Preparing Financially to Buy a Home
If you’re like most homebuyers, you will need a mortgage to finance your new home. By preparing in advance, you can avoid the typical delays and roadblocks many buyers face when applying for a mortgage.
This also applies to homeowners looking to buy their next house. As lending requirements have become more stringent in recent years, any changes to your credit history, debt levels, employment, and other factors could impact your approval chances. Preparing in advance for a mortgage ensures you don’t encounter any issues along the way towards closing.
The requirements to secure a mortgage may seem overwhelming, especially if you’re a first-time buyer, so we’ve outlined three simple steps to get you started on your path to homeownership. Follow these three steps to begin laying the foundation for your future home purchase today.
STEP 1: CHECK YOUR CREDIT SCORE
Your credit score is one of the first things a lender will check to see if you qualify for a loan. It’s a good idea to review your credit report and score yourself before you’re ready to apply for a mortgage. If you have a low score, you will need time to raise it. Sometimes, fraudulent activity or erroneous information will appear on your report, which can take months to correct.
The credit score most lenders use is your FICO score, a weighted score developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation that takes into account your payment history (35%), amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), new credit (10%), and credit mix (10%).
Base FICO scores range from 300 to 850. A higher FICO score will help you qualify for a lower mortgage interest rate, which will save you money.
By federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion). Request your free credit report.
When Should You Start to Check Credit Scores?
Check credit scores at least six months before applying (or more if you’ve had previous credit issues). Loan options can be limited if you've got a lower credit score. An early check gives you time to fix any problems. Even with excellent credit, you need to maintain your high score until closing to ensure your financing doesn’t fall through.
Lender Minimum Score Requirements
To qualify for the lowest interest rates available, you will usually need a FICO score of 760 or higher. Most lenders require a score of at least 620 to qualify for a conventional mortgage.
If your FICO score is less than 620, you may be able to qualify for a non-conventional mortgage. However, you should expect to pay higher interest rates and fees. For example, you may be able to secure an FHA loan (one issued by a private lender but insured by the Federal Housing Administration) with a credit score as low as 580 if you can make a 3.5 percent down payment. And FHA loans are available to applicants with credit scores as low as 500 with a 10 percent down payment.
Improving Your Credit Score
There’s no quick fix for a low credit score, but the following tips will help you increase it over time.
- Make payments on time. At 35 percent, your payment history accounts for the largest portion of your credit score. Therefore, it’s crucial to get caught up on any late payments and make all of your future payments on time if you have trouble remembering to pay your bills on time, set up payment reminders through your online banking apps, a free money management tool like Mint, or an app like BillMinder.
- Avoid applying for new credit you don’t need. New accounts will lower your average account age, which could negatively impact your length of credit history. Also, each time you apply for credit, it can result in a small decrease in your credit score. The exception to this rule? If you don’t have any credit cards—or any credit accounts at all—you should open an account to establish a credit history. Just be sure to use it responsibly and pay it off in full each month. If you need to shop for a new credit account, for example, a car loan, be sure to complete your loan applications within a short period of time. FICO attempts to distinguish between a search for a single loan and applications to open several new credit lines by the window of time during which inquiries occur.
- Pay down credit cards. When you pay off your credit cards, you lower your amounts owed or credit utilization ratio (ratio of account balances to credit limits). Some experts recommend starting with your highest-interest debt and paying it off first. Others suggest paying off your lowest balance first and then rolling that payment into your next-lowest balance to create momentum. Whichever method you choose, the first step is to make a list of all of your credit card balances and then start tackling them one by one. Make the minimum payments on all of your cards except one. Pay as much as possible on that card until it’s paid in full, then cross it off your list and move on to the next card.
- Avoid closing old accounts. Closing an old account will not remove it from your credit report. In fact, it can hurt your score, as it can raise your credit utilization ratio—since you’ll have less available credit—and decrease your average length of credit history. Similarly, paying off a collection account will not remove it from your report. It remains on your credit report for seven years; however, the negative impact on your score will decrease over time.
- Correct errors on your report. Mistakes or fraudulent activity can negatively impact your credit score. That’s why it’s a good idea to check your credit report at least once per year. The Federal Trade Commission has instructions on their website for disputing errors on your report. While it may seem like a lot of effort to raise your credit score, your hard work will pay off in the long run. Not only will it help you qualify for a mortgage, but a high credit score can also help you secure a lower interest rate on car loans and credit cards, as well. You may even qualify for lower rates on insurance premiums.
STEP 2: SAVE UP FOR A DOWN PAYMENT AND CLOSING COSTS
The next step in preparing for your home purchase is to save up for a down payment and closing costs.
When you purchase a home, you typically pay for a portion of it in cash (down payment) and take out a loan to cover the remaining balance (mortgage).
How much do I need to save for a down payment? Generally speaking, the higher your down payment, the more money you will save on interest and fees. For example, you will qualify for a lower interest rate and avoid paying for mortgage insurance if your down payment is at least 20 percent of the property’s purchase price.
But what if you can’t afford to put down 20 percent? You will be required to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI) on a conventional loan if your down payment is less than 20 percent. PMI is insurance that compensates your lender if you default on your loan.7
PMI will cost you between 0.3 to 1.5 percent of the overall mortgage amount each year. So, on a $100,000 loan, you can expect to pay between $300 and $1500 per year for PMI until your mortgage balance falls below 80 percent of the appraised value. For a conventional mortgage with PMI, most lenders will accept a minimum down payment of five percent of the purchase price.7
If a five-percent down payment is still too high, an FHA-insured loan may be an option for you. Because the Federal Housing Administration guarantees them, FHA loans only require a 3.5 percent down payment if your credit score is 580 or higher.7
The downside of getting an FHA loan? You’ll be required to pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium (MIP) of 1.75 percent of the total loan amount, as well as an annual MIP of between 0.80 and 1.05 percent of your loan balance on a 30-year note. There are also certain limitations on the types of loans and properties that qualify.
There are a variety of other government-sponsored programs created to assist home buyers, as well. For example, veterans and current Armed Forces members may qualify for a VA-backed loan requiring a $0 down payment.7 Consult a mortgage lender about what options are available to you.
If you’re a current homeowner, you may have equity in your home to use toward your down payment on a new home. We can help you estimate your expected return after selling your current home and paying back your existing mortgage. Contact us for a free evaluation!
Closing costs should also be factored into your savings plan. These may include loan origination fees, discount points, appraisal fees, title searches, title insurance, surveys, and other fees associated with the purchase of your home. Closing costs vary but typically range between two to five percent of the purchase price.
If you don’t have the funds to pay these outright at closing, you can often add them to your mortgage balance and pay them over time. However, this means you’ll have a higher monthly payment and pay more over the long term because you’ll pay interest on the fees.
STEP 3: ESTIMATE YOUR HOME PURCHASING POWER
Once you have the required credit score, savings for a down payment, and a list of all your outstanding debt obligations via your credit report, you can assess whether you are ready and able to purchase a home.
It’s important to have a sense of how much you can reasonably afford—and how much you’ll be able to borrow—to see if homeownership is within reach.
Your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is one of the main factors mortgage companies use to determine how much they are willing to lend you, and it can help you gauge whether or not your home purchasing goals are realistic given your current financial situation.
Your DTI ratio is essentially a comparison of your housing expenses and other debt versus your income. There are two different DTI ratios that lenders consider:
- Front-End Ratio. This is also called the housing ratio, which is the percentage of your income that would go toward housing expenses each month, including your mortgage payment, private mortgage insurance, property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and association dues.
To calculate your front-end DTI ratio, a lender will add up your expected housing expenses and divide it by your gross monthly income (income before taxes). The maximum front-end DTI ratio for most mortgages is 28 percent. For an FHA-backed loan, this ratio must not exceed 31 percent.
- Back-End Ratio. The back-end ratio considers all of your monthly debt obligations: your expected housing expenses PLUS credit card bills, car payments, child support or alimony, student loans, and any other debt that shows up on your credit report.
To calculate your back-end ratio, a lender will tabulate your expected housing expenses and other monthly debt payments and divide them by your gross monthly income (income before taxes). The maximum back-end DTI ratio for most mortgages is 36 percent. For an FHA-backed loan, this ratio must not exceed 41 percent.
Home Affordability Calculator. To get a sense of how much home you can afford, visit the National Association of Realtors’ Home Affordability Calculator, which will help you determine your home purchasing power depending on your location, annual income, monthly debt, and down payment. It also offers a monthly mortgage breakdown that projects what you would pay each month in principal and interest, property taxes, and home insurance.
The Home Affordability Calculator defaults to a back-end DTI ratio of 36 percent. If the monthly cost estimate at that ratio is significantly higher than what you’re currently paying for housing, you need to consider whether or not you can make up the difference each month in your budget.
If not, you may want to lower your target purchase price to a more conservative DTI ratio. The tool enables you to scroll through higher and lower price points to see the impact on your monthly payments so you can identify your ideal price point.
(Note: This tool only provides an estimate of your purchasing power. You will need to secure pre-approval from a mortgage lender to know your true mortgage approval amount and monthly payment projections.)
Can I Afford to Buy My Dream Home?
Once you have a sense of your purchasing power, it’s time to find out which neighborhoods and types of homes you can afford. The best way to determine this is to contact a licensed real estate agent. We help homeowners like you every day and send you a comprehensive list of homes within your budget that meet your specific needs.
Suppose there are homes within your price range and target neighborhoods that meet your criteria—congratulations! It’s time to begin your home search.
If not, you may need to continue saving up for a larger down payment … or adjusting your search parameters to find homes that fit within your budget. We can help you determine the right course for you.
START LAYING YOUR FOUNDATION TODAY
It’s never too early to start preparing financially for a home purchase. These three steps will set you on the path toward homeownership … and a secure financial future!
And if you are ready to buy now but don’t have a perfect credit score or a big down payment, don’t get discouraged. There are resources and options available that might make it possible for you to buy a home sooner than you think. We can help.
Want to find out if you’re ready to buy a house? Give us a call! We’ll help you review your options, connect you with one of our trusted mortgage lenders, and help you determine the ideal time to begin your new home search.
Disclaimer: The above references an opinion and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be financial advice. Consult a financial professional for advice regarding your individual needs.
Eric Slifkin, Team Lead
Your local real estate expert
Are you seeking a home that suits your lifestyle, community, and neighborhood needs? With his team, Eric offers home buyers a turn-key approach to finding and purchasing real estate from the Treasure Coast to the Palm Beaches and beyond.
Contact us today to schedule a free consultation. Whether buying or selling a home on the Treasure Coast, we are always happy to meet with you to discuss your wants and needs, with no obligation.
Eric Slifkin has authored this post, a Broker Associate at Keller Williams Real Estate and the Slifkin Real Estate Team founder. Eric and his experienced agents serve South Florida and the Treasure Coast, including Stuart, Hobe Sound, Palm City, Port Saint Lucie, Jupiter, Tequesta, and the Palm Beaches.