Insanely low mortgage interest rates—and the knowledge that they’ll eventually go up again—make a lot of people feel like it’s time to buy a house right now. And maybe it is … if you go about it the right way.
Buying a home is a major purchase (to put it mildly), and there are plenty of ways to trip up. But don’t worry—we’ve got your primer right here.
1. Don’t … buy a house if you’re planning to move again soon.
If you’re a renter, it can be frustrating to write that rent check every month and have no home equity to show for it at the end of the year. But if you aren’t certain that you’re going to stay put for a few years, it’s probably not the right time to buy—equity or no equity. “Some people tend to buy a house knowing that they’re going to be relocating after a few years,” says LearnVest Planning Services certified financial planner Ellen Derrick. “Don’t buy property and automatically assume that you’ll be able to rent it out or sell it when you move.”
What to do: If you aren’t in an area with a strong rental market that would allow you to cover the mortgage on your home if you move elsewhere, then stick with a rental for now.
2. Don’t … bust your budget.
Shopping for houses can make you a little giddy. Look at this one! And this one! For a little bit more, you could get granite countertops, plus an office nook! You’re dealing with such large numbers when you’re browsing real estate that it might not seem like such a huge deal to stretch another $10,000 or $15,000 to get the home you really love. But that’s not a game you want to play. “People look at the top end of their affordable monthly payment, and they don’t really think about what happens if their income goes down or they have to change jobs,” says Derrick. (If you’re wondering what percent of your budget should go toward housing, check out the 50/20/30 Rule.)
What to do: Get preapproved for a mortgage. Not only will this prove that you’re serious to your realtor and to home sellers, but it will also give you an idea of your upper limit. “Remember that the lender is there to make you a loan, and the more money you borrow, the better it is for them,” Derrick says. “They want you to max out. I would take the pre-approval number and cut about 20% off.”
3. Don’t … forget about added costs.
Buying a home isn’t just a matter of replacing a rental payment with a mortgage payment. There are also maintenance costs, utilities (which will likely cost more) and property taxes. “People tend to forget about both property taxes and insurance when they’re thinking about how much house they can afford,” Derrick says. “The actual monthly payment could end up being well out of your price range when you figure those things in.”
What to do: Ask the homeowners about their average utility costs and property taxes, get a homeowner’s insurance quote and budget about one percent of the home’s purchase price for annual maintenance. Then run the numbers to see if you can afford the home. (And don’t forget about closing costs. The average cost to close on a $200,000 mortgage is about $3,754, according to Bankrate.com, but your broker should be able to give you an estimate.)
4. Don’t … put down a nominal down payment.
Even with lenders tightening requirements to qualify for a mortgage, it’s still possible to buy a house with as little as 3% down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that you’ll have very little equity in your home when you first move into it. So if something comes up, and you have to sell, you’ll end up owing more than you can get out of the sale once you factor in closing costs. It puts you in a precarious position. Even if that doesn’t happen, you’ll have to pay
private mortgage insurance (PMI) every month until your equity in the home exceeds the 20% mark—and that could take years. (If you can’t put 20% down, your loan is technically considered risky—PMI is insurance that protects the bank if you default on your mortgage.)
What to do: Consider whether it’s prudent to buy a home now if you’re nowhere near having a 20% down payment. Yes, interest rates are low, but if you have to borrow thousands more because you don’t really have a great nest egg, it may be a wash in the end. You could avoid years of PMI, and owe a lower monthly nut, if you spend a year or two saving aggressively toward a down payment.
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5. Don’t … neglect to get everything in writing.
You wouldn’t be the first home buyer to assume that the kitchen appliances come with the deal—only to discover an appliance-free kitchen on the final walk-through. “I’ve heard of buyers going ten rounds because the seller took the drapes down, and the buyer expected them to be left,” Derrick says. “I’ve seen all kinds of deals blow up over stuff like that.” Common points of contention: window treatments, hot tubs, light fixtures, shower and bath fixtures, ceiling fans and big appliances, such as washers and dryers. Replacing something you thought was staying could cost hundreds, so it’s not a small thing.
What to do: Go through your contract with a fine-toothed comb. If the item that you expected to be there isn’t, ask about it—and get it added in writing.
6. Don’t … skip the inspection.
Even if the home looks like it’s in winning shape, it would be foolish to skip a thorough once-over by a professional. “People tend to think that the inspection and the appraisal are the same thing,” Derrick says. “They’re not.” An inspector is there to spot the things you don’t know to look for, like if the chimney is in great shape or whether those little cracks in the foundation are a big deal. He’ll look for signs of water damage and check the insulation in the attic. If there are conditions that will need repair, you may be able to negotiate with the seller to drop the price. In other words, the inspection is worth every penny.
What to do: Get recommendations from your realtor or friends who’ve bought in the area, and have a professional inspection done before you close on the house.
7. Don’t … think a brand-new home entitles you to brand-new everything.
“A lot of people buy this nice house, and then look at the ratty car sitting in the driveway and think, ‘We better buy a new car,’” Derrick says. Or you suddenly have a formal living room but no formal living room furniture—so you buy some! It’s a mistake to feel like you suddenly have to upgrade all of your stuff to match the shiny new home. “You don’t want to get yourself into a pile of credit card debt just so you can keep up with the house,” Derrick says.
What to do: Live in your house for a while, so you can figure out what you really need. Then save up for it!
This article was written by: Kate Ashford