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First Time Home Buyer Guide

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Looking to buy a house in 2024? This is a home buying guide that shows you step by step on how to buy your first home in 2024. There are many benefits of buying a home rather than renting. A home has investment value where the value of the house generally appreciates over time. This is different for most of our other purchases in life. On top of that, homeowners get tax breaks from the IRS. If you buy a house with a mortgage, the interest payments are tax-deductible. You no longer have to rent and start building equity in your home rather than building equity for others as tenants. Before you begin looking for houses, you need to know your finances and budget. Not only do you need to have enough money for a down payment, but you will also need extra money saved for closing costs. You will also need to have money for monthly mortgage payments, property tax, and home insurance, PMI if your down payment is less than 20%. Use our mortgage calculator to estimate your costs. There are many steps you need to take in buying a home.

Benefits of buying a house

1. Investment Value

Homes have investment value. In the long term, a house is almost guaranteed to go up in value. This protects you from inflation. If you put money in a savings account, you earn very little interest, and the buying power of the money in your savings account diminishes every year. A home is also a safer and better investment than many other types of investments. Owning a home doesn't have the daily volatility you have of owning stocks, and it is not as boring as owning bonds. You can live in the hours while it appreciates. If you sell the house 10 years later at a higher price than you bought, you essentially live in the house rent-free for ten years.

2. Leverage

You don't have to buy a house using all your money. You can put a down payment of as little as 10% and the other 90% with the bank's money. You get 100% profits when the house appreciates your 10% investments. You can't do that with any other type of investment. For example, your down payment is 10% or $100,000 on a $1 million dollar house. If the house goes up in price to $1.1 million after 3 years which is 10% or $100,000 higher than the price you paid. From an investment point of view, you just double up or gain 10% for your $100,000 initial investment. Of course, there are costs associated with owning a house, such as interest payments on the mortgage, closing costs, property taxes, and home insurance. But let's just ignore that, for now, to keep our math plain and simple.

3. Place to live

Buying a house not only serves as a good investment, but you can also have a house to live in rather than renting. With renting, you may have to move from place to place if rent hikes. With your own house, you can finally settle down. The money you used to pay rent can now be used to pay your mortgage and build equity in your home. You just turned your renting money into investment money with a house that helps you climb the financial ladder.

4. Tax Advantage

Homeowners get tax breaks from the IRS. The mortgage interest payments are tax-deductible. If you are a high-income earner and you have a huge mortgage, you can save tens of thousands of dollars in taxes every year. There are other tax breaks for property taxes, mortgage, points, and home office expenses, but interest payment is the giant tax savings.

5. Borrower money on home equity

If you need to borrow money in the future after you build significant equity in your home, you can use a home equity loan or HELOC. Home equity loans and HELOC have low-interest rates compared to other types of loans which mean lower borrowing costs to you. You can use the borrowed money from your home equity to make home improvements so your property appreciates more, buy a second house, or use the money for other investments or business. While owning a home is beneficial, it does come with drawbacks.

Drawbacks of buying a house

1. Costs Rise

The costs of owning a home far exceeded renting. With homeownership, you have to pay the mortgage, property tax and home insurance, home improvement, and maintenance. On top of that, you need to save a lot of money for a down payment. That extra cost goes for long-term equity, but you do need to make short-term sacrifices for these costs. You will need to cut spending in other areas of your life which may require a lifestyle change.

2. Less Flexible

If you like to move around often or if your job requires you to move from city to city, owning a home may not offer you the flexibility you need. Homeownership is a long-term strategy, it is best for people who are looking to stay in the same house for many years. But then again, there are many homeowners who travel a lot, rent out their home as a rental property and use that money for travel or renting.

3. More Headaches

When something breaks in your house, such as water leaking, or roof or plumbing problems, you are expected to fix them yourself. If you are not good at fixing things, you will need to hire a professional to fix them for you which means the costs are high. The labor and material costs are high. If you rent a place, your landlord will be dealing with these issues.

4. Declining Income

If you expect your earnings to decrease, then homeownership may not be the best choice. The monthly payments stay the same even when you lose your job. If you can't make payments, your bank will seize your property and put it in foreclosure. Not only will you lose your house, but you will also be losing a lot of money. All the sacrifices you made to afford the house and the equity you work so hard to build will be gone if you default.

5. Risks

Although in the long term, house value almost always goes up, they may go down in value in the short term. If you bought a house during the market peak in 2007, your house price may fall 10% - 20% in 2008. In that case, you may have an underwater mortgage where you owe more on the mortgage than the value of your home is worth.

Types of Homes

Once you figure out your budget, the next step is to find the type of home that fits your needs. Are you looking for a single-family home, condo, or coop? There are pros and cons to each home type.

1. Single-family homes

Single-family homes have more room for appreciation, but they are also more expensive and cost more to maintain the house. You will likely have a garage, driveway, and garden which is nice if you are raising kids and want more space for your family. You will have a lot of privacy as your house is separated from your neighbors.

2. Condos

Condos are more affordable, but they have a lot of rules and you are sharing common areas with your neighbors. For those who like to have more privacy, a big garden all to themselves, or start a family with kids, a condo may not be a good choice as you are sharing walls with your neighbors. On the other hand, condos offer a sense of community where you get the opportunity to know your neighbors. If you like this kind of environment where you know everyone on your floor, a condo may be for you.

3. Coops

Coops are similar to condos but are usually cheaper than condos. When you buy a coop, you are actually buying shares in a corporation that owns the property. Everyone who lives in the same building is considered a shareholder. The stakes of the shares are different depending on the size and other factors of the apartment.

The costs of buying a home?

There are two types of costs associated with buying and owning a house, upfront and recurring costs. Most people need to get a mortgage from the bank to help them buy a house. A mortgage is not free money, there are closing costs and monthly payments borrowers need to make to repay the home loan. It is critical that homebuyers understand these costs and the variables that contribute to the costs.

Upfront Costs

1. Down Payment

The initial payment that you pay upfront for the purchase of your home. The difference between the home price and your down payment is the mortgage amount. The bigger your down payment, the lower your monthly payment. A larger down payment may reduce your interest rates depending on the mortgage type, your credit score, and the lender.

2. Closing Costs

A one-time fee that homebuyers pay when they get a mortgage. Closing costs can be anywhere from 3% to 6% of the mortgage amount. The closing costs vary from lender to lender.

3. Home Inspection

You are responsible to get a home inspector to inspect the home to make sure there are no issues with the house. The home inspection fee is around $400 to $700. If the home inspector finds any major problem with the house, you can back out, renegotiate with the sellers to get them to fix the issues, or reduce the home price.

4. Home Appraisal

The bank will send a home appraisal to check the house, and you will need to pay for the home appraisal. It is a cost that is part of the closing costs.

5. Mortgage Points

Also known as discount points. Lenders offer borrowers to pay for mortgage points upfront to reduce their interest rate. Each point is 1% of the mortgage, so a 1% mortgage point on a $300,000 mortgage will cost the homebuyer $3,000. By paying upfront for the mortgage points, you will reduce your monthly payments. There is a maximum amount of mortgage discount points you can buy.

6. Home Improvement

If your house is not in move-in-ready condition, you may need to spend some money on home improvement. Depending on the size of your house and the condition, it could be thousands of dollars as the labor and material are costly.

Recurring Costs

After you close on your mortgage application and move into your new house. Following are the ongoing costs of home ownership.

1. Monthly Mortgage Payments

Homeowners will need to make monthly mortgage payments to repay their lenders. This is a huge cost and will likely make up a good chunk of your monthly paycheck.

2. Private Mortgage Insurance

Mortgage insurance or PMI, is insurance homeowners pay if they have a conventional mortgage with a down payment of less than 20%. Homeowners will keep paying for PMI until their home equity exceeds 20%. PMI is an insurance that protects the lender in case the borrower defaults. VA loans don't have PMI payments.

3. Property Tax

Property tax varies from state to state, and city to city. In general, large houses in the same area will pay higher property taxes. Houses located in a good school district may also have higher property taxes as some of the property taxes goes to fund the schools.

4. Home Insurance

If you have a mortgage, your lender will require you to pay home insurance to cover fire and other damages. Even when you pay off your mortgage, homeowners should still keep buying home insurance to have their homes protected against disasters.

5. Home Maintenance

Depending on the condition of your house, you may have to save some money for home maintenance. There are many headaches around the house that you may need to deal with as a homeowner.

6. HOA

If you bought a condo or a coop, you may be required to pay for homeowners associates or HOA fees. The fees are used for the maintenance of common areas, such as the elevator, hallways, garden, and parking lots. HOA fees vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, apartment to apartment.

How to qualify for a mortgage?

There are many things the bank checks to see if a buyer qualifies for a mortgage. The bank is in the business of lending money to make money from interest payments. The last thing they want to see is the borrower defaults on his mortgage. Therefore, the banks will check the homebuyer's credit score, debt-to-income ratio, income statements, and tax documents to see if the borrower is creditworthy, and have the financial means to repay the mortgage. They also check the borrower's bank statements to make sure the borrower has enough money to cover the closing costs. Some banks require the borrower to have a few months of reserve money in their bank accounts after closing costs.

1. Credit Score

Credit score determines whether you qualify for a mortgage, and at what interest rate. The higher your credit score, the lower the interest rate you will get. Most conventional mortgages require the homebuyer to have at least 620 on their credit score. If your credit score is lower than 620, you may have a hard time getting a traditional mortgage. Even if you do, it will come with a higher interest rate and costs, a large down payment requirement, or both. Government-backed home loans have lower requirements on credit scores. The first thing you should do before applying for a mortgage is to get a copy of your credit report. Check if there is any error, and report to the 3 credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to have them fix any issues. There are a few things that make up your credit score, payment history, length of credit, current balance, new credits, and the type of credit you have. If your credit score is low, you can improve it by being more responsible with your credit card bills. Pay your credit cards on time and keep credit usage low. Keep your credit usage under 30%. For example, if you have a credit line of $10,000, you should keep your credit card debt to be under $3,000. If you have multiple credit cards, the combined credit usage should also be kept under 30%. For homebuyers with bad credit scores, you don't have to pay a company to repair your credit, you can improve your credit score simply by paying down your credit cards.

2. Debt-to-Income Ratio

The DTI is a ratio the banks use to check if the homebuyer has too much debt. The DTI is calculated based on the borrower's debt compared to his income. The higher the DTI, the more debt you have. Banks do not want to see a borrower have too much debt that he may not be able to handle the additional debt with a home mortgage. Most traditional mortgage lenders require the homebuyer to have a DTI no higher than 43%. You can calculate the DTI yourself before going to the lender. DTI is calculated by dividing your monthly debt by your gross monthly income. Lenders will use the DTI ratio to estimate how much monthly payments you can handle, and how big of a mortgage you can get.

2. Income Checks

Lenders will check your income and see if you qualify for a mortgage. You will need to provide two years of W-2s, tax returns, pay stubs, three months of all your bank statements, and other income and asset proofs. Lenders may also check your employment history for the last two years. The money in your bank is to be used for your down payment. The lender needs to verify whether the money is yours or gifts from families and friends.

Getting Pre-Approved

A pre-approved letter is a letter that shows you are pre-approved to get a mortgage. You can get a pre-approved letter from a mortgage broker or a lender. When you bid on a house, a pre-approved letter shows sellers that you qualify for a mortgage which increases the chance for the seller to accept your offer when there are multiple buyers making offers on the house. Some sellers require buyers to have a pre-approval letter to come to the open house, usually in a seller's market. Therefore, it is nice to have a pre-approval letter ready before going to open houses. A pre-approval letter requires a credit check from the lender and the borrowers need to submit their financial documents. Usually, it takes half a business day to a day to get a preapproval letter from your lender depending on how busy they are. A pre-approval letter does have an expiration date, usually a couple of months after the letter is issued.

Prequalification vs. Pre-approved

A prequalification letter is a letter from the lender that does not require credit checks or submitting financial documents. Instead, you just tell the bank about your financial situation, how much you are making, and how much debt you have, and the bank will estimate how much mortgage you can get, and issue you a prequalification letter. Obviously, a pre-qualification letter is not nearly as strong as a pre-approved letter, and many sellers do not consider pre-qualification letters when they are evaluating multiple offers.

How to buy your first home?

1. Research

Research the city that you want to move to, and get an idea of how expensive the houses are in that neighborhood. This gives you a heads-up whether or not you can afford it. The best websites to look for houses are


Check out the listing and recently sold price of the houses in the area you are looking for so that you get a sense of whether the list price is over price or under price. For example, if houses are selling above their asking price, it means the market is hot in that area, and people may be bidding on houses. On the other hand, if houses are sold under the asking price, you know that there is room for bargaining. Of course, it also depends on the sellers, some may ask for more and some have lower listing prices.

2. Select a Location

You might have heard in real estate, location is everything. The housing price differs greatly based on the location. If you select a good location, not only do you live in a nice neighborhood, your house has the potential to appreciate faster. However, a house in a good location usually costs more. Figure how much you can afford by reviewing your bank statements and monthly spending and learn how much house you can afford.

3. Go to Open Houses

Many listings show their schedule for open houses. Go to these open houses to start checking out and comparing houses that are currently on the market. If a house does not have an open house date, but you are still interested in seeing the house, you can call the listing agent to make an appointment to check out the house. Some listing agents ask for a preapproval letter before showing houses because they don't want to waste their time. You should visit 10 or more properties before making offers because you want to get a feel of the market and the price. You want to find the perfect house for your price range. However, it depends on how urgent you are and how hot the market is. If there are rarely any listings for the area you are trying to get in, and there is always a line to see the house during open houses, you know the area is hot and houses could be expensive in the area.

4. Real Estate Agent

If you don't have the time to research, or make appointments, you can find a real estate agent to help you search, negotiate, and make offers to the houses that you are interested in. Experienced real estate agents have a network of sellers and buyers and they can often find the exact house that you are looking for. They can negotiate and submit offers on your behalf and they can give you advice on prices and the market for the area. Please note real estate agents represent the seller because they get commissions from the seller, not from the buyer unless you hire a buyer agent. Even with the help of a real estate agent, you should still do your own research and know what prices you want to bid for a house. The best way to find a good real estate agent is through your friends and families. Ask around and see if anyone you know can refer you to a realtor that he/she has worked with in the past. You can also search for real estate agents on the internet or work with an agent that you meet at open houses. Be sure to read the online reviews about the agent before you work with them. Talk to them, ask them questions, and you can generally get a feel for whether he/she is someone that you want to work with.

5. Making Offers

Find a house that you like and are ready to make an offer. Don't just offer the asking price, check what's available within the same neighborhood, and compare the sold price for similar listings on the three websites that we mentioned above. Are the houses sold below or above the asking prices? Is the house you are looking to buy cheaper or more expensive than similar houses that were sold recently? Are there a lot of homebuyers coming to see the house? Is the market hot or cold? These are the things that you consider before making an offer.

6. Offer Accepted

Once your offer is accepted, you are going to need a real estate lawyer to help you close the deal. Your real estate attorney will help you drift the contract and communicate on your behalf with the seller's attorney. The real estate attorney will go over the contract and explain to you the terms. There are clauses that may be unusual and you would want an attorney to review them before signing them. Following are some possible scenarios and clauses

  • There may be problems on the house that the seller agrees to fix before closing.
  • There are tenants in the house that you want to remove before closing.
  • The seller wants to stay in the house longer after closing. In that case, you will rent the seller the house and he will pay you rent before moving.

A good real estate attorney will guide you through the contract and answer any questions you may have. Make sure you find an attorney that is specialized in real estate transactions and not a general attorney. Ask friends and families if they know any good real estate attorneys that they've worked with in the past. The attorney fees differ from city to city, some charge a flat fee, others charge by the hour. The real estate attorney will make sure the contract is fair and work with a title search company to make sure that there are no liens on the house, and that the sellers have the legal rights to the house.

7. Home Inspection

Find an experienced and licensed home inspector to check out the house. Again, the best way to find a home inspector is through your personal or business network. Don't just hire any home inspector, find one that has been in the home inspection business for at least 5 years. Ask them questions and know what type of inspection report they provide. Ask to be there with your home inspector so you know what's going on in the house. A good home inspector will check every important part of the house to see if there are potential issues. If he finds any problem that needs to be fixed, you can negotiate with the seller to get them to fix the problems or lower their price. The seller may or may not agree depending on how many offers he has or how big the issues are.

8. Getting a Mortgage

At this point, you are ready to get a mortgage. You can get a mortgage from a bank, direct lender, or through a mortgage broker. As we previously discussed, to qualify for a mortgage, the lender asks for a lot of information, now is the time to bring all these documents to your lender. In addition to the financial documents, your lender will also need the following.

  • A copy of the real estate purchase contract - your real estate agent will provide this to you or your lender.

  • Title search report - the title company hired by you or your attorney will send this report to your bank to show them the title is clean and ready to proceed.

  • Financial statements - your lender will ask for a lot of financial statements from you such as recent employment history, pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements, and many others. They will also check your credit score to decide what interest rate you will get.

    Provide them with whatever they are asking for promptly to avoid any delays in the application process. Work closely with your loan officer or mortgage broker to check the latest status of your mortgage application.

  • Property appraisal - the lender will send a property appraiser to check the house and come back with an appraisal report that shows the estimated price for the house. If the appraisal price is lower than the purchase price, the bank may lower the mortgage amount to protect themselves.

    For example, if you agree to buy the house for $600,00 and you are putting down 20% or $120,00, you will need to get a mortgage for $480,000. However, if the appraised value of the house is only $500,000, the bank may not be willing to lend you the $480,000 mortgage you are applying for, they may lower the mortgage amount to only $400,000 or 80% of the appraised value.

    Then, you may need to come up with more money for the 20% down payment in order to avoid the PMI payment. The bank uses the appraisal report to protect themselves in case you default on the mortgage and they will be forced to foreclose on the house to recoup their losses. The higher the appraisal value, the lower the risks for the bank.

  • Locking mortgage rate - mortgage rates change almost daily. It could go up or down from the day you apply for the mortgage and on closing day. To avoid any surprises, homebuyers should lock their interest rate at some point. Most banks allow borrowers to lock the mortgage rate for 30 to 60 days.

    Once expired, you will need to pay to relock it. The benefit of locking interest rates is you are able to lock a lower interest when the market rate is moving up. The downside is you have to time it correctly or else it will cost you extra money. In an environment where the market rate is declining, you can also lose money from locking too early.

    However, you should still lock your mortgage rate for peace of mind, especially if you can't afford a higher mortgage rate, and it might end up costing you to lose the home.

  • Discount points - you can also buy discount mortgage points to lower your interest rate. One discount point costs 1% of your mortgage and it lowers your interest rate by 1%. For example, one discount point on a mortgage of $200,000 would cost you $2,000. There is a limit to how many discount points you can buy depending on the lender, usually 2-3 mortgage points.

Follow up with your loan office closely to get status updates. It can take anywhere from one to three months from loan origination to closing. It's important to know what stage you are in with your mortgage application because then you can decide when to lock your mortgage rates.

9. Mortgage Approved

After your mortgage application is approved and a closing day is set. You will need to do a final walk-through of the house the day before closing. You should check for any damages and make sure the house was still in the same condition from the day that you agreed to buy the house.

10. Closing Day

Bring two forms of identification to closing, one must be issued from the government and has a photo, such as a driver's license or passport. The other one could be your social security card, debit, or credit card that has your name on it. You may need to get bank checks to pay for closing costs. You should also bring your checkbook to cover any fees in addition to your closing costs. On the closing day, the property title will be transferred to you and the deed of the house will be updated to your name. The seller will hand you the keys during closing. After closing, you now legally own the house, and you officially become a homeowner. Switch the utilities to your name as soon as possible, such as water, electricity, and gas bills. Your first mortgage payment is usually due one month after the closing date. A good idea would be to set up automatic payments so that you never miss a payment or pay late because there are late fees for mortgage payments.

How to lower your monthly mortgage payments?

There are a few ways that you can lower your monthly mortgage payments.

1. Larger Down Payment

A larger down payment reduces the overall mortgage amount and hence a lowered monthly payment.

2. Longer Term

With a longer term, you can reduce your monthly payments. For example, a 30-year term will have much lower monthly payments than a 15-year term with the same interest rate and mortgage size. However, extending the term will increase the overall costs for the mortgage and higher interest payments through the loan.

3. Lower Interest Rate

Another effective way to reduce your monthly mortgage payments is by lowering your interest rates. To get the best interest rates, homebuyers should have excellent credit scores. If you don't, one way is to work on improving your credit score before applying for a mortgage. You also want to shop around to find lenders that give you the lowest interest rate. You should never ignore the interest rate on your bottom line. Even a 0.25% difference has a huge impact on the amount of interest you will end up paying.

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