Qualifications For First-Time Buyers

Who is a first-time buyer of a home? According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a first-time homebuyer 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 a home 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.2

That broad definition could make it easier for you to qualify as a first-time buyer and enjoy some of the associated benefits that go along with buying a home for the first time.

6 Questions to Consider Before You Buy 

Your first step is to determine what your long-term goals are and how home ownership fits in with those goals. Perhaps you’re simply looking to transform all those “wasted” rent payments into mortgage payments that give you something tangible: equity. Or maybe you see homeownership as a sign of independence and enjoy the idea of being your own landlord. Also, buying a home can be a good investment. Narrowing down your big-picture homeownership goals will point you in the right direction. Here are six questions to consider:

  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 upfront 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 $250,000.3

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%.4 Lenders generally prefer to limit housing expenses (principal, interest, taxes, and homeowner’s insurance) to about 30% of the borrowers’ monthly gross income, though this figure can vary widely, depending on the local real estate market.

Paying down some of your debt or looking for ways to generate extra income before applying for a mortgage could help to improve your debt-to-income ratio.

  1. 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.

  1. Which Specific Home Features Do You Want? 

While it’s good to retain some flexibility in this list, you’re making perhaps the biggest purchase of your life, and you deserve to have that purchase fit both your needs and wants as closely as possible. Your list should include basic desires, like size and neighborhood, all the way down to smaller details like bathroom layout and a kitchen fitted with durable appliances. Scanning real estate websites can help you get a sense of the pricing and availability of properties offering the features that are most important to you.

  1. 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.

Consider getting 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 our mortgage calculator or Google searches.

Calculate Your Monthly Payment (see calculator section)

Your monthly mortgage payment will depend on your home price, down payment, loan term, property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, and interest rate on the loan (which is highly dependent on your credit score). Use the inputs below to get a sense of what your monthly mortgage payment could end up being.

  1. How many homes Can You Actually Afford? 

Sometimes a bank will give you a loan for more houses 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.

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, there are steps you can take.5 One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).6

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 homeowner’s insurance will cost, how much you anticipate spending to maintain or improve the house, and how much your closing costs will be.

House shopping with a smaller budget than you are approved for will not only make your financial life more flexible, but can also help you in a competitive housing market. When demand for homes outpaces supply, that can push prices up and make finding an affordable home more challenging. If you shop with enough wiggle room you may not end up losing a bidding war on your dream house.

  1. Who Will Guide You Through the Homebuying Process? 

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.

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