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101 Tips for a Smoother Home-Buying Process

March 14, 2009

by Brandon Cornett

I created this list for two reasons. First, I want to give you a good understanding of the home buying process from start to finish. Secondly, I want to help you identify those areas where your knowledge-level is lacking, so you can conduct further research on your own.

Preliminary Considerations

1. Learn the home buying process in advance. You’ll make much better decisions with a better understanding of the process.

2. Learn the lingo while you’re at it (especially all the mortgage terms). You’ll have a smoother home buying experience if you “speak the language.”

3. Obtain your credit report. To get copies from all three credit bureaus at once, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

4. Review your credit report. Make sure there are no errors. Check everything from the administrative information to the credit history.

5. Fix errors quickly. If you find an error on your credit report, go to the company’s website where the report came from (TransUnion, Equifax or Experian) to contest it. Don’t delay.

6. Run the numbers. Use an online mortgage calculator to get an idea how various mortgage amounts translate into monthly payments.

7. Check your debt-to-income ratio. Mortgage lenders prefer your overall debt to be no more than 20% of your net monthly income. If your debt is more, pay it down as quickly as possible.

8. Start saving your cash. Mortgage lenders like to see that you have some cash reserves on hand, and you’ll need them for any unexpected fees or costs that might arise.

9. Get pre-qualified. Pre-qualification is an informal review of your finances by a mortgage lender to see what amount you might qualify for.

10. Avoid new lines of credit. Don’t sign up for new credit cards or make any large credit purchases while you’re “under review” by a mortgage lender.

11. Add HomeBuyingInstitute.com to your Internet favorites or bookmarks. Few websites contain as much helpful home buying information for first-time buyers.

Finding a Real Estate Agent

12. Ask friends or family. People who know you well are in the best position to recommend an agent who is right for you.

13. Talk to multiple agents. Don’t think you have to sign on with the first agent you meet.

14. Ask how they search. Make sure your agents is going to use every means possible to find the right home for you. That means using the MLS in addition to their preferred listings.

15. Ask how they network. An experienced agent will often be part of a vast network of real estate professionals. This can sometimes help you find a home before it’s even listed.

16. Ask about mortgage connections. It will save you time and headache if your agent can point you toward a good mortgage company.

17. Read paperwork carefully. At some point, your chosen agent will ask you to sign an agency agreement. It’s usually a boilerplate document, but be sure to read it carefully all the same.

18. Consider the “vibe” factor. You might be working with this person anywhere from 2 to 12 months, so it certainly helps if you like them on a personal level.

19. Exchange cell phone numbers. You should have your agents cell number in your wallet, and vice versa. You don’t want to miss an opportunity simply because you couldn’t be reached.

House Hunting

20. Create a “need vs. want” list. Make a spreadsheet or checklist of the things you need in a home, versus the things you want. Print a copy for each house you visit and check items off.

21. Practice self-reliance. Don’t over-rely on your agent when it comes to finding a home. Get out there and do some hunting yourself. It’s a necessity, but it’s also exciting!

22. Use multiple channels. The more channels you use to search for a home, the better. Read the newspaper, cruise the neighborhoods, and surf the web.

23. Use the Internet to your full advantage. Bookmark the real estate listing sites you find most helpful. Visit them once a day and write down new homes that meet your criteria.

24. Create a Google Alert. Visit Google’s home page, click on “More” and find the Google Alerts. Enter real estate phrases for your area, and you’ll get daily updates with news and info.

25. Feel free to snoop (sort of). When house hunting, it’s okay to peek into dark corners, basements, storage sheds and the like. Respect the owner’s privacy, but see the whole house.

26. Ask plenty of questions. Don’t be shy about asking the sellers questions, if they’re home.

27. Validate the asking price. It’s called an “asking price” for a reason. Compare it to recent sales in the area. Your agent should be expert at this.

28. Consider shopping, dining and the like. Is the home near the places you frequent, or will it be a long drive?

29. Consider the commute. If you’re a daily commuter, distance is a big consideration.

30. Visit during rush hour. Is the home hard to access or exit during rush hour? Is there a lot of traffic noise?

31. Check out the zoning. Are you surrounded by residential areas, or is there a soon-to-be-used commercial zone right across the street?

32. Research the neighborhood, not just the house. Neighborhoods impact property value as well as your own happiness.

33. Research taxes. Sometimes, two neighborhoods right across the street from one another will have different tax situations. Don’t make assumptions.

34. Research future development. Will that nice meadow down the street be a highway extension or shopping mall in two years?

35. Bring a “disinterested witness.” A level-headed friend or family member will help you judge the pros and cons of each home.

36. Avoid “The One” syndrome. Don’t pull up to a home and say, “This is the one!” It might be, but you need to be cool-headed and open-minded during your first visit.

37. Bring a digital camera. It’s a great way to record the details of each home for later review.

38. Bring a notepad. Jot down some notes about each home, and label each page by address.

39. Ask about ghosts, poltergeists or other forms of haunting. Just kidding.

40. Think five years ahead. Will the home still suit your needs if your family grows?

41. Play home inspector, casually. The full inspection will come later, but you should at least give the “big ticket” items (roof, heating system, etc.) a glance when visiting.

42. Keep an eye out for mold, standing water and other symptoms of disrepair.

43. Research schools. This is important whether or not you have school-aged children. Schools affect property values.

Making an Offer

44. Base your offer on evidence, not emotion. Remember, the lender will appraise the home later on. If it appraises for less than you’ve agreed to pay, you’ll have problems.

45. Use your agent’s experience. It might be your first offer, but your agent has probably seen dozens.

46. Discuss contingencies. Will your offer be contingent upon something, like the sale of your current home?

47. Prepare for all possible responses. What will you do if the seller makes a counteroffer or rejects your offer outright? Conduct “rehearsals” for each scenario.

48. Move quickly (but cautiously) in seller’s market. Delays can cause a home to slip through your fingers.

49. Plan the closing date. This will normally be agreed upon during the offer process.

Choosing a Mortgage

50. Study the different types of mortgages, especially the pros and cons of each.

51. Consider your staying time. How long you plan to stay in a home will often determine which type of home loan is best for you.

52. Learn about new mortgage packages. A variety of “creative financing” loans have emerged in recent years. Learn about them.

53. Shop for the best interest rate. Mortgage lenders will offer different rates based on how comfortable they are lending to you. So shop around.

54. Read up on RESPA. The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act protects you from unethical lenders. Familiarize yourself with it.

55. Consider paying points. A point is one percent of the loan amount. Paying points can lower your interest rate. Look into whether or not it’s a good idea for your situation.

56. Don’t go it alone. Ask your agent for advice. Talk to friends and family who’ve been through the home buying / mortgage process before.

57. Factor in PMI. If your down payment is less than 20% of the loan amount, you’ll probably have to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI).

58. Visit the mortgage section of HomeBuyingInstitute.com. You can learn about everything mentioned above, in much greater detail.

59. Watch out for unethical lenders. Talk to your agent or real estate attorney is something seems strange or too good to be true.

The Mortgage Application

60. Be honest. Don’t let anyone talk you into falsifying information on your mortgage application. You’ll be the only one held accountable.

61. Ask questions. And ask them again, until you’re comfortable that you understand each part of the application.

62. Read the fine print. Often, the most important parts of an application are in the fine print. Don’t let these details go unnoticed.

63. Don’t sign blank areas. If a section of the mortgage application is blank, either ‘X’ it out or leave it unsigned.

64. Keep a copy for yourself. This applies to all documents during the home buying process. Start a folder with copies of everything.

65. Get a truth-in-lending statement. After you apply for the loan, the lender is required to give you an estimate of the total costs associated with the loan.

66. Plan for more than truth-in-lending statement. Unfortunately, it’s common for the actual costs of a loan to be more than the lender’s estimate. So plan for more.

The Home Inspection

67. Get a home inspection! At around $500, it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

68. Hire a certified inspector. Anyone can claim to be an inspector. So make sure yours is certified by a professional organization.

69. Tag along if possible. You’ll learn a lot about the inner workings of the home.

70. Categorize discrepancies, based on whether or not you want the seller to fix them.

71. Be realistic with repair requests. In a seller’s market, you may not get all the repairs you want. So be realistic with what you’re asking.

72. Get a termite inspection. Make the offer contingent upon a termite-free inspection.

The Home Appraisal

73. Understand the appraisal process. It’s for the lender’s protection, but it will also tell you if you’re overpaying for the home.

74. Have a plan for under-appraisal. You can pay the difference, the seller can lower the price, or you can walk.

Pre-Closing / Pre-Settlement

75. Read up on closing procedures. Start with a refresher on RESPA.

76. Talk to friends and family who’ve been through a closing process. Learn from them.

77. Stay in touch with your lender, your agent, and the escrow company. Make sure they have all the paperwork they need to avoid delays.

78. Keep saving your money. Real estate closings often come with unexpected costs.

79. Be on the lookout for your HUD-1 statement. You should get one several days before closing. It will list the total amount due at closing.

80. Transfer utilities. Now might be a good time to start putting the utilities into your name.

81. Get hazard insurance. Most lenders require it, but it’s mainly for your own protection.

82. Conduct your final walk-through. Make sure all requested repairs have been made.

83. Get a certified check for the amount due on the HUD-1 statement.

84. Confirm the time and location of the closing.

The Closing / Settlement Process

85. Bring your ID. The escrow company will probably want to verify it.

86. Don’t forget the check!

87. Bring some blank checks, just in case unexpected costs or fees arise.

88. Don’t feel rushed. Escrow companies do it for a living, but it’s probably you’re first time.

89. Read thoroughly. People make mistakes, so read each document carefully (especially the bottom-line amounts).

90. Ask questions. You’re not being a pest for asking a lot of questions. You’re simply looking out for your finances.

91. Don’t make assumptions. For example, just because you agreed to buy mortgage points for a lower interest rate, don’t assume it has been processed that way. Check the paperwork.

After Closing

92. Follow-up on your utility transfer.

93. Complete a change of address form for the postal service.

94. Notify friends and family of your new address. Postcards and emails work well.

95. Get a safe deposit box for your important documents, like your homeowner’s insurance policy.

96. Set up auto-pay for your mortgage payments. It will be one less hassle to worry about each month, and it will also help you avoid missing payments.

97. Go meet the neighbors. If your neighbors don’t come and introduce themselves, go say hello. Remember, these are the people who will keep an eye on your home when you’re away.

98. Ease into your mortgage payment. Before filling the house with new furniture or electronics, give yourself a few months to adjust to the new mortgage payment.

99. Do the happy dance (whatever your version might be). Just remember to stretch first.

100. Break out the champagne, or your preferred non-alcoholic beverage.

101. Exhale.

About the Author: Brandon Cornett publishes the Home Buying Institute, a website full of advice on mortgages loans, house hunting, credit scores and more. Learn more or contact the author by visiting homebuyinginstitute.com

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