THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO Buying Your First Home
How to find exactly what you want, and how to work with the experts who’ll help you get it.
So you’re thinking about buying your first home. Your very own house (and mortgage). A place to call — and make — your own. It’s a big move, literally and figuratively. Buying a house requires a serious amount of money and time. The journey isn’t always easy. It isn’t always intuitive. But when you get the keys to your new home — that, friend, can be one of the most rewarding feelings pretty much ever. The key to getting there? Knowing the home-buying journey. Knowing what tools are at your disposal. And most importantly? Creating relationships with experts who can help you get the job done. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll show you not only the major steps you’ll take during the home-buying process, but also explain the relationships and experts you’ll need along the way. You ready to live the dream? Here we go.
Oh sure, everybody wants to jump right into open houses. But before you even set foot into a foyer, you should identify your list of “musts” and “wants.” This list is an inventory of priorities for your search. And there’s so much to decide: Price, housing type, neighborhood, and school district — just to name a few. To get yourself grounded, we recommend filling out the worksheet on page 9. If you’re planning to buy a home with a partner (in life or in real estate), fill the worksheet out with them. You want to be on the same page while buying a house. If you’re not, you’ll be less able to give agents or lenders the information they need to help you. And you risk wasting time viewing homes you can’t afford — or don’t even want in the first place.
Once you know what you’re looking for, the next step is to start looking at listings and housing information online. (This part? You’re going to crush it.)
Your relationship with your real estate agent is the foundation of the home-buying process. (And your agent = your rock.) He or she is the first expert you’ll meet on your journey, and the one you’ll rely on most. That’s why it’s important to interview agents and find the agent who’s right for your specific needs.
Once you’ve found your agent (AKA, your new best friend), ask him or her to recommend at least three mortgage lenders that meet your financial needs. This is another big step, as you’ll be working with your lender closely throughout the home-buying process.
Once you’ve decided on a lender (or mortgage broker), you’ll work with your loan agent to determine which mortgage is right for you. You’ll consider the percentage of your income you want to spend on your new house, and you’ll provide the lender with paperwork showing proof of income, employment status, and other important financials. If all goes well (fingers crossed) you’ll be pre-approved for a loan at a certain amount. (Sweet.)
Now that you have both an agent who knows your housing preferences and a budget — and a lender to finance a house within that budget — it’s time to get serious about viewing homes. Your agent will provide listings you may like based on your parameters (price range, ZIP codes, features), and will also help you determine the quality of listings you find online. Then comes the fun part: Open houses and private showings, which give you the unique opportunity to evaluate properties in a way you can’t online.
Once you find the home you want to buy, you’ll work with your agent to craft an offer that not only specifies the price you’re willing to pay but also the proposed settlement date and contingencies — other conditions that must be agreed upon by both parties, such as giving you the ability to do a home inspection and request repairs.
Making an offer can feel like an emotional precipice, almost like asking someone out on a date. Do they like me? Am I good enough? Will they say yes? It’s stressful! Some home sellers simply accept the best offer they receive, but many sellers make a counteroffer. If that happens, it’s up to you to decide whether you want your agent to negotiate with the seller or walk away. This is an area where your agent can provide real value by using their expert negotiating skills to haggle on your behalf and nab you the best deal.
If your offer is accepted, then you’ll sign a contract. Most sales contracts include a home inspection contingency, which means you’ll hire a licensed or certified home inspector to inspect the home for needed repairs, and then ask the seller to have those repairs made. This mitigates your risk of buying a house that has major issues lurking beneath the surface, like mold or cracks in the foundation. (No one wants that.)
When you offer to buy a home, your lender will need to have the home appraised to make sure the property value is enough to cover the mortgage. If the home appraises close to the agreed-upon purchase price, you’re one step closer to settlement — but a low appraisal can add a wrinkle. Not one you can’t deal with.
The last stage of the home-buying process is settlement, or closing. This is when you sign the final ownership and insurance paperwork and make this whole thing official.
WHAT YOU SHOULD REALLY KNOW ABOUT Browsing for Homes Online It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt! Oh, let’s just admit it, shall we? Browsing for homes online is a window shopper’s Shangri-La. The elegantly decorated rooms, the sculpted gardens, the colorful front doors that just pop with those “come hither” hues. Browser beware, though: Those listings may be seductive, but they might not be giving you the complete picture. That perfect split-level ranch? Might be too close to a loud, traffic-choked street. That handsome colonial with the light-filled photos? Might be hiding some super icky plumbing problems. That attractively priced condo? Miiiight not actually be for sale. Imagine your despair when, after driving across town to see your dream home, you realize it was sold. So let’s practice some self-care, shall we, and set our expectations appropriately. Step one, fill out our home buyer’s worksheet on page 9 of this buying guide. The worksheet helps you understand what you’re looking for. Step two, with that worksheet and knowledge in hand, start browsing for homes. As you do, keep in mind exactly what that tool can, and can’t, do. Here’s how.
First things first: You wouldn’t read last month’s Vanity Fair for the latest cafe society gossip, right? So you shouldn’t browse property sites that show old listings. Get the latest listings from realtor.com®, which pulls its information every 15 minutes from the Multiple Listing Service regional databases where real estate agents post listings for sale. That means that realtor.com®’s listings are more accurate than some others, like Zillow and Trulia, which may update less often. You wouldn’t want to get your heart a flutter for a house that’s already off the market. BTW, there are other property listing sites as well, including Redfin, which is a brokerage and therefore also relies on relationships with brokers and MLSs for listings.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But what they don’t say is a picture can also hide a thousand cracked floorboards, busted boilers, and leaky pipes. So while it’s natural to focus on photos while browsing, make sure to also consider the property description and other key features. Each realtor.com® listing, for example, has a “property details” section that may specify important information such as the year the home was built, price per square foot, and how many days the property has been on the market. Ultimately though, ask your real estate agent to help you interpret what you find. The best agents have hyper-local knowledge of the market and may even know details and histories of some properties. If a listing seems too good to be true, your agent will likely know why.
At the end of the day, property sites are like CliffsNotes for a neighborhood: They show you active listings, sold properties, home prices, and sales histories. All that data will give you a working knowledge, but it won’t be exhaustive. To assess all of this information — and gather facts about any home you’re eyeing, like how far the local elementary school is from the house or where the closest Soul Cycle is — talk to your real estate agent. An agent who can paint a picture of the neighborhood is an asset. An agent who can go beyond that and deliver the dish on specific properties is a true friend indeed, more likely to guide you away from homes with hidden problems, and more likely to save you the time of visiting a random listing (when you could otherwise be in the park playing with your canine bestie). Want to go deeper? Consider these sites and sources: • School ratings: GreatSchools.org, National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov), and the school district’s website • Crime rates and statistics: CrimeReports.com, NeighborhoodScout.com, SpotCrime.com, and the local police station • Walkability and public transportation: WalkScore.com and APTA.com • Hospital ratings: HealthInsight.org, LeapfrogGroup.org, and U.S. News and World Report rankings Just remember: You’re probably not going to find that “perfect home” while browsing listings on your smartphone. Instead, consider the online shopping experience to be an amuse bouche to the home-buying entree — a good way for you to get a taste of the different types of homes that are available and a general idea of what else is out there.
HERE’S HOW YOU’LL KNOW You’ve Found the Right Agent A great real estate agent is like an Oprah for living your best real estate life. For every journey, there is a guide. To explore the West, Lewis and Clark had Sacagawea. To navigate his magical powers, Harry Potter had Dumbledore. And to discover our best lives, America has Oprah. Then there’s the all-too-real journey of buying a home. For that, you have an Oprah of your own: your real estate agent — a licensed professional who’s familiar with local home values and neighborhood perks, understands real estate trends, can write an offer on your behalf, and who negotiates with home sellers so you don’t have to. Think of your agent as a therapist/consultant for your home search. A collaborator. A co-conspirator. A mentor. Someone who amps up your confidence and counsels you through big decisions (teamwork makes the dream work, after all). And, someone who wants you to find a house you can be happy in because they’re invested in your happiness. If the housing market doesn’t line up with your needs and budget, your agent will go back to the drawing board with you. They interpret raw housing data through the filter of your unique search, then tell you what’s important and why. They help you map the path to your goal, and connect you with trusted experts who can get you into your dream home. (Cue selfie of you drinking wine in your new living room. First like on Instagram? Probably your agent.) That’s a lot of responsibility. And a lot of pressure. There’s obviously a lot at stake: money and time, of course, but also your happiness. So reach out to an agent sooner in the process rather than later, and you’ll be on the fast track to picking out paint swatches for your new kitchen.
“Agent” is a catchall phrase that is used, in casual conversation, to describe the three types of professionals who buy and sell real estate: agents, brokers, and REALTORS®. No, they’re not really the same. Yes, you should care about what makes them different.
A real estate agent is a licensed professional who helps people buy, sell, rent, or invest in homes. To become an agent, a person must take pre-licensing training from a certified institution (these vary from state to state) and pass their state’s real estate licensing exam. Once they have their license, an agent must affiliate themselves with a real estate brokerage. Some agents specialize in representing buyers, some specialize in representing sellers. Some do both. An agent who represents both the buyer and the seller in the same real estate transaction is called a dual agent. By law, a dual agent must disclose dual agency to both parties. (If an agent is seeing other people, you obviously need to know.) A real estate broker is a professional who has additional education beyond the agent level, as required by state law, and who has passed a broker’s exam. In some cases, brokers also have more years of experience than agents. The biggest difference between a broker and an agent is that a broker may work independently. An agent must be overseen by a broker. A REALTOR® is a broker or agent who belongs to the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), the largest trade group in the country. (Full disclosure: NAR publishes HouseLogic.com). A REALTOR® commits to following a strict Code of Ethics intended to protect buyers and sellers; for example, REALTORS® pledge themselves to protect and promote the interests of their client. Agents and brokers who are not NAR members can’t call themselves REALTORS®. There are more than 1 million REALTORS® in the United States. You can use realtor.com®’s Find a REALTOR® tool to connect with one in your area. In most cases, using an agent, broker, or REALTOR® won’t cost you a penny because the seller typically pays both the listing agent and buyer’s agent’s commissions. However, some buyers’ agents request a representation fee from the buyer. That’s rare.
Before you seriously partner with anyone, you’ll probably survey family, friends, and trusted acquaintances for at least some input. Finding a real estate agent is no different: A great starting point is to ask your inner circle and neighbors for recommendations. According to recent NAR research, 52% of buyers 36 and younger found their real estate agent through a referral. Then there’s the internet. Each of the major property listing websites — realtor.com®, Zillow, Redfin, and Trulia — has an agent-finder tool that lets you search for agents in your area. These property sites also collect reviews and ratings from an agent’s past clients, which gives you insight into an agent’s reputation. Keep in mind, though, that the sites vary in their policies about whether agents can edit or remove reviews. (Like with Yelp, use your own discretion.) The sites also show an agent’s sales history, so you can see how many homes a person has sold. In general, it’s best to choose an agent who has a large number of sales under his or her belt (a sign they’re committed to real estate work). Perhaps even more important: an agent who has sold homes at the price point and in the neighborhood where you’re looking to buy — a sign they understand the local market. Whatever you do, don’t rely on online listings alone. Always interview prospective agents — at least three — in person. A meet-and-greet will give you the perspective you need on the agent’s personality and style. Is this someone you’ll like working with? Who has a sense of humor? Who has your back? Who communicates in the ways you want to be communicated with? Best to find out in person.
Once you’ve gathered all the information, listen to your gut: It won’t steer you wrong about who’s the best agent for you. But, that said, there are a few qualities you’ll want to look for in any agent (your gut would agree): • Local expertise. Does this person know their stuff about neighborhood home value trends, shops and restaurants, schools, commute times, and geographic factors such as floodplains? These things are important, especially if you’re looking for a home in a new city or town. If the agent seems lost or like they’re winging it, keep looking. • Responsiveness. You’ll have a lot of questions, and will be asked to produce documents at certain steps during the buying process. Think about how available you want your agent to be, and how quickly you want him or her to respond. One way to figure that out? Contact a prospective agent online or by phone and see how long it takes them to reply. If you don’t hear back within a timeframe that works for you, it’s probably best to move on. • Reputation. This is when to consult your inner circle again. The agent-finder tool mentioned above can also help. In addition, you’ll want to verify the agent’s license; search “[state] real estate license lookup” in your browser to find a resource for your state. If you want to confirm whether an agent is a REALTOR®, you can call NAR at 1-800-874-6500. There are a number of professional designations that indicate an agent has obtained additional education beyond their licensing work. An accredited buyer’s representative (ABR®), for instance, is someone who specializes in working with home buyers and has taken a course on buyer-client relationships.
Congratulations! You now have a list of agents you like based on their stats, and you’re ready to get to know the finalists. Binge a few episodes of “The Bachelor” for pointers — just kidding, don’t do that. What to really do: Schedule interviews with the top three agents, at least. During each conversation, your goal is to understand the agent’s experience, personality, and working style.
1. How many years have you been in the business? Having more experience doesn’t guarantee that someone is a great real estate agent, but a lot of the business is learned on the job. 2. How many homes have you sold in the last year? Volume isn’t the most important factor when choosing an agent, but you want someone who is active in the industry. Also, the more transactions an agent has under their belt, the more adept the person should be at solving complicated problems that can crop up during a home sale. Remember: Your transaction is unique. 3. How will you help me determine my needs and priorities? The agent’s first task is to help you identify your list of “musts” and “wants” — the home features that you need, versus the features that you’d like to have but can live without. 4. Is your real estate license in good standing? You can also check with your state’s Real Estate Commission to confirm the agent has no disciplinary actions. 5. How will you stay in touch with me? Your agent’s communication style should align with yours. If you prefer to be contacted via text when new listings crop up, make sure your agent is able to do that. 6. What neighborhoods do you specialize in? You want an agent who’s intimately familiar with the neighborhood(s) you’re interested in. Another way of framing this question is to ask, “How many homes have you sold in this neighborhood in the last year?” 7. What price range do you typically work in? In addition to being a neighborhood expert, your agent should do a large portion of their business with home buyers in your price range. It’s important because challenges and negotiation strategies can vary based on what type of home you’re buying. 8. How many other clients are you working with? You want someone who can give you quality, one-on-one customer service when you buy your first home. If the agent seems spread thin, it’s probably because they are. 9. How are you a good agent for first-time buyers? First-time home buyers face specific challenges. Every buyer has a unique transaction. Good agents can explain what you should expect and how they’re going to help you navigate your special circumstances. 10. How will you find homes that match my criteria? Seasoned real estate agents don’t just use the local Multiple Listing Service (MLS) — a regional database of registered property listings — to help home buyers find homes. They also keep track of listings through colleagues, door-knocking, and canvassing neighborhoods to find the right properties for their buyers. They’ll also work their industry connections. 11. Have you ever recommended that a buyer not buy a property? Why? An agent should work in your best interest, which means being honest with you about when to pass on a house that will not meet your needs — even if you’re starry-eyed about it. It’s your choice, obvs, but they should empower you to make a sound decision. 12. Do you have a list of recommended vendors who can help me get a mortgage, inspect a home, and so on? To buy a home, you’re going to need other important players on your team — specifically a mortgage lender, home inspector, settlement/title company, and attorney. An experienced agent has already developed relationships with reputable pros, and should provide you with several references for each; though it’s ultimately your decision to choose who you want to work with. 13. Can you provide contact information for your three most recent buyers? Past clients can offer valuable insight into an agent’s skills. Don’t just ask an agent for references, or you’ll get three pre-vetted clients who are guaranteed to sing their praises. Instead, ask for phone numbers and email addresses of the agent’s three most recent buyers. Contact those people directly to learn about their experiences. Whew, you made it through the interviews. (Are you thirsty? We could use a glass of water.) By now, there’s likely one agent left standing. Someone you can trust. Someone who listens. Someone who knows more about real estate than you, but who also really cares about finding your house.
How to Be a Savvy Open House Guest Getting smart — about what to do, ask, and avoid — can move you ahead of the crowd. Ah, the open house. A chance to wander through other people’s homes and imagine yourself knocking out walls and gut rehabbing their kitchens. This is what dreams are made of (or at least episodes of HGTV). In all seriousness, going to open houses (and scheduled private showings) is one of the most exciting parts of the home-buying experience. Beyond the voyeuristic thrill, visiting houses allows you to assess things that you just can’t see online. Anyone who has taken a super-posed selfie knows that a picture doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Professional listing photos can make small rooms look spacious, make dim rooms bright, and mask other flaws of a home — but you don’t know any of that until you actually see the house yourself. You can tour houses at any point, but it can be helpful to first discuss your needs and wants with your partner (if you have one), do some online research, and talk with your agent and your lender. That way, you — and your agent — can take a targeted approach, which saves you time and can give you an edge over your buying competition. So, before you start viewing, follow these tips to get prepared.
There are four ways to know when a house is available for viewing: • Ask your agent. He or she will have details on specific properties and can keep you informed of open houses that fit your criteria. • Use listing websites. A number of property sites let you search active listings for upcoming open houses. On realtor.com®, for instance, when searching for properties, scroll over the “Buy” tab and click the “Open Houses” link to see upcoming ones in your area. • Scroll social media. On Instagram, for example, you can search the hashtag #openhouse, or similar tags for your city (#openhousedallas, for example), to discover open houses. Many real estate agents and brokerages also post open house announcements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; find ones from your area and start following. • Drive around. Cruise through the neighborhoods you’re interested in — it’s a good way to get a sense of the area amenities — and look for open house signs. And while you’re searching, be sure to jot down the location, time, and date for any open house that strikes your fancy. It will make it that much easier to plan times and routes for hitting as many homes as possible. Drive around.
If you’re seriously interested in a home, show up to the open house early. That way you’ll beat the rush, and the agent showing the house (AKA the host) will have time to focus on you and your questions. And don’t be shy! Many home buyers hop from one open house to the next without talking to the listing agent. But chatting up the host can help you learn information that you wouldn’t get by only touring the premises. If a house seems like a match, take a walk around the neighborhood. Strike up conversations with the neighbors to get an insider’s perspective on what life in that community is really like — families, singles, what the vibe on the block is like, and whether the homeowner’s or condo association (if there is one) is easy to work with.
To make the most of your open house visits, have a list of questions in mind for the host — and take notes while you’re there, so you can keep track of what you learned. At the same time, remember this: Your interaction with the host could be the beginning of negotiations with them. If you end up making an offer, you’ll use the information you’ve gathered to inform your bid. (They’ll also remember that you were an engaged yet courteous person, which can’t hurt your cause.) Equally important: Oversharing could hurt your negotiating power. Be careful about what information you share with the agent hosting the event. This person works for the seller — not you. The host can and will use stats they’ve gleaned about you to counter, reject, or accept an offer. Keeping that in mind, here are eight questions you can ask a host to help determine whether a house is a good fit for you: 1. Have you received any offers? If there are already bids on the table, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to make an offer. Keep in mind: Listing agents can’t disclose the amount of any other offers, though — only whether they exist. 2. When does the seller want to move? Find out the seller’s timeline. If the seller is in a hurry (say, for a new job), they may be willing to accept an offer that’s below list price. 3. When is the seller looking to close? Price isn’t the only factor for many home sellers. One way to strengthen your offer is to propose a settlement date that’s ideal for them. For example, a 30- to 45-day closing is standard in many markets, but the seller may want more time if they haven’t purchased th
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