Buying a property is an involved and time-consuming process, but it doesn’t always have to be overwhelming. If you know what steps to prepare for and have the right agent by your side, you’ll find the perfect home in your price range.
Step 1: Find a great real estate agent.
While you are buying a home, a local real estate agent will be your most valuable ally. In addition to finding and showing you houses, they can also refer you to other services such as lawyers, lenders, and escrow companies. After finding the right house for you, it is your realtor who will make sure you get the best price.
Consider hiring agents who specialize in the area and price range in which you are interested.
Here is a few tips to keep in mind:
- Years of experience
- Number of transactions in the last year (the more the better)
- Experience in your price range and chosen neighborhood
- Overall review score
- Individual reviews and complaints
Schedule an interview with each of your top 3-5 candidates once you have a list of candidates. Consider asking them questions about the neighborhood you are looking at to see if they have the knowledge and experience to help you make an informed decision.
Additionally, you can go to showings with an agent (or multiple agents) before signing a buyer’s agency agreement. The advantage of doing this is that you may take a realtor for a test drive before you commit to working with them.
Step 2: Assess your financial situation
If you’re planning to take out a mortgage to pay for your home, you need to understand how your financial situation impacts your buying options.
We’ll go into more detail below, but here are the financial factors you need to have in good shape before buying a house:
Home buying is complicated. It’s not easy figuring out how to get started, how much you can afford, and what the heck “amortization” is on your own.
The best way to learn? Talk with a licensed lender who can answer your questions and show you the ropes.
Fill out the form below to learn how much home you can afford.
Future mortgage payment
The first step to getting your finances in order is determining how much you can afford to spend on your mortgage each month.
When deciding whether to approve your mortgage, most lenders follow the 28/36 rule:
Total housing costs (including your future mortgage) shouldn’t exceed 28% of your monthly income
Total monthly debt payments shouldn’t be more than 36% of your monthly income (this number is called your debt-to-income ratio)
Don’t forget your other expenses!
When assessing your mortgage eligibility, lenders don’t include non-debt costs like groceries, health insurance, utilities, or your retirement savings, but it’s still a good idea for you to plan for those expenses!
Consider how much of your monthly income goes towards these costs and make sure there’s still enough left over to cover a mortgage payment.
Down payments are a way for lenders to offset their risk. By making a down payment, you put “skin in the game.”
Legally closing a real estate transaction involves many services (title searches, document recording, etc.) that cost money.
The seller is responsible for some closing costs, but typically, the buyer pays the majority of these expenses out of pocket. A buyer’s closing costs usually run between 2-5% of the loan amount and include costs like:
- Appraisal fees
- Loan application fees
- Property taxes
- Title insurance policies and fees
- Homeowner’s insurance
Step 3: Choose the right neighborhood
A house’s neighborhood is just as important as its layout and features. In general, you’ll need to consider the following factors to decide which area is best for you:
After Step No. 1, you should have a good idea of your home buying budget. Do some research on current sale prices in different neighborhoods to start narrowing down your options so you don’t end up looking at houses that are out of your price range.
Also, look at past home value trends; this will give you an idea of how much your home’s value can appreciate over the years. You want a neighborhood that’s in your budget but can also lead to a big return when you decide to sell.
To give you an idea of how appreciation could impact what your house is worth in the future, let’s look at some examples of how homes in three neighborhoods in Chicago have appreciated over the years.
Once you have a list of neighborhoods you can afford and that is a good investment, you’ll need to evaluate how well each area meets your personal needs and preferences.
To finalize your list of target areas, look into neighborhood features like:
- School districts
- Restaurants and amenities
- Crime rates
- Transportation options
Step 4: Get pre-approved for a mortgage
Most sellers won’t show you their home unless you have a mortgage pre-approval letter. They don’t want to waste their time with buyers who aren’t serious or financially ready to put in an offer.
Getting pre-approved for a mortgage gives you and the seller confidence that if they accept your offer, you’ll be able to get financing and close the deal.
Compare interest rates
While there’s a wide range of mortgage terms, most conventional mortgages are for 15, 20, or 30 years. With a shorter-term mortgage, you’ll have a lower interest rate, but higher monthly payment.
Choose a Lender
Aside from interest rates and mortgage terms, you’ll also want to find a lender who actively works with you to ensure the deal closes.
If the lender’s underwriting process is slow, or if they take forever to give you all the necessary paperwork, it can derail your entire transaction.
Maintain your credit
Once you’re pre-approved for a mortgage, your financial situation mustn’t change. If your credit drops, it can derail the process and keep you from closing on your house.
Here are some easy ways to ensure your credit doesn’t change after you receive your pre-approval letter:
- Avoid opening new credit accounts
- Don’t close any accounts that have been open for a long time
- Make all of your credit card payments on time
Step 5: Start house hunting
Viewing homes is the fun part of buying a house! But don’t forget, eventually, you’ll have to make the big decision about which one is right for you.
Here are some of the most important factors to remember when looking at different homes:
Make a list of priorities
Start by writing out a list of everything you want in a home. Rank each item based on how important it is to you. This will help you begin to separate your “must-haves” from your “nice to have.”
Then discuss with your agent whether your list is realistic. They know what homes in your price range and target neighborhood are like and can point out where you might have to make concessions.
Trust your agent. As long as they stick to your price range, they can show you a variety of properties and might even surprise you with a house you wouldn’t have considered without them.
Look at the current housing inventory
When you start house hunting can impact your number of options. For example, in Illinois, March is when there are historically the most homes on the market. While in November, there are almost 18% fewer homes available.
- If you’re viewing homes in a time of low inventory, you might have to be less picky before choosing a home to bid on.
Step 6: Make offers
Once you find a house you love, it’s time to make an offer and convince the seller to sell to you. But if you don’t know when to make an offer or how to make it more attractive, the seller might not accept it.
How long do you have to make an offer?
Currently, in Illinois, homes typically stay on the market for 56 days. But every market goes through seasonal changes. During some months, homes get snatched up more quickly than in others.
Depending on when you’re house hunting, you might have to make an offer sooner than you’d expect — especially if homes spend fewer days on market than the annual average.
Looking at the table below, historically, you’ll need to move fastest in September when homes only stay on the market for 55 days. But if you’re looking to buy in February, you have more time to make your decision since houses typically spend 30 days longer on market than the annual average.
When in doubt, talk to your agent. They can let you know how quickly you need to put in an offer for your dream house.
Writing the perfect offer
Price isn’t the only thing that can influence a seller to accept your offer. You can make other compromises, based on the state of your market, to sweeten the deal for you and the seller.
Here are some common negotiating opportunities to work out a win-win deal with the seller:
- Seller concessions: As the buyer, you’ll have to pay for most of your closing costs out of pocket. To save on these upfront costs, you can ask for seller concessions. Instead of lowering your offer price to have more money on hand, the seller pays for your closing cost, and the expenses are essentially rolled into your mortgage.
- Repair credits: If the home is in need of repair, you could ask for credits instead of having the seller make and pay for the repairs. The seller avoids the hassle of waiting for contractors to complete the job, and you get to oversee the repairs in the future to make sure they meet your expectations.
- Inspection contingencies: Most purchase agreements have inspection contingencies that allow you to change your offer (or back out altogether) if the inspection turns up major problems. If you have a high degree of certainty about the house’s condition (like if the seller can show you a recent inspection report), you can forgo this contingency to give the seller a higher sense of confidence.
- Letter to the seller: Many sellers have a personal attachment to the home. They’ve lived there for years and want to know the next owner will take care of the property. Writing a letter to the seller can show them how you picture your life in the house and appeal to their sentimental side.
Step 7: Inspections and appraisals
Once a seller accepts your offer, there are a series of due diligence steps that ensure the home you’re buying is exactly what you signed up for. After inspections and appraisals, you’ll have a chance to go back to the negotiating table if something unexpected pops up.
Inspections give you peace of mind about the condition of the property. You should always hire a licensed inspector and make sure they check out the following parts of the property:
- Electrical system
- HVAC system
If the home has a septic system, it’s also a good idea to pay for a septic inspection that scopes out the system with cameras to look for any potential issues.
Illinois Specific Inspections
Aside from a general inspection, Illinois also recommends buyers have the following inspections and testing done before closing on a home:
Radon Testing: While it’s not required by law, Illinois strongly recommends that homes are tested for radon. If the seller hasn’t had the house’s radon levels tested recently, consider having it tested before closing on the home.
Termite Inspection: If you’re applying for a VA or FHA loan, you’ll most likely be required to have a termite and pest inspection in Illinois.
Unlike an inspection, an appraisal isn’t strictly about the condition of the home; it’s about its value. If you’re taking out a mortgage, your lender will require an appraisal to ensure the house is worth the amount of money they’re giving you.
Step 8: Final walkthrough and closing!
When it’s time to close, you’ll be able to do a final walkthrough of the property to ensure it’s still in the expected condition. While you might be excited for the buying process to be over, stay focused so you don’t miss anything.
During the walkthrough, be sure to run through the following checklist:
- Inspect the ceilings, walls, and floors for cracks chipped or peeling paint or other imperfections
- Test every light switch and electrical outlet
- Run the water to look for leaks and check the pressure and temperature
- Flush all toilets
- Make sure you have working keys for all the doors (don’t forget any garage door openers or smart lock technology)
- Test any appliances that are included in the sale
- Check the heating and air conditioning system
- Open and close all windows while checking that they lock and there are no unexpected drafts
- Make sure all trash or belongings from the previous owners have been removed
On closing day, be prepared to sign a ton of paperwork. Your agent (or your lawyer) should explain every document before closing, but still, ask any remaining questions you have before signing.
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