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8 Common Concerns: First Time Home Buyer Questions, Answered

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The process of buying a home for the first time can be a complicated cluster of decisions that may leave you feeling overwhelmed. You have to evaluate where you stand with debt, income and savings, choose from a menu of mortgage terms and types, estimate future maintenance costs, plus consider a host of other factors.

The good thing is you’re in plenty of company. First-timers account for a 60% share of conventional and FHA mortgages combined, according to 2017 report from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Before you take the leap — worry-ridden and all — review the following eight first-time homebuyer questions and our answers.

Am I ready to give up renting?

Sure, your landlord may not be the easiest person to deal with, but are you really ready to trade renting for buying?

Becoming a homeowner also means taking on a landlord’s responsibilities. When you have a malfunctioning appliance or an issue with plumbing, it’s on you to address those situations. On the other hand, deciding to buy rather than continue renting means you’re on your way to building equity — or the value of owning your property via the difference between your home’s value and your outstanding mortgage balance.

There are also several tax benefits that come along with buying a home, including deductions for paying mortgage interest and property taxes. Check out our explainer for more help deciding whether to rent or buy.

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Is my credit where it needs to be?

Your credit history is a major factor in determining whether you’ll qualify for a mortgage. For example, if you have a track record of late payments, multiple accounts in collections and high credit utilization, mortgage lenders will likely consider you a very high-risk borrower and deny your application. Review your credit reports from all three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.

In many cases, conventional lenders like to see a minimum 620 credit score, while FHA lenders typically have a 580 credit score threshold. To prepare your credit for the homebuying process, it helps to know where you are so you’re aware of what to work toward. My LendingTree offers a free credit score to get you started.

Beyond that, there are several ways to improve your credit score even before you decide on homeownership. Keep in mind: The lower your score, the more you’ll pay as a borrower. Taking the time to raise your score from “fair” to “very good” translates to more than $29,000 saved on interest payments over the life of a home loan, according to LendingTree data.

Do I have sufficient savings?

It’s not enough to just save for your down payment. You’ll also have mortgage closing costs as well as moving-related expenses. Depending on your lender and credit score, your lender may also require you show proof that you have at least two months’ worth of cash reserves to pay your mortgage should a rainy day show up.

Speaking of rainy days, don’t forget about your emergency fund while saving to buy a home. A commonly cited rule of thumb is to stash away three to six months’ worth of your living expenses whether you’re renting or buying. Be sure you calculate how your monthly expenses will change as a homeowner and adjust your emergency fund savings accordingly.

Is my current debt load under control?

How well have you been handling your existing debt? Do you have a low revolving balance — no more than 30% of the credit limit  — on your credit cards? Are the monthly payments on your auto and student loans manageable? Lenders care about the answers to these and related questions.

Your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, or the percentage of your monthly income that goes toward repaying your debt load, can make or break your mortgage application. In order to qualify for a mortgage, try to get your housing debt at or below 30% of your income (aka your front-end DTI). All of your monthly debt obligations, including housing, should amount to no more than 43% of your income — this is known as the back-end DTI ratio.

Do I know for sure where I want to live?

Buying a home is a commitment. You’re committing to the house you purchase as well as the surrounding community for the next several years. The typical owner stays in their home for 10 years before selling it, according to the National Association of REALTORS 2018 Homebuyer and Seller Generational Trends Report.

If you’re not ready to settle into a particular city and prefer the freedom of moving annually as your lease ends, homeownership may not be right for you.

How much house can I afford?

Don’t get too caught up spending hours online house hunting before you’ve worked with a mortgage lender to determine how much house you can actually afford.

A mortgage preapproval gives you a pretty solid idea of what you can afford to buy, since it’s based on financial information including your pay stubs, credit history and bank statements. A preapproval also means that home sellers are more likely to take you seriously as a buyer when the time comes for you to put in offers.

As a first step, you can get a general idea of how much home you can afford by using LendingTree’s calculator, before going through the preapproval process with a lender.

Which type of mortgage should I choose?

FHA, VA, USDA … the list goes on. Determining which type of mortgage best suits you depends on several factors, including your planned down payment amount and which credit score tier you fall in. You’ll also need to consider which mortgage term works for your financial circumstances — for example, do you want a 15-year mortgage with higher monthly payments or a 30-year mortgage with lower payments over a longer period of time?

Another consideration that could shape your decision is mortgage insurance. If you choose an FHA loan, keep in mind you’ll be required to pay mortgage insurance premiums in addition to your monthly mortgage payment. This extra cost protects the lender in the event you default on your loan. FHA mortgage insurance is required for the life of the loan unless you put down 10% or more, in which case you can have it removed after 11 years. Conventional loans require private mortgage insurance until the loan-to-value ratio reaches 80%.

Can I afford homeownership?

The costs associated with homeownership aren’t limited to monthly principal and interest payments; you’ll also have property taxes and homeowners insurance — expenses that can fluctuate from year to year.

There are also home maintenance costs, which can include landscaping, pest control, repairing or replacing appliances, etc. Be sure you also budget for utilities, homeowners association fees and even furniture.

If you’ve considered all of these factors and have decided you’re up to the challenge, check out these 10 steps to buying a home.

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