Making it affordable: Nine tips for first time home buyers

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By Charles Warnock

It seems that everyone loves a good real estate story. The media is filled with reports about soaring property values and home owners of modest means becoming instant millionaires when they sell. As a result, many first time home buyers, afraid of missing out, will rush into buying decisions and achieve less-than-spectacular results. As a first time buyer, your biggest challenge is to balance liveability and profitability in a way that makes sense for you and your family. Remember, you are buying a home first and an investment second. Of course, there’s no foolproof formula for buyer success, but there are steps you can take to stack the odds in your favor:

Tip 1: Don’t bet on market timing

If you’re waiting for prices to drop in places like Southern California, Washington D.C. or Miami, you may be waiting a very long time. In regions that are built out with limited room to expand, it’s not realistic to assume property values will fall dramatically. Of course, prices in the nation’s super-heated residential markets (much of California, Nassau-Suffolk Counties in New York, South Florida) should cool down at some point, but there’s no guarantee that higher interest rates won’t eat up any savings from a price correction. If your personal circumstances say it’s time to buy, high prices alone shouldn’t keep you on the sidelines. Current interest rates are still historically low, so you may consider locking in a mortgage before rates head north. Even in booming markets, there are good deals for those willing to devote some time and energy to finding them.

Tip 2: Leverage free and low-cost resources

There’s an abundance of free and low-cost resources for homebuyers on the Web. A Web search can turn up helpful articles, buyer guides, online tools and purchase/ refinance calculators. Keep an eye out for helpful tools like step-by-step guides and checklists to help organize your search. Some Web sites now offer online tools to help you estimate home prices and search for undervalued properties. Many offers on the Web for free property valuations actually are come-ons from real estate brokers looking for seller listings, so check first to see what strings are attached.

Tip 3: Check out the new models

Real estate’s old guard seems to be under assault at every turn today as traditional brokers battle competition from discount and Web-based brokers. Today, buyers have more options than ever before. You can use a full-service broker, discount broker or buy without a broker. To make buying more affordable, consider the homebuyer rebate programs that are becoming more popular. Rebates can help offset closing costs, which are a real obstacle for many first-time buyers. Be aware that some states currently ban real estate rebates all together, and others limit rebates to credits applied to closing costs. Rebate fans around the nation are keeping a close eye on Kentucky, as the Justice Department recently sued the Kentucky Real Estate Commission for violating antitrust laws. Kentucky is one of 15 states that ban or limit real estate rebates.

Tip 4: Lock in a realistic budget

To save time and trouble, first time buyers should have a realistic budget in mind before they shop for homes. One way to determine how much house you can afford is to get “pre-approved” by a lender. Pre-approval means you know exactly how much of a loan you’ll qualify for, so you can limit your search to homes in the right price range. Pre-approval also boosts your credibility and negotiation position with sellers. Most lenders will offer pre-approval as a no-obligation free service, in hopes of winning your business.

Tip 5: Buying — personal decision, business transaction

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) advises home buyers to create a wish list to help focus priorities. That way, you’ll remember that a spectacular foyer is nice-to-have, but safety and services are essential. Having clear goals will help keep you from getting carried away with emotional factors. Sellers who love their homes tend to ask too much, and buyers who fall in love can end up overpaying. With a little research, you can get can get an objective estimate of property value to make sure the seller has set a fair asking price. There are tools and resources on the Web to help you better understand home valuations.

Tip 6: Don’t let closing costs surprise you

Once you understand the buying process, you should understand and budget for transaction costs. In addition to your down payment, buyers pay most of the closing costs when purchasing a home, including things like inspection fees, title insurance, taxes and more. Closing fees can add up to 5-7 percent of purchase price, and must be paid before you get the keys. Your lender can provide what’s called a “good faith” estimate of your closing costs. Most closing costs are not negotiable but some are. When you’re comparing lenders, don’t be shy…ask which fees are negotiable, then ask if any discounts are available. Finally, be cautious about “no-cost” closing promotions because the lender may be simply passing on the costs in the form of a higher interest rate.

Tip 7: Build a support team

Buying a home is a big investment and a big decision, but you don’t have to go it alone. Remember, at each step of the way, there are people and resources to help you. Use the Internet and ask friends for referrals. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call real estate professionals, mortgage providers, title companies and insurers to ask questions. These professionals should be good resources to help you learn more about home buying, because they want to earn your business. If they are not helpful, then you have also learned something important…that they don’t deserve your business.

Tip 8: Clean up your credit

Low credit ratings mean that buyers won’t qualify for the best available interest rates and fees, which could mean considerable extra expense each month for the life of the loan. Most financial institutions today offer risk-based lending – lower credit risk for lenders means better mortgage deals for customers. Credit reports frequently contain inaccurate information, which can hurt a buyer’s purchasing power. First-time buyers should check their credit scores and fix any problems before applying for financing.

Tip 9: Begin with the end in mind

Author Stephen Covey’s advice for effective living also applies to effective home buying. Resale may not your primary consideration, but it’s an important factor. Can you buy in an up-and-coming neighborhood or region? How is the “commutability” from your new home to local employers? How good are the local schools? A few queries to your favorite search engine will turn up free or inexpensive school rating services. Also be on the lookout for outdated features when you buy. If the those small closets and harvest gold appliances seem out of step now, you can bet that they won’t look any better to prospective buyers in a few years.

About the Author:

Charles Warnock is Marketing Communications Manager at Homekeys, a South-Florida based provider of real estate technology and services. He writes often on real estate, finance, interactive marketing and business development. For more information, visit http://www.homekeys.net.