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10 Steps to Home Ownership

Information To Help You Throughout The

Home Buying Process


1. Are You Ready?

Step 1 of 10

Knowledge and experience are the keys to successful real estate transactions.® contains an enormous amount of valuable information, and such data -- combined with the expertise, experience and training of local REALTORS® -- can be the essential keys to your success.

One of the keys to making the homebuying process easier and more understandable is planning. In doing so, you'll be able to anticipate requests from lenders, lawyers and a host of other professionals. Furthermore, planning will help you discover valuable shortcuts in the homebuying process.

Do You Know What You Want? Whether you are a first-time homebuyer or entering the marketplace as a repeat buyer, you need to ask why you want to buy. Are you planning to move to a new community due to a lifestyle change or is buying an option and not a requirement? What would you like in terms of real estate that you do not now have? Do you have a purchasing timeframe?

Whatever your answers, the more you know about the real estate marketplace, the more likely you are to effectively define your goals. As an interesting exercise, it can be worthwhile to look at the questions above and to then discuss them in detail when meeting with local REALTORS®.

Do You Have The Money? Homes and financing are closely intertwined. (Financing is the difference between the purchase price and the down payment, commonly referred to as debt or the mortgage.) The good news is that over the years new and innovative loan programs have evolved which require a 5 percent down payment or less. In fact, a number of programs now allow purchasers to buy real estate with nothing down.

In addition to a down payment, purchasers also need cash for closing costs (the final costs associated with closing the loan). Several newly emerging loan programs not only allow the purchase of a home with no money down, but also underwrite closing costs.

Not everyone, however, elects to purchase with little or no money down. Less money down means higher monthly mortgage payments; so most homebuyers choose to buy with some cash up front.

As to closing costs, in markets where buyers have leverage, it may be possible to negotiate an offer for a home that requires the owner to pay some or all of your settlement expenses. Speak with local REALTORS® for details.

Is Your Financial House In Order?

Those great loans with little or nothing down are not available to everyone: You need good credit. For at least one year prior to purchasing a home, you should assure that every credit card bill, rent check, car payment and other debt is paid in full and on time.

10 Mistakes You Can't Afford

Check out these 10 things to avoid in your home finances

By Lew Sichelman

Most advice columns tell you how you should do things. But there are all kinds of things you shouldn't do, either. Here are 10 frequent financial mistakes that consumers routinely make -- and you should avoid.


  1. Choose the Wrong Mortgage: With the advent of instant refinancing, home loans are no longer the lifetime obligations they used to be. Still, you don't want to be saddled for even a short period of time with the wrong one. Investigate all your options, then lay your choices side-by-side and do the math, making sure to compare worst-case scenarios. Be sure to look at initial interest rates, future interest rates and payments (if different), and the possibility of prepayment penalties.

  2. Confuse "Pre-Approved" and "Pre-Qualified" with a Loan Commitment: These are debatable terms in real estate because not all lenders apply the same definition to each expression. In fact, one leading real estate dictionary contains neither expression because their definitions are uncertain. According to one school of thought, however, when you are "pre-qualified," the lender is making an educated guess about how much you can borrow based on information you've provided. When you are "pre-approved," the lender has verified everything you have told him or her and is offering to lend you up to a given amount at current interest rates -- under certain conditions. Whether pre-qualified or pre-approved, final clearance and a check at closing -- a loan commitment -- are subject to an appraisal satisfactory to the lender, good title, a last-minute credit check, and other verifications. When meeting with lenders, always ask how they define each term and what additional steps will be required to obtain a loan.

  3. Have Too Much Credit: Excessive credit is almost as bad as no credit or even bad credit. Even if you pay your bills on time, lenders tend to focus just as much on how much credit you have available to you as they do on timeliness. So being up to your ears in car loans and credit cards is a sure way to be turned down for a mortgage. Postpone any big ticket purchases until after you buy your house.

  4. Lie on Your Loan Application: Exaggerating your income on a mortgage application or putting down other untruths can be a federal offense. Lenders rarely prosecute liars. But if they find out later, they can call your loan due and payable. Don't ever sign your name to a loan application that is not completely filled out, either. Loan officers have been known to stretch the truth to get a client approved, but it's the borrower who ends up paying the price, often in the form of monthly loan payments he can't afford.

  5. Hide If You Can't Make Your Payments: The worst thing you can do is ignore phone calls and letters from your lender when you are behind on your payments. Lenders have many options at their disposal to help keep borrowers from losing their homes to foreclosure. But they can't do anything for you unless they can talk to you about your difficulties. Lenders are the enemy only if you give them no other choice.

  6. Skip a Home Inspection: Failing to make your purchase contingent on a satisfactory home inspection could be a costly mistake. Independent home inspectors examine houses from stem to stern. They'll be able to tell you whether the roof and/or basement leaks, whether the mechanical systems are in good shape and how long the appliances should last. They can't report on things they can't see, but at least their trained eyes are better than yours. So don't pass just to save $300-$400; that's money well spent.

  7. Hire Just Any Agent to Sell Your House: All real estate agents are not the same. You want to look for those who specialize in your neighborhood and are top producers. Ask your candidates how they plan to market your house, what you can do to make the place more attractive to prospects and how much you should ask. If you don't like any of the answers, looks elsewhere. And above all, stay away from relatives. Unless Aunt Bessie or Nephew Nick fit the description above, keep looking.

  8. Fail to Check Out a Remodeler: Never, ever hire a contractor who knocks on your door or says his prices are good for only a few days. Reputable remodelers don't solicit door-to-door, and they don't cut prices just because they happen to be in your neighborhood. Check out a potential contractor thoroughly by calling several of his past clients, your local better business bureau, his bankers and suppliers, and your local consumer affairs agency.

  9. Pay Too Much Upfront: If a contractor asks for more than a third of the contract price as a down payment, chances are something's wrong. At worst, he's a scam artist who has no intention of returning after he cashes your check. At best, he's undercapitalized and can't afford to purchase materials on his own. Or, in between, he could be using your money to pay workers on another job. Never give contractor cash, either.

  10. Burn Your Mortgage: It's a wonderful feeling when you make your last house payment. After all, the place is now yours, all yours. Many people celebrate by holding a mortgage burning party. But they torch the original document. Don't. Make a copy and burn that instead. Keep all your loan docs in a safe place.

How Much Can I Afford?

Look at your income to get a guesstimate

By John Adams

As you think about applying for a home loan, you need to consider your personal finances. How much you earn versus how much you owe will likely determine how much a lender will allow you to borrow.

First, determine your gross monthly income. This will include any regular and recurring income that you can document. Unfortunately, if you can't document the income or it doesn't show up on your tax return, then you can't use it to qualify for a loan. However, you can use unearned sources of income such as alimony or lottery payoffs. And if you own income-producing assets such as real estate or stocks, the income from those can be estimated and used in this calculation. If you have questions about your specific situation, any good loan officer can review the rules.

Next, calculate your monthly debt load. This includes all monthly debt obligations like credit cards, installment loans, car loans, personal debts or any other ongoing monthly obligation like alimony or child support. If it is revolving debt like a credit card, use the minimum monthly payment for this calculation. If it is installment debt, use the current monthly payment to calculate your debt load. And you don't have to consider a debt at all if it is scheduled to be paid off in less than six months. Add all this up and it is a figure we'll call your monthly debt service.

In a nutshell, most lenders don't want you to take out a loan that will overload your ability to repay everybody you owe. Although every lender has slightly different formulas, here is a rough idea of how they look at the numbers.

Typically, your monthly housing expense, including monthly payments for taxes and insurance, should not exceed about 28 percent of your gross monthly income. If you don't know what your tax and insurance expense will be, you can estimate that about 15 percent of your payment will go toward this expense. The remainder can be used for principal and interest repayment.

In addition, your proposed monthly housing expense and your total monthly debt service combined cannot exceed about 36 percent of your gross monthly income. If it does, your application may exceed the lender's underwriting guidelines and your loan may not be approved.

Depending on your individual situation, there may be more or less flexibility in the 28 percent and 36 percent guidelines. For example, if you are able to buy the home while borrowing less than 80 percent of the home's value by making a large cash down payment, the qualifying ratios become less critical. Likewise, if Bill Gates or a rich uncle is willing to cosign on the loan with you, lenders will be much less focused on the guidelines discussed here.

Remember that there are hundreds of loan programs available in today's lending market and every one of them has different guidelines. So don't be discouraged if your dream home seems out of reach.

In addition, there are a number of factors within your control which affect your monthly payment. For example, you might choose to apply for an adjustable rate loan which has a lower initial payment than a fixed rate program. Likewise, a larger down payment has the effect of lowering your projected monthly payment.


2. Get a REALTOR®

Step 2 of 10

More than 2 million people in the United States have earned real estate licenses. However, real estate is a tough business with a steep dropout rate, and the result is that only a small percentage of those with licenses actively help buyers and sellers.

The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) includes 1 million brokers and salespeople, individuals bound together with a strong Code of Ethics, extensive training opportunities and a wealth of community information. NAR members are routinely active in PTAs, local government committees and a variety of neighborhood organizations. Being actively involved in community affairs provides REALTORS® with a better understanding of the area in which they are selling.

Why? Buying and selling real estate is a complex matter. At first it might seem that by checking local picture books or online sites you could quickly find the right home at the right price.

But a basic rule in real estate is that all properties are unique. No two properties -- even two identical models on the same street -- are precisely and exactly alike. Homes differ and so do contract terms, financing options, inspection requirements and closing costs. Also, no two transactions are alike.

In this maze of forms, financing, inspections, marketing, pricing and negotiating, it makes sense to work with professionals who know the community and much more. Those professionals are the local REALTORS® who serve your area.

How do you choose?

In every community you're likely to find a number of realty brokerages. Because there is heated competition, local REALTORS® must fight hard to succeed in your community.

The best place to find a local REALTOR® is from's® extensive listing of community professionals and properties. Other sources include open houses, local advertising, Web sites, referrals from other REALTORS®, recommendations from neighbors and suggestions from lenders, attorneys, financial planners and CPAs. The experiences and recommendations of past clients can be invaluable.

In many cases buyers will interview several REALTORS® before selecting one professional with whom to work. These interviews represent a good opportunity to consider such issues as training, experience, representation and professional certifications.

What should you expect? (Working with a REALTOR®)

Once you select a REALTOR® you will want to establish a proper business relationship. You likely know that some REALTORS® represent sellers while others represent buyers. Each REALTOR® will explain the options available describe how he or she typically works with individuals and provide you with complete agency disclosures (the ins and outs of your relationship with the agent) as required in your state.

Once hired for the job, the REALTOR® will provide you with information detailing current market conditions, financing options and negotiating issues that might apply to a given situation. Remember: Because market conditions can change and the strategies that apply in one negotiation may be inappropriate in another, this information should not be set in stone. During your time in the marketplace REALTORS® will keep you updated and alert you to each step in the transaction process.


3. Get A Loan Pre-Approval

Step 3 of 10

Few people can buy a home for cash. According to the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), nearly nine out of 10 buyers in 1999 financed their purchase, which means that virtually all buyers -- especially first-time purchasers -- required a loan.

The real issue with real estate financing is not getting a loan (virtually anyone willing to pay lofty interest rates can find a mortgage). Instead, the idea is to get the loan that's right for you -- the mortgage with the lowest cost and best terms.

REALTORS® routinely suggest that consumers start the mortgage process well before bidding on a home. Many lenders (the sources of money) and programs, for example, are available right here in the finance section of as well as through recommendations from local REALTORS®. By meeting with lenders -- either online or face to face -- and looking at loan options, you will find which programs best meet your needs and how much you can afford.

REALTORS® also recommend preapprovals for another reason: Purchase forms often require buyers to apply for financing within a given time period, in many cases, seven to 10 days. By meeting with loan officers in advance and identifying mortgage programs, it won't be necessary to quickly find a lender, check credit, and rush into a financing decision that may not be the best option.

What is it? "Preapproval" means you have met with a loan officer, your credit files have been reviewed and the loan officer believes you can readily qualify for a given loan amount with one or more specific mortgage programs. Based on this information, the lender will provide a preapproval letter, which shows your borrowing power. You can visit as many lenders as you like and get several preapprovals, but keep in mind that each one carries with it a new credit check, which will show up on future credit reports.

Although not a final loan commitment, the preapproval letter can be shown to listing brokers when bidding on a home. It demonstrates your financial strength and shows that you have the ability to go through with a purchase. This information is important to owners since they do not want to accept an offer that is likely to fail because financing cannot be obtained.

How do you get preapproval? Real estate financing is available from numerous sources, including lenders here in the finance section of, mortgage companies that have worked with local REALTORS® and in some cases, individual REALTORS® themselves. Based on his or her experience, the REALTOR® may suggest one or more lenders with a history of offering competitive programs and delivering promised rates and terms.

The loan officer will carefully review your financial situation, including your credit report and other information. The lender will then suggest programs which most-closely meet your needs. For instance, a first-time buyer may qualify for state-backed mortgage programs with little money down and low interest rates, while a repeat purchaser (someone who has bought a home before) with more equity (money invested in the home) might want to get a 15-year loan and the lower overall interest costs it represents. Typically, first-time buyers opt for the traditional 30-year loan, with either a floating interest rate or a fixed rate of interest over the life of the loan.

Be Careful When Pre-qualifying Online

It's convenient to pre-qualify for a home loan online, but you can hurt your credit if you sign up with too many lenders

By Warren Lutz

Every time you apply for a credit card or other type of loan, the lender checks your credit history. These checks show up as inquiries on your credit report, which is maintained by the three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

The Elusive FICO Score: To determine your credit worthiness, many lenders rely on their own credit scoring systems or FICO scores, which are numbers tabulated using software by Fair, Isaac & Company Inc. and information in your credit report. The number of credit inquiries affects your FICO score.

There has been increasing pressure on Fair Isaac from consumer groups and the mortgage industry to release information about how its software works, and Fair Isaac recently released the information its scoring models use in calculating a FICO score.

Pre-Qualification Inquiries: Basically, inquiries are an indicator of credit risk. According to Fair Isaac, the more inquiries on a borrower's credit file, the more likely it is that the borrower will not be able pay his or her bills. The problem is that many homebuyers get pre-qualified more than once while shopping for homes, generating multiple inquiries on their credit reports.

While shopping for the best loan terms, you may be tempted to pre-qualify with more than one lender. If so, be careful. Too many pre-qualifications could affect your ability to borrow money. With each application for a loan or credit, your credit report will record another inquiry. A lot of inquiries can hurt your credit score.

These Don't Count: Fortunately, Fair Isaac has a new policy that helps potential homebuyers who rack up credit inquiries while trying to find the best home loan. According to the policy, Fair Isaac's software will ignore all auto- or mortgage-related inquiries that occur within a 30-day period prior to the date the credit score is tabulated.

Credit History: A record of an individual's open and fully repaid debts. A credit history helps a lender to determine whether a potential borrower has a history of repaying debts in a timely manner.

Pre-qualification: The process of determining how much money a prospective homebuyer will be eligible to borrow before he or she applies for a loan.

For every 14 days prior to this 30-day period, only one inquiry will be counted, no matter how many inquiries were made during a particular two-week period.

The good news is that inquiries have a relatively small impact on a credit score. Late credit payments -- particularly recent ones -- and high debt carry more weight. Nevertheless, there's a possibility that homebuyers who continue to shop for loans over a period of months could ultimately hurt their chances to get a home loan, so it's probably best not to get pre-qualified at every mortgage Web site you visit.

Many mortgage brokers and real estate agents are willing to review your credit report with you and point out any potential problems. If you know or suspect there are lots of inquiries on your credit report, you could also ask your lender how this could affect your credit rating or your ability to borrow.

If you've been turned down for credit, you can also obtain a copy of your credit report from the three agencies. This inquiry is not calculated into your FICO score.


4. Look at Homes

Step 4 of 10

Some 6 million new and existing homes are sold each year. There's no shortage of housing options, but with so many choices the challenge becomes finding the property which best meets your needs.

The housing market is complicated because the stock of homes for sale is always in flux. If it were possible to have a complete list of every home for sale at this very moment in a given community, such a list would become obsolete within seconds as new homes become available and properties now for sale are put under contract.

In effect, buyers are looking at a moving target in a marketplace that is never static. Because of this, it is important to know as much as possible about the choices in preferred markets, and the way to do that is by working closely with a local REALTOR® who has a good "lay of the land.”

What are you looking for? A home is more than just a collection of bedrooms and bathrooms. Several properties -- each with four bedrooms, three baths, and the same price -- may well represent radically different designs, commuting distances, lot sizes, tax costs, interior dimensions, and exterior finishes.

Each of us is different and so it's important to list the features and benefits you want in a home. Consider such things as pricing, location, size, amenities (extras such as a pool or extra-large kitchen) and design (one floor or two, colonial or modern, etc.).

Next, it's important to consider your priorities. If you can't get a home at your price with all the features you want, then what features are most important? For instance, would you trade fewer bedrooms for a larger kitchen? A longer commute for a bigger lot and lower cost?

Lastly, consider your needs in several years. If you'll need a larger home, maybe now is the time to buy a bigger house rather than moving or expanding in the future. If you expect your income to increase, perhaps you should consider a more expensive home financed with a loan program where monthly payments increase in the future.

Where should you look? All neighborhoods and communities have a special nature that gives them identity and value. One community may be well known for historic homes while another offers both suburban living as well as easy access to downtown office areas.® offers about 1.4 million homes online. By any standard, it's the largest source for property information online or off. You can look at homes to contact listing brokers, and you can also search to find brokers who offer buyer representation services.

How do you find a house? Some buyers like to search® by looking at listings on the basis of location or price; others prefer to have local REALTORS® suggest properties; and many buyers prefer both approaches.

Regardless of your choice, it's important to target your search. By using basic measures such as general location and affordability, you can refine your search and focus on homes that offer the most desirable features.

As a guide, you should maintain a file with information on each of the homes you like. You can print out listing pages from® and then make notes for each one -- what you like, questions, REALTOR® contact data, etc.

Wait! Are You Buying the Right House? Don't let your emotions overrule a reasonable assessment of whether a particular home really meets your needs.

By Marcie Geffner

Anyone who has ever bought a home remembers the wonderful feeling of finding the right property and falling in love with it. It's an indescribable mixture of comfort, excitement and dreams about to come true. "Can we afford it? Will the sellers accept our offer? How soon can we pick up the keys?" the excited buyers ask. Great vibes are undoubtedly a good sign in deciding to purchase a home. But you shouldn't let your emotions overrule a reasonable assessment of whether a particular home really meets your needs.

Here are a few of the many rational questions you'll want to ask yourself before you rush into a commitment to buy.

Price Your lender says you can afford to buy the home you adore, but are you comfortable with the monthly payments you'll be obligated to make? Is the down payment within your means? Will you have enough cash to pay transaction costs and moving expenses? If the house needs major repairs, remodeling or redecorating can you save the necessary funds within a reasonable time period?

Condition Along with price, the condition of the home should be a top consideration. Does the home need a new roof? Extensive upgrading of the electrical wiring? New plumbing? Is the home disaster-ready (e.g., bolted to the foundation in earthquake country)? A fixer-upper home with lots of potential can be a great find or a money pit. Will you be able to meet the financial challenges and live with the mess and inconvenience while the home is being brought up to your expectations?

Size and configuration Is the house the right size for your needs and does it have the right combination of bedrooms, bathrooms and other living areas? Is that small closet less den really big enough for your child's bedroom? Is one bathroom adequate and if not, what are the real costs and headaches of adding a second one? Does the kitchen have enough cupboard and countertop space? Is the garage wide enough and deep enough for your vehicles? Will your piano really fit in that alcove near the staircase?

Comfort Does the house have a central heating system? A central air-conditioning system? Are those climate controls important to you? Are the windows large enough and positioned to create cross ventilation? If the house has two stories, are you comfortable with the idea of walking up and down stairs every day? Is there a downstairs bathroom (and bedroom, if needed) for guests who can't navigate the stairs?

Style Is the design and architecture of the house too modern or too traditional for your preferences in furniture and home furnishings?

Resale potential People move to a new home every seven years, on average. If you wanted to sell your home or were forced by unexpected circumstances to sell it, how easy would it be to find a ready, willing and able buyer?

Features Some buyers fall in love with pricey home amenities that seem attractive and desirable at the time, but later prove to be more headache and less pleasure than the buyers anticipated. Do you really want a swimming pool? High-maintenance ornamental trees? Commercial-grade built-in kitchen appliances? Expensive hardwood floors? Some homes are easier to visit than they are to own.

Copyright © 2000 Marcie Geffner. All rights reserved.

Looking At Homes

While there's no substitute for a professional home inspection, you can do your own research while looking at houses. Be observant and ask questions of the owners or their agent. Some things to look for include:

  • Cracks and shifting. Is the foundation in good shape or are there cracks?

  • Leaks and water marks. Look around eaves and downspouts outside the house and around windows and ceilings inside the house.

  • Damp smells and mildew stains. Does the basement look or smell damp? Are the owner's belongings stored off the basement floor?

  • Drafts. Is the house tightly sealed? Are there drafts coming from windows, doors, or crawl spaces? Ask to see the energy bills.

  • Condition of the roof. What is the age and condition of the roof?

  • Landscaping and property issues. Does the drainage lead away from the house? Is it in good condition? Are there soggy spots on the lawn? Are any trees too close to the house, including unhealthy or dead trees? Are decks, patios, or porches in good condition?

  • Quality of construction. Are there nail pops? Do the floors or stairs creak or give in when you walk on them?

  • Plumbing. Is the water clear and odor-free? How's the water pressure? Are there strange "knocking" or "groaning" noises when you turn the water on?

  • Septic Tank. If there is a septic tank, how old is it? Has it been regularly maintained? Are there soggy patches in the yard that could indicate septic problems?

Most homeowners are honest about any problems when trying to sell their homes, but it doesn't hurt to ask questions and look around. For instance, if a cutting board's in an odd place on the counter, move it to make sure it's not hiding a crack or burn mark. If a chair's in a strange place, check to see if it's hiding a carpet stain.

Older Homes

Older homes can be charming but you should be aware of special issues with them so you're not surprised once you own the home.

Ask about:

  • The foundation. Look to see if the roof line and porches are parallel or sagging. Are the steps pulling away from the foundation?

  • Lead paint. Older homes often have lead paint. By law, sellers must disclose the possibility of lead paint, but also make sure your home inspector looks for this.

  • Electrical wiring. Has the wiring been updated? Are there three-prong outlets? Do the lights flicker?

Be sure to discuss any special issues with your home inspector if you're considering buying an older home


5. Choose a Home

Step 5 of 10

There's no doubt that choosing a home is a big decision and you want to do it right.

As a buyer, here's what actually happens. A home has been placed on the market for which the seller has established an asking price as well as other terms. In effect, this is an offer. At this point, you have three choices: accept the seller's offer and create a contract; reject it and not make an offer; or suggest different terms and make a counter-offer. If you choose this last option, the seller may accept, reject or make a counter-offer.

No aspect of the homebuying process is more complex, personal or variable than bargaining between buyers and sellers. This is the point where the value of an experienced REALTOR® is clearly evident because he or she knows the community, has seen numerous homes for sale, knows local values and has spent years negotiating realty transactions.

Is it THE house? A house is shelter, but a home is far more. It's where you live, relax, entertain friends, raise families, and work. A home is where you spend much of your life, and so choosing a house is an enormous decision.

How do you know if a house is THE one? Probably the best approach is to look at as many homes as possible, something made easy by, where you can quickly and easily view huge numbers of homes, check prices, take video tours and view extensive neighborhood information. Once your choices have been narrowed, you can then contact a local REALTOR® to find specific information and options.

Can you really afford it? Remember Step 2 - the preapproval process? Getting preapproved means you have a very good idea of how much you can borrow, what loan programs will most likely work best in your situation and how much home you can afford.

How reliable is a preapproval? While preapproval is not a loan commitment, it's still necessary for lenders to check such items as appraisals and the latest credit reports. Despite fluctuating interest rates, preapproval nonetheless provides a reasoned, careful analysis of what you can afford. After all, loan officers are routinely paid only when loans are originated. It doesn't make much sense for loan officers to suggest high loan limits that later can't be delivered.


6. Get Funding

Step 6 of 10

Often the cost of real estate financing is routinely greater than the original purchase price of a home (after including interest and closing costs). Because financing is so important, buyers should have as much information as possible regarding mortgage options and costs.

Homestore® provides consumers with extensive mortgage information as well as a variety of loan calculators. Local REALTORS® can provide mortgage information, discuss financing options and recommend loan sources. In addition, some REALTORS® also originate loans.

What kind of loan?

There are thousands of loans available out there from a variety of lenders, but in general, the mortgage you choose will likely be determined by at least several key factors:

  • How much down? Loans with 5 percent down or less are now widely available -- in fact, loans from major lenders with no money down have appeared in recent years.

  • If you place less than 20 percent down, lenders will want the mortgage guaranteed by an outside third party such as the Veterans Administration (VA), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or a private mortgage insurer (PMI, or private mortgage insurance, is required by lender to protect against any mortgage defaults). More than 2.5 million VA, FHA and PMI loans are generated each year.

  • How's your credit? The best rates and terms are only available to those with solid credit. To get the best loans, make a point of paying credit cards, installment payments, rent and mortgage bills in full and on time.

  • Are you a first-time buyer? It might seem that "first-time buyer" means someone who has never owned property before, but under most state programs, the term refers to those who have not owned property within the past three years. State-backed first-timer programs often feature smaller down payments and below-market interest rates. For details, speak with your local REALTOR®.

How do you get a loan? To obtain a loan you must complete a written loan application and provide supporting documentation. Specific documents include recent pay stubs, rental checks and tax returns for the past two or three years if you are self-employed. During the prequalification procedure, the loan officer will describe the type of paperwork required.

Where do you get a loan?

Mortgage financing can be obtained from mortgage bankers, mortgage brokers, savings and loan associations, mutual savings banks, commercial banks, credit unions, and insurance companies. A growing number of REALTORS® can also arrange financing.

What is a Mortgage?

by Broderick Perkins

Likely the largest debt you'll ever take on, a mortgage is a loan to finance the purchase of your home.

Your home is collateral for the loan, which is also a legal contract you sign to promise that you'll pay the debt, with interest and other costs, typically over 15 to 30 years.

If you don't pay the debt, the lender has the right to take back the property and sell it to cover the debt. To repay the debt, you make monthly installments or payments that typically include the principal, interest, taxes and insurance, together known as PITI.

Principal -- The principal is simply the sum of money you borrowed to buy your home. Before the principal is financed you can give the lender a sum of cash called a down payment to reduce the amount of money that will be financed.

Interest -- Usually expressed as a percentage called the interest rate, interest is what the lender charges you to use the money you borrowed. As well as the given rate, the lender could also charge you points, and additional loan costs. Each point is one percent of the financed amount and is financed along with the principal.

Principal and interest comprise the bulk of your monthly payments in a process called amortization, which reduces your debt over a fixed period of time. With amortization, your monthly payments are largely interest during the early years and principal later.

In addition to your principal and interest, your mortgage payment could include money that's deposited in an escrow or trust account to pay certain taxes and insurance.

Generally, if your down payment is less than 20 percent, your lender considers your loan riskier than those with larger down payments. To offset that risk, the lender sets up the escrow account to collect those additional expenses, which are rolled into your monthly mortgage payment.

Taxes -- The taxes are property taxes your community levies based on a percentage of the value of your home. The tax is generally used to help finance the cost of running your community, say to build schools, roads, infrastructure and other needs. You must pay property taxes even if you don't need an escrow account and even after your mortgage is paid off.

Insurance -- Lenders won't let you close the deal on your home purchase if you don't have home insurance, which covers your home and your personal property against losses from fire, theft, bad weather and other causes. Even if you pay cash for your home, you should buy home insurance unless you can afford to repair or rebuild your home if it's damaged or destroyed.

If your home is in a federally designated high flood risk zone within a flood plain and you are signing for a federally insured loan, federal law mandates that you must buy flood insurance. If you are not in a high flood risk zone, you still may buy the coverage.

If you put less than 20 percent down on your home purchase, most lenders will also charge you private mortgage insurance (PMI) premiums. The coverage doesn't protect you; it protects the lender from you defaulting on the mortgage. Without the coverage, many buyers could not otherwise afford to buy a home. Effective for loans written on or after July 29, 1999, lenders must automatically cancel PMI when your mortgage balance shrinks to 78 percent of the home's original purchase price.


7. Make an Offer

Step 7 of 10

REALTOR® groups, working with legal counsel, have developed forms that are appropriate for realty transactions in specific communities. Such documents include numerous sale conditions and their wording should be carefully reviewed to assure that they reflect the terms you want to offer. REALTORS® can explain the general contracting process in your community as well as his or her role.

While much attention is spent on offering prices, a proposal to buy includes both the price and terms. In some cases, terms can represent thousands of dollars in additional value for buyers -- or additional costs. Terms are extremely important and should be carefully reviewed.

How much? You sometimes hear that the amount of your offer should be x percent below the seller's asking price or y percent less than you're really willing to pay. In practice, the offer depends on the basic laws of supply and demand: If many buyers are competing for homes, then sellers will likely get full-price offers and sometimes even more. If demand is weak, then offers below the asking price may be in order.

How do you make an offer? The process of making offers varies around the country. In a typical situation, you will complete an offer that the REALTOR® will present to the owner and the owner's representative. The owner, in turn, may accept the offer, reject it or make a counter-offer.

Because counter-offers are common (any change in an offer can be considered a "counter-offer"), it's important for buyers to remain in close contact with REALTORS® during the negotiation process so that any proposed changes can be quickly reviewed.

How many inspections? A number of inspections are common in residential realty transactions. They include checks for termites, surveys to determine boundaries, appraisals to determine value for lenders, title reviews and structural inspections.

Structural inspections are particularly important. During these examinations, an inspector comes to the property to determine if there are material physical defects and whether expensive repairs and replacements are likely to be required in the next few years. Such inspections for a single-family home often require two or three hours, and buyers should attend. This is an opportunity to examine the property's mechanics and structure, ask questions and learn far more about the property than is possible with an informal walk-through.

The Basics of Making an Offer A written proposal is the foundation of a real estate transaction.

Oral promises are not legally enforceable when it comes to the sale of real estate. Therefore, you need to enter into a written contract, which starts with your written proposal. This proposal not only specifies price, but all the terms and conditions of the purchase. For example, if the sellers said they'd help with $2,000 toward your closing costs, be sure that's included in your written offer and in the final completed contract, or you won't have grounds for collecting it later.

REALTORS® usually have a variety of standard forms (including Residential Purchase Agreements) that are kept up to date with the changing laws. When you use a REALTOR®, these forms will be available to you. In addition, REALTORS® cover the questions that need to be answered during the process. In many states, certain disclosure laws must be complied by the seller, and the REALTOR® will ensure that this takes place.

If you are not working with a REALTOR®, keep in mind that you must draw up a purchase offer or contract that conforms to state and local laws and that incorporates all of the key items. State laws vary, and certain provisions may be required in your area.

After the offer is drawn up and signed, it will usually be presented to the seller by your REALTOR®, by the seller's REALTOR® if that's a different agent, or often by the two together. In a few areas, sales contracts are typically drawn up by the parties' lawyers.

What the offer contains

The purchase offer you submit, if accepted as it stands, will become a binding sales contract (known in some areas as a purchase agreement, earnest money agreement or deposit receipt). It's important, therefore, that it contains all the items that will serve as a "blueprint for the final sale." These purchase offer items include such things as:

  • Address and sometimes a legal description of the property

  • Sale price

  • Terms -- for example, all cash or subject to your obtaining a mortgage for a given amount

  • Seller's promise to provide clear title (ownership)

  • Target date for closing (the actual sale)

  • Amount of earnest money deposit accompanying the offer, and whether it's a check, cash or promissory note, and how it's to be returned to you if the offer is rejected -- or kept as damages if you later back out for no good reason

  • Method by which real estate taxes, rents, fuel, water bills and utilities are to be adjusted (prorated) between buyer and seller

  • Provisions about who will pay for title insurance, survey, termite inspections and the like

  • Type of deed to be given

  • Other requirements specific to your state, which might include a chance for attorney review of the contract, disclosure of specific environmental hazards or other state-specific clauses

  • A provision that the buyer may make a last-minute walk-through inspection of the property just before the closing

  • A time limit (preferably short) after which the offer will expire

  • Contingencies, which are an extremely important matter and discussed in detail below


If your offer says "this offer is contingent upon (or subject to) a certain event," you're saying that you will only go through with the purchase if that event occurs. The following are two common contingencies contained in a purchase order:

  • The buyer obtaining specific financing from a lending institution. If the loan can't be found, the buyer won't be bound by the contract.

  • A satisfactory report by a home inspector "within 10 days (for example) after acceptance of the offer." The seller must wait 10 days to see if the inspector submits a report that satisfies you. If not, the contract would become void. Again, make sure that all the details are nailed down in the written contract.

Negotiating tips

You're in a strong bargaining position -- meaning, you look particularly welcome to a seller -- if:

  • You're an all-cash buyer; or

  • You're already pre-approved for a mortgage; and

  • You don't have a present house that has to be sold before you can afford to buy.

In those circumstances, you may be able to negotiate some discount from the listed price. On the other hand, in a "hot" seller's market, if the perfect house comes on the market, you may want to offer the list price (or more) to beat out other early offers.

It's very helpful to find out why the house is being sold and whether the seller is under pressure. Keep these considerations in mind:

  • Every month a vacant house remains unsold represents considerable extra expense for the seller;

  • If the sellers are divorcing, they may just want out quickly; and

  • Estate sales often yield a bargain in return for a prompt deal.

Earnest money

This is a deposit that you give when making an offer on a house. A seller is understandably suspicious of a written offer that is not accompanied by a cash deposit to show "good faith." A REALTOR® or an attorney usually holds the deposit, the amount of which varies from community to community. This will become part of your down payment.

Buyers: the seller's response to your offer

You will have a binding contract if the seller, upon receiving your written offer, signs an acceptance just as it stands, unconditionally. The offer becomes a firm contract as soon as you are notified of acceptance. If the offer is rejected, that's that, and the sellers could not later change their minds and hold you to it.

If the seller likes everything except the sale price, or the proposed closing date, or the basement pool table you want left with the property, you may receive a written counteroffer, with the changes the seller prefers. You are then free to accept or reject it or to even make your own counteroffer. For example, "We accept the counteroffer with the higher price, except that we still insist on having the pool table."

Each time either party makes any change in the terms, the other side is free to accept or reject it, or counter again. The document becomes a binding contract only when one party finally signs an unconditional acceptance of the other side's proposal.

Withdrawing an offer

Can you take back an offer? In most cases the answer is yes, right up until the moment it is accepted, or even in some cases, if you haven't yet been notified of acceptance. If you do want to revoke your offer, be sure to do so only after consulting a lawyer who is experienced in real estate matters. You don't want to lose your earnest money deposit, or find yourself being sued for damages the seller may have suffered by relying on your actions.

For sellers: calculating your net proceeds

When an offer comes in, you can accept it exactly as it stands, refuse it (seldom a useful response), or make a counteroffer to the buyers with the changes you want. In evaluating a purchase offer, you should estimate the amount of cash you'll walk away with when the transaction is complete. For example, when you're presented with two offers at once, you may discover you're better off accepting the one with the lower sale price if the other asks you to pay points to the buyer's lending institution. Once you have a specific proposal before you, calculating net proceeds becomes simple. From the proposed purchase price you can subtract:

  • Payoff amount on present mortgage;

  • Any other liens (equity loan, judgments);

  • Broker's commission;

  • Legal costs of selling (attorney, escrow agent);

  • Transfer taxes;

  • Unpaid property taxes and water bills;

  • If required by the contract: cost of survey, termite inspection, buyer's closing costs, repairs, etc.

Your present mortgage lender may maintain an escrow account into which you deposit money to be used for property tax bills and homeowner's insurance premiums. In that case, remember that you will receive a refund of money left in that account, which will add to your proceeds.

For sellers: counteroffers

When you receive a purchase offer from a would-be buyer, remember that unless you accept it exactly as it stands, unconditionally, the buyer will be free to walk away. Any change you make in a counteroffer puts you at risk of losing that chance to sell. Who pays for what items is often determined by local custom. You can, however, arrive at any agreement you and the buyers want about who pays for:

  • Termite inspection;

  • Survey;

  • Buyer's closing costs;

  • Points to the buyer's lender;

  • Buyer's broker;

  • Repairs required by the lender; and

  • Home Protection Policy.

You may feel some of these costs are none of your business, but many buyers -- particularly first-timers -- are short of cash. Helping them may be the best way to get your home sold.

How to Win the Bidding Wars Knowing a few tricks of the trade can make the difference between walking away disappointed and purchasing the home of your dreams at a fair price.

By Marcie Geffner

In many of today's strong real estate markets, home buyers can expect to face multiple offer situations. Multiple offers are a classic example of economic realities because they appear when the supply of homes for sale is limited and the demand for good-condition homes is strong. Buyers hate multiple offers because they push up home prices and create an extremely stressful home-buying experience. Knowing a few tricks of the trade can make the difference between walking away disappointed and purchasing the home of your dreams at a fair price.

How can I make my offer more attractive to the sellers? Offer the highest price you can. Get preapproved, not just prequalified, for your mortgage and attach a copy of the preapproval letter to your offer. Make as large a down payment as you can and provide documentation showing the source of your down payment (e.g., a bank statement). If your current home is in escrow, provide information about that transaction. Avoid unnecessary contingencies. (Waiving your inspection or financing contingency can make your offer attractive, but it's foolish.)

Tip: If the equity in your current home is the source of your down payment, make your offer contingent on obtaining financing, but not on the sale of your home. If your home doesn't sell, you won't have the down payment and you'll get out under the financing contingency, suggests Bob Stallings, broker/owner of RE/MAX Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, California. Finally, include a personal note about why you want to buy the home. All else being equal, some sellers are influenced by these communiqués.

My offer didn't prevail in a multiple offer situation. Can I find out why? Neither the sellers nor their agent is obligated to reveal any information about the decision. As a courtesy, agents frequently will point out shortcomings of a rejected offer, but without disclosing details of the accepted offer. "Until a transaction is closed, it's crucial that everything remain unknown in case that property has to come back on the market," explains Carole Geronsin, a Realtor-associate with Prudential California Realty in Anaheim Hills, California. "I sold a property where [the buyer was making] a relocation transfer. A week and a half later, the company decided they were not going to transfer that executive. What would have happened if I had gone around saying, 'It sold for this amount?' You can't do that."

Can I submit an offer on a home in escrow? Yes, but agents say you would be wiser to move on to another home, particularly if there are formal back-up offers. Even if your offer tops the accepted agreement, the sellers would have great difficulty canceling the escrow.

My agent says the sellers are getting multiple offers and accepting them only by fax. How can we be certain my offer was considered? The temptation to suppress a buyer's offer arises when an in-house offer (one from a buyer who is represented by the seller's agent or another agent from the same brokerage company) is competing with an outside offer (one from a buyer represented by a different brokerage company). Even though an in-house offer nets a double commission for the brokerage (and sometimes the agent), the agent must present all outside offers to the seller as well. Failure to present an offer is a very serious ethics violation. The only exception occurs when the seller specifically declines to consider an offer, perhaps because a good offer is being negotiated or the home is already in escrow. If you suspect your offer hasn't been presented, your agent can request a written statement from the seller acknowledging your offer. If the written statement is not provided, your agent can call the seller's agent's broker or manager.

Can I knock on the sellers' front door and tell them personally why they should accept my offer instead of the other offers they received? If you happen to meet the sellers during a scheduled showing, go ahead and compliment whatever you like about their home. Resist that urge to pound on the front door, however. This tactic works occasionally, but many sellers strongly dislike having their privacy invaded. REALTOR® Judy Sheller of The Bizzy Blondes team with RE/MAX Westside Properties in Culver City, California, recalls one instance when an infuriated seller actually ripped up an offer from an intrusive buyer. The agents won't be too thrilled with your behavior either.

Should I wait outside the home in my car while my offer is being presented, so I will be able to respond right away? Years ago, when a seller countered more than one offer, the buyers' agents would rush the counteroffers to the buyers, get their signature, then race back to the seller's home or the seller's agent's office. Whoever returned first with a signed document would win the race and open escrow. To improve their chances of purchasing the home, buyers would wait in their cars outside the home while the offers were being presented to the seller. That way, they could sign any counteroffer and be the first to return it. New provisions in most counteroffer forms have eliminated this silliness by stating that no counteroffer is in effect until it is signed by the buyer and accepted by the seller. This practice allows the seller to wait until all the counteroffers have been returned before making a decision.

I have lost seven homes in multiple offer situations. Should I blame my agent? The answer depends on why your offers weren't accepted. "Buyers always jump to the conclusion that it's the agent's fault. If you're writing offers on houses in the $350,000 range, and all your offers are for $300,000, you're not going to get those houses. You need to be realistic," says Sheller. On the other hand, your agent needs to know how to operate in this market. "I have been in transactions where had an agent been more savvy and more aggressive; the client would have got the property,” says Geronsin. She recalls one situation when a buyer's agent called her after the seller had accepted another offer and said his buyer wanted to bid higher. "I said, 'I told you we had multiple offers and you had to come in with your best price. You didn't do it. Now it's too late.' That is the fault of the agent," she says.

Copyright © 2000 Marcie Geffner. All rights reserved.

The Bottom Line on Contract Negotiation

Ask these questions before you decide to go ahead with a contract.

By Marcie Geffner

The natural focal point of a real estate purchase contract is the selling price of the home, but the price isn't the only factor that determines the net bottom line for both the buyer and the seller. Is a bargain for the buyer really a bargain if he or she is paying all the transaction costs? Is a top price for the seller really a top price if the buyer wants all the furniture to be included in the purchase price? Or if the buyer they can't come up with the down payment or qualify for a mortgage?

Before you decide to go ahead with a great price, here are five other bottom-line points to consider:

1. What are the estimated transaction costs and who will pay for what? Typical costs include the brokers' commission, a home inspection, a termite inspection, escrow or attorney's fees, a title search, an owner's title insurance policy, transfer taxes and recording fees. The price tags on these items vary greatly around the country. Who pays for what is a matter of both local custom and negotiation.

2. How much money is the buyer putting into escrow and how soon? A big deposit -- called "earnest money" -- and a substantial down payment are generally seen as a sign that the buyer is serious about completing the transaction. From the seller's point of view, the more money the buyer places in escrow and the sooner the money are transferred, the better.

3. Is there a mortgage financing contingency and how specific is it? The mortgage escape clause is a must for buyers, unless they're paying all cash for the home. Without this contingency, buyers can be legally obligated to purchase the home even if they can't obtain financing. Further, an open-ended statement that says the buyer will obtain a loan "at the prevailing rate of interest" leaves the buyer completely exposed to interest rate fluctuations. A statement that says the loan must be at an interest rate "not to exceed xx percent" and on specified terms is preferable.

4. What furniture, fixtures and appliances, if any, are being sold with the property? Technically, anything that's permanently affixed to or installed in the home is real property. Everything else is the seller's personal property. This distinction is a narrow one and it naturally leads to a fair amount of confusion. Are built-in appliances real property or personal property? What about a shelving system? A chandelier? Window coverings? Potted plants in the backyard? Sellers who intend to remove anything that's attached to the home should have that spelled out in the contract. And the same goes for buyers who expect to acquire any of the furniture or other movables.

5. What will happen if either side breaches the contract? Unless an unmet contingency triggers the abandonment of the contract, it's a binding legal document. Buyers who fail to perform can lose their deposit money. Sellers who try to back out can be sued for "specific performance," which forces the sale of the home to the buyer. Many contracts also specify that disputes must be brought in small-claims court or presented for arbitration or mediation.

Tip: Ask your real estate agent to go over the standard contract with you before you receive or make a purchase offer. That way, you'll know what to expect and be prepared to negotiate the best deal you can get.

Copyright © 2000 Marcie Geffner. All rights reserved

Home Inspections Avert Future Headaches

By Warren Lutz

Suppose you bought a house and later discovered, to your dismay, that the stucco exterior concealed a nasty case of dry rot. Or suppose that winter when you fired up the furnace, you discovered a cracked heat exchanger leaking gas into your home.

The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises like these is to arrange for a home inspection before you buy. A good home inspection is an objective, top-to-bottom examination of the home and everything that comes with it. The standard inspection report includes a review of the home's heating and air-conditioning systems, its plumbing and wiring, the roof, attic, walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors, the foundation and the basement.

Getting a professional inspection is crucial for older homes because age often takes its toll on the roof and other hard-to-reach areas. Problems can also be the result of neglect or hazardous repair work, such as a past owner's failed attempt to install lights and an outlet in a linen closet.

But a home inspection is also a wise investment when buying a new home. In fact, new homes frequently have defects, whether caused by an oversight during construction or simply human error.

Reasonable Fixes: Home inspections cost about $250 to $350, depending on the size of the house and where in the country the home is located. Inspection fees tend to be higher in urban areas and cities than in rural areas. Real estate agents can usually recommend an experienced home inspector. You can find one through a friend or the Yellow Pages under "Building Inspection" or "Home Inspection." The American Society of Home Inspectors, a professional trade group, also has a database of qualified inspectors on its Web site.

Some builders may try to dissuade you from getting a home inspection on a home they've built. They may not necessarily be trying to hide anything because most builders guarantee their work and will fix any problems in your new home before you move in. Some builders, in fact, will offer to do their own inspections. But if you'd prefer a more objective appraisal, insist on an outside inspection.

Self-Education: Education is another good reason for getting an inspection. Most buyers want to learn as much as they can about their purchase so they can protect their investment. An examination by an impartial home inspector helps this learning process.

Ask if you can follow the home inspector on his or her rounds. Most inspectors are glad to share their knowledge, and you'll be able to ask plenty of questions.

Homebuyers usually arrange for an inspection after signing a contract or purchase agreement with the seller. The results may be available immediately or within a few days. The home inspector will review his or her findings with you and alert you to any costly or potentially hazardous conditions. In some cases, you may be advised not to purchase the home unless these problems are remedied.

You could elect to include a clause that makes your obligation contingent upon the results of the inspection. If major problems are found, you can back out of the deal. If costly repairs are warranted, the seller may be willing to adjust the home's price or the contract's terms. But when only minor repairs are needed, the buyer and seller can usually work out an agreement that won't affect the sale price.


8. Get Insurance

Step 8 of 10

No one would drive a car without insurance, so it figures that no homeowner should be without insurance.

The essential idea behind various forms of real estate insurance is to protect owners in the event of catastrophe. If something goes wrong, insurance can be the bargain of a lifetime.

What kind and how much? There are various forms of insurance associated with home ownership, including these major types:

Shop for Homeowner's Insurance

Homeowner's insurance protects you and your mortgage lender from things that can go wrong, including:

  • Casualty Insurance covers most types of damage to the structure of your house like fire, wind, or hail. In areas prone to wildfires, floods or earthquakes, you'll probably need an additional policy to protect you from damage from specific natural disasters.

  • Liability Insurance provides protection in case a visitor is injured in your home.

  • Theft or damage to personal property Insurance covers things like your furniture, clothes, and appliances.

Disaster Insurance

Most home insurance policies do not cover flooding or damage due to earthquake. Flood insurance can be purchased through your insurance agent, and is also available through the National Flood Insurance Program for areas at high-risk for flooding.

Earthquake coverage is also a separate policy or sometimes an endorsement to your existing policy, usually available through your insurance agent. In California, earthquake insurance can also be purchased through the California Earthquake Authority.

Be sure to understand exactly what disasters your insurance covers and what it does not. For a guide to disaster coverage, visit The Insurance Information Institute.

Types of Homeowner's Insurance

There are four main types of insurance related to repairing structural damage:

  • Actual cash value This insurance covers an amount equal to the replacement value of the damaged property, minus a depreciation allowance.

  • Replacement cost This insurance covers the cost of replacing damaged property without a depreciation deduction, but with a maximum dollar amount.

  • Extended replacement cost This insurance covers the cost of replacing your home up to a stated percent (usually 20-30%) over the amount insured.

  • Guaranteed replacement cost This insurance covers the cost of replacing damaged property without a depreciation deduction or a maximum dollar amount.

The terms can be a little confusing. Be sure to ask an insurance professional to give you real-life examples so you can understand the differences.

Saving Money on Insurance

You can save money on your homeowner's insurance by doing your research. Shop around and compare different services and prices. Your family and friends can be good resources. You can also check with the federal government's Citizen Information Center, or AM Best. Other ways to save some money include:

  • Increasing your deductible The higher the deductible, the less expensive the insurance premium. But don't forget that, in the event of a loss, you'll have to pay the amount of your deductible from your own money before your insurance pays for any damages. Don't take a deductible that will be too much for you to pay in the event of a loss.

  • Consolidating your insurance If you buy homeowner's and auto insurance with the same company, you may be able to get a discount.

  • Looking at the age and construction of your home Insurance costs tend to be lower in newer homes with new equipment. Construction designed to be particularly resistant to wind and earthquake damage may also lower your rates.

  • Only insuring the value of the structure and its contents While your home and its contents are at risk from fire, theft, etc., the land your home sits on is not.

  • Being safe! Install smoke detectors, security systems, deadbolts and other safety devices. Safety features can lower insurance rates.

  • Quitting smoking Some companies offer reduced rates for nonsmokers.

  • Flaunting your age If you're over 55, let the insurance company know. You can probably get discounts.

  • Getting group coverage Your college, credit union, or business associations may qualify you for special rebates.

  • Staying with your insurance company Some companies reward loyal clients with reduced premiums.

Title Insurance

Your lender will also obtain a lender's title insurance policy to insure against claims that you do not have "clean title" to your property and that the lender has a first lien on your property. For a small additional fee, the title insurance company will issue a homeowner's policy that gives you the same protection. Your policy will protect you as long as you own the home, even if you refinance or pay off your loan. You should ask your lender for information about a homeowner's title policy.


9. Closing

Step 9 of 10

Go to any local courthouse and you can find property records detailing real estate ownership in your community -- sometimes records that date back hundreds of years.

These records are important because they provide today's owners with proof that they have good, marketable and insurable title to the property they are selling. Equally important, such records enable buyers to provide proof of ownership when they sell.

The closing process, which in different parts of the country is also known as "settlement" or "escrow," is increasingly computerized and automated. In many cases, buyers and sellers don't need to attend a specific event; signed paperwork can be sent to the closing agent via overnight delivery.

In practice, closings bring together a variety of parties who are part of the "transaction" process. For example, while the history of property ownership has been checked, it's possible that the records contain errors, unrecorded claims or flaws in the review itself, thus title insurance is necessary. At closing, transfer taxes must be paid and other claims must also be settled (including closing costs, legal fees and adjustments). In most transactions, the closing agent also completes the paperwork needed to record the loan.

What to expect. Settlement is a brief process where all of the necessary paperwork needed to complete the transaction is signed. Closing is typically held in an office setting, sometimes with both buyer and seller at the same table, sometimes with each party completing their papers separately.

Whatever the case, the result is that title to the property is transferred from seller to buyer. The buyer receives the keys and the seller receives payment for the home. From the amount credited to the seller, the closing agent subtracts money to pay off the existing mortgage and other transaction costs. Deeds, loan papers, and other documents are prepared, signed and filed with local property record offices.

What you need to do. One of the best parts of settlement is that buyers and sellers need to do very little.

Before closing, buyers typically have a final opportunity to walk through the property to assure that its condition has not materially changed since the sale agreement was signed. At closing itself, all papers have been prepared by closing agents, title companies, lenders and lawyers. This paperwork reflects the sale agreement and allows all parties to the transaction to verify their interests. For instance, buyers get the title to the property, lenders have their loans recorded in the public records and state governments collect their transfer taxes.

Who Represents You?

by John Adams

One of the hot topics facing the world of real estate right now is the issue of agency. Some would have you believe that it really doesn't affect you, the buyer, and that nothing much has changed. But they are wrong.

The topic of agency is important to you because it answers the most basic and fundamental question that can be asked of any real estate professional: Who do you represent in this transaction?

Until that question is answered, you may be left with the impression that all agents who work with buyers actually represent those buyers, and that you have somebody going to bat for you in this transaction. Well, the issue of agency is important because without it, we can never be sure who represents who.

Here's the scenario: You meet a really nice agent at an open house named Bonnie. Even though Bonnie's house is not right for you, she tells you she has others to show you that fit your needs exactly. You spend an hour or so with Bonnie looking at a half dozen homes and talking about your needs and your wants. During the course of the conversation, you volunteer that you have $100,000 cash to spend and that you will not go over $100,000 purchase price no matter what. Then you find the perfect house. Asking price is $100,000 but you decide to offer $92,500 based on recent sales in the area. During negotiations, the seller asks Bonnie directly how much cash you have and how high will you go? What does Bonnie say?

Here's the answer: Unless you have signed a "Buyer Agency Agreement" with Bonnie making her your buyer agent, she is most likely acting as a sub-agent to the listing broker who represents the seller. If that is the case, she has a fiduciary obligation to the seller to disclose to him any information she has that might "promote or protect his interest" in the transaction. Guess what? Bonnie has that information.

The Seller, now having knowledge of your financial position, counters at a full $100,000. He knows you can afford it and that this price falls within your desired range. He also knows that you have seen a number of other homes and that his is the one you want.

Regardless of what eventually happens in this scenario, it can hardly be called an even playing field. So, how can you protect yourself from a possible disclosure required of a seller's agent?

1. Make sure that the agent you are working with has agreed, in writing, to represent you as a "Buyer's Agent." This will mean signing a buyer brokerage agreement in which you promise to work only with that particular agent for a specific period of time, often 90 days. It also means that you promise not to buy from anybody else, even FSBOs, without involving your buyer's agent. In almost every case, the commission will still come from the seller, but your agent must present the offer.

2. Never say anything to anybody unless you would be willing to have that information repeated into a seller's ear. Assume that everybody, and I mean everybody, is working for a seller unless you have specifically hired them to work for you. And even then, be discreet. During the Second World War, the military promoted a phrase designed to stop idle gossip: Loose lips sink ships! You would do well to adopt that philosophy in your home-buying as well.


10. What's Next?

Step 10 of 10

You've done it. You've looked at properties, made an offer, obtained financing and gone to closing. The home is yours. Is there any more to the homebuying process?

Whether you're a first-time buyer or a repeat buyer, there are several more steps you'll want to take.

Those papers you received at settlement are extremely valuable, so hold on to them! In the short-term they can help establish tax deductions for the year in which the property was purchased. In the future, such papers will be important for tax purposes when the property is sold, and in some cases, for calculating estate taxes.

Also at closing, determine the status of the utilities required by the home, items such as water, sewage, gas, electric and oil service. You want utility bills to be paid in full by owners as of closing and you also want services transferred to your name for billing. Usually such transfers can be done without turning off utilities. REALTORS® can provide contact numbers and related information.

About two weeks after closing, contact your local property records office and confirm that your deed has been officially recorded. Such records are public notices that show your interest in the property.

Moving in It is generally understood that sellers will leave homes "broom clean" when moving out. This expression does not mean "vacuumed" or "spotless." Broom clean makes sense because it means the house is ready to be painted and cleaned.

Your home, your money For most owners a home is the largest single asset they hold, so it makes sense to protect that asset.

Many owners make a photo or video record of the home and their possessions for insurance purposes and then keep the records in a safety deposit box. Your insurance provider can recommend what to photograph and how to secure it.

You want to maintain fire, theft and liability insurance. As the value of your property increases such coverage should also rise. Again, speak with your insurance professional for details.


**Lastly, enjoy your home. Owning real estate involves contracts, loans, and taxes, but ultimately what's most important is that homeownership should be a wonderful experience. Enjoy!**


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