Buying a home is a huge investment—probably the most significant purchase of your life. It’s not something you should do without preparation.
Before you start on the road to homeownership, make sure you are ready.
Improve your credit score.
A high credit score snags you the best deals. “Below 660 or 680, you’re either going to have to pay sizable fees or a higher down payment,” says Barry Zigas, director of Housing Policy for the Consumer Federation of America.
A score of 700 to 720 can get you a good deal, and 750 and above can garner the best rates on the market.
Pull your credit reports and make sure you’re not penalized for old, paid or settled debts.
Stop applying for new credit a year before you apply for a mortgage. Keep the moratorium in place until after you close on your home.
Figure out what you can afford.
There are various ways to determine how much house you can afford. If you’re using an FHA loan, your monthly payment can’t exceed 31 percent of your monthly income. The FHA will let you go higher under some circumstances.
For conventional loans, home expenses should not exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income, says Susan Tiffany, retired director of Personal Finance Publications for adults for the Credit Union National Association, or CUNA.
Use Bankrate’s calculator to figure out how much house you can afford. Add to that other housing expenses, such as taxes, insurance and utilities. Then, bank the difference between that total and what you’re paying now.
Save for a down payment and closing costs.
You’ll need to save between 3 percent and 20 percent of the house price for a down payment. Your credit history and loan terms help determine how much you’ll need to come up with.
For example, with an FHA loan, the down payment requirement can be as low as 3.5 percent. You’ll need a credit score of at least 580. Home loans backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, require no down payment.
Another cash expense will be closing costs. The national average for closing costs for a $200,000 mortgage is $2,084, according to Bankrate’s latest survey.
If a big down payment is a hardship, look for down payment assistance. Search online using the city name, the county name and key word combinations such as “down payment assistance,” “first-time homebuyers” or “homebuyer’s assistance.”
Down payment assistance often is based on location or reserved for particular buyers, such as first-time buyers. In a buyer’s market, you can negotiate to have the seller pay a portion of the closing costs.
Build a healthy savings account.
Building up your savings—not just for a home—is very important. Your lender wants to know that you’re not living paycheck to paycheck. If you have three to five months’ worth of mortgage payments set aside, you’re a much better loan candidate. Some lenders and backers, like the FHA, will give you more latitude on other criteria if they see that you have a cash cushion.
That money will also help pay for maintenance and repairs of the home. Most repairs are sporadic, but big-ticket fixes such as a new roof or water heater can come up suddenly and drain your budget.
A good rule of thumb is to assume that you’ll spend 2.5 to 3 percent of your home’s value each year on upkeep and repairs. If you buy a $250,000 home, aim to save $520 to $625 per month.
Get preapproved for a mortgage.
Before you start house shopping, you should get your financing in place.
“The No. 1 thing is (homebuyers) better have everything in order,” says Dick Gaylord, of RE/MAX Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, Calif., and a former president of the National Association of REALTORS®.
Gaylord says you should get a mortgage preapproval “before you walk through the first house.” Otherwise, “How do you know how much you can afford?”
Buy a house you like.
Short-term homeownership can be expensive, depending on how much you put down and what it cost you to sell your old house and move.
To get a home that will make you happy, don’t count on a quick purchase. Step back and make certain the house you’re considering is one that will fit the needs of you and your family.