Top 10 Tips for Buying Your First Home

By: Jessica Brown

Getting the keys to your first home is an exciting event, but you want to be prepared before you dive in. See more real estate pictures.
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Noisy neighbors upstairs? Sick of living in mom and dad's basement? Or just want to take part in the American Dream? Whatever your reason for wanting your own home, taking the leap can be both exciting and daunting. Yet, according to a National Association of Realtors survey, you're not alone; the number of first-time homebuyers was about 47 percent of all home sales in 2009 [source: National Association of Realtors].

While thoughts of white picket fences and granite countertops might be dancing in your head, you don't want to be carried off by a dream and left holding a serious bill. This is probably one of the biggest purchases you'll ever make, so instead of making an impulse buy (like that pair of designer jeans you just bought), arm yourself with research and a few quality advisers. It can be the difference between years of loving the home you're in versus wondering how long until you can look for your next one.


Take a look at these 10 tips to get you started on your way to real estate bliss.

10: Attend a First-time Home Buyer's Seminar

You can ask important questions and get great tips at first-time home buyer seminars, and they're often free, too.
You can ask important questions and get great tips at first-time home buyer seminars, and they're often free, too.
George Doyle/Thinkstock

You had to study up to learn how to drive before you got behind the wheel. It's the same with buying a house. Making the wrong decision on your first house can come back to haunt you, so why not take a little time to learn from the pros and go straight to the head of the class with your investment knowledge?

First-time home buyer seminars are offered by a range of organizations, including city housing departments and non-profit organizations. You'll get tips on shopping for a home, financing a purchase and even maintaining your home once you've bought it. Plus, many of the seminars are free.


9: Know How Much You Can Afford

Making sure you can pay your bills is one of the most important factors of buying your first home.
Making sure you can pay your bills is one of the most important factors of buying your first home.

Setting your heart set on the beautiful five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath estate on the hill could set you up for disappointment if you don't know what you can afford.

Instead of just leaving a cushion in your bank account so your next check won't bounce, you want to sit down and look seriously at your average monthly budget. Take a hard look at what you're spending your money on -- everything from your restaurant bills to your dry cleaning bill (but not your rent). Then, figure out what you have left after you pay all of those bills. That's what you'll have left to spend on your monthly mortgage and home expenses [source: Bray, Schroeder and Stewart]. Don't forget to factor in all new home-related expenses such as insurance, possibly increased utility bills, taxes and even the occasional plumber visit [source: Bray, Schroeder and Stewart].


If those numbers aren't adding up to what you want, then take this as a starting point to buckle down and change your spending ways. Skip your daily latte or pack your lunch for a couple months, and see if your budget numbers change for the better.

8: Prioritize Your Needs and Wants

What you think of the neighborhood is as important as what you think of your new home.
What you think of the neighborhood is as important as what you think of your new home.

Face it -- when working within a budget, sometimes you have to make some compromises. Knowing what you really need can help narrow your home options and also make decisions easier when it comes to making an offer.

Create a checklist of your needs and wants. Don't forget to include things that aren't actually a part of the house, but important, such as the neighborhood, commute, school system and even proximity to entertainment [source: The Better Business Bureau with Alice LaPlante].


Once you've got your prioritized list, consider taking it with you when you go to look at houses, and write down notes about each house. After seeing four different houses in one Sunday, these lists can help you to remember what you've seen and liked -- or not liked.

7: Explore Mortgage Options

Comparing mortgages can potentially get you a better deal.
Comparing mortgages can potentially get you a better deal.

Since most people aren't going to pay for their house with cash at the closing table, you're probably going to have to take out some type of loan or mortgage. A mortgage is simply a loan that uses a piece of property, like your new home, as collateral, giving the bank the right to take the home if the person taking out the mortgage doesn't hold up his or her end of the bargain [source: The Federal Reserve Board].

Think about your long-term plan when you're exploring your mortgage options. You might be one of those people who never plans to buy another home, so maybe you're more interested in a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. However, another couple might look at this home as a starter property that they only want to own until their second child is born. They might want an adjustable rate mortgage.


Shopping around for a mortgage is also a good idea. Different banks may be able to give you different interest rates or different terms. When doing your shopping, be sure that you're comparing apples to apples, so ask about the same types of loans, terms and amounts to get a better understanding of what's really the best deal for you [source: The Federal Reserve Board].

6: Look into First-time Home Buyer Programs

A first-time home buyer program can get you lower interest rates on loans or help with down payments.
A first-time home buyer program can get you lower interest rates on loans or help with down payments.

Recently, there's been a lot of media attention around the tax credit that was offered to qualified first-time homebuyers [source: Internal Revenue Service]. Even if you're too late to get on the bandwagon for that incentive, being a first-time home buyer can have its perks. Some banks and governmental organizations offer first-time home buyers who meet certain criteria lower interest rate loans, low down payment options and even down payment assistance programs.

One particular program through the federal government that's popular with many first-time home buyers is the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan program, which usually offers smaller down payments and can be more accessible to those without perfect credit [source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development].


5: Get Pre-approved for a Loan

An idea of how much you can borrow will give you more confidence as you look for your first home.
An idea of how much you can borrow will give you more confidence as you look for your first home.
Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock

Getting pre-approved for a loan is kind of like getting engaged. You have a commitment, but you still have to make it to the altar -- or, in this case, the closing table. Just like picking that special someone you want to spend the rest your life with, lenders like to know a little bit about you and have it backed up with facts.

Pre-approval will help you to understand how much you can expect to borrow from your lender. Knowing your spending range can help to narrow your home search to properties within your price range. It can also give sellers a little more confidence in your seriousness when making an offer [source: Brown and Tyson].


4: Find the Right Real Estate Agent

Make sure to find an experienced real estate agent you can trust.
Make sure to find an experienced real estate agent you can trust.
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Your real estate agent is your insider to the world of home buying, and the right agent can be a real asset to have on your side when buying your first home. You want someone you can trust and who will give you quality advice when you need it. So, talk to people you already trust. Friends and family members in the area might be able to offer some names of people they've used. Now, this won't work if you're moving to a new city. If you're relocating with a company, the company might be able to offer some recommendations.

Many real estate agents specialize in certain areas of town or types of property, so ask your prospective agents how many homes they've sold in your target area or what type of certifications they hold to see if they fit your needs [source: RE/MAX International, Inc.]. You may want to look into hiring a Realtor, which just means that your real estate agent is a member of the National Association of Realtors and has pledged to abide by a code of ethics set out by the group [source: National Association of Realtors].


3: Understand the Offer Process

Negotiation will most likely be a part of the offer process.
Negotiation will most likely be a part of the offer process.

You've found the house of your dreams, and you're ready to start the process of making it your own. Well, that all begins with making an offer. While there's no way to know exactly what type of offer the seller will accept, when making your offer you should take into account several things. Knowing how long the house has been on the market, the asking price's position related to comparable properties in the area, and even the number of available comparable properties in the neighborhood can make a difference. Realize that negotiation is usually inevitable, so be sure to leave a little leeway within that first offer.

Make sure that your offer includes contingencies such as financing and property inspections [source: Brown and Tyson]. You don't want to be bound to purchase a home if you don't have enough money. You also don't want to purchase a home that has a cracked foundation or some other deal breaker without having the option to go back to the negotiation table.


2: Get a Home Inspection

It's smart to find about any problems with your first house before you actually make an offer.
Comstock Images/Thinkstock

Imagine biting into a pristine red apple, just to find that it's turned to mush inside. You don't want this to be the feeling you get with your new home. This is where a home inspection comes in. The inspection should make you aware of what might be hiding in the walls or underneath the floors before you finalize the sale. If the home inspector finds a major problem, you'll be very excited you spent the money to have the home inspection. If not, then you can be even more confident in your investment.

Choosing a home inspector can be tricky, because some states license or certify home inspectors, while others don't. When selecting your home inspector, you may want to check with associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors and the National Association of Home Inspectors, that require that members abide by certain standards and a set of ethics [source: Brown and Tyson].


1: Understand What You're Signing

Signing off on your new home is exciting, but it's important to know the specifics.
Signing off on your new home is exciting, but it's important to know the specifics.
David Sacks/Thinkstock

You're in the home stretch. Only a few papers stand between you and getting the keys to your first home. But don't get carried away. You may want to request, from your real estate agent or mortgage broker, a draft copy of any documents to preview before the actual closing date [source: Bray, Schroeder and Stewart]. This will take away some of those emotional jitters and also allow you a bit more time to make sense of what you're signing. Don't be shy -- if you don't understand something, then ask your personal team of professionals to explain further. Be especially careful with any numbers that might be on the forms. A couple of wrong keystrokes could mean trouble down the road.

To feel more confident in what they're signing, some buyers even hire a lawyer to represent their interests during a closing process and explain any legal jargon in layman's terms. Others bring along a parent or trusted friend who's already gone through a closing process, with them.

Buying a home is a big leap, but doing your research and involving the right people can make your home buying experience one that will soon have you saying "Home Sweet Home" with a smile.

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