You’re settling down, have some money saved and are ready to become a homeowner. Congrats! Buying your first home may be one of the biggest financial decisions of your life, so you’ll want to avoid these common first-time homebuyer mistakes:
1. Overestimating What You Can Afford
Many first-time homebuyers may think they can afford whatever the bank will lend, but that can be a dangerous assumption. “You’re often preapproved for more than you want to pay,” says Judy Richardson, a real estate agent at Red Oak Realty in Oakland, California, “so it’s important to calculate exactly how much you can afford.”
Experts recommend establishing a budget before even looking at homes. In addition to your current income and expenses, be sure to include anticipated home expenses such as maintenance, utilities and potential homeowners association fees.
Having a budget ahead of time will help you avoid the disappointment of falling in love with – or worse, purchasing – a home you can’t afford.
2. Not Getting Preapproved For A Loan
Many first-time buyers expect to shop first and finance later, but experts say that’s the wrong order. You’re better off shopping for a mortgage lender and getting preapproved before visiting open houses. That way when you find your dream home you’ll be ready to pounce and the seller will know you’re serious.
But be sure you don’t confuse a quick online “prequalification” with a more thorough preapproval, which includes a credit check and financial verification.
Doing this pre-work will also allow you to consider different financing options without the pressure of trying to close a deal, and will uncover any potential problems before it’s too late.
Keep in mind, however, that once you start the approval process, you’ll need to be careful with your finances. “Lenders will check your credit twice during the transaction process: at the beginning and at the end right before the loan is funded,” says Richardson. So don’t make any significant purchases – like a new car or furniture set – until after you’ve closed on the home. That goes for new credit cards, too – even opening a store credit card could delay your closing.
3. Being Swayed By Staging
Sellers know fresh paint and a nice staging job can help sell a home, but buyers should resist the urge to fall for these cosmetic touches. “I think by now buyers are savvy enough to understand how staging can dress up a house and to look beyond it,” Richardson says. Instead, focus on the “bones” of the house.
Paint color, wallpaper or an ugly light fixture can be changed pretty easily. Layout, size and structural integrity can’t. After her clients get a feel for a home, Richardson says, “we inevitably end up under the house looking at the condition of the foundation, water heater, electrical and furnace. You can learn a lot about the condition of the house from these systems.”
4. Forgetting The Maxim: Location, Location, Location
You may know what neighborhood you want to live in, but supply and budget can impact your options. “Many times buyers have to expand their search and go into areas that they were not initially aware of,” says Richardson. This can be discouraging, but can also open up new opportunities if you know what to look for.
“It is important to explore these new neighborhoods by visiting at different times of the day to consider any concerns about safety, noise, density and traffic.” You may also want to time your commute to work. Is the neighborhood on the upswing? Your location will not only determine your quality of life, but also your resale value.
5. Not Planning Ahead
These days it’s hard to know where we’ll be in five or 10 years, but it’s worth putting some thought into your future before settling on a home.
If you’re planning on starting a family, make sure your new home has enough bedrooms and is in a school district you like. Do you envision your aging parents coming to live with you? If so, you may want an in-law unit.
6. Skipping The Inspection
Some buyers try to save money by skipping the home inspection, but that can be a costly mistake. The $500 to $1,000 inspection fee can save you much more than that in future repairs – plus, you may be able to make a lower offer if you find, say, the foundation needs fixing. Arrange to go along during the inspection and ask questions – you’ll gain invaluable insights into your future home.
In fast-paced markets like the San Francisco Bay Area, “many listing agents will put a home and pest inspection into the disclosure packet, hoping that offers will come in without any contingencies,” Richardson says. In that case, you may want to hire your own inspector to walk you through any problems uncovered in the seller’s inspection prior to making an offer.
7. Going It Alone
All homebuyers – but especially first-timers – can benefit from an experienced real estate agent. A good agent will save you money, stress and time. It’s not necessary to spend hours scrolling through hundreds of online listings when you have a professional to help with the heavy lifting.
Look for an agent who has represented first-time homebuyers and is familiar with your target neighborhoods. Ask friends and family members for referrals and interview agents before making a commitment. In addition to experience, you want someone you can relate to.
“Buying a home can often be stressful and a bit of a rollercoaster,” Richardson says. But with a little planning and some luck, you can enjoy the ride.
Mary Purcell is a freelance consumer finance and health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her articles have appeared on Narrative, SafeBee, and other outlets. She covers homebuying and mortgages, business lending and insurance for MoneyGeek.com.