Property prices are the lowest they’ve been in a decade or more. Mortgage rates continue to hover near historic lows.
This is gloomy news for prospective sellers and great news for first-time buyersif you tread carefully amid such a momentous transaction.
“It’s a great time to buy if you’ve got the credit,” says Andrew Firoved, chief executive and founder of CounselorDirect.com. “They say buy low, sell high, and you’re buying low.”
To make sure you buy low, and smart, here are a few pointers.
Make sure buying is for you. Are rents cheap and homes costly in your city? Are you planning to move in the next year or two? Is your job looking iffy? If any of these apply, buying might not be a good move. After all, the days when houses could quickly be flipped for more money are history.
“Real estate is not as liquid an investment as it was 5 or 10 years ago,” cautions Steve Domber, president of Prudential Serls Prime Properties, a real estate broker firm operating across New York state and Connecticut. “If you don’t feel that you are going to stay in your job in your current location then consider renting.”
Do a credit check. Cash and good credit are critical to snagging a bargain home and keeping it. Before you go shopping make sure you have the cash on hand for a down payment and a mortgage lender who is willing to provide you with a home loan at an affordable rate.
Get pre-approved by a lender or mortgage brokers (and check out your broker at nmlsconsumeraccess.org). Pre-approval can help expedite the closing of your purchase, a process that given the current economic climate can take months.
Consider a down payment and the alternatives. Another key financial factor is a down payment. Firoved urges real estate newcomers to cough up 20%, which immediately adds equity to your house and lowers monthly payments.
“You know you can afford to buy a home when you have saved enough money to put a down payment,” he says. That down payment also means you can qualify for a loan modification program down the road if, heaven forbid, you need it.
Many first-timers don’t have the cash to put up 20% of a home’s value. No need to worry, says Robert Walters, chief economist and vice president of the Capital Markets Group for Quicken Loans. Your mortgage officer should be able to find alternatives that work for you.
Uncle Sam offers a handful of government-backed loans with 0% to 3.5% down. Check out the Federal Housing Administration’s loans. Former military members can go through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture offers loans through the Rural Development program.
Skirting the traditional 20% down payment means a mandatory additional expense: private mortgage insurance. PMI might not seem like a big deal, but it comes with a few hitches. This insurance typically costs between 0.5% to 1% of the entire loan amount on an annual basis. In other words, a $150,000 loan at a 1% insurance rate adds an extra $125 per month to your bills. The insurance protects your lender against the possibility of you defaulting on the property and can be charged until as much as 50% of the loan is paid off. The good news is PMI is tax deductible for married couples jointly making up to $110,000.
Be realistic about costs. However much you make, don’t shop for a home that will gobble up most of your income each month. In addition to mortgage and principal payments, buying a home means paying for insurance, maintenance and real estate taxes.
“One of the biggest mistakes first-time home buyers make is they don’t leave themselves with enough money,” cautions Walters.
Don’t cut corners on inspections. Always cough up the extra cash for a good home inspection, especially if you’re buying a foreclosed home.
“A home inspection is key…to really understanding the condition a home is in,” stresses Domber.
Follow these steps and you could be in a place of your own that provides happy, lucrative returns for years to come. Says Walters: “I think that 20, 30, 40 years from now we’ll see that this was potentially one of the best times in modern history for a first-time home buyer to purchase a home.”