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Tips for Home Buyers

The homebuying process can seem complicated, especially for first-time homebuyers. The information below has helpful step-by-step topics that will help you take the mystery out of homebuying.

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5 Factors That Decide Your Credit Score

Credit scores range between 200 and 800. Scores above 620 are considered desirable for obtaining a mortgage. These factors will affect your score.

  1. Your payment history. Whether you paid credit card obligations on time.
  2. How much you owe. Owing a great deal of money on numerous accounts can indicate that you are overextended.
  3. The length of your credit history. In general, the longer the better.
  4. How much new credit you have. New credit, either installment payments or new credit cards, are considered more risky, even if you pay promptly.
  5. The types of credit you use. Generally, it's desirable to have more than one type of credit—installment loans, credit cards, and a mortgage, for example.

8 Steps to Getting Your Finances in Order

  • Develop a family budget. Instead of budgeting what you'd like to spend, use receipts to create a budget for what you actually spent over the last six months. One advantage of this approach is that it factors in unexpected expenses, such as car repairs, illnesses, etc., as well as predictable costs such as rent.
  • Reduce your debt. Generally speaking, lenders look for a total debt load of no more than 36 percent of income. Since this figure includes your mortgage, which typically ranges between 25 percent and 28 percent of income, you need to get the rest of installment debt—car loans, student loans, revolving balances on credit cards—down to between 8 percent and 10 percent of your total income.
  • Get a handle on expenses. You probably know how much you spend on rent and utilities, but little expenses add up. Try writing down everything you spend for one month. You'll probably see some great ways to save.
  • Increase your income. It may be necessary to take on a second, part-time job to get your income at a high-enough level to qualify for the home you want.
  • Save for a downpayment. Although it's possible to get a mortgage with only 5 percent down, or even less in some cases, you can usually get a better rate and a lower overall cost if you put down more. Shoot for saving a 20 percent downpayment.
  • Create a house fund. Don't just plan on saving whatever's left toward a downpayment. Instead deconte on a certain amount a month you want to save, then put it away as you pay your monthly bills.
  • Keep your job. While you don't need to be in the same job forever to qualify, having a job for less than two years may mean you have to pay a higher interest rate.
  • Establish a good credit history. Get a credit card and make payments by the due date. Do the same for all your other bills. Pay off the entire balance promptly.

  • 8 Ways to Improve Your Credit

    Credit scores, along with your overall income and debt, are a big factor in determining if you'll qualify for a loan and what loan terms you'll be able to qualify for.

    1. Check for and correct errors in your credit report. Mistakes happen, and you could be paying for someone else's poor financial management.
    2. Pay down credit card bills. If possible, pay off the entire balance every month. However, transferring credit card debt from one card to another could lower your score.
    3. Don't charge your credit cards to the maximum limit.
    4. Wait 12 months after credit difficulties to apply for a mortgage. You're penalized less for problems after a year.
    5. Don't purchase big-ticket items for your new home on credit cards until after the loan is approved. The amounts will add to your debt.
    6. Don't open new credit card accounts before applying for a mortgage. Having too much available credit can lower your score.
    7. Shop for mortgage rates all at once. Too many credit applications can lower your score, but multiple inquiries from the same type of lender are counted as one inquiry if submitted over a short period of time.
    8. Avoid finance companies. Even if you pay the loan on time, the interest is high and it will probably be considered a sign of poor credit management.

    Tips for Finding the Perfect Neighborhood

    The neighborhood you choose can have a big impact on your lifestyle - safety, available amenities, and convenience all play their part.

    1. Make a list of the activities - movies, health club, church - you engage in regularly and stores you visit frequently. See how far you would have to travel from each neighborhood you're considering to engaging in your most common activities.
    2. Check out the school district. The Department of Education in your town can probably provide information on test scores, class size, percentage of students who attend college, and special enrichment programs. If you have school-age children, also consider paying a visit to schools in the neighborhoods you're considering. Even if you don't have children, a house in a good school district will be easier to sell in the future.
    3. Find out if the neighborhood is safe. Ask the police department for neighborhood crime statistics. Consider not only the number of crimes but also the type: burglaries, armed robberies, and the trend of increasing or decreasing crime. Also, is crime centered in only one part of the neighborhood, such as near a retail area?
    4. Determine if the neighborhood is economically stable. Check with your local city economic development office to see if income and property values in the neighborhood are stable or rising. What is the percentage of homes to apartments? Apartments don't necessarily diminish value, but they do mean a more transient population. Do you see vacant businesses or homes that have been for sale for months?
    5. See if you'll make money. Ask a local REALTOR or call the local REALTOR association to get information about price appreciation trends in the neighborhood. Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, this information may give you a sense of how good an investment your home will be. A REALTOR or the government planning agency also may be able to tell you about planned developments or other changes in the neighborhood, like a new school or highway, that might affect value.
    6. See for yourself. Once you've narrowed your focus to two or three neighborhoods, go there, and walk around. Are homes tidy and well maintained? Are streets quiet? Pick a warm day if you can and chat with people working or playing outside. Are they friendly? Are their children to play with your family?

    Tips on Buying in a Tight Market

    Increase your chances of getting your dream house instead of losing it to another buyer, with these easy steps.

    1. Get prequalified for a mortgage. You'll be able to make a firm commitment to buy and make your offer more desirable to the seller.
    2. Stay in close touch with your real estate sales associate to find out first about new listings that come on the market. And be ready to go see a house as soon as it goes on the market.
    3. Scout out new listings yourself. Look at Internet sites, newspaper ads, and drive by the neighborhood frequently. Maybe you'll see a brand-new "for sale" sign before anyone else.
    4. Be ready to make a decision. Spend lots of time in advance deconting what you must have so you won't be unsure when you have the chance to make an offer.
    5. Bid competitively. You may not want to start out offering the absolute highest price you can afford, but don't try to go too low to get a deal. In a tight market, you'll lose out.
    6. Keep contingencies to a minimum. Restrictions such as needing to sell your home before you move or wanting to delay the closing until a certain date can make your offer unappealing. In a tight market, you'll probably be able to sell your house rapidly. Or talk to your lender about getting a bridge loan to cover both mortgages for a short period.
    7. Don't get caught in a buying frenzy. Just because there's competition doesn't mean you should just buy anything. And even though you want to make your offer attractive, don't neglect inspections that help ensure that your house is sound.

    10 Steps to Prepare for Homeownership

    1. Decide how much home you can afford. Generally, you can afford a home equal in value to between two and three times your gross income.
    2. Develop a wish list of what you'd like your home to have. Then prioritize the features on your list.
    3. Select three or four neighborhoods you'd like to live in. Consider items such as schools, recreational facilities, area expansion plans, and safety.
    4. Determine if you have enough saved to cover your downpayment and closing costs. Closing costs, including taxes, attorney's fee, and transfer fees average between 2 percent and 7 percent of the home price.
    5. Get your credit in order. Obtain a copy of your credit report.
    6. Determine how large a mortgage you can qualify for. Also explore different loans options and decide what's best for you.
    7. Organize all the documentation a lender will need to preapprove you for a loan.
    8. Do research to determine if you qualify for any special mortgage or downpayment-assistance programs.
    9. Calculate the costs of homeownership, including property taxes, insurance, maintenance, and association fees, if applicable.
    10. Find an experienced REALTOR who can help you through the process.

    7 Reasons to Own Your Own Home

    1. Tax breaks. The U.S. Tax Code lets you deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage, property taxes you pay, and some of the costs involved in buying your home.
    2. Gains. Between 1998 and 2002, national home prices increased at an average of 5.4 percent annually. And while there's no guarantee of appreciation, a 2001 study by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS found that a typical homeowner has approximately $50,000 of unrealized gain in a home.
    3. Equity. Money paid for rent is money that you'll never see again, but mortgage payments let you build equity ownership interest in your home.
    4. Savings. Building equity in your home is a ready-made savings plan. And when you sell, you can generally take up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple) as gain without owing any federal income tax.
    5. Predictability. Unlike rent, your mortgage payments don't go up over the years so your housing costs may actually decline as you own the home longer. However, keep in mind that property taxes and insurance costs will rise.
    6. Freedom. The home is yours. You can decorate any way you want and be able to benefit from your investment for as long as you own the home.
    7. Stability. Remaining in one neighborhood for several years gives you a chance to participate in community activities, lets you and your family establish lasting friendships, and offers your children the benefit of educational continuity.

    5 Common First-Time Homebuyer Mistakes

    1. They don't ask enough questions of their lender and miss out on the best deal.
    2. They don't act quickly enough to make a decision and someone else buys the house.
    3. They don't find the right real estate professional who is willing to help you through the homebuying process.
    4. They don't do enough to make their offer look good to a seller.
    5. They don't think about resale before they buy. The average first-time buyer only stays in a home for four years.

    10 Tips for First-Time Homebuyers

    1. Be picky, but don't be unrealistic. There is no perfect home.
    2. Do your homework before you start looking. Decide specifically what features you want in a home and which are most important to you.
    3. Get your finances in order. Review your credit report and be sure you have enough money to cover your downpayment and your closing costs.
    4. Don't wait to get a loan. Talk to a lender and get prequalified for a mortgage before you start looking.
    5. Don't ask too many people for opinions. It will drive you crazy. Select one or two people to turn to if you feel you need a second opinion.
    6. Decide when you could move. When is your lease up? Are you allowed to sublet? How tight is the rental market in your area?
    7. Think long-term. Are you looking for a starter house with the idea of moving up in a few years or do you hope to stay in this home longer? This decision may dictate what type of home you'll buy as well as the type of mortgage terms that suit you best.
    8. Don't let yourself be "house poor". If you max yourself out to buy the biggest home you can afford, you'll have no money left for maintenance or decoration or to save money for other financial goals.
    9. Don't be naive. Insist on a home inspection and, if possible, get a warranty from the seller to cover defects within one year.
    10. Get help. Consider hiring a REALTOR as a buyer's representative. Unlike a listing agent, whose first duty is to the seller, a buyer's representative is working only for you. And often, buyer's reps are paid out of the seller's commission payment.

    10 Things to Take the Trauma Out of Homebuying

    1. Find a real estate professional who's simpatico. Homebuying is not only a big financial commitment, but also an emotional one. It's critical that the practitioner you choose is both skilled and a good fit with your personality.
    2. Remember, there's no "right" time to buy, any more than there's a right time to sell. If you find a home now, don't try to second-guess the interest rates or the housing market by waiting. Changes don't usually occur fast enough to make that much difference in price, and a good home won't stay on the market long.
    3. Don't ask for too many opinions. It's natural to want reassurance for such a big decision, but too many ideas will make it much harder to make a decision.
    4. Accept that no house is ever perfect. Focus in on the things that are most important to you and let the minor ones go.
    5. Don't try to be a killer negotiator. Negotiation is definitely a part of the real estate process, but trying to "win" by getting an extra-low price may lose you the home you love.
    6. Remember your home doesn't exist in a vacuum. Don't get so caught up in the physical aspects of the house itself - room size, kitchen - that you forget such issues as amenities, noise level, etc., that have a big impact on what it's like to live in your new home.
    7. Don't wait until you've found a home and made an offer to get approved for a mortgage, investigate insurance availability, and consider a schedule for moving. Presenting an offer contingent on a lot of unresolved issues will make your bid much less attractive to sellers.
    8. Factor in maintenance and repair costs in your post-homebuying budget. Even if you buy a new home, there will be some costs. Don't leave yourself short and let your home deteriorate.
    9. Accept that a little buyer's remorse is inevitable and will probably pass. Buying a home, especially for the first time, is a big commitment, but it also yields big benefits.
    10. Choose a home first because you love it; then think about appreciation. While U.S. homes have appreciated an average of 5.4 percent annually from 1998 to 2002, a home's most important role is as a comfortable, safe place to live.

    Hidden Home Defects to Watch For

    No home is flawless, but certain physical problems can be expensive. Watch for:

    1. Water leaks. Look for stains on ceilings and near the baseboards, especially in basements or attics.
    2. Shifting foundations. Look for large cracks along the home’s foundation.
    3. Drainage. Look for standing water, either around the foundation of the home of in the yard.
    4. Termites. Look for weakened or grooved wood, especially near ground level.
    5. Worn roofs. Look for broken or missing copings and buckled shingles as well as water spots on ceilings.
    6. Inadequate wiring. Look for antiquated fuse boxes, extension cords (indicating insufficient outlets), and outlets without a place to plug in the grounding prong.
    7. Plumbing problems. Very low water pressure, banging in pipes.

    10 Questions to Ask a Home Inspector

    1. What are your qualifications? Are you a member of the American Association of Home Inspectors?
    2. Do you have a current license? Inspectors are not required to be licensed in every state.
    3. How many inspections of properties such as this do you do each year?
    4. Do you have a list of past clients I can contact?
    5. Do you carry professional errors and omission insurance? May I have a copy of the policy?
    6. Do you provide any guarantees of your work?
    7. What specifically will the inspection cover?
    8. What type of report will I receive after the inspection?
    9. How long will the inspection take and how long will it take to receive the report?
    10. How much will the inspection cost?

    What Your Home Inspector Should Cover

    • Siding: Look for dents or buckling
    • Foundations: Look for cracks or water seepage
    • Exterior Brick: Look for cracked bricks or mortar pulling away from bricks
    • Insulation: Look for condition, adequate rating for climate
    • Doors and Windows: Look for loose or tight fits, condition of locks, condition of weatherstripping
    • Roof: Look for age, conditions of flashing, pooling water, buckled shingles, or loose gutters and downspouts
    • Ceilings, walls, and moldings: Look for loose pieces, drywall that is pulling away
    • Porch/Deck: Loose railings or step, rot
    • Electrical: Look for condition of fuse box/circuit breakers, number of outlets in each room
    • Plumbing: Look for poor water pressure, banging pipes, rust spots or corrosion that indicate leaks, sufficient insulation
    • Water Heater: Look for age, size adequate for house, speed of recovery, energy rating
    • Furnace/Air Conditioning: Look for age, energy rating; Furnaces are rated by annual fuel utilization efficiency; the higher the rating, the lower your fuel costs. However, other factors such as payback period and other operating costs, such as electricity to operate motors.
    • Garage: Look for exterior in good repair; condition of floor—cracks, stains, etc.; condition of door mechanism
    • Basement: Look for water leakage, musty smell
    • Attic: Look for adequate ventilation, water leaks from roof
    • Septic Tanks (if applicable): Adequate absorption field capacity for the percolation rate in your area and the size of your family
    • Driveways/Sidewalks: Look for cracks, heaving pavement, crumbling near edges, stains

    How Comprehensive Is Your Home Warranty?

    Check your home warranty policy to see which of the following items are covered. Also check to see if the policy covers the full replacement cost of an item.

    • Plumbing
    • Electrical Systems
    • Water Heater
    • Furnace
    • Heating Ducts
    • Water Pump
    • Dishwasher
    • Stove/Cooktop/Ovens
    • Microwave
    • Refrigerator
    • Washer/Dryer
    • Swimming Pool (may be optional)

    10 Questions to Ask Your Lender

    Be sure you find a loan that fits your needs with these comprehensive questions.

    1. What are the most popular mortgage loans you offer?
    2. Which type of mortgage plan do you think would be best for us? Why?
    3. Are your rates, terms, fees, and closing costs negotiable?
    4. Will I have to buy private mortgage insurance? If so how much will it cost and how long will it be required? NOTE: Private mortgage insurance usually is required if you make less than a 20 percent downpayment, but most lenders will let you discontinue the policy when you’ve acquired a certain amount of equity by paying down the loan.
    5. Who will service the loan? Your bank or another company?
    6. What escrow requirements do you have?
    7. How long is your loan lock-in period (the time that the quoted interest rate will be honored)? Will I be able to obtain a lower rate if they drop during this period?
    8. How long will the loan approval process take?
    9. How long will it take to close the loan?
    10. Are there any charges or penalties for prepaying the loan?

    10 Things a Lender Needs From You

    1. W-2 forms or business tax return forms if you're self-employed for the last two or three years for every person signing the loan.
    2. Copies of one or more months of pay stubs from every person signing the loan.
    3. Copies of two to four months of bank or credit union statements for both checking and savings accounts.
    4. Copies of personal tax forms for the last two to three years.
    5. Copies of brokerage account statements for two to four months, as well as a list of any other major assets of value, e.g., a boat, RV, or stocks or bonds not held in a brokerage account.
    6. Copies of your most recent 401(k) or other retirement account statement.
    7. Documentation to verify additional income, such as child support, pension, etc.
    8. Account numbers of all your credit cards and the amounts of any outstanding balances.
    9. Lender, loan number, and amount owed on other installment loans—student loans, car loans, etc.
    10. Addresses where you lived for the last five to seven years, with names of landlords, if appropriate.