Buying your first home? Here’s how to avoid 12 first-time buyer mistakes
Holden Lewis, NerdWallet.com
Every year, first-time home buyers venture into the market and make the same mistakes that their parents, siblings and friends made when they bought their first houses.
But today’s novice buyers can stop the cycle. Here are 12 mistakes that first-time home buyers make — and what to do instead.
1. Shopping for a house first before a mortgage
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Talk to a mortgage professional about getting pre-qualified or even preapproved for a home loan before you start to seriously shop for a place.
It’s more fun to look at homes than it is to talk about your finances with a lender. So that’s what a lot of first-time home buyers do: They visit properties before finding out how much they are able to borrow. Then, they are disappointed when they discover they were looking in the wrong price range (either too high or too low) or when they find the right home, but aren’t able to make a serious offer.
How to avoid this mistake: Talk to a mortgage professional about getting pre-qualified or even pre-approved for a home loan before you start to seriously shop for a place. The pre-qualification or pre-approval process involves a review of your income and expenses, and it can make your bid more competitive because you’ll be able to show sellers that you can back up your offer. (See what a pre-approval is and why it matters.)
Neal Khoorchand, broker-owner of Century 21 Professional Realty, in the South Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, New York, pre-qualifies his clients before showing them properties.
“If you’re qualified for a one-family house for $500,000, we’re not going to show you a one-family for $600,000 — it would be a waste of time,” he says.
2. Not looking for first-time home buyer programs
As a first-time home buyer, you probably don’t have a ton of money saved up for the down payment and closing costs. But don’t make the error of assuming that you have to delay homeownership while saving for a huge down payment. There are plenty of low-down-payment loan programs out there.
How to avoid this mistake: Ask a mortgage lender about your options. You might qualify for a Veterans Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that doesn’t require a down payment. Federal Housing Administration loans have a minimum down payment of 3.5%, and some conventional loan programs allow down payments as low as 3%.
3. Not hiring a buyer’s agent
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Work with an exclusive buyer’s agent, someone who has a duty to work in your best interests.
Some home buyers make the mistake of working directly with the seller’s real estate agent, who is obligated to secure the best price and terms for the seller. As a novice home buyer, you could be overmatched when negotiating with an experienced agent who’s working on the seller’s behalf.
How to avoid this mistake: Work with an exclusive buyer’s agent, who has a duty to work in your best interests. (See NerdWallet’s guide to finding a buyer’s agent.)
4. Using up all of your savings
If you buy a previously owned home, it almost inevitably will need an unexpected repair not long after. Maybe you’ll need to replace a water heater, repair a crack in the chimney or get rid of hidden mold.
“That’s a growing pain for the first-time homeowner, when stuff breaks,” says John Pataky, executive vice president of the consumer division of EverBank. “If they don’t have enough in back reserves, emergency funds, they find themselves in a hole quickly.”
How to avoid this mistake: Save enough money to make a down payment, pay for closing costs and moving expenses, and take care of unexpected expenses. This is easier said than done. But you can buy a home with a down payment of much less than 20%, allowing you to conserve your savings. (Find out how much down payment you need to buy a home.)
5. Ignoring a home’s drawbacks
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Write a list of the attractive and the unattractive qualities of each house, and pay attention to each home’s downsides.
A lot of first-time home buyers fall in love with one of the first properties they look at. They ignore the negatives of the house and its neighborhood.
But you can’t disregard the downsides forever. For example, you might think you’ll be OK with a long commute, but after a few months of spending too many hours stuck in traffic, you’ll wish you had bought a house closer to work.
How to avoid this mistake: Do two things. First, resolve to visit “10, 15, 20 houses” before making an offer, Khoorchand says, so you’ll be less likely to fall in love with the first or second or third home you look at.
Second, write a list of the attractive and the unattractive qualities of each house, and pay attention to each home’s downsides.
6. Being indecisive
The flip side of choosing a place too quickly is acting too slowly when you find the right home. In a market with more buyers than sellers, you have to move fast.
Khoorchand says he can talk all day about clients who “needed some time to think about it” and made an offer two or three days after viewing a house, only to discover that another buyer had swooped in and made a successful offer.
How to avoid this mistake: “Once you look at multiple houses, and you get a feel of the market and you know what the market is like and where the prices are at, and you see something you like, don’t hesitate to make an offer, because you and 10 other people will be interested in that same property,” Khoorchand says.
7. Overpaying for a house
First-time home buyers tend to pay more than experienced buyers would pay for the same house, according to research conducted by two economists with the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In their analysis of appraisal data from more than 1.7 million home sales, FHFA economists Jessica Shui and Shriya Murthy concluded that first-timers overpay by an average of 0.79%, which was nearly $2,200 per house, according to the data set they examined.
Shui and Murthy pointed to the inexperience of first-time home buyers. Real estate agents say newbie buyers let their emotions take over, too. “You tend to overlook potential negatives and only look at the positives of a particular house,” says Jim Murrett, president of the Appraisal Institute, an association of real estate appraisers.
How to avoid this mistake: Ask your agent for a competitive market analysis, a report that looks at the prices of comparable nearby homes that have been sold recently. And it helps to fully understand the real estate process, so seek homebuying advice from a certified HUD housing counselor.
8. Skipping the home inspection
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It’s a mistake to buy a previously owned home without an inspection because there could be expensive, hidden damage.
In some markets, a lot of buyers compete for a small number of properties for sale. In these strong seller’s markets, buyers are tempted to waive a home inspection. It gives them a competitive edge over smarter buyers who wouldn’t dream of forgoing an inspection before plunking down hundreds of thousands of dollars for a home.
It’s a mistake to buy a previously owned home without an inspection because there could be expensive, hidden damage that you wouldn’t spot but an inspector would.
How to avoid this mistake: Simple: Hire a licensed home inspector. Your real estate agent will gladly make a recommendation, but it’s better to hire an inspector of your own choosing who doesn’t depend on your agent for referrals. The American Society of Home Inspectors (homeinspector.org) has an inspector search tool.
9. Underestimating the costs of ownership
After you buy a home, the monthly bills keep stacking up. This can come as a surprise if you’re not ready.
“It’s not just your mortgage payment,” says Seth Feinman, vice president of Silver Fin Capital, a mortgage brokerage in Great Neck, New York. “You’re going to have the oil bill, the gas bill, you’re going to have a cable bill, you’re going to have all these things that the bank doesn’t care about when qualifying you for a mortgage.”
Renters often pay these kinds of bills, too. But the new home could have higher costs — and it might come with entirely new bills, such as homeowner association fees.
How to avoid this mistake: Work with a real estate agent who can tell you how much the neighborhood’s property taxes and insurance typically cost. Ask to see the seller’s utility bills for the last 12 months the home was occupied so you have an idea how much they will cost after you move in.
10. Miscalculating repair and renovation costs
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Assume that all home repair estimates are low. Seek more than one estimate for expensive repairs, such as remodeling.
First-time home buyers are frequently surprised by high repair and renovation costs. Buyers can make two mistakes: First, they get a repair estimate from just one contractor, and the estimate is unrealistically low. Second, their perspective is distorted by reality TV shows that make renovations look faster, cheaper and easier than they are in the real world.
How to avoid this mistake: Assume that all repair estimates are low. James Ramos, owner of Re/Max Bay to Bay, a real estate brokerage in Tampa, Florida, recommends doubling the estimates to get a more realistic view of costs.
Seek more than one estimate for expensive repairs, such as roof replacements. A good real estate agent should be able to give you referrals to contractors who can give you estimates. But also seek independent referrals from friends, family and co-workers so you can compare those estimates against ones you receive from contractors your agent refers.
11. Applying for credit before the sale is final
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It’s a mistake to get a new credit card, buy furniture or appliances on credit or take out an auto loan before a mortgage closes.
One day, you apply for a mortgage. A few weeks later, you close, or finalize, the loan and get the keys to the house. The period between is critical: You want to leave your credit alone as much as possible. It’s a mistake to get a new credit card, buy furniture or appliances on credit or take out an auto loan before the mortgage closing.
Here’s why: The lender’s mortgage decision is based on your credit score and your debt-to-income ratio, which is the percentage of your income that goes toward monthly debt payments. Applying for credit can reduce your credit score a few points. Getting a new loan, or adding to your monthly debt payments, will increase your debt-to-income ratio. Neither of those is good from the mortgage lender’s perspective.
Within about a week of the closing, the lender will check your credit one last time. If your credit score has fallen, or if your debt-to-income ratio has gone up, the lender might change the interest rate or fees on the mortgage. It could cause a delay in your closing, or even result in a canceled mortgage.
How to avoid this mistake: Wait until after closing to open new credit accounts or to charge furniture, appliances or tools to your credit cards. It’s OK to have all those things picked out ahead of time; just don’t buy them on credit until after you have the keys in hand.
12. Missing the first mortgage payment
Sounds hard to believe, but it’s not rare for new homeowners to be late with their first monthly payment, or to miss it altogether, says Neil Garfinkel, a real estate attorney with Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson in New York City. “Maybe you didn’t fully understand the process. You thought it was being auto-deducted but it’s not being auto-deducted. You didn’t get the bill in the mail. Whatever. Those first couple of payments, from a credit perspective, are really, really important,” he says.
How to avoid this mistake: At the real estate closing, ask when the first mortgage payment will be due and write it down. Ask how you will receive notice that the payment is due: A coupon book? A letter in the mail? An email or a text? Then, look out for that notification.
In many cases, the mortgage servicer — the company that bills you, collects the payments and makes sure the principal, interest, taxes and insurance all go to the right places — will mail you a welcome letter with these details.