Financial Literacy 2007 - Mortgages
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3 steps to take before buying a home

A little time spent shoring up your credit, crafting your budget and organizing financial documents will go far in smoothing the way to a home purchase. Ideally, you can start working on your home-buying project before you even start shopping for homes. Keep in mind that most buyers take eight weeks to actually shop for a home, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors. Your financial prep work should start well ahead of those eight weeks.

"My advice is to start to talk to your local Realtor six months ahead of time," says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, a practicing residential broker in Grand Rapids, Mich., and president of the National Association of Realtors. "Most have a good handle on mortgage people in the area. And, there are a lot of really cool mortgage programs out there for first-time buyers."

3 steps to take before applying
  1. Get your credit in shape.
  2. Organize your documents.
  3. Check your budget.
For example, Combs says some local governments will offer interest rate or down payment subsidies to buyers who agree to buy a home in certain areas. And governments or employers may subsidize teachers, fire fighters, police officers, nurses and other service professionals who have difficulty affording a home in high-priced communities. A hospital trying to recruit and retain nurses, for example, might offer a down payment loan, which is forgiven and turned into a grant if that nurse remains employed with the hospital for several years, says Combs.

Before you begin your house hunting, there are three important steps to take to make sure you are eligible for the best interest rates and to make the mortgage application process a breeze.

1. Get your credit in shape: Order your credit reports

One of the first steps any prospective buyer should take is to take advantage of the free credit reports everyone is entitled to request annually, thanks to federal law. While there are many sites on the Web offering "free" credit reports, many of those offers require that you sign up for a free trial of a credit-monitoring service that will cost money if you fail to cancel during the free trial period. The official site where you can get free, no-strings-attached credit reports annually from the Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit bureaus is www.annualcreditreport.com. You can receive one free credit report from each of these three agencies every year.

David Reed, an Austin, Texas, mortgage banker and author of "Mortgage Confidential: What You Need to Know That Your Lender Won't Tell You," says you should review each of those reports for errors. There could be mistaken entries noting late payments or account information that belongs to someone else. Common names sometimes get mixed up on credit reports, as do "Juniors" and "Seniors" in the same family.

"I see that a lot," says Reed.

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If you spot an error, you should write to that specific creditor and request a correction. Bankrate has a work sheet to help you request and track corrections on each of your credit reports.

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