For first-time home buyers, here’s a primer


Kasara Williams, an Arlington resident, has learned how important it is to have her financials in order before buying a house. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 1, 2013

Want to buy your first home? You’ve probably got some cash saved for a down payment and maybe even recommendations for realty agents from savvy friends you trust. But have you cleared up your credit report, hired a tax adviser or considered the benefits of FHA financing compared with a conventional mortgage?

Kasara Williams, 31, has taken all three steps in a year-long quest to buy her first home. “This whole experience has taught me that it’s important to have your financial act in order,” said Williams, a commercial property manager in Arlington. “It’s important to start your search early.”

Not every first-time homebuyer will need a tax adviser, like Williams did to fill out forms needed to withdraw part of her IRA without being penalized. But everyone interested in becoming a homeowner should prepare early with orderly finances, information and plenty of patience for the long and complicated process ahead.

Since the housing market’s collapse in 2008, mortgage lenders and home sellers have become more demanding in the documentation they require for a home sale. And with the real estate market in the Washington area heating up for the spring season, you’ll need to think through the contingencies and prepare your balance sheet to compete with the other would-be home buyers making offers on properties — many of them with a track record of homeownership.

Here’s a primer on what potential first-time buyers need to do before they take that big plunge:

Step 1: Credit and savings

First, request a free copy of your credit report from the three major credit bureaus via https://www.annualcreditreport.com. Use only this link to avoid the many credit-reporting scams out there. If you see accounts on your credit report that you don’t recognize or if there are negative marks against you, act now to clear them up.

“You’d be surprised. Your parents might be on there, your cousins,” said Mary Malgoire, founder of the Family Firm, a financial advisory firm in Bethesda. “It’s really important to clean it up before you start this whole process.”

Williams learned that her father was still a joint holder on her checking account, so she had him write a letter certifying that all the funds were hers. She also noticed a negative item about an old dispute with Verizon over a land line that she had requested but that had never functioned — so she had refused to pay the bill. “I had to call them multiple times until I could talk to someone who was sympathetic and would get it removed,” she said.

If you see old credit cards that you no longer use, consider closing some strategically, starting with the newest, low-limit cards that are unused. Lenders prefer a low ratio of debt to credit limit, so it’s good to have more credit available than you use on a monthly basis. They also like to see long-standing lending relationships, so don’t close your oldest credit card. Finally, if you close too many credit cards in a short period, that raises a red flag as well.

“If you close down a lot of credit cards that you’re not using, it could trip a switch. If you have too many lines of credit open, it could affect your score negatively,” said Christopher Brown, a fee-only certified financial planner in Rockville. “There’s a happy medium.”

Step 2: Stick to your budget

Next, create or revise your monthly budget so that you are setting aside whatever money you’ll need to pay as a homeowner that you don’t pay as a renter. This includes the home mortgage, mortgage insurance, property taxes, condo or homeowner association fees, home furnishings, maintenance, cleaning and any utilities or fees that your landlord currently pays. Living with this budget month after month will teach you what you truly can afford when it comes to a house payment. It will also help you pay off any remaining credit card debt or add to the savings that you should already have amassed for a down payment. You’ll return to this budget when you actually make an offer on a home, so consider this just a draft version.

Moreover, the bank and credit card statements that you use to create your budget will probably be requested by mortgage lenders when you get to that stage. Start keeping your financial statements and pay stubs in a file, where you’ll put new documents as they arrive so that everything remains current.

For Kate Fries, a certified financial planner with the Family Firm, this is an opportunity for a reality check about whether you can truly afford homeownership. Will you stay in the area where you want to buy for at least five years, and do you have enough saved for moving costs, maintenance and repairs, beyond the down payment?

“A lot of people jump into homeownership before they should. They get excited — their friends are doing it, the rates are really low, and the idea that you should own a home. That’s not always a good starting point for making good financial decisions,” Fries said.

Review your personal and professional plans for the coming years to see whether there’s any chance you might move to another city for work or add to your household through marriage or childbirth, both of which have implications for your income, location and the size of your home, said Carter Ferrington, an associate broker and agent for Vogel Realty.

Step 3: Find a good agent

If you haven’t already found a realty agent who can guide you through the house process, now’s the time. Not only can your real estate agent advise you on the neighborhoods and new listings of interest, that person is your advocate in a competitive market. Ask friends, family and colleagues for recommendations of an agent with expertise in your target market.

“The one thing I have that you won’t have if you’re a buyer is objectivity,” said real estate broker Donna Evers. “You’ll fall in love with some charming front porch. I’m going to be the little angel at your elbow saying, ‘Can you borrow that much?’ ”

Your agent can help craft a strategy for being a competitive bidder. For instance, sellers prefer a buyer with no inspection or appraisal contingency, but you’ll need to think through your comfort level with paying for an inspection ahead of your offer being accepted and with buying a home that appraises for less than the sale price.

“These are the two things you might have to drop if you’re going to be competitive,” Evers said. “Those are going to be the two hairy things for first-time home buyers.”

After Reese Goldsmith and her husband, Larry Mosley, had two purchase offers rejected, they began to question the wisdom of their agent’s strategy. Even when they bid $5,000 higher than the next offer, they lost to buyers with conventional mortgages. Sellers knew their FHA financing would take longer to close and had a higher likelihood of bumps along the way.

“We were getting pretty frustrated,” said Goldsmith, 25, a government affairs manager. “We needed someone who could rethink our search for us and be a bit more proactive.”

After changing agents, the couple began looking in more-affordable neighborhoods and switched to conventional financing. Even though a conventional mortgage requires a higher down payment, the lower overall cost of the house made it work. Moreover, they avoided paying private mortgage insurance, which would have run $500 to $800 a month.

A few weeks ago, they bought a recently renovated Wardman colonial rowhouse that overlooks a park and is near an elementary school. “We were able to stay on budget and also avoid a lot of the pitfalls of FHA financing,” she said.

Step 4: Find a good lender

Your agent is also a terrific source for the other important professional for home buyers: a mortgage lender. Whether you work with a specific lender or a mortgage broker who can connect you with many lenders, it’s important to interview several individuals before choosing one. Don’t let anyone run your credit until you’ve made a decision, because several inquiries could raise a red flag and lower your credit score.

“Make sure that person is reputable and can perform,” Evers said, recommending that buyers check references just as with any other professional service. “Have someone who has a lot of access and control of the situation.”

You don’t want to let a quarter-point-lower rate tempt you into an Internet-based lender and then be unable to reach the underwriter when you’re in the middle of a fast-moving bidding war. “Get preapproved,” Evers said. “This is going to be so necessary this year because we are looking at an extremely competitive situation coming down the pike.”

Your lender can walk you through your financing options and the pros and cons of each one. You’ll also get a realistic view of how much you can borrow, based on your income and credit. Ask that person to run a hypothetical scenario so that you have a written estimate of the monthly principal and interest payments, closing costs, insurance fees and property taxes.

The first lender whom Goldsmith and Mosley spoke with failed to mention the caps on certain types of financing or to explain the higher down payment needed above that cap. “Really understanding our financing was definitely an issue for us,” Goldsmith said.

Your lender can also walk through your credit report with you and give advice on improving your credit score, as well as a realistic view of how long it might take for your actions to be reflected in the credit bureaus’ records. Make sure you understand in what circumstances you’ll be required to buy the home — or will forfeit your earnest money — even if your loan application is ultimately denied.

Step 5: Stay alert and ready

All that remains now is to look at possible properties and to be ready to make an offer quickly if you find one that meets all your criteria. That means keeping your finances spiffy for the final check before the sale. “Please don’t go out and buy a big car between now and settlement or incur any new debt,” Evers said.

When you find a property you want to buy, that’s the time to call utility providers for usage history, check on condo or homeowner association fees, get the property taxes and build all those extra costs into your monthly budget. Don’t let the beautiful home sway you if the expenses will push you over the limit of what you can afford.

“You always run into this thing where someone’s trying to push your budget, either the lender or your Realtor telling you that you can afford more,” Goldsmith said. “You need to have the money to take care of the home as well.”

Don’t drain all your liquid resources to pay for the down payment and closing costs, Brown said. It’s better to have slightly higher debt and enough cash on hand to afford emergency repairs or unexpected expenses.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a rewarding responsibility. It’s like getting your first car times 10,” Goldsmith said. “I imagine building our lives there. That’s why real estate is such an emotional thing, because it’s going to be a part of our lives now, the third member of our family.”

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a freelance writer.

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