Step One: Fix Your Credit
The first step toward buying a home takes place months before walking into your lender’s office. It’s crucial to check your credit score at least three to six months ahead of your mortgage application, says Rod Griffin, director of Public Education at Experian. You can request a free copy of the report from each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) at annualcreditreport.com.
Even if you don’t have sterling credit (generally a FICO score of 720 or above), the most important thing to do is to take stock of what the figure means. “Every score is educational,” says Griffin. “It’s more about why the number is than what the number is.”
This is especially true since there are different proprietary scales used to gauge credit: the Vantage score, for instance, ranges from 501 to 990, while the FICO score runs from 300 to 850. Make sure to read the accompanying credit report to understand what your score actually means. It’s also important to check for errors in the report, which can have a negative effect on your credit, and ultimately, your mortgage rate. One in four reports has an error serious enough to prevent homebuyers from getting credit, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. So get your reports well in advance of the house hunt.
Step Two: Prepare for Down Payment & Closing Costs
A generation ago, it used to be the norm to put 20 percent down, but with the market in its current state of flux, many first-time homebuyers are finding ways to pay just 3 to 5 percent of the total cost upfront. Federal Housing Act (FHA) loans increasingly have become a popular option for first-time buyers, says Greg Herb, regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors. These competitively low-interest loans are ideal for buyers with less than perfect credit, and because the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) minimizes the risk of default for lenders on these loans, borrowers are only required to put down 3.5 percent of the cost–a far cry from the traditional 20 percent down payment.
Still, there are advantages to paying more at the start. A larger down payment ultimately means smaller monthly bills down the line. Also, if you purchase a conventional loan (i.e.: one that is not backed by a federal agency), paying 20 percent or more upfront will eliminate the need to pay Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) charges. PMI is insurance for your lender that can be paid upfront or in monthly installments, and is designed to offset your lender’s risk in the case that you’ve paid less than 20 percent on your home. It can cost around $55 a month per $100,000 financed. While it’s important to note that FHA loans also carry mortgage insurance with a down payment of under 20 percent, their low barriers to own still make them a good choice for first-time buyers.
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