Four Key Steps in Buying a House

What you should know before becoming a first-time homeowner

The search for a first house can be full of mixed emotions—excitement at the prospect of being a first-time homeowner and trepidation for all the responsibilities that go with it.

If you are ready to take the plunge into homeownership, check out these house-hunting tips. They're designed to help house hunters become homeowners.

Step #1: Set a budget

If possible, get pre-approved for a home loan by your bank. This differs from getting pre-qualified, which simply means that a bank has reviewed your finances. With pre-approval, a bank has told you how much it will lend and how much you can afford. Armed with this knowledge, you may save time by looking at only those houses in your price range. A good rule is to spend no more than two-and-a-half times your annual salary, but you should also consider other debts and expenses in the equation. Choosing the price range that's right for you can help make home ownership more satisfying in the future.

When determining how much house you can buy, also consider "sleeper costs." These are the costs that may be overlooked during the home buying budget calculation; they may include property taxes, homeowners insurance, utilities, homeowner association dues and regular maintenance costs. Many of these costs increase each year, so leave room in your budget to cover costs well into the future.

Step #2: Consider using a real estate agent

You don't need to work with a real estate agent to buy a home - especially with all the information available online, but agents have knowledge and tools that may help in your search for your first home. Agents may provide quicker access to home listings, save you time by setting up home-showing appointments, help write an offer with a competitive price, provide neighborhood demographic information, and much more.

Should you decide to work with a real estate agent, consider these tips:

  • Look for agents selling homes similar to the one you would like to buy.
  • Ask friends or co-workers for referrals.
  • Once you get those referrals, ask for permission to contact the agents' three most recent clients to ask about their experience.
  • Interview potential agents. Ask questions such as: How long have you been selling real estate? How many homes did you sell last year? How does your commission structure work?
  • Make sure you feel comfortable with the agent. The agent should complement your personality and be a good fit for you.

Step #3: Think ahead

Real estate professionals have a secret: It's not always wise to buy the nicest house on the block. Home values in a given area affect one another because the industry relies on "comps," or homes nearby that sold recently and have comparable characteristics to yours. When you own the largest house on the block, the number of comparable sales that could positively influence your resale price is significantly limited.

Conversely, if you buy a house with a lower value, which leaves room for remodeling projects, you may see a greater return in the future. But, be honest with yourself. Will buying a ‘project house' fit your lifestyle? If you are handy or don't mind the inconvenience of remodeling projects, buying a property that needs work but is in a great neighborhood may be a good investment. If you do not fall into those categories, you may want to choose a house requiring less work. This is especially true for first-time homeowners.

Step #4: Get Involved in the Inspection

It's easy to focus on décor – which you can easily change - while forgetting to check on important, costly fixes. Look past paint colors or window dressings you may not like, and focus on the home's structure and layout. Even if you like the design, focus on room sizes and ceiling heights to make sure your furniture will fit the space.

If you found the house of your dreams, hire a home inspector to check the big ticket items before you sign on the dotted line. Home inspectors check electrical and plumbing fixtures as well as heating and cooling systems. They also check for structural damage to foundations and roofs. The key to thoroughly understanding the home inspection findings is to accompany the inspector through the house. Rather than just reading a report, you will get a better understanding of any significant problems and determine whether they will become part of the home buying negotiation process, or whether you need to completely back out of the purchase.

By following these steps when buying a house, you will be well-prepared for the home-buying journey ahead. Of course, once you find your dream home, it's important to talk with your insurance company about getting the right home insurance coverage. Until then, happy house hunting!