First-Time Homebuyer Guide: Essential Tips & Tricks

Buying your first home can be tedious and overwhelming.

While it’s exciting to visit properties and daydream about your dream home, getting over the financing hurdles is another story. But don’t fret.

first home

This comprehensive guide for first-time homebuyers will walk you through the entire process from start to finish.

Benefits of Being a First-Time Homebuyer

As a first-time homebuyer, you may feel a mix of excitement and apprehension. While the home buying process can seem overwhelming, it’s important to recognize the numerous benefits that come with this milestone.

Financial Assistance

First-time homebuyers have access to several financial assistance programs that can make homeownership more affordable. These include down payment assistance programs, low-interest mortgage loans, and grants specifically designed for first-time buyers. Some of these programs are offered by state and local governments, while others are provided by non-profit organizations or private lenders.

Lower Down Payments

Several loan programs offer lower down payment requirements for first-time homebuyers. The FHA loan, for example, requires as little as 3.5% down if your credit score is 580 or higher. The USDA and VA loans even offer zero down payment options in some cases.

Access to Educational Resources

There’s a lot to learn when you’re buying a home for the first time, but fortunately, there are plenty of resources available. Many organizations offer homebuyer education courses that can help you understand the process and make informed decisions. Some lenders and assistance programs require you to take one of these courses, but even if it’s not mandatory, it can still be a valuable resource.

Check Your Credit

Not only will your credit score play a considerable factor in whether you’re approved for a mortgage, but it will also determine your interest rate.

A small increase or decrease in interest rates may not seem like a big deal. However, mortgage loans are for a hefty sum and for an extended period of time. So, a slight increase or decrease equates to thousands of dollars more spent or saved over the life of the loan.

To have the best chance of being approved for a home loan, you should aim for a credit score of at least 620. It’s possible to get approved for select home loan programs with a score as low as 580, but you may have fewer lenders to choose from.

Run the Numbers

It’s tempting for first-time homebuyers to start searching for homes when they know their credit score is up to par. But that’s probably not a good move until you determine how much home you can afford. Yes, the loan officer will give you a figure when you obtain a preapproval, but that amount isn’t always indicative of what you can afford.

Why so? Well, they focus on the debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to get an idea of a loan amount you qualify for. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, lenders prefer a DTI ratio of 43% or lower with your new mortgage payment. To illustrate:


Note: Debt-to-Income Ratio = Aggregate Amount of Monthly Debt / Gross Income

The problem is that it fails to consider any expenses unrelated to debt. And if you have hefty insurance, childcare, or even grocery bills, that could be a major concern.

So, your best bet is to look at your current budget and come up with a realistic figure for your new mortgage payment. But don’t forget to keep the recommended DTI ratio in mind.

Explore Mortgage Options

There are several mortgage options on the market for first-time homebuyers, but the most prevalent are:

Conventional Loans

A conventional mortgage is a type of home loan that is not insured or guaranteed by the government. It’s typically offered by a private lender, such as a bank or credit union, and is the most common type of mortgage used to purchase a home.

Conventional mortgages typically require a down payment of at least 3% of the purchase price of the home. Borrowers typically must have a credit score of 620 or higher and a DTI ratio of 36% or lower to qualify. If you have bad credit or are unable to make a large down payment may have a harder time qualifying for a conventional mortgage.

If the loan amount is over $726,200, it becomes a jumbo loan and requires a higher down payment.

FHA Loans

An FHA loan is a type of home loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a government agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

FHA loans are designed to make it easier for people to buy homes, especially for first-time homebuyers. They offer lower down payment requirements and more flexible credit guidelines than conventional mortgages.

The minimum credit score required for an FHA loan is 500. If your credit score is between 500 -579, the down payment is 10%. However, if you have a credit score of 580 or above, the down payment is 3.5% of the purchase price.

VA Loans

VA Loans are insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They don’t require a down payment and are easier to qualify for than conventional loan products. However, you must be an active-duty member of the armed forces. Surviving spouses also qualify.

USDA Loans

A USDA loan is a type of mortgage offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to low- and moderate-income borrowers who are looking to buy a home in a rural or suburban area.

See also: 14 First-Time Home Buyer Grants and Programs

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Most mortgages have a 30 or 15-year term. The latter will cost you more per month, but you’ll save a load of cash on interest.

You can also choose from a fixed or adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). Fixed-rate mortgages have the same interest rate for the duration of the loan. But ARMs typically start with a lower interest rate for a set amount of time. In fact, they usually span from five to ten years and then adjust depending on the housing market.

Some first-time homebuyers choose ARMs over fixed-rate mortgages because it gives them the option to make a smaller monthly payment in the first few years. It could also mean that you can qualify for a more expensive home. But, be careful not to get too overextended, as erratic market behavior could cause the rate to skyrocket.

Get Preapproved

This is one of the more time-consuming parts of the entire mortgage process for a first-time home buyer. The good news is you don’t have to settle for the first offer that comes your way out of fear that your credit score will take a hit.

“FICO Scores ignore [mortgage] inquiries made in the 30 days prior to scoring,” according to myFICO. So, you won’t be penalized for multiple inquiries.

So, start by researching mortgage lenders that you may be interested in working with. You could also solicit the help of a mortgage broker if you’re strapped for time or want someone to do the legwork for you.

Once you’ve settled on a few lenders, be prepared to provide the following to get preapproved:

  • Financial statements to confirm your assets, including retirement accounts and real estate
  • Recent bank statements
  • Last two pay stubs
  • W-2s from the last two years

They will also pull your credit report and credit scores. If you qualify, the mortgage lender will then provide you with a preapproval letter, valid for a certain time period, that specifies how much you’re eligible for.

Save Up for a Down Payment and Closing Costs

During the preapproval process, the lender should have discussed loan options that could be a good fit for you. They should also have communicated how much you will need for a down payment and closing costs.

While some sellers may be willing to cover closing costs, be prepared to provide earnest money to secure your offer. And you may need a large down payment if you’re taking out a jumbo loan, or don’t qualify for the FHA or VA loan program. If that’s the case, now’s the time to figure out a plan for it.

If the seller is not paying closing costs, expect to pay between 2% and 5% of the sales price. And if a hefty down payment isn’t required, it’s not a bad idea to bring money to the table. Doing so allows you to reduce the Loan-to-Value, which positions you as less risky to the lender.

You may also be able to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI), which is required until you reach 20% in equity, and possibly qualify for a reduced interest rate.

How to Find the Perfect Home

Go Home Shopping

All squared away with a preapproval and planned to save up the cash you need? Now, it’s time to go home shopping. But before you go, you have to decide if you want to enlist the assistance of a real estate agent.

It’s possible to find a slew of listings within your price range on the web with minimal effort. However, real estate agents have access to a system that could expand your reach. Even better, they could be integral in helping you choose a home that’s a good buy and negotiating the final purchase price.

And the seller’s agent pays their commission, so no need to worry about forking over extra cash. Just be sure to hire a real estate professional that is seasoned and reputable.

Now for the fun part: home shopping. Be careful not to judge a home solely by its appearance. Some other important factors to keep in mind:

  • Taxes: are the property taxes affordable or beyond what you can comfortably afford? (You can roll property taxes and homeowners insurance into an escrow account, but they can easily make or break your budget if the figures are steep).
  • Location: is the home in an area that has historically held its value? Is the location optimal for your commute to and from work?
  • Crime: is it a high crime area or is it relatively safe?
  • Condition: how old is the property? Does it need tons of repairs, or is it close to being move in ready?
  • Floor plan: is the floor plan feasible or ideal for your situation? Would it be appealing to other buyers if you had to sell?
  • School district: how are the schools? Have they received a good rating, or do they struggle to stay afloat?

All of these factors can have an effect on the value of the property over time.

buying a home

Submit an Offer

You’ve found the perfect home, and you’re ready to sign on the dotted. Before you can finalize the paperwork and move in, there’s one more important step. And that’s making the offer. Even if the sales price seems fair, you may need to make an offer that’s higher or lower to snag the home.

Why so? Well, there could be a slight or drastic bidding war going on, and the only way for you to win is to beat out the competition. Or maybe your real estate agent did some research and determined the asking price was a bit high based on similar properties in the area or the home’s current condition.

Either way, you want to submit an offer that stands out and gets accepted. Your real estate agent will be able to do so on your behalf. But if you don’t have a real estate agent, check out these letters from Trulia to get you started.

The Mortgage Process

Even after your offer is accepted, there’s still more work to do. You’re not done just yet! It’s time to move on to the mortgage process.

Remember that preapproval letter? The lender will make sure all the information you initially provided is accurate through a process called underwriting.

Depending on how long it’s been since you were preapproved, you may be asked to provide updated bank statements or pay stubs.

The faster you submit the requested information, the quicker you’ll get a response. So, don’t drag your feet if you want a closing date that’s sooner than later.

Home Inspections and Appraisals

Before you close on the home, you will need to have a home inspection and appraisal complete.

The home inspection shouldn’t cost you more than $500. It will give you an overall assessment of the property and identify any potential issues.

The appraisal also plays an integral role as it will give you a solid idea of the home’s fair market value. The lender will mandate it, but it’s not a bad idea to get an independent appraisal done to serve as a second opinion.

An inspection and appraisal may help you decide if you should lower your offer or walk away from the property.

Purchase Homeowners Insurance

Your mortgage lender will require that you take out homeowners insurance. So, you want to start shopping around for quotes and select a policy prior to closing.

Close on Your Loan

At last! You’ve reached the finish line, and it’s time to close on your loan. During the closing, expect to:

  • Sign a load of paperwork.
  • Provide any amounts owed for the down payment.
  • Pay closing costs, which could include property tax obligations, premiums for homeowner’s insurance and association dues, title insurance, and any other costs associated with finalizing the loan.
  • Pay discount points or prepaid interest that can reduce the interest rate.

But before you show up at closing, it’s a good idea to speak with the lender, so you’ll know what to expect. You can also request a copy of the final closing document, or Closing Disclosure, to see a detailed breakdown of expenses.

A Few More Tips

Here are a few more suggestions for first time home buyers to help you get approved for your first loan:

  • Refrain from applying for new credit before you close. This could throw off your DTI ratio, lower your credit score, and ultimately prevent you from closing on the loan.
  • State and local programs may be available to assist with down payments. If you’re low on funds, be sure to explore options that may be available to you.
  • Several builders offer buyer incentives, like allowances for upgrades and closing costs. So if you haven’t considered new construction, it may not be such a bad idea to take a look if the price points are within your budget.

Should You Rent, Instead?

Perhaps you’ve done a little legwork, ran the numbers, and are on the fence about home buying. You will typically find that it’s cheaper to make monthly mortgage payments than to pay rent.

You can also take advantage of tax deductions and build up equity as you’re making monthly payments. The equity can be borrowed against for a loan or put some extra money in your pocket should you decide to sell before the repayment period ends.

However, renting a home gives you the flexibility to move to a new location if the home isn’t quite what you expected, don’t like the neighborhood, or want something more affordable.

Furthermore, renting allows you to pass the costs of maintaining the home on to the owner. But as a homeowner, you’ll be responsible for costs associated with maintenance and repairs.

Another reason why some choose to rent over buying is the upfront costs. Most landlords require a security deposit. However, it could be substantially lower than the money you may have to bring to the table for the down payment and closing costs.

Ultimately, you have to decide which is the better fit: investing in an asset that could build wealth or continuing to pay rent until you feel the time is right. There is no right or wrong answer; it just depends on your personal preference and financial situation.

Bottom Line

By taking the time to learn about the home buying process, you’ll be well-prepared and save yourself time and headaches. Best of all, you’ll increase your chances of landing your dream home with the most competitive mortgage product on the market.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the process for buying a home?

The process for buying a home typically involves the following steps:

  1. Determine your budget and get preapproved for a mortgage.
  2. Find a real estate agent and start looking for homes.
  3. Make an offer on a home and negotiate the terms.
  4. Get a home inspection and address any issues that are found.
  5. Get a mortgage and close on the home.

How much house can I afford?

When determining how much house you can afford, there are several factors to take into account. You should consider your income, expenses, down payment, credit score, and mortgage type before making a decision.

A larger down payment can help you get a lower mortgage rate, and a higher credit score can qualify you for better rates and loan terms. Shopping around for mortgage rates and considering different types of mortgages, such as fixed-rate or adjustable-rate, can also help you find the best deal.

Keep in mind that owning a home involves more than just the monthly payments. You will also need to factor in property taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs. You should create a budget that includes all of these costs and leaves room for unexpected expenses.

How much money do I need for a down payment?

The amount of money you need for a down payment will depend on the type of mortgage you get and the price of the home you are buying.

Some mortgage programs, such as FHA loans, allow for down payments as low as 3.5%, while others may require a higher down payment. It’s a good idea to speak with a mortgage lender to determine how much you will need.

Can I buy a house if I have a low credit score?

It’s possible to buy a house with a low credit score. However, it may be more difficult to get approved for a mortgage, and you may have to pay a higher interest rate. Before applying for a mortgage, work on improving your credit scores, as this will help you qualify for a better loan and save you money over time.

How much will closing costs be?

Closing costs are fees that are paid at the closing of a real estate transaction. These costs can vary widely and may include things like mortgage origination fees, title insurance, and appraisal fees. On average, closing costs can range from 2% to 5% of the purchase price of the home.

What is a mortgage preapproval?

A mortgage preapproval is a letter from a lender that indicates how much you are qualified to borrow for a mortgage. The preapproval letter is based on a review of your financial information, including your credit score, monthly income, and debts. A mortgage preapproval can help you understand how much you can afford to borrow and can make you a more competitive buyer in the real estate market.

What is a mortgage rate?

A mortgage rate is the interest rate that you will pay on your mortgage. The mortgage rate will determine the amount of your monthly payments and the overall cost of your loan. Interest rates can vary depending on the type of mortgage you get and your credit scores.

What is PMI?

PMI, or private mortgage insurance, is insurance that is required by lenders for certain types of mortgages when the borrower has less than a 20% down payment. PMI protects the lender in the event that the borrower defaults on the mortgage. The cost of PMI is typically added to the borrower’s monthly mortgage payment.

Allison Martin
Meet the author

Allison Martin is a syndicated financial writer, author, and Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI). She has written about personal finance for almost ten years and holds a master's degree in Accounting from the University of South Florida.