First-time Homebuyer’s Guide
By AMY FONTINELLE
Updated October 12, 2021
Reviewed by ANDY SMITH
Fact checked by KATHARINE BEER
Buying a home can be challenging for a first-timer. After all, there are so many steps, tasks, and requirements, and you may be anxious about making an expensive mistake. But first-time homebuyers actually enjoy some special advantages created to encourage new entrants into the real estate market.
To demystify the process so you get the most out of your purchase, here is a rundown of what you need to consider before you buy and what you can expect from the buying process itself, plus tips to make life easier after you buy your first home.
- First-time homebuyers, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), can get help from state programs, tax breaks, and federally backed loans.
- Before you begin looking, consider the type of residence that will serve your needs, what you can afford, how much financing you can secure, and who will help you conduct your search.
- Buying a home involves finding the property, securing financing, making an offer, getting a home inspection, and closing on the purchase.
- Once you’ve moved in, it’s important to maintain your home and keep saving.
The First-Time Homebuyer Advantage
Buying a home is still considered a key aspect of the American dream. As a first-time buyer, you have access to state programs, tax breaks, and federally backed loans if you don’t have the usual minimum down payment—ideally, 20% of the purchase price for a conventional loan—or are a member of a certain group (see the Important callout below). And you may qualify as a first-time buyer even if you’re not a novice.
A first-time homebuyer, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is someone who meets any of the following conditions:
- An individual who has not owned a principal residence for three years. If you’ve owned a home but your spouse has not, then you can purchase a place together as first-time homebuyers.
- A single parent who has only owned a home with a former spouse while married.
- A displaced homemaker who has only owned with a spouse.
- An individual who has only owned a principal residence not permanently affixed to a permanent foundation in accordance with applicable regulations.
- An individual who has only owned a property that was not in compliance with state, local, or model building codes—and that cannot be brought into compliance for less than the cost of constructing a permanent structure.
6 Questions to Consider Before You Buy
1. How’s your financial health?
Before clicking through pages of online listings or falling in love with your dream home, do a serious audit of your finances. You need to be prepared for both the purchase and the ongoing expenses of a home. The outcome of this audit will tell you whether you’re ready to take this big step, or if you need to do more to prepare. Follow these steps:
Look at your savings. Don’t even consider buying a home before you have an emergency savings account with three to six months of living expenses. When you buy a home, there will be considerable up-front costs, including the down payment and closing costs. You need money put away not only for those costs but also for your emergency fund. Lenders will require it.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping your savings in an accessible, relatively safe vehicle that still provides a return so that you’re keeping up with inflation.
- If you have one to three years to realize your goal, then a certificate of deposit (CD) may be a good choice. It’s not going to make you rich, but you aren’t going to lose money, either (unless you get hit with a penalty for cashing out early). The same idea can be applied to purchasing a short-term bond or fixed-income portfolio that will not only give you some growth but also protect you from the tumultuous nature of stock markets.
- If you have six months to a year, then keep the money liquid. A high-yield savings account could be the best option. Make sure it is insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) (most banks are) so that if the bank goes under, you will still have access to your money up to $250,000.2
Review your spending. You need to know exactly how much you’re spending every month—and where it’s going. This calculation will tell you how much you can allocate to a mortgage payment. Make sure you account for everything—utilities, food, car maintenance and payments, student debt, clothing, kids’ activities, entertainment, retirement savings, regular savings, and any miscellaneous items.
Check your credit. Generally, to qualify for a home loan, you’ll need good credit, a history of paying your bills on time, and a maximum debt-to-income (DTI) ratio of 43%.3 Lenders these days generally prefer to limit housing expenses (principal, interest, taxes, and homeowners insurance) to about 30% of the borrowers’ monthly gross income, though this figure can vary widely, depending on the local real estate market.
3. Which specific features do you want your ideal home to have?
5. How much home can you actually afford?
Sometimes a bank will give you a loan for more house than you really want to pay for. Just because a bank says it will lend you $300,000 doesn’t mean that you should actually borrow that much. Many first-time homebuyers make this mistake and end up “house-poor” with little left after they make their monthly mortgage payment to cover other costs, such as clothing, utilities, vacations, entertainment, or even food.
In deciding how big a loan to actually take, you’ll want to look at the house’s total cost, not just the monthly payment. Consider how high the property taxes are in your chosen neighborhood, how much homeowners insurance will cost, how much you anticipate spending to maintain or improve the house, and how much your closing costs will be.
2. Which type of home will best suit your needs?
You have a number of options when purchasing a residential property: a traditional single-family home, a duplex, a townhouse, a condominium, a co-operative, or a multifamily building with two to four units. Each option has its pros and cons, depending on your homeownership goals, so you need to decide which type of property will help you reach those goals. You can save on the purchase price in any category by choosing a fixer-upper, but be forewarned: The amount of time, sweat equity, and money required to turn a fixer-upper into your dream home might be a lot more than you bargained for.
4. How much mortgage do you qualify for?
Before you start shopping, it’s important to get an idea of how much a lender will give you to purchase your first home. You may think you can afford a $300,000 home, but lenders may think you’re only good for $200,000 based on factors like how much other debt you have, your monthly income, and how long you’ve been at your current job. In addition, many real estate agents will not spend time with clients who haven’t clarified how much they can afford to spend.
Make sure to get pre-approved for a loan before placing an offer on a home. In many instances, sellers will not even entertain an offer that’s not accompanied by a mortgage pre-approval. You do this by applying for a mortgage and completing the necessary paperwork. It is beneficial to shop around for a lender and to compare interest rates and fees by using a tool like a mortgage calculator or Google searches.Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you’ve been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, then there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and/or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
6. Who will help you find a home and guide you through the purchase?
A real estate agent will help you locate homes that meet your needs and are in your price range, then meet with you to view those homes. Once you’ve chosen a home to buy, these professionals can assist you in negotiating the entire purchase process, including making an offer, getting a loan, and completing paperwork. A good real estate agent’s expertise can protect you from any pitfalls that you might encounter during the process. Most agents receive a commission, paid from the seller’s proceeds.
The Buying Process
Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge, let’s explore what you can expect from the homebuying process itself. This can be a chaotic time, with offers and counteroffers flying furiously, but if you are prepared for the hassle (and the paperwork), then you can get through the process with your sanity intact. Here is the basic progression that you can expect.
Find a home
If you’re on a budget, look for homes whose full potential has yet to be realized. Even if you can’t afford to replace the hideous wallpaper in the bathroom now, you may be willing to live with it for a while in exchange for getting into a place that you can afford. If the home meets your needs in terms of the big things that are difficult to change, such as location and size, then don’t let physical imperfections turn you away. First-time homebuyers should look for a house that they can add value to, as this ensures a bump in equity to help them up the property ladder.Consider your financing options, then secure financing
First-time homebuyers have a wide variety of options to help them get into a home—both those available to any purchaser, including Federal Housing Authority (FHA)-backed mortgages, and those geared especially to novices. Many first-time homebuyer programs offer minimum down payments as low as 3% to 5% (vs. the standard 20%), and a few require no down payment at all. Be sure to look into or consider:
- HUD’s resource list. Although the government agency itself does not make grants directly to individuals, it does grant funds earmarked for first-time homebuyers to organizations with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax-exempt status. The HUD website has details.4 The FHA (and its loan program) is part of HUD.5
- Your IRA. Every first-time homebuyer can withdraw up to $10,000 out of their traditional individual retirement account (IRA) or Roth IRA without paying the 10% penalty for early withdrawal (but you’ll still pay taxes if you use a traditional IRA). That means a couple could withdraw a maximum of $20,000 ($10,000 from each account) to use toward a first-home purchase. Just know that if you don’t repay the money within 120 days—and you’re under age 59½—then it becomes subject to the 10% penalty. Also, you will owe income taxes on the withdrawal(s).6
- Your state’s programs. Many states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Washington, offer financial assistance with down payments and closing costs, as well as with expenses to rehab or improve a property, for first-time homebuyers who qualify.789 Typically, eligibility in these programs is based on income and, often, on the size of a property’s purchase price.
- Native American options. Native American homebuyers can apply for a Section 184 loan.10 This loan requires a 1.5% loan up-front guarantee fee and a 2.25% down payment on loans over $50,000 (for loans below that amount, it’s 1.25%). Section 184 loans can be used only for single-family homes (one to four units) and primary residences.11
Don’t be bound by loyalty to your current financial institution when seeking a pre-approval or searching for a mortgage: Shop around, even if you only qualify for one type of loan. Fees can be surprisingly varied. An FHA loan, for example, may have different fees depending on whether you’re applying for the loan through a local bank, credit union, mortgage banker, large bank, or mortgage broker. Mortgage interest rates—which, of course, have a major impact on the total price that you pay for your home—can also vary.
Once you’ve settled on a lender and applied, the lender will verify all of the financial information provided (checking credit scores, verifying employment information, calculating DTIs, etc.). The lender can pre-approve the borrower for a certain amount. Be aware that even if you have been pre-approved for a mortgage, your loan can fall through at the last minute if you do something to alter your credit score, such as finance a car purchase.
Some authorities also recommend having a backup lender. Qualifying for a loan isn’t a guarantee that your loan eventually will be funded—underwriting guidelines can shift, lender risk analysis can change, and investor markets can alter. Clients may sign loan and escrow documents, then be notified 24 to 48 hours before the closing that the lender has frozen funding on their loan program. Having a second lender that has already qualified you for a mortgage gives you an alternate way to keep the process on, or close to, schedule.
Make an offer
Your real estate agent will help you decide how much money you want to offer for the house, along with any conditions you want to ask for. Your agent will then present the offer to the seller’s agent; the seller will either accept your offer or issue a counteroffer. You can then accept, or continue to go back and forth until you either reach a deal or decide to call it quits.
Before submitting your offer, take another look at your budget. This time, factor in estimated closing costs (which can total anywhere from 2% to 5% of the purchase price), commuting costs, and any immediate repairs and mandatory appliances that you may need before you can move in. Think ahead—it’s easy to be ambushed by higher or unexpected utilities and other costs if you are moving from a rental to a larger home. For example, you might request energy bills from the past 12 months to get an idea of average monthly costs.
When you review your budget, don’t overlook hidden costs, such as the home inspection, home insurance, property taxes, and homeowners association fees.
If you reach an agreement, you’ll make a good-faith deposit, and the process then transitions into escrow. Escrow is a short period of time (often about 30 days) during which the seller takes the house off the market with the contractual expectation that you will buy it—provided you don’t find any serious problems with it when you inspect it.
Have the home inspected
Close—or move on
Congratulations, New Homeowner! Now What?
With homeownership comes major unexpected expenses, such as replacing the roof or getting a new water heater. Start an emergency fund for your home so that you won’t be caught off guard when these costs inevitably arise.
Perform regular maintenance
With the large amount of money that you’re putting into your home, you’ll want to make sure to take excellent care of it. Regular maintenance can decrease your repair costs by allowing problems to be fixed when they are small and manageable.
Ignore the housing market
It doesn’t matter what your home is worth at any given moment except the moment when you sell it. Being able to choose when you sell your home, rather than being forced to sell it due to job relocation or financial distress, will be the biggest determinant of whether you will see a solid profit from your investment.
Don’t rely on the sale of your home to fund your retirement
Even though you own a home, you should do your best to save the maximum in your retirement savings accounts every year. Although it may seem hard to believe for anyone who has observed the fortunes that some people made during the housing bubble, you won’t necessarily make a killing when you sell your house. If you want to look at your home as a source of wealth in retirement, once you’ve paid off your mortgage, consider the money you were spending on monthly payments as a source of funding for your living and medical expenses in retirement. Also, retirees often want to stay put (despite all the articles you see about downsizing or retiring in exotic locales).