Make a Plan and Stick to It

Trying to buy a home in today’s real estate market can be a frustrating and emotional experience.  Going into the summer of 2021, many buyers across the country found themselves in bidding wars over the limited inventory of properties available for purchase.  With the combination of more people looking to buy, historically low mortgage rates and not enough homes available to meet demand, any property that hit the market had the potential to stir up a buying frenzy.  While it may be an extreme example, a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom suburban California home was listed for $400,000 and received 122 offers in two days. Similar stories of typical American homes receiving multiple competing offers over asking price within days of listing have become common, and the end result for house hunters can be exhausting.

Whether you’ve been dreaming of buying your first home, or want to upgrade or downsize, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to take a step back and make a plan.  Emotional buyers are more likely to make bad decisions.  In a competitive seller’s market, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to have your offer accepted, but ploys such as waiving the right to inspection, moving forward with a purchase price well above appraisal, or even buying sight unseen have the strong potential to leave a “successful” buyer financially vulnerable.

Regardless of whether it is a seller’s market or a buyer’s market when you are ready to purchase a home, there are steps you should take to ensure that you are well-prepared to make an offer on a home that fits within your lifestyle needs and overall financial goals.

  • Establish your budget and stick to it.  Review your financial ability to pay for a house while taking into account other expenses and long-term goals such as saving for education or retirement.  You don’t want to fall into the trap of spending so much on housing costs that you become “house poor” and suffer financially in other areas of your life.  In addition to a down payment, which is typically advised to be at least 20% of the price of the home, and the monthly cost of a mortgage, there will be closing costs, taxes, insurance and moving expenses to consider as well.  The size and condition of the home you’re buying will also impact your future maintenance and utility bills.
  • Check your credit score.  Ideally, you’d like your credit score and debt to income (DTI) ratio to be in excellent shape to qualify for the best mortgage rates.  The longer lead time you have before applying for a mortgage, the more you can do to improve your credit score.  Reviewing a free copy of your credit report can allow you to identify and correct errors.  If you have more than a year, you can focus on more including potentially working with a reputable credit restoration expert to enhance your credit score which can lead to better mortgage interest rates, thereby saving money.
  • Get preapproved for a mortgage.  Research a few lenders and compare rates.  When you apply, a lender will review your financial information which may include credit reports, bank statements, pay stubs, W-2s or 1099s and your tax returns.  If you are preapproved for a mortgage, the lender will issue you a letter which states how much you are qualified to borrow and at what interest rate.  A preapproval letter is typically valid for 90 days, although it may vary from lender to lender.  This can help you both know how much you qualify for as well as possibly speed up the process as you have already provided so many of the required documents.
  • Create a list of your wants and needs.  While a competitive market will make it harder to be as choosy as you might want to be, it still doesn’t mean you should cast aside all reason.  Buying a home is one of the largest purchases many people will ever make.  Being smart about what can and can’t be changed is important.  For instance, you can change the kitchen counters, upgrade bathrooms, and switch the paint to colors you love, but structural problems or a bad location are much bigger issues.
  • Work with a reputable buyer’s agent who knows the market.  A buyer’s real estate agent is a licensed professional who is legally obligated to represent your best interests throughout the process of purchasing a home.  They may already have firsthand knowledge of the homes that are available and can save you time and money by showing you the properties that are as close to meeting your needs as possible within your budget.  They also may hear of new listings that are about to come onto the market.  The buyer’s agent can handle the negotiations of the purchase price and costs of any necessary repairs, arrange inspections, and provide guidance right on through closing.  Buyer’s agents are typically paid by commission on the sale of a home.
  • Stand your ground.  While it might be tempting to do whatever it takes to have your offer accepted, especially if you’ve become involved in a bidding war, waiving the right to a home inspection, looking past obvious red flags such as major mechanical issues or things like mold, or even throwing your budget out the window to dangerously stretch your finances, can all leave you with long-term heartache once the dust settles.
  • Consider the big picture.  What will your housing needs look like in five years?  Ten years?  Will you be starting a family or downsizing?  Will you need to relocate for work or retirement?  A closer look at your long-term goals may reveal that now is not the time to buy.  If you are a couple who is comfortably renting while living near work and plan to have kids sometime down the road, you may want to keep your expenses lower now, save more money, and purchase that home in a great school district when it will be suitable for your needs.  Or you may already be a homeowner and are considering trading up.  Will a larger home still fit your lifestyle in five or ten years?  Larger square footage is more expensive to maintain and comes with increased utility costs.  If you have teenagers living at home now, they might be off to new adventures in college or homes of their own sooner than it feels like at this moment, and you won’t necessarily need the extra space in a few years.  Staying in your starter home can potentially save you thousands of dollars in utilities, maintenance, moving and closing costs.
  • Decide if your timing is right.  Is now really the right time for you to purchase a home?  It might be.  If you have saved up a healthy down payment, your credit is in good shape, you have stable employment and you’ve established a strong financial foundation with emergency fund savings, it might be an ideal time to take advantage of the low interest rates on mortgages.  On the other hand, if you are not financially ready or are finding that the market is simply too competitive, it could be best to wait and continue saving to make a purchase in the future.

If you are thinking about buying a home, do your research, make a plan that is right for you, and stick to it.  The cost of homeownership is only one component of a balanced financial plan, and by making sensible and realistic decisions now, you’ll be setting yourself up for financial success in the future.  If you have questions about how a home purchase might fit into your financial plan, please contact us.