Have you been dreaming about homeownership? Maybe you’re picturing yourself floating around in your backyard pool, or working from home in your beautifully lit corner office. Perhaps you’ve already picked out your kitschy wallpaper, or started browsing homes on all the big listing sites. You know, just in case! The pool and the wallpaper are a good jumping-off point, but if you haven’t asked yourself the big question (“what do I need to buy a house?”), then you may need to back up a step or five.
Buying a house is a dream for millions of people, and homeownership remains a cornerstone of American life. But if you don’t know where to start — or what you need — then it’s a dream that won’t manifest.
HomeLight to the rescue! We’ve rounded up expert advice from all across our Buyer Resource Center and enlisted the help of top Massachusetts agent Rosemary Mancuso to walk us through what first-time buyers need to buy a house. Let’s get to it!
Think you may want to buy a house? Start here
There’s so much to think about when buying a house. You have to weigh budget, location, lifestyle, and future goals, amongst other needs.
How do you know where to begin? How do you know if you’re ready and have everything you need? How do you know if buying a home is something you should even pursue at all?
Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast guideline that can definitively tell you whether you should buy a house, or exactly how you should approach the process.
But one thing you can do right now? Familiarize yourself with how homebuying works to help you decide if it’s something you’re ready to take on. Plus, if you do decide to take the leap, you’ll be ready to tackle your home purchase like a pro.
42 steps to buying a house
Look, we’d love to tell you buying a home is simple, easy, cheap, and will be over before you know it. Unfortunately, if we said that, we’d be fibbing!
The fact is, buying a home is a complex, stressful, and often overwhelming experience.
One thing that can help simplify it? Breaking the process down into smaller steps. So without further ado, here’s a step-by-step rundown of what you can generally expect when you buy a home.
1. Assess your readiness
First thing’s first: Are you even ready to buy a home?
Do you have a secure source of income? Some savings you can use toward a down payment and closing costs? Are you prepared for the responsibilities of home maintenance, mortgage payments, and everything else that comes along with homeownership?
Buying a home is one of the biggest financial decisions you’ll ever make, so spend some time mapping out what your life will look like as a homeowner, and make sure you’re ready for such a big step.
2. Research your market
There’s much to learn about your local real estate market before diving into making offers. What are home prices like in your area? How quickly do homes move off the market? What neighborhoods offer a strong rate of home value appreciation?
What amenities do you need to have nearby — whether schools, places of worship, community centers, commuting options, or daycares?
Now’s the time to spend learning everything you can about your desired area to make sure buying there is a good fit for you.
3. Create a list of new home needs
You should also nail down what you need in a house. Not sure where to start? Mancuso has some ideas:
“How many bedrooms? How many baths? Do you have a dog? Do you need a fenced-in yard? What’s important to you about your next home? One buyer might say they need a garage, one might say a finished basement area for a home office,” she shares.
Another thing Mancuso urges buyers to consider is whether they’re up for a project or need something more ready-to-go.
“Can you do updates? Are you open to doing some sweat equity in the beginning?” she prompts.
Painting walls and replacing floors can add instant equity to your home — but these jobs require hard work, and they’re not for the buyer who wants a flawless, move-in ready abode.
Create a list of must-haves to inform your budget and shopping. You can always narrow it down later if needed.
4. Do some neighborhood testing
While you’re in the preparation stages of buying a home, it’s a good idea to spend some time in the neighborhoods you might end up in. Driving through is one thing, but actually spending time in a neighborhood is quite another.
Check out the library, coffee shops, grocery store, and local restaurants. Chat up the locals if possible, and ask them what life is like in their community. You can even rent a hotel room or a home stay to get a real feel for what life will be like in your new spot.
You might be surprised by how informative even one visit can be!
5. Take a hard look at your credit
Like it or not, your credit score is going to play a huge role in whether you qualify for a mortgage, not to mention the terms you’re offered by a lender.
To a lender, your credit score is a big indicator of how well you manage and pay off debts. The higher your score, the more likely you’ll be approved for a mortgage, and the better rate you’ll be offered. The lower your score, the harder it will be to qualify for a mortgage — plus, you’ll probably be offered a higher rate.
There’s no time like the present to get your credit in order. Grab your free annual credit report for all three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) from government-approved site AnnualCreditReport.com.
Scour it for any negative events like missed payments or bills gone into collection. You should work to repair these issues before applying for a mortgage if you want to qualify for the best rates.
6. Repair your credit if needed
If your credit score is too low to qualify for a home loan, or you’re not happy with the rate you’d get with your current score, you might consider spending some time repairing your credit before buying a house.
For those with distressed credit, it may even make sense to enlist the help of a financial advisor or a nonprofit credit repair service. Be patient, though — credit repair can take six months to two years.
If you’re just looking to boost your score a few points to snag a better rate, that’s usually an easier lift. Looking for some can’t-miss credit tips? Check out our guide to six foolproof ways to improve your credit.
7. Determine your new home budget
Speaking of credit and qualifying for home loans, it’s ultra-important to start thinking about your home budget sooner rather than later.
The lender has their own way of calculating what you can afford based on your income, debts, savings, credit score, and more, but you should also be thinking about what you can realistically afford based on your lifestyle and future financial goals.
To get started, use a home affordability calculator to see how much home you may be able to qualify for. And while you’re weighing such consequential decisions, it’s always a good idea to consult a trusted financial advisor.
8. Estimate your down payment and closing costs
During the budgeting process, you should also think about how much you want to set aside for down payment and closing costs.
It’s a myth that you need to put 20% down on a home, but you’ll probably need to put something down. Your down payment can be as low as 3%, or even 0% if you qualify for a zero-down loan. Though if you make a smaller down payment, you may need to pay mortgage insurance (more on that soon).
Looking for more guidance on your down payment? Try our simple down payment calculator.
As for closing costs, they can add up to between 2% and 5% of the loan amount. Some lenders will let you roll the majority of your closing costs into your loan instead of paying them upfront, but most buyers end up paying them in cash at closing.
To get a better idea of your estimated closing costs, you can check out our easy-to-use closing costs calculator.
9. Save, save, save
Now that you’ve spent some time running the numbers, you’re probably wishing you had more in savings. Don’t we all?
If you don’t have enough to cover a down payment and closing costs without wiping out your accounts, you may need to spend some more time saving money.
This can be frustrating, especially when home prices are outpacing your ability to save. But unfortunately, for most buyers, it’s a necessary part of preparing for homeownership.
For loads of expert tips on how to save up for a home, grab our 54-page guide that will put you on the path to ownership in no time.
10. Weigh your loan options
Did you know there are multiple types of home loans, and they all have different qualifications and unique features that work for certain buyers?
Here’s a quick breakdown:
|Loan type||Minimum credit score||Minimum down payment||Features||Best for|
|Conventional||620||3%||Competitive rates, widely available, lower fees than FHA loans.||Buyers with strong credit and qualifications|
|FHA (government-backed)||580 (but can go down to 500 if down payment is 10% or higher)||3.5%||Accessible home loans for buyers with lower income and distressed credit. Highest fees and rates on the market.||Buyers with lower credit who don’t want to wait to own a home|
|USDA (government-backed)||640||0%||Lower fee loans for rural properties. Buyers must meet income limits.||Low- to middle-income buyers with solid credit who live in qualifying areas.|
|VA (government-backed)||Technically no minimum, but lenders usually look for 620 or higher||0%||Competitive rates and low fees, but some of the stricter qualification requirements.||Qualifying service members, veterans, and spouses|
For more in depth information on mortgage basics, head to our mortgage 101 guide for buyers.
11. Look into first-time homebuyer programs
Many first-time buyers don’t realize there are special programs built just for their needs. These programs include down payment and closing cost assistance and special loans for first-time buyers. They’re designed to make homeownership more accessible and affordable. We’ll cover these programs more in-depth in a bit.
12. Look into lenders
You should also spend some time researching lenders. While getting a great rate is always important, there are other factors to consider, too:
- Should you use a local lender who has a strong reputation in your market, and who knows the ins and outs of closing in your neighborhood?
- Could you get special discounts or credits from your bank or credit union?
- What’s the lender’s average closing time in your market?
- Do they have good customer service? Are they responsive?
If you’re unsure of where to start, your agent can give you some recommendations.
“Buyer’s agents know who the really good lenders are. Get a recommendation from your buyer’s agent,” Mancuso advises.
13. Do some comparison shopping
While we’re on the topic of shopping for a mortgage, it’s almost always advisable to get quotes from multiple lenders before choosing the best fit. One extra quote could save you a cool $1,500 on your mortgage, while getting five quotes can knock 0.166% off your rate. That can add up to thousands over time!
14. Gather your financial documents
As you’re nearing the finish line of your savings goals, you should start gathering up all your financial documents to apply for a mortgage. These documents include things like:
- Government-issued identification (passport, driver’s license, state I.D. card)
- Tax returns for the last two years
- 30 days of recent pay stubs
- Year to date profit and loss statement if you’re self-employed (Note: self-employed doesn’t just apply to sole proprietors or 100% owners. Lenders consider you “self-employed” if own 25% or more of a company)
- Bank statements for the last 60 days
- Retirement and investment account statements for the last 60 days
- Gift letters if your family will be gifting you money for the down payment
- Letters of explanation for any employment gaps
- Proof of any other income like real estate, child support or alimony, disability, social security, retirement, VA benefits, gratuities/tips, and commissions
15. Apply for a pre-approval with your top choice lenders
At this point, you’re probably feeling confident about your ability to get a mortgage and ready to go home shopping. But don’t skip the preapproval! In fact, you should get one before even stepping foot inside an open house.
“The first step is definitely getting the buyer preapproved so there’s no surprises,” Mancuso explains. “That way, they understand what their interest rate is, how much they have to put down, what their monthly payment is, and what their closing costs are.”
Why get a preapproval before looking at homes? Mancuso says having a strong, underwritten preapproval will let you make an aggressive offer once you do find that perfect home. Plus, in an ultra-competitive market, many sellers won’t show their homes to buyers who aren’t preapproved.
Mancuso says far too many inexperienced buyers miss out on a home they love because they don’t have their ducks in a row at the outset. Don’t let that be you! Get preapproved as soon as you’re ready to tour homes.
16. Find an agent
Right after you get preapproved, it’s time to find your perfect agent.
You may technically be able to buy a home without an agent, but doing so usually isn’t advisable. Besides, buyer’s agents are typically paid by the seller, so most buyers get this imperative service for free.
A few tips:
17. Meet with your agent for a buyer consultation
“One of the first things we do is have a buyer consultation,” Mancuso shares. “And what the agent does at that time is a needs analysis of what the buyer is looking for in a home, their timeframe, and really taking time to make sure the buyer understands the steps to buying a home.”
If you’ve already done steps 1 through 16, you’ll be way ahead of the game when it comes time for your buyer consultation. Your agent can help you further narrow your focus and strategize the best way to make your homeownership dream a reality.
Also during this first meeting, your agent will help prepare you for the financial realities ahead.
“It’s important the buyer knows what everything is going to cost, from inspection to deposits — we don’t want any surprises,” Mancuso says.
18. Kick off your house hunt
Now it’s time for the best part of buying a home — the search! You and your agent will work together to narrow down listings and target homes that are the most likely to become yours.
One hack you can use to save time on your home search?
“Always drive by! Because you might want to see 10 homes, but after you do the drive-by, you might only want to see 3 out of 10,” Mancuso reveals.
“I always tell people: You can’t change the lot or the location, but you can always change the home. So do you like the location? Is it on a busy road? Is it set back? If you need to commute, how close is it to the highways or commuter rail?”
Keep in mind also that sellers do a lot of work to show their homes, from cleaning up to setting up activities for the kids to keep them out of the house during buyer tours. Don’t waste their — or your own — time!
19. Tour homes like a pro
Tour homes with the help of your expert agent, who should know exactly what to look for — and what to avoid. Always be on alert for issues going on beneath the surface and sneaky staging tactics that can drive up home prices.
Another pro tip? Drive by or tour the home in multiple weather conditions to get a feel for what it’s like when it’s not the perfect, sunny day. Rainy days can also show you potential leaks or roof issues.
20. Verify listing details
While you’re touring each home, make sure the listing details check out. Are there really four bedrooms, or is one a glorified closet? Is the second bath more of a water closet? Is the square footage accurate?
Now’s your opportunity to make sure nothing was misrepresented in the listing, so pay close attention while looking at homes — and bring your tape measurer as backup!
21. Revise your “needs” list as necessary
Many housing markets are more competitive than ever in 2021, and that can unfortunately mean missing out on a dream home or six. Mancuso suggests remaining patient and being flexible.
That might mean revising your list of must-haves to be more realistic for your price point. Or it might mean waiting things out until the right home hits the market, and being ready to pounce when it does.
22. Make a winning offer
When you do find your dream home, your agent will do a market analysis to help you come up with the right offer. They’ll also reach out to the listing agent to investigate what’s most important to the seller.
You’re probably wondering: Do you need to have a huge down payment or all-cash to compete with other offers in a hot market? Are you doomed if you’re a first-time buyer with a smaller down payment and no home equity to fall back on? Not necessarily!
“Sometimes it’s not just about the money put down; it’s what’s important to the seller,” Mancuso explains. “Is there a certain close date that would work for them? Let’s say there’s some items they want to leave behind for their big move out of state. How accommodating can the buyers be?”
One of Mancuso’s buyers was up against a competing bid that was a whopping $70,000 over asking price. Her buyer remained undeterred and ended up with the winning bid thanks to Mancuso’s stellar reputation, a great backing lender, and a strategic accommodation on seller contingencies.
23. Complete a home inspection
“Once we get the offer accepted, we set up a home inspection. And that’s our time to renegotiate if there’s anything wrong with the property,” says Mancuso.
A home inspection is when a professional, licensed inspector visits the house to check its foundation, structures, and major systems for needed repairs. Then the inspector creates a report outlining all their findings.
“Every house has issues. I’ve never gone to a perfect home inspection,” Mancuso shares. “There might be things the seller is unaware of, like termite damage, or the roof is leaking and they don’t see it because it’s in the attic.”
It’s rarely advisable to skip the inspection because it’s your one chance to learn more about the home’s condition before its problems become your responsibility.
24. Figure out if you need any specialty inspections
A run-of-the-mill home inspection doesn’t necessarily cover everything — most of what they look at is surface-level. To get a more thorough look at issues your regular inspector may not be able to see, you can also order specialized home inspections, such as pest, chimney, lead-based paint, radon, electrical, well and septic, and more.
25. Renegotiate with the seller as needed
After you’ve had your inspections and looked over any reports, you could be in a position to renegotiate with the seller.
But how likely is a seller to renegotiate in a hot market? Couldn’t they just move on to the next offer? They’re probably more likely to negotiate than you might think.
“If the seller’s unaware of anything structural, they’d rather deal with the current offer instead of going back on the market and disclosing what’s wrong with the home,” Mancuso insists. “So we find that they’re more apt to negotiate.”
The seller may be willing to make the repair themselves, or offer a closing credit for the repair.
“The buyer can get that credit as a closing cost credit, and after the closing, they can hire who they feel is the right person to do the work,” Mancuso adds.
26. Finalize the purchase contract
Next, the purchase contract between you and the seller is finalized with all the details of the sale, including any renegotiations that happened during the inspection period.
The contract will outline the purchase timeline, major responsibilities of both parties, important contract contingencies, and any items that will be left behind by the seller.
27. Deposit your earnest money
Along with signing the purchase contract, you’ll deposit your earnest money — typically anywhere between 1% and 5% of the purchase price — to show the seller you’re acting in good faith.
If you back out of the deal for reasons not specified in the contract, understand that you could lose this money.
28. Finalize mortgage application
Thought you were done applying for a mortgage because you got preapproved? Think again! You’ll need to finalize your mortgage application as soon as you sign the purchase contract. That’s because the lender can’t officially process or approve your loan until they have the property details.
If you already submitted all your financial paperwork during the preapproval process, then finishing your application should be relatively quick and painless.
29. Order title, escrow, and closing services
At this point, it’s time to pick your title, escrow, and closing services. Whether you use a closing attorney, a title company, or your agent takes on these duties, finding a good closing team is important. They’ll ensure you close in a timely manner, that the title is clear, and that there are no outstanding liens or claims on the property.
You’ll also need to purchase title insurance for the lender to protect the property from future claims. It’s usually a good idea to get your own coverage, too.
The good news is, you can shop around for these services to save money. Your agent may have recommendations, sometimes even at a discount.
30. Study FEMA flood maps
Is your new home in a flood zone? That’s pretty important information to know. Your lender will look into the flood risk and let you know if you need flood insurance. But you can easily do your own research by typing in your would-be address on FEMA’s flood map site.
If you are in a flood zone, you’ll likely need to secure flood insurance to protect both yourself and the lender.
31. Lock in your rate
When you’re happy with the current mortgage rates on the market, you can often choose to lock in your rate with the lender. This means they’ll hold your rate for a specific time period, generally anywhere between 30 and 180 days.
Most lenders don’t charge for a rate lock, and using one is a great way to ensure your mortgage pricing is predictable. This way, you can know what you’ll pay in interest, and there won’t be any surprises (provided your rate lock doesn’t expire, that is!).
32. Get all your loan documents in
Throughout the closing process, your lender may request documents and signatures from you.
They might even require updated paystubs, tax returns, bank statements, or other financial documents that you originally submitted during your preapproval process — especially if some time has passed between your preapproval and going under contract on a home.
Make sure to meet these requests as soon as possible to avoid financing delays.
33. Secure homeowner’s insurance
Another requirement you’ll need to fulfill to get a mortgage is securing homeowner’s insurance. This protects both you and the lender in case your new home is damaged by a covered event, like a fire or theft. Usually, a buyer pays for a one-year premium upfront, and they must show proof of securing a policy to the lender.
You can shop around for home insurance, so make sure to get a few quotes to compare before committing to a provider. Your auto insurance may even offer a bundling discount.
34. Clear the appraisal
Before you can close on your new home, the lender will order an appraisal to check that the home’s value is within range of what you offered for it. Think about it this way: The lender is making a big investment in this home. They don’t want to plunk down more money for it than it’s worth.
If the appraisal comes in lower than your offer price, you may need to renegotiate with the seller, come up with additional money to cover the appraisal gap, or walk away from the deal entirely. If it comes in higher than what you offered — congratulations, you just gained some free equity!
35. Protect your credit score
We know there’s a lot to keep track of during your real estate closing, but staying on top of your credit is so important! Here’s why: When your lender preapproved you, that approval was conditional on the fact that nothing major would change between your application and the closing.
If your credit score takes a hit in the meantime, your approval could be in jeopardy. For that reason, you should do everything possible to maintain your score during the closing process.
Make all debt payments on time and in-full, and avoid big purchases, new lines of credit, or accumulating further debt balances.
36. Review HOA terms and agreements
Buying a home with a homeowners association, or HOA? Now’s the time to review that HOA agreement to make sure you understand the terms and costs associated with your new property. Ask your agent to help clarify anything you don’t understand.
37. Ask lots of questions
Speaking of asking for help, you’ll probably have about a million questions for your agent, lender, and closing team during this whole process. Don’t be shy — ask away!
There are no stupid questions, and this is one of the biggest financial decisions you’ll ever make. You deserve to have answers! Besides, answering your questions and guiding you through the process is part of their job.
38. Set up your closing appointment
Closing day is just around the corner. Can you already taste it? Good, because it’s time to schedule your closing appointment. You might do this through your agent, closing team, or lender, depending on where you live.
In any case, you’ll set a time, date, and location where you’ll finally cross those t’s, dot those i’s, and make that dream home yours IRL.
39. Do the final walkthrough
The day before closing, you and your agent will complete the final walkthrough of the home and make sure everything’s as it should be.
Did the seller leave those items they promised in the contract? Are the appliances and major systems in the same working order they were when you made the offer? Has there been any damage to the home in the interim?
If everything looks good, you’ll move on to closing.
40. Nail your closing day
Three days before closing, you’ll get your Closing Disclosure, which will contain a finalized calculation of your closing costs. Your agent should then give you instructions on where your closing will take place and what you have to bring along to the closing.
Here’s what you’ll want to have with you the day of:
- Government-issued photo ID
- A certified check for the down payment and closing costs, if you haven’t wired the money already
- Proof of homeowner’s insurance
- A separation agreement or divorce order, if relevant
- Copies of the sales contract, Closing Disclosure, and any other forms you signed with the lender throughout the process
- A pen (and perhaps a backup pen)
And trust us, you’ll need that pen because you’ll be signing paperwork for a while. Your closing appointment should take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.
After that, the deed will be recorded, the keys will be turned over, and the home is yours!
41. Plan your move
Okay, you probably don’t want to do this step after closing, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention it: While you’re in the midst of the closing process stress, you’ll also need to plan your move.
That means getting multiple quotes from movers, taking inventory of what you have (and what you don’t!) and managing the logistics of how you’ll get everything into the new home. No big deal, right?
42. Request construction permits if needed
One last thing! If you’re going to be doing major repairs on your new home, you should also apply for construction permits as soon as possible. That way there won’t be any holdups once you get contractors lined up to kick off the work.
How is being a first-time buyer different or special?
Are you a first-time homebuyer? If so, you might qualify for special loan programs or even financial assistance.
For example, conventional loans are available to first-time buyers at 3% down, whereas repeat buyers need to put down at least 5%.
But what is a first-time buyer? It sounds like a straightforward term, but it actually has a bit more nuance than meets the eye. You’re considered a first-time buyer if you haven’t owned a home in the past three years. So technically, repeat buyers can be considered first-time buyers. Pretty quirky, right?
Down payment and closing cost assistance
There are also quite a few down payment and closing cost assistance programs geared toward first-time buyers. These programs can take the form of grants, forgivable low- or zero-interest second mortgages, or savings matching programs.
You can save thousands with assistance programs — recent data found that buyers saved an average of nearly $18,000 using down payment assistance.
The only holdup? These programs can be challenging to track down and qualify for. Many of them are available at the local and state level. If you want to take advantage of assistance programs, you’ll likely need a real estate and lending team with expertise in how to find them and how they work. You can find a list of down payment assistance programs by state here.
It’s worth mentioning that there are a few national assistance programs available too, including:
One thing to keep in mind: Not every lender or loan type supports these programs, and some may require using a specific lender. Make sure to check with your lender and read all the fine print before applying for down payment assistance.
Let’s talk mortgage insurance
Another question you might have as a first-time buyer is whether you need mortgage insurance. The short answer: It depends.
But we’re not known for our short answers here, so let’s dive into it!
Mortgage insurance protects your lender if you stop making payments and default on your loan. It typically costs between 0.5% and 1% of the loan amount annually.
Who has to pay mortgage insurance? If you’re using a conventional loan and put less than 20% down, you most likely will. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can drop mortgage insurance when you reach 20% equity in your home, or your lender will drop it for you when you reach 22% equity.
If you use a FHA loan, you’ll be required to pay mortgage insurance (an upfront fee, plus a yearly premium) regardless of how much you put down, and you’ll need to carry it for as few as 11 years, or as long as the entire life of the loan — that is, unless you refinance first. How much you’ll pay for insurance depends on how much you owe on the home compared to its value.
For USDA loans, you’ll pay an upfront mortgage insurance fee of 1% of the loan amount, as well as a yearly insurance fee of 0.35% of the loan amount.
VA loans don’t require mortgage insurance, though you do have to pay a VA funding fee.
How does buying a house actually work?
Okay, we’ve walked you through the basics on homebuying. But what does the experience actually look and feel like?
We’ve got tons of stories from real-life buyers that dive into the nitty gritty details of what it’s actually like to purchase a home. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — and you’ll definitely leave feeling inspired.
Check out our treasure trove of buyer stories here.
And with that, we’ll leave you with one piece of parting advice from an agent who’s seen it all:
“Just really trust the process and be patient,” Mancuso says with a chuckle. “When it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Header Image Source: (Nils Söderman / Unsplash)