Tips for First-Time Home Buyers

Buying a home can be nerve-racking, especially if you’re a first-time home buyer.
These tips will help you navigate the process, save money and avoid common mistakes.

1. Start saving for a down payment early

It’s common to put 20% down, but many lenders now permit much less, and first-time home buyer programs allow as little as 3% down. But putting down less than 20% may mean higher costs and paying for mortgage insurance, and even a small down payment can still be hefty. For example, a 5% down payment on a $200,000 home is $10,000.

 Some tips for saving for a down payment include setting aside tax refunds and work bonuses, setting up an automatic savings plan and using an app to track your progress.

2. Explore your down payment and mortgage options

There are lots of mortgage options out there, each with its own combination of pros and cons. If you’re struggling to come up with a down payment, check out these loans:

  • Conventional mortgages They conform to standards set by the government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and require as little as 3% down.

  • FHA loans Loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration permit down payments as low as 3.5%.

  • VA loans Loans guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs sometimes require no down payment at all.

Making a higher down payment will mean having a lower monthly mortgage payment.

If you want the smallest mortgage payment possible, opt for a 30-year fixed mortgage. But if you can afford larger monthly payments, you can get a lower interest rate with a 20-year or 15-year fixed loan. 

3. Research state and local assistance programs

In addition to federal programs, many states offer assistance programs for first-time home buyers with perks such as down payment assistance, closing cost assistance, tax credits and discounted interest rates. Your county or municipality may also have first-time home buyer programs.

4. Determine how much home you can afford

Before you start looking for your dream home, you need to know what’s actually within your price range. 

5. Check your credit and pause any new activity

When applying for a mortgage loan, your credit will be one of the key factors in whether you’re approved, and it will help determine your interest rate and possibly the loan terms.

So check your credit before you begin the homebuying process. Dispute any errors that could be dragging down your credit score and look for opportunities to improve your credit, such as making a dent in any outstanding debts.

To keep your score from dipping after you apply for a mortgage, avoid opening any new credit accounts, like a credit card or auto loan, until your home loan closes.

6. Compare mortgage rates

Many home buyers get a rate quote from only one lender, but this often leaves money on the table. Comparing mortgage rates from at least three lenders can save you more than $3,500 over the first five years of your loan, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Get at least three quotes and compare both rates and fees.

As you’re comparing quotes, ask whether any of the lenders would allow you to buy discount points, which means you’d prepay interest up front to secure a lower interest rate on your loan. How long you plan to stay in the home and whether you have money on-hand to purchase the points are two key factors in determining whether buying points makes sense.

7. Get a preapproval letter

You can get pre-qualified for a mortgage, which simply gives you an estimate of how much a lender may be willing to lend based on your income and debts. But as you get closer to buying a home, it’s smart to get a preapproval, where the lender thoroughly examines your finances and confirms in writing how much it’s willing to lend you, and under what terms. Having a preapproval letter in hand makes you look much more serious to a seller and can give you an upper hand over buyers who haven’t taken this step.

8. Hire the right buyer’s agent

You’ll be working closely with your real estate agent, so it’s essential that you find someone you get along with well. The right buyer’s agent should be highly skilled, motivated and knowledgeable about the area.

9. Pick the right type of house and neighborhood

You may assume you’ll buy a single-family home, and that could be ideal if you want a big yard or a lot of room. But if you’re willing to sacrifice space for less maintenance and extra amenities, and you don’t mind paying a homeowners association fee, a condo or townhouse could be a better fit.

But even if the home is right, the neighborhood could be all wrong. So be sure to:

  • Research nearby schools, even if you don’t have kids, since they affect home value.

  • Look at local safety and crime statistics.

  • Map the nearest hospital, pharmacy, grocery store and other amenities you’ll use.

  • Drive through the neighborhood on various days and at different times to check out traffic, noise and activity levels.
10. Stick to your budget

Look at properties that cost less than the amount you were approved for. Although you can technically afford your preapproval amount, it’s the ceiling — and it doesn’t account for other monthly expenses or problems like a broken dishwasher that arise during homeownership, especially right after you buy. Shopping with a firm budget in mind will also help when it comes time to make an offer.

In a competitive real estate market with limited inventory, it’s likely you’ll bid on houses that get multiple offers. When you find a home you love, it’s tempting to make a high-priced offer that’s sure to win. But don’t let your emotions take over. Shopping below your preapproval amount creates some wiggle room for bidding. Stick to your budget to avoid a mortgage payment you can’t afford.

11. Make the most of open houses

When you’re touring homes during open houses, pay close attention to the home’s overall condition, and be aware of any smells, stains or items in disrepair. Ask a lot of questions about the home, such as when it was built, when items were last replaced and how old key systems like the air conditioning and the heating are.

If other potential buyers are viewing the home at the same time as you, don’t hesitate to schedule a second or third visit to get a closer look and ask questions privately.

First-time home buyer mistakes to avoid

With so much to think about, it’s unsurprising that some first-time home buyers make mistakes they later regret. Here are a few of the most common pitfalls, along with tips to help you avoid a similar fate.

12. Not budgeting for closing costs

In addition to saving for a down payment, you’ll need to budget for the money required to close your mortgage, which can be significant. Closing costs generally run between 2% and 5% of your loan amount. You can shop around and compare prices for certain closing expenses, such as homeowners insurance, home inspections and title searches. You can also defray costs by asking the seller to pay for a portion of your closing costs or negotiating your real estate agent’s commission.

13. Not saving enough for after move-in expenses

Once you’ve saved for your down payment and budgeted for closing costs, you should also set aside a buffer to pay for what will go inside the house. This includes furnishings, appliances, rugs, updated fixtures, new paint and any improvements you may want to make after moving in.

14. Buying a home for today instead of tomorrow

It’s easy to look at properties that meet your current needs. But if you plan to start or expand your family, it may be preferable to buy a larger home now that you can grow into. Consider your future needs and wants and whether the home you’re considering will suit them.

15. Passing up the chance to negotiate

A lot can be up for negotiation in the homebuying process, which can result in major savings. Are there any major repairs you can get the seller to cover, either by fully handling them or by giving you a credit adjustment at closing? Is the seller willing to pay for any of the closing costs? If you’re in a buyer’s market, you may find the seller will bargain with you to get the house off the market.

16. Not knowing the limits of a home inspection

After your offer is accepted, you’ll pay for a home inspection to examine the property’s condition inside and out, but the results will only tell you so much.

  • Not all inspections test for things like radon, mold or pests, so be sure you know what’s included.

  • Make sure the inspector can access every part of the home, such as the roof and any crawl spaces.

  • Attend the inspection and pay close attention.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask your inspector to take a look — or a closer look — at something. And ask questions. No inspector will answer the question, “Should I buy this house?” so you’ll have to make this decision after reviewing the reports and seeing what the seller is willing to fix.

17. Not buying adequate homeowners insurance

Before you close on your new house, your lender will require you to buy homeowners insurance. Shop around and compare insurance rates to find the best price. Look closely at what’s covered in the policies; going with a less-expensive policy usually means fewer protections and more out-of-pocket expenses if you file a claim. Also, flood damage isn’t covered by homeowners insurance, so if your new home is in a flood-prone area, you may need to buy separate flood insurance.

Buying a home in Seattle was the hardest thing I’ve ever done


In many ways, it’s never been easier to move through the home-buying process, given the tools and resources that are now available. At least personally, though, it was also the most trying few months of my entire life.

When my wife and I decided it was time to be homeowners, a million different pieces had to fall perfectly into place. We were both extremely lucky and privileged to be able to do this in the first place, so keep in mind that the typical experience of home-buying can be more difficult than what I’m about to describe.

The lease on our apartment was almost up, and the market was slowly shifting away from “oppressively difficult and insanely expensive” to “a normal amount of difficult and slightly less but still significantly expensive.” Essentially, it was the perfect time to buy in Seattle. According to a recent Redfin report, just 12 percent of offers on Seattle homes faced competition in 2019, a massive drop-off from 2018, when that number was as high as 50 percent.

After meeting with a banker and receiving a veritable deluge of information on the intricacies of home loans, we set up an appointment with a realtor for a massive 101 explainer on everything we didn’t know about home-buying (hint: It was a lot). Through all that, I remember thinking one thing to myself: Why did no one teach me about this?

Between the six or so math classes I took between high school and college, somebody, at some point could have taught me the relative advantages and disadvantages of going with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage over an FHA loan. Maybe there could have been just one day in class devoted to teaching us about how long it it takes to recoup our money buying down points on an interest rate.

For the uninitiated like my wife and I, we were basically subject to a crash course from our bank, realtor, and the internet that highlighted the million different things we didn’t know. That had us stuck wondering if we really should send that eighth email to our lender in a single day because we still couldn’t quite wrap our heads around something. Meanwhile, all this was happening on a hyper-rigid timeline, where a hundred different things going wrong could have sent us all the way back to square one.

Eventually we did get a better understanding, but that came about largely at the expense of hundreds of questions over text, phone, and email to people familiar with the home-buying process — our lender, broker, and homeowner friends.

Unless you’re working somewhere in the real estate sector, you’re stuck learning some of the most important information of your life for the first time, just as it comes up.

The questions persisted all the way until we signed the final papers on closing day. That’s when we made our way through three quarters of a 70-plus page stack, only to have our notary inform us that because we had used two different colors of ink, we had to start over. Halfway through the second round of signing, the notary then saw fit to let us know that if our signatures drifted too far off of the line into the left margin, we might have to repeat the whole ordeal for a third time (mercifully, we didn’t).

All of this is universal for whatever market you’re buying in, whether it’s Seattle or Nashville. Enter into the equation buying in one of the nation’s most difficult, competitive, and expensive markets like Seattle, though, and it’s clear why some assistance is needed to come out the other end in one piece.

That’s where the resources available to buyers now give the modern buyer a huge leg up. Back before the age of Redfin, Open Listing, and Zillow, it was you and your broker against the world. They would have a list of houses, you’d hop in their car, and you’d hope to God something you saw was remotely appealing.

Today, available technology makes it so you can book virtually any amount of tours day-of, and sort by specific parameters you yourself get to dictate.

Even with more tools available for the newest generation of buyers, there’s a chasm-sized knowledge gap the average person simply can’t bridge without a significant investment of time, energy, and sanity.

So with that, a few very simple tips should you decide to embark on this journey yourself:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions: The people you enlist to help you along in the home-buying process are quite literally paid to provide you with information. That said, they won’t offer that information unless you’re asking them the right questions. If you’re ever uncertain about anything — no matter how small — just ask, and they’ll be more than happy to answer.
  • Get advice from friends and family: Outside of professionals that actually get this process moving, the best input you can get is from people who’ve gone through this before. Talk to the people in your life who have actually bought a home, ask them what they wish they had done different, and learn as much as you can from their experiences.
  • Assemble a trustworthy team: You need two things to start this process in earnest — a realtor, and a lender. Talk to a realtor first. Typically they will recommend a few knowledgeable lenders for you to choose from.
  • Understand what you want: Know what you absolutely need in a house, versus what you want. Maybe a two-car garage and a gas range isn’t a necessity, but don’t budge if a house in the Sea-Tac Airport flight path is something you really can’t live with.
  • Understand what you can afford: Once you start shopping above a certain square footage, prices start to jump up. Understand your absolute limit, and then be prepared to exceed that slightly.
  • Budget for more money than you think you’ll spend: When it comes to home-buying, costs will almost certainly rack up. Set aside more money than you think you’ll need, and then be at peace with ultimately being forced to spend it.

~Nick Bowman, MyNorthwest.com

5 tips for making an offer in a hot real estate market

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Steady demand. Limited supply. That’s what we are seeing in real estate markets across the country right now. Inventory is particularly tight within the lower price ranges. “The starter house is nearly missing in some markets,” according to Jessica Lautz, managing director of survey research and communication for the National Association of Realtors.

Of course, conditions can vary from one city to the next. But the overall trend in housing markets across the country is that supply is still falling short of demand. Given these conditions, it’s important for home buyers to make a strong, smart offer when the right house comes along. Here are five tips for doing exactly that.

1. Understand the supply and demand situation in your area.

According to housing experts, a so-called “balanced” real estate market has five to six months of supply. This means, in theory, that it would take five or six months to sell off all homes currently listed for sale, if no new properties came onto the market.

Many real estate markets across the country have less than a three-month supply right now. And some cities have less than a two-month supply.

The first step to making a strong offer is to understand the supply-and-demand situation in your area. We are still seeing sellers’ market conditions in many cities, as of spring 2018. And this could persist for some time.

2. Study recent sales prices in your area.

This is something a real estate agent can help you with, but you can do some of it for yourself. The idea here is to get a good understanding of recent sales prices in the area where you want to buy.

This will help you in a couple of ways. It will save you time during the house-hunting process, by eliminating the need for repetitive research and pricing “sanity checks.” It will also help you make a strong, realistic offer backed by recent sales trends. And speaking of offers…

3. Make a strong and timely offer, backed by comparable sales.

In a slow housing market, where sellers are ready to jump on the first offer that comes along, home buyers have the luxury of taking their time. A buyer might start off with an initial offer below the asking price, just to open negotiations. The seller would probably come back with a counteroffer, or accept the first offer.

But it doesn’t work that way in a more competitive real estate market with limited inventory. In a tight market, buyers are better off making their first offer as competitive as possible. Otherwise, the house could go to a competing buyer.

4. Consider writing a love letter to the seller.

A house love letter, that is! Recent studies have shown that buyers in competitive real estate markets can improve their chance for success by writing a heartfelt letter to the seller. Sure, real estate is a business transaction. But there’s a personal side to it as well. Writing a personal letter to tell the sellers what you love about their home might just tip the scales in your favor.

5. Get an agent on your side.

It’s always a good idea to have help from a local real estate agent. It’s even more important in a tight market with limited inventory. An agent can help you move quickly, putting together a strong offer that’s supported by recent sales data.

~Content provided by MetroDepth

What to Expect from a Home Inspection

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You’ve finally found what seems to be the perfect home. It’s got all your must-haves and some of your nice-to-haves, too. It looks like it’s in excellent condition, but merely looking like it’s in good condition is not enough when it comes to such a huge financial decision.

To make sure you’re not buying a money pit, you need a professional home inspection before you commit. An inspection should uncover any potential issues so you have a complete picture of what you’re buying.

Finding a Home Inspector

Many first-time home buyers don’t realize that it’s their responsibility to hire a home inspector. Make sure you make your offer conditional upon inspection or get one done before you make a bid.

To find a home inspector, people often turn to recommendations from trusted friends and family members. Your broker might also have an inspector to recommend. While other people’s opinions are helpful, what’s paramount is that you hire someone who is qualified.

Some states require home inspectors to have certifications. For those that don’t, membership in organizations like the American Society of Home Inspectors can give you some assurance about an inspector’s professionalism.

Interview potential inspectors before hiring one. Ask about their experience and whether they’re familiar with the type of home you’re buying. Find out what will be included in the inspection and report.

What the Inspector Should Look At

During a home inspection, the inspector should thoroughly evaluate the physical structure of the home as well as critical internal systems. You should make sure the examination includes the following:

● Electrical system ● Plumbing system ● Heating and cooling systems ● Radon detection equipment, if applicable ● Walls, ceiling and flooring ● Windows and doors ● Roofing ● Foundation ● Basement ●Attic ● Insulation

 

What Should You Do During the Inspection?

You should make every effort to be present when the inspection is taking place. You can follow the inspector around the house and ask questions so you can learn more about your potential new home. If you can’t make it for the inspection, you should meet with the inspector to go over the report in detail.

If you have questions about potential issues or how to take care of parts of the home, feel free to ask the evaluator. Take care, however, not to get in the inspector’s way. Don’t start inspecting the home yourself, either. If you test a sink while the inspector is testing a shower, for example, you might alter the results.

It’s also important to remember that “an inspection is only a snapshot in time on the day of the inspection,” said John Bodrozic, a co-founder of HomeZada. So if you’re buying a house in the middle of summer, try to consider how the home might perform in different conditions, like the winter or fall.

A Home’s Report Card

Once the inspector completes an evaluation, you will receive a report with the inspector’s findings. Don’t be alarmed if you see a lot of deficiencies noted. Home inspections are detailed, so reports often include between 50 and 100 issues, most of which are relatively small.

The report should include information about how severe each listed problem is, plus estimates on how much it would cost to fix each problem. Ask the inspector for clarifications on this if necessary.

If the inspection finds more problems than you’re comfortable dealing with, you can choose to back out of the sale or try to negotiate to have the seller make the repairs or lower the price. If you’re satisfied with the condition of the home or the shape it will be in after the seller meets the arrangements of your negotiations, you can move into your new home with more peace of mind.

~Megan Wild, New York Times

What First-Time Home Buyers Need To Know

My team and I regularly come in contact with first-time homebuyers looking for some guidance. The prospect of buying your first home can be an anxiety-inducing one, especially if you don’t know where to start. I’ve spent my career helping thousands of people find the perfect home, so I’m happy to shed some light on the subject for those new to the process.

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Patience is key.

Even after you spend hours searching through listings and going to showings, your journey is far from over. Getting a mortgage, having the home inspected and going through the closing process all take time. General wisdom suggests that the process could last from 30-90 days, but that depends on a lot of extenuating factors.

The neighborhood you choose is important.

We believe the neighborhood you live in is just as important as the home you live in. When you make a purchase based solely on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms or square footage, you’re missing out on the lifestyle component of your new home. Where you live will determine not only obvious factors like where your children go to school and how much you pay in taxes, but it also determines more nuanced factors, like how you spend your weekends. Spend time in an area before deciding to buy there, and see if you can really imagine yourself living there on a day-to-day basis.

Have your documentation ready.

Keeping everything digitally organized — rather than trying to keep track of a stack of papers — will help immensely. Have pay stub statements, proof of assets and any loan or credit card debt documentation readily available. Expect to present more paperwork than you might think they need to see. Like a Boy Scout, the key here is to always be prepared!

Be flexible.

One sentiment that almost all of the homeowners we asked expressed is just that: the importance of being flexible. You may have a list of features that make up your perfect home but ultimately discover that you are unable to find all of those features within your budget. Know which “must-haves” you’re willing to compromise on and which ones you really need. If a short commute is most important to you, you may be willing to sacrifice an extra bathroom or granite countertops to be closer to work.

Follow guidelines.

In other words, don’t buy beyond your means. Deferring principal payments in order to get into a bigger home is often a risky proposition that can lead to financial strain. Work out a budget that’s realistic, and then stick to it. Not sure how much house you can actually afford? NerdWallet provides a calculator to help you determine that based on location.

Shop around.

Like any other major purchase, it’s important when buying a home to weigh your mortgage options. Different banks may offer different rates, so getting a wide range of offers can save you money. Planning ahead is your friend in this scenario — as soon as you think you may be interested in buying a home, start the mortgage process. This will also help you determine how much you can feasibly afford.

Don’t let fear stop you.

There’s no doubt that the home-buying process can be daunting — and for first-time buyers, the uncertainty can lead to dread. You will experience a range of emotions in the pursuit of finding your perfect home, but it will be worthwhile when you finally settle in.

At the end of the day, buying your first home will be an intensive process, but it doesn’t need to be a scary one. If you go in with a strong plan and know your facts, you’ll avoid making the wrong choice or missing out on a great deal.

~Bill Ness, Forbes Community Voice

Buying a home in 2018? Here’s what you need to know.

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Homeownership can be a costly endeavor, especially since certain tax breaks are now less generous. Here are a few things to be aware of if you’re planning to go from renter to owner this year.

If you’re thinking of buying property this year, here are a few points you need to be aware of.

1. Your housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30% of your take-home pay

Regardless of how the recent tax changes end up impacting you, a homeowner’s housing costs should never exceed 30% of take-home pay. Different folks have their own interpretations of what peripheral expenses that 30% threshold should encompass, but at a minimum, it should cover known costs like property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. For better protection, however, I’d recommend that that 30% mark include maintenance, as well.

The typical U.S. homeowner spends anywhere from 1% to 4% of their home’s value on maintenance each year. If you’re buying for the first time, there’s no way to know where you’ll fall in that range, but if you aim for 2.5% — smack down the middle — and are looking at a $400,000 home, that’s roughly $833 per month in maintenance.

If you then take that $833 and add it to your monthly mortgage payment, property tax payment, and homeowner’s insurance payment, your total should not be greater than 30% of your monthly income. If it is, you’re leaving yourself with limited wiggle room for unplanned expenses that may arise in the future.

2. You can still deduct your mortgage interest — to a point

The mortgage-interest deduction has long been criticized for favoring the rich, and so some legislators have been arguing to eliminate it for years. Thankfully, this key deduction is still intact for the current tax year — albeit at a lower threshold.

It used to be that you could deduct interest on your mortgage for loans valued at up to $1 million. But as a result of the new tax changes, that limit has been lowered to $750,000. If you’re an average earner looking to buy a modest home, you should be able to deduct your mortgage interest in full. But if you’re looking at pricier homes, or live in an expensive area of the country where home prices are inflated, you may want to be more cognizant of that cap.

Of course, if you’re not planning to itemize on your tax return, there’s no need to worry about the mortgage interest deduction, or any deduction, for that matter. As it is, the majority of taxpayers don’t itemize, and since the new tax rules effectively double the standard deduction, it’s estimated that fewer filers will do so going forward. But if your intent is to itemize, then be aware of the aforementioned limit.

3. Your property tax deduction may be capped

Just as the new tax laws limit the mortgage interest deduction, so, too, do they limit the extent to which you can deduct property taxes. In fact, going forward, your total SALT (state and local tax) deduction maxes out at $10,000, whereas prior to 2018, it was unlimited. If you’re thinking of buying a home in a low- or no-income tax state, and you don’t expect your property tax bill to be particularly high, then the $10,000 cap won’t impact you. But if you’re buying a home in, say, New Jersey, which boasts the highest property taxes in the nation, you may come to find that a portion of your property tax bill is non-deductible.

Again, if you’re not planning to itemize on your tax return in the first place, then there’s no need to worry about this change. But one thing you should be aware of is that some experts say that home values may soon start to drop as a result of the new laws, since, by taking away a portion of the tax breaks buyers once enjoyed, they make ownership less affordable in some parts of the country.

If you’re buying a home because you plan to live there for quite some time, this may not be too concerning. But if your plan is to buy a home, flip it, and unload it in a year or so, prices could start to fall when more buyers see their tax breaks go down and their tax bills go up.

Buying a home can be a wise financial decision that serves you well, not only at present, but for many years to come. Just be sure to know what you’re getting into before signing that mortgage.

~Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

Five Steps to Take Before Buying a Home

When you’re considering buying your first home, you’re probably full of excitement about achieving the American dream. Unfortunately, this dream could turn into a nightmare if you haven’t made sure that you’re financially ready for the costs of becoming a homeowner. Before you call a realtor, take these five steps to get all your ducks in a row.

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1. Calculate what you can comfortably spend

The last thing you want to do is make yourself “house poor” by spending more of your income on a home purchase than you should. The “affordability standard” for housing is that you should spend no more than 30% of your income on housing costs (including insurance and property taxes), while many mortgage lenders prefer that your housing cost is no greater than 28% of your income.

Your outstanding debts can also impact the amount you can spend on a home. Most lenders want a total debt-to-income ratio — including your mortgage payments and other debts — to be around 36% or less, although you can still get a standard mortgage with a ratio as high as 43%.

This means if your income is $50,000, you could reasonably afford about $1,170 per month for your total housing costs if you stuck to the 28% rule — assuming you didn’t have a substantial amount of other debt that would push your total monthly payments above the recommended 36% of income. If we also assume you can pay 20% down and qualify for an interest rate of 4%, then you could potentially afford a home price of up to $250,000. That may or may not be a realistic price in your area, and you may want to aim lower if you have other sizable debts.

2. Save a down payment of 20%

In our example above, we factored in having a 20% down payment when calculating the price of the home you could afford. Paying at least 20% of the value of the home up front is vital, because it allows you to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI insures your lender in the event that you’re unable to make payments and the lender must foreclose on you. On a $200,000 loan, PMI could cost you $100 a month or more, depending on how much you paid up front — and you could be paying it for several years.

You’re stuck with PMI until you pay your loan down to 78% or less of the home’s original value. Once you prove to your lender that you’ve reached that milestone, your lender is required to drop the PMI requirement. .

If you don’t have a down payment, not only will you waste thousands of dollars on PMI and additional interest payments, but you’ll also put yourself at substantial risk. When you make a 20% down payment on a home, the value of the house would have to fall more than 20% for the home to be worth less than you owe on it. If you only make a tiny down payment, however, even a slight downturn in the market could mean you’re underwater — i.e., your home is worth less than you still owe the bank. This makes it difficult or impossible to sell unless you can bring cash to the real estate closing for the difference between what your house sells for and what you still owe.

3. Save an emergency fund of three to six months’ worth of living expenses

When you’re a homeowner, you are responsible for everything that goes wrong in your house. Instead of calling a landlord when the furnace breaks or the pipes freeze, you have to call — and pay for — a repair man. If the problems are costly to fix, or can’t be fixed, you’re the one on the hook. If you don’t have money set aside to cover maintenance, repairs, and replacements, then you’ll have to use credit. You don’t want to be paying interest on your new fridge for the next 10 years, so make sure you have an emergency fund to cover the many costs of being a homeowner.

Not only can an emergency fund help you pay for surprise repairs, but it can also ensure that you don’t lose your home in the event that an illness, job loss, or other crisis puts a major strain on your household finances. If you cannot pay your mortgage because your income has taken a hit, you could be foreclosed on, lose your house, and end up with ruined credit. You don’t want this to happen, so save up enough money to pay the mortgage for several months in case something goes wrong.

4. Get pre-approved for a mortgage loan

When you have your financial house in order, it’s time to prove to the bank that you’re ready for the responsibility of taking on a mortgage. You want to get pre-approved by your chosen financial institution before you start shopping for a home. Getting pre-approved means you’ll have a clear idea of what the bank will lend you so you don’t shop outside of your price range. You’ll also be taken much more seriously by real estate agents and any potential sellers to whom you make an offer. Some sellers won’t even consider offers from someone who isn’t pre-approved, because there’s no way to know whether the financing will be available to complete the sale.

If you want your bids to be competitive and you want to know you’re shopping for houses that are priced right, provide your financial information to the bank before you start house shopping and get a pre-approval letter to take with you.

5. Find a buyer’s agent

Although you can technically buy a house without an agent, it’s usually a bad idea to try it — especially if it’s your first home. An agent can help you spot red flags that should send you running away from a prospective home. Agents know the market and can help you make a reasonable offer so you don’t overpay, and they can also guide you through the steps of the buying process, like getting a home inspection.

You’ll want to be sure you find a buyer’s agent, rather than letting the seller’s agent represent both you and the seller. A buyer’s agent is focused only on your interests and has lots of experience helping homebuyers find the house of their dreams. If you’ve already made sure you’re financially ready before calling a realtor, your agent can help you make the buying process low-stress and successful.