owned a home for several years, ask your loan officer about special loan programs for first-time buyers in your area.
3. Review your debt and income with your loan officer
Having a lot of debt shouldn’t prevent you from buying a home if you have enough income to make your payments. If your income is stretched, paying off some debt could help you get approved for the loan you want.
Starting a new job, receiving irregular paychecks or quitting your job to launch your own business can make it harder for lenders to understand, track and verify your income. Keeping your income sources consistent before you purchase a home can make it easier for you to get approved.
4. Identify funds for your down payment
Contrary to popular wisdom, you don’t need a down payment of 20% of the home’s purchase price to buy a home. In fact, a Zillow survey of home buyers found that 58% of those planning to finance their home purchase intended to make a down payment of less than 20%.
Some loan programs allow you to buy a home with a down payment as low as 3.5% — or even with no down payment at all. (Buyers who choose these programs usually pay for some form of mortgage insurance, which protects the lender if the buyer doesn’t make the loan payments.)
Some buyers have enough income from their job or side hustle to save for a down payment. Others utilize monetary gifts from family members or the proceeds from selling stock or other assets they own.
5. Get prequalified for a loan
A loan prequalification, or “prequal,” is a step towards understanding how much home you might be able to afford.
In most states, a prequal is based on your submission of stated income and assets, estimated down payment, desired loan amount and possibly a credit check, explains Juan Rodriguez, a Zillow mortgage loan officer in Irvine, Calif.
A prequal isn’t a promise from the lender to give you a loan for a specific amount at a specific rate. Rather, it’s a first look or rough estimate of the loan amount and rate you may qualify for based on your stated financial information.
6. Set your price range
Before you begin shopping for a home, you’ll need to decide not only how much you can spend but also how much you want to spend. That amount — your home price range — is based on three factors:
The dollar amount of your down payment
The loan amount you’re prequalified for
The monthly payment you feel you can afford
You can shop for a house at the top of your price range. Or you can shop for a more affordable home to keep your payment lower if that’s more comfortable for you. Note that your price range may need to be re-evaluated after you’ve consulted with an agent (more on that below).
Tip: Concerned that interest rates may rise before you have a home under contract? Ask your loan officer and real estate agent about a seller-paid interest rate buy-down. With this strategy, you may be able to lower your rate and payment with mortgage discount points paid by the seller.
7. Make your house-hunting wish list
Finding a house you like may be surprisingly easy if you research ahead of time and create a wish list that itemizes your must-haves and nice-to-haves.
Researching homes online can help you learn about local housing markets and identify common characteristics of homes in your price range. Your wish list can help you narrow your focus to homes that will be a good fit for you.
Ines Kim, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in St Louis, Mo., encourages her clients to start their home search as long as eight to 12 months before they’re ready to buy.
“Preparing in advance gives buyers a better understanding [of the housing markets], greater clarity and confidence [when] they make an offer,” Kim says.
8. Choose a real estate agent
Smart buyers shop around for a real estate agent as well as a home they want to buy. A good rule of thumb is to talk with at least three agents before you choose one.
A good agent should:
Keep you informed about homes for sale in neighborhoods where you might want to live.
Assist you with making an offer for a home you like.
Help you with any issues that may come up during your transaction.
Mercy Lugo-Struthers, principal broker at Casals, Realtors, in Woodbridge, Va., says buyers should ask a lot of questions when they speak with realty agents. A few questions she suggests are:
What are your top skills when representing buyers?
Why should I hire you?
What do you consider outstanding customer service?
What type of technology do you use to improve your showing process?
Finding an agent you feel comfortable communicating with is important. A skilled agent can help you decide if your house-hunting wish list is realistic based on your price range. They also may be able to walk you through the process of re-evaluating your wants and needs. This includes identifying homes in a different area that meet your needs at a lower price.
9. Set aside savings for closing costs and moving expenses
In addition to your down payment, you’ll need to save or set aside separate funds to pay closing costs when you purchase a home. These costs may include a home inspection, appraisal, title search and insurance, loan origination fees and escrow or attorney’s fees. You may also need funds to:
prepay a portion of your property taxes and homeowner insurance premium
make repairs to your new home
arrange for utility services
move household goods and belongings from your current residence to your new home
Closing costs typically range from 2 to 5% of the home’s purchase price.
It’s important to keep in mind that closing costs are generally paid in cash in addition to your down payment, but there are options for minimizing these costs, including negotiating with the seller and applying for first-time buyer assistance programs.
10. Get pre-approved for a loan
Planning to buy a home within the next 90 days? It’s time to step up from a pre-qualification to a pre-approval.
A loan “pre-approval” generally means your lender has verified your stated income and assets with documentation. The typical ask is two recent W-2s, two recent pay stubs and two months’ recent bank statements. A loan officer may ask self-employed borrowers to release their income tax returns.
With pre-approval, your lender should give you a letter that states how much you’re covered to borrow.
“Most agents want the letter before they start showing properties to ensure the borrowers are qualified,” Rodriguez says. “And most seller’s agents won’t accept an offer unless there’s a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter attached.”
Lugo-Struthers says that in her market, buyers can start shopping for a home and get an offer approved as soon as they get a pre-qualification letter. However, she adds, sellers and buyers are becoming savvier about pre-approval letters.
“A pre-approval letter is an indication that your income and assets are solid, you’re a step further in your home-buying process, you’re serious about purchasing a home, and more importantly, your funding is far along in the process,” she says.
Again, smart buyers start early.
Rodriguez recommends that buyers seek pre-approval at least 30 days before starting to search for a home. That way, he says, “they’ll know their price point and payment amount, or if they still need to do some work to qualify for the home they’d like to buy.”
Most prequals and pre-approvals are valid for 90 days, and you can renew them to restart your 90-day clock. But remember that interest rate fluctuations or changes in your employment or financial situation can affect your loan amount.
Once you have been pre-approved and complete the other action items, you’ll be off to a strong start in purchasing a home you’ll love for a lifetime.
When to Start Packing for a Move: Moving day
Make sure you have what you need. Whether you’re driving down the street or flying to a new continent, make sure you have all the necessities for your transit.
Double-check your home for forgotten items. A final walk-through can ensure you don’t leave anything behind. Don’t forget the outdoors.
Review the paperwork. Carefully read the moving paperwork you’ll be signing, and double-check the moving fees to make sure everything is on the level.
Thank the movers. Prepare some refreshments for them, and keep cash on hand for a tip if you’re satisfied with their work. Common practice is to tip each mover $4-$5 for every hour they work.
Share your info. Give the truck driver your exact new address and phone number to ensure your stuff makes it to the right location.
Clean up. Now that the place is empty, leave it the way you’d want to find it as a new owner.
Say goodbye to your old home. Lock it up and bid it farewell. The time has come to set foot on the road to your new life! Snap some pics or take a video as tribute.
While many tasks are common for residential moves, certain aspects of your move may be unique and require a different approach. Personalize this moving timeline to make it work just right for you.