We know that buying a home can seem like a daunting and emotional task. After all, you want to make sure every detail fits the bill: the neighborhood, commute and possibly school districts. You may even want to make sure you’re close to your favorite grocery store. In short, everything needs to match up to your habits and lifestyle.
When you embark on the journey of buying your first home, it’s helpful to know the correct order in which to complete each step.
Even if you’ve bought a house before, it might have been a few years since you’ve been on the hunt for your perfect home. This time around, you may want to change a few of the processes you used (especially if you neglected a few of them before, such as skipping the home inspection).
A step-by-step guide can help you navigate the homebuying process—that’s why we’ve set out to walk you through each part.
What Do You Need to Buy a House?
You’re probably ready to dive right in and start looking at available houses on the market, right?
You’ll get there! First, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the buying process.
You’ll want to line up a few things, including:
- Pre-approval for a mortgage loan: You should get a pre-approval letter from a mortgage lender or broker before you start hunting for a house. This process will allow you to determine the loan amount you can qualify for to buy a home. A lender will ask details about income, assets and typically perform a hard credit check to determine how much of a loan you will qualify for.
- A great real estate agent: A great real estate agent can do wonders for your homebuying experience. Your real estate agent should know all of the details about real estate in the area, work on your behalf during the entire process and know the legal requirements and documentation involved. Ask family and friends for recommendations for the best real estate agents. Keep in mind that you might be working with this person for several months so It’s important that both of your personalities click.
- Necessary documentation: You’ll need to provide a lot of documentation to lenders. Make sure you can locate your recent pay stubs, W2s, tax returns (if you’re self-employed) and evidence of liquid assets. Your lender will ask for these specific documents and may require others depending on your particular financial situation.
Check Your Credit Score
Your credit score, a three-digit number that ranges from 300 to 850, is extremely important in the homebuying process. Credit scores help lenders determine financing options and interest rates for loans.
The following credit score ranges generally apply, according to Experian, a credit reporting agency):
- Under 580: Poor
- 580 to 669: Fair
- 670 to 739: Good
- 740 to 799: Very good
- 800 and up: Excellent
The minimum credit score requirement for a conventional loan is 620.
If you don’t have a credit score that meets the threshold, you may need to pause on searching for a home and work on elevating your score or consider a different loan type with a lower minimum requirement.
Your credit score takes the following into consideration: your payment history, debts, the length of your credit history, credit types you’ve used and how often you pursue new credit.
Save for a Down Payment and Closing Costs
The biggest misconception about saving for a home is that you need to save at least 20% of the purchase price for a down payment. This erroneous information probably comes from the fact that if you don’t have a 20% down payment, you must pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI).
Different loan types have different down payment requirements. You can find various types of loans that do not require a down payment at all. Let’s take a look at a few guidelines:
- FHA loan: FHA loans, which are backed by the Federal Housing Administration and are overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, require a minimum 3.5% down payment if you have a credit score of 580 or higher. You will need to put down a 10% down payment if you have a credit score in the 500 to 579 range.
- VA loan: Active duty military members, veterans and qualified spouses can get a VA loan, which is backed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA loans don’t have a down payment requirement, though your lender might. Check with your lender for more details.
- USDA loan: Those living in rural or suburban areas may qualify for a USDA loan. USDA loans are backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like VA loans, USDA loans don’t require you to make a down payment, though you do have to pay mortgage insurance with a USDA loan.
- Conventional loan: You can get a conventional loan (a loan not backed by the government) for as little as 3% down.
- Homebuyer assistance program: Homebuyer assistance programs, run by a variety of organizations (including state or local housing authorities) often offer down payment assistance. Grants, loans and other programs are available to assist you with the cash for a down payment.
Note that you will also need to budget for closing costs. Closing costs include the fees that you’ll pay beyond your down payment. They cover the appraisal, application fees, attorney fees, closing fees and other fees included in the process of getting your home loan.
Determine How Much Home You Can Afford
How much home can you afford? Figuring out how much you can spend on monthly payments upfront will help you integrate mortgage payments into your overall budget.
Add up your monthly expenses (car loans/leases, student loans, credit card payments and more) and subtract those from your monthly income. Can you comfortably add a mortgage payment to that mix?
Determine Your Priorities
Next, take some time to write down features you’d like to see in your ideal home. Divide these features into “must-haves,” “should-haves” and “can do withouts.” Writing down the features you prefer will help you and your real estate agent envision your dream home. Consider a few of these priorities:
- Type of home
- Amount of land
- Square footage
- Bedrooms and bathrooms
- Age and condition
Get Pre-approved for a Loan
At this point, you’ll want to get pre-approved for your loan. Morty can help you get instantly pre-approved. Log in to Morty and input the address of the home you’ve considered buying. You’ll get an instant pre-approval letter after a credit check and once you’ve input information about your assets, income and more.
Getting pre-approved demonstrates to sellers that you’re a serious buyer. It’s always advantageous to get pre-approved as it indicates you know which homes fit into your budget. It also helps you weed out homes that are way over your budget.
Choose a Lender
At this point in the process, you may want to shop around with several mortgage lenders to make sure you get the right mix of loan terms, interest rates, customer service and experience. A mortgage marketplace like Morty can help you shop different options all in one place!
You don’t have to choose the same bank that your parents and grandparents have banked at for decades for your home loan. Consider the following:
- Credit unions: You do need to join a credit union before you can borrow from one, but they often offer low interest rates to members.
- Mortgage banks: Mortgage banks originate mortgage loans and lend to borrowers using their own capital. They might service your loan or sell your loan on the secondary market.
- Correspondent lenders: These lenders make an initial loan directly, then often turn around and sell the loan to a servicer.
- Mutual savings banks: Unlike commercial banks, mutual banks do not have shareholders. They are mutually owned by their depositors and are typically focused locally.
- Mortgage brokers: Mortgage brokers serve as intermediaries that broker mortgage loans on behalf of individuals or businesses.
Start House Hunting
Looking for homes was probably the part you were looking forward to the most, right? Getting to know a particular neighborhood can be one of the most exciting aspects of choosing a home. Your home should feel like your personal sanctuary and safe place — a place where you could spend years of your life.
Consider the offerings of a particular neighborhood, whether you must pay HOA fees, school ratings and even whether the pharmacy is a hop, skip and a jump away.
When you tour homes, inspect everything. You’re looking for the good and the bad and should pay special attention to:
- Plumbing and electrical issues (bring a phone charger and test the electrical outlets)
- Poor insulation
- Issues with the foundation
- Visible water damage
- Home systems problems, such as with the HVAC system
Make a Smart Offer
If a particular home checks all the boxes, submit an offer letter in writing. Your real estate agent will likely offer to write and submit the letter, but you can also write it yourself. If you do, include the following:
- Your name and address
- The amount you’ll pay for the home
- A deadline for the seller to respond to your offer
An earnest money deposit might accompany the offer. You don’t lose out on your earnest money — that money goes toward your down payment.
The seller may accept your offer, reject your offer or counteroffer. Once received, your real estate agent can help you negotiate if they reject or counter your offer.
Keep in mind that at this point, the home isn’t automatically yours. There may be some contingencies in place. This means the transaction will only happen if certain conditions are met. Take a look at the following possible contingencies:
- Mortgage or loan contingency: The sale is contingent on a buyer getting financing from a lender.
- Home sale contingency: The home sale is only valid if the buyer’s previous home sells.
- Inspection or physical contingency: The home sale will only “go through” if the home passes the home inspection.
In the case of a contingency, a buyer can back out of the sale without losing their earnest money.
Get a Home Inspection
It’s always a good idea to get a home inspection, even if your lender doesn’t require it. It is an easy process to hire a licensed home inspector to check the entire home. A professional looks over the entire home and looks for problems related to the home’s systems, structure, health hazards and other issues.
The home inspector will give you a detailed report, that you can look at, line by line, to discover any expensive problems. If the home inspector finds significant issues with the home, you can consider backing out of the sale. If you have an inspection contingency, you can get your earnest money back.
You have the power to ask the seller to make the repairs before you close. Alternatively, you can ask for a discounted price on the home or for credits to cover your closing costs. Just remember that you have options after a home inspection.
Get an Appraisal
Unlike a home inspection, your lender will require an appraisal. A home appraiser, typically appointed by your lender, looks at a home less in-depth than an inspector would. Lenders require appraisals because they have to lend the right amount of money to you — they don’t want to lend more than the home is worth.
Secure Your Financing
Next, you’ll want to do a few things to secure your financing. Start by double-checking your Loan Estimate. A Loan Estimate is a three-page document that includes details about your loan, including the estimated interest rate, monthly payment, closing costs and more. You should receive it no more than three days after your lender receives your application.
Provide your lender with any additional information they need, such as your bank statements, tax returns and any additional proof of income. Providing this information as soon as possible can result in quicker processing.
Close on Your New Home
The last steps involve walking through the property and closing on your new home. You want to do a final walkthrough to make sure any repairs you requested were made. Test the air conditioner, try the appliances. Make sure you’re 100% committed to the home.
Next, review your Closing Disclosure, which your lender should give you at least three days before closing. The Closing Disclosure states your final loan terms and closing costs. You should compare the Closing Disclosure to your Loan Estimate to make sure no discrepancies exist.
You’ll attend your closing meeting in person or online as the final step. Bring your Closing Disclosure and identification to the meeting. You’ll sign a settlement statement and pay your down payment and closing costs. You’ll also sign the mortgage note and deed of trust. Sign legal documents and carefully read everything put in front of you.
Finally, make sure you have been given house keys, entry codes and garage door openers.
You’re officially a homeowner! Ready to buy a home? Take a look at Morty’s home buyer’s guide and learn more about other topics, ranging from homeowners insurance to home appraisals. Dive into the home buying process directly by checking your loan options on Morty.
This post was updated on Feb. 20, 2022