Buying a house can be an exciting and emotional process. Before you start your home search in earnest, though, you’ll want to understand the ins and outs of the homebuying process. This will help empower you to make decisions that are the best for your family — and your wallet.
Here are 13 critical steps to buying a house:
- Understand why you want to buy a house
- Check your credit score
- Create a housing budget
- Save for a down payment
- Shop for a mortgage
- Hire a real estate agent
- See multiple homes
- Make an offer
- Get a home inspection
- Negotiate repairs
- Secure your financing
- Do a final walk-through
- Close on your house
1. Understand why you want to buy a house
Purchasing a home is a major decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s important to define your personal and financial goals before proceeding. Think about factors such as whether you’re craving more stability, whether it makes sense financially and whether you’re prepared for the responsibility of maintaining a home.
“Buyers should think about things like when they intend on moving, what they want in a home (such as) amenities, ideal location and how long it could take them to save for a down payment,” says Edwence Gorges, a sales associate with ReMax Select. “These are all important to help define the goals they would like to meet.”
How this affects you: If you’re not clear on why you want to buy a house, you could end up regretting your decision.
2. Check your credit score
Checking your credit score will help you determine your financing options; lenders use it (among other factors) to set your loan pricing and see if you’re able to repay your mortgage. You can get your credit score from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — for a nominal fee. Your bank or credit card company might have a program that gives you free access to your score or credit report, too.
Here’s a look at how different credit score ranges impact your interest rate, monthly payments and total interest.
|FICO score||APR||Monthly payment||Total interest paid|
Another good idea: Check your credit report. You can pull your reports from each of the credit bureaus for free every 12 months by visiting from AnnualCreditReport.com. If there are any discrepancies, contact each agency and report the error.
You can get your free credit score and credit report on Bankrate.
How this affects you: The better your credit history, the better the chances you’ll have of securing financing with the best terms and rates.
3. Create a housing budget
Here comes the fun part: figuring out how much house you can afford. It’s not as simple as determining the purchase price. There are other expenses to consider as well.
“Buyers tend to forget to factor in other costs like (homeowners association) fees and setting money aside for maintenance costs,” says Paige Kruger, Realtor and founder of Signal Real Estate in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. “Just because you can afford a mortgage and a down payment doesn’t mean you can afford those long-term costs after you move.”
Georges agrees. “I recommend a buyer save $15,000 to $25,000, in addition to their down payment, to cover closing costs or any emergency maintenance that may arise after you close,” he says.
A housing budget starts with understanding the maximum loan amount you qualify for. Next, you have to see what the monthly mortgage payment adds up to — and whether your budget can handle it. Lenders don’t take into account monthly bills such as day care, tuition, utilities, groceries and other financial obligations, so it’s up to you to crunch numbers and decide what monthly payment you can comfortably afford.
Finally, decide how much you can set aside for a down payment, closing costs and ongoing maintenance costs.
“Getting (preapproved) before approaching a Realtor is helpful so you know what kind of property you can afford and (how much you) are comfortable paying,” Kruger says. “That way, you’re not wasting your time looking at homes you love but can’t afford.”
How this affects you: Setting a realistic budget for your new home will help you know what you can afford and how much your all-in costs will be.
4. Save for a down payment
After setting a homebuying budget, you’ll need to save for a down payment, if you haven’t already started. To avoid private mortgage insurance, or PMI, you’ll need to put down at least 20 percent. Some lenders offer mortgages without PMI with lower down payments, but expect to pay a higher interest rate on the back end.
For those who don’t have that much saved, there are other options backed by the federal government. Borrowers who get a loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration, called an FHA loan, need just 3.5 percent down in many cases. Loans guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, known as VA loans and USDA loans, respectively, require no down payment.
Casey Fleming, a mortgage adviser with C2 Financial Corp., recommends finding a qualified loan officer in your area to help you determine the best option.
“Being willing to buy with less of a down payment gets you into your new home faster, but putting more down lowers your costs,” Fleming says. “The right decision for any particular person or family is highly personal.”
How this affects you: It can take months or even years to save up money for a home down payment. Research the down payment requirements for the loan you want so you know exactly how much you’ll need to close. If a friend, relative or employer has offered to provide a down payment gift, initiate a conversation early on to learn how much they plan to contribute and if there’s any shortfall you’ll need to come up with.
5. Shop for a mortgage
Getting preapproved for a mortgage is proof that a lender will loan you a certain amount for a home. It’s also helpful when you make an offer on a house, and it gives you a firmer handle on how much you can afford.
This is where working with an experienced mortgage lender is crucial; your lender can walk you through all of the options and overall costs. Ask what first-time homebuyer programs or other incentives are available to you.
“You should definitely shop around for a mortgage,” Fleming says. “It doesn’t take much to get licensed to sell mortgages, but it takes years to understand how the products work and how they impact borrowers. It’ll save you heartaches and, most likely, money in the long run.”
How this affects you: Shopping around for a mortgage with at least three or more lenders and/or a mortgage broker can help get you get the lowest interest rate.
6. Hire a real estate agent
An experienced real estate agent can be the key to help you find your dream home and negotiate with the seller on your behalf. This person should be on your side, helping you make informed decisions and refer you to other professionals like home inspectors, contractors (if needed), appraisers and title companies. That said, you should still shop around and compare fees from other professionals, too.
Before hiring a real estate agent, find out about their track record, knowledge of your desired neighborhood and what their workload is like (some agents may be over-scheduled).
“Someone with knowledge of an area can also tell if your budget is realistic or not, depending on the features you desire in a home,” Kruger says. “They can also point you to adjacent areas in your desired neighborhood or other types of considerations to help you find a house.”
How this affects you: A real estate agent can save you time and money by helping you look for a home that suits your needs.
7. See multiple homes
Once you meet with your real estate agent, you’ll likely be set up with a profile in the local Multiple Listing Service, which houses all listings for sale in a given area. Your agent can set you up on automatic searches for homes that meet your criteria. You can then let your real estate agent know what specific homes you want to see, or you can search online yourself. It’s also a good idea to drive through neighborhoods you want to live in to see what’s for sale, and attend open houses.
Kruger and Georges stress that you may not be able to check off everything on your home amenity wish list, so you’ll want to prioritize what’s most important to you aside from location. Also, keep notes on each property you visit. After a few showings, it’s easy to forget which homes you liked and why.
Keep your schedule open so you can pounce when a great home is listed, especially if you’re in a competitive seller’s market. If a home comes on the market, you could gain an edge over other buyers the sooner you see it and put your offer in.
How this affects you: Listing photos can be misleading so viewing homes in person allows you to make an informed decision.
8. Make an offer
Once you find “the one,” it’s time to make an offer, which your agent can help with. A complete offer package should include your offer price, your preapproval letter, proof of funds for a down payment (this helps in competitive markets), a personal letter to the seller to help your offer stand out, and terms or contingencies.
“Typically, a seller has about 24 hours to counter on an offer,” Kruger says.
Sellers might counteroffer on your price, terms or contingencies. From there, you can choose to respond to the counteroffer or reject it and move on.
Once an offer is accepted, you’ll need to sign a purchase agreement that includes the price of the home and estimated closing date. Then you’ll pay an earnest money deposit, which shows that you’re serious about purchasing the home. It’s typically about 1 percent to 2 percent of the total purchase price. The seller may have a right to keep the money if you back out of the contract.
However, there are cases where you can back out of a contract without penalties. That’s where contingency clauses come in and typically include appraisal, financing and home inspection and are designed to protect the buyer. For example, if a home inspection report shows major problems, you can back out of the contract and get your earnest money back.
How this affects you: Understanding how to make an attractive offer can increase your chances the seller will accept it, putting you one step closer to getting those coveted house keys.
9. Get a home inspection
A home inspection helps you get an overall picture of the property’s mechanical and structural issues. Depending on your contract and state of residence, you’ll need to complete a home inspection 10 to 14 days after you sign a purchase agreement.
Your real estate agent may have recommendations, but you should do your homework before choosing an inspector. To make sure the home inspector has enough experience, read online reviews, ask for past client references and look at their credentials.
Remember, an inspector doesn’t investigate all aspects of a home, so it’s helpful to look at a home inspection checklist to see what is and isn’t covered. As a buyer, you’re responsible for paying the home inspector, and while the fees can vary, you’ll pay an average of $300 to $450, according to Angie’s List.
How this affects you: The home inspection will help you figure out how to proceed with the closing process. You might ask the seller for repairs, decide to back out of the deal if you have a contingency in the contract, or simply anticipate future repairs after moving in.
10. Negotiate repairs, credits
Your home inspection report may reveal issues in the home — some major, some minor. The minor issues may be a sign that you’ll need to do repairs in the future, but major problems will likely need to be dealt with before a lender will finalize your loan.
Your agent can help you with negotiating any repairs — either the seller oversees the repairs, or you can ask for a cash-back credit at closing and handle them yourself. Some sellers may not agree to extensive repairs, and that’s why a home inspection contingency is a good idea to give you a way out of the purchase if the home is in less-than-ideal shape.
How this affects you: If there are safety or hazard issues like structural damage or improper electrical wiring, some lenders might not approve you for a loan. Plus, you might not have the budget or desire to handle those repairs after buying the home. Enlist your agent’s help to negotiate these items with the seller.
11. Secure your financing
At this point, you may need to submit additional paperwork as your lender completes the underwriting process. Documents might include bank statements, tax returns and additional proof of income, as well as a gift letter and written statements about any major deposits into your bank account.
“Generally, it’ll take anywhere from 21 to 30 days to complete the financing process,” Fleming says. “Delays mostly happen when buyers either don’t respond to disclosures quickly enough or don’t provide the exact documents that the lender needs.”
Another tip: Keep the status quo in your finances until closing day. In other words, don’t run up credit cards, take out new loans, close credit accounts or change jobs. Doing any of these things can hurt your credit score or impact your debt-to-income ratio, and that can imperil your final loan approval. A preapproval doesn’t mean you’re in the clear until a lender has given the final stamp of approval, so it’s important to keep your finances and credit in good shape from preapproval to closing.
How this affects you: Getting final loan approval means you need to keep your finances and credit in line during underwriting. Respond promptly to requests for more documentation and double-check your loan estimate to ensure all the details are correct so there are no hiccups later.
12. Do a final walk-through
A final walk-through is an opportunity to view the property before it becomes yours. It’s a good idea to have your real estate agent there who can act as a witness and help answer any questions you may have. Come with your home inspection checklist and other documents, like repair invoices and receipts the owner conducted, to ensure everything was done as agreed upon and that the home is in move-in ready condition.
How this affects you: This is your last chance to view the home, ask questions and address any outstanding issues before the house becomes your responsibility.
13. Close on your house
Once all contingencies have been met, you’re happy with the final walk-through and the closing agent has given the green light to close, it’s time to make it official and close on your home. Your lender will issue you a “clear to close” status on your loan.
Three business day before your closing date, the lender will provide you with a closing disclosure, a document that outlines all of your loan details, such as the monthly payment, loan type and term, interest rate, annual percentage rate, loan fees and how much money you must bring to closing. Review the closing disclosure carefully and compare it to the loan estimate to ensure closing fees and loan terms are the same. This is your final chance to ask questions about your loan and correct any errors (like your name or personal details) before you sign closing paperwork.
At the closing, you (the buyer) will attend, along with your real estate agent, possibly the seller’s agent, the seller, in some cases, and the closing agent. Depending on where you live, the closing agent may be a representative from the escrow or title company or a real estate attorney. This is also the time where you’ll wire your closing costs and down payment, depending on the escrow company’s procedures.
Once all of the paperwork has been signed, the home is officially yours and you’ll get those house keys. Congratulations! Now comes the fun part: moving in and making the house your home.
How this affects you: This is the last step before you become a homeowner. Review all of the documents you sign carefully, and ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand. You’ll leave closing with copies of the paperwork (or a digital file) and your new house keys.
Buying a home involves a lot of moving parts and complex steps, but this guide — along with the professional expertise of your real estate agent and lender — can help you navigate the process smoothly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way and learn as much as you can before diving in. By doing your homework ahead of time, you’ll have more confidence in your decision and relish getting those coveted house keys on closing day.