Before You Choose a Mortgage Lender, Read These Tips

Someone out there wants to help save you time, stress, and money. Here’s how you find them.

Mortgage lender illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Everyone in the market for a house has different wants — pre-war charm, a lush backyard, a welcoming front door in Pantone Ultra Violet, perhaps — but at the end of the day, they all share a need in common: money. Lots of it.

That’s where your mortgage lender comes in.

The right lender can save you time, anxiety, and loads of cash. And the right loan officer — the professional who represents the lender — can be a powerful ally when you close on a mortgage. As with any potentially life-altering partnership, it’s important to choose wisely.

Only You Know Which Lender Is Your Type

There are three types of mortgage lenders — retail banks, credit unions, and mortgage banks — as well as mortgage brokers, who compare loan products via a coterie of potential lenders to help you, the client, find the right one. Before you start narrowing down the candidates, you have to know what you’re looking for, and where to find it. Let’s talk about your options. 

Retail Banks

What they are: These are your Chases and Banks of America, plus your local banks. They do their own underwriting (in a nutshell, investigating your finances), so retail banks, especially the smaller ones, can sometimes offer lower fees and less-stringent credit requirements. If you like to have your accounts all in one place, you may want to use your own bank or credit union. 

Who you’ll work with: You’ll be assigned a loan officer, who will receive a commission or bonus for writing your loan.

Credit Unions

What they are: They’re not-for-profit and customer-owned, so they’re not beholden to shareholders like a bank. Because of that and their not-for-profit tax status, they typically offer more personal service and lower fees. The flip side is less convenience: They have fewer branches and ATMs. 

And to apply for a loan, you must be a member of the credit union’s community, which could be faith-, employment-, interest-, or union-based, among other things. That said, it’s typically not difficult to become a member; the National Credit Union Administration’s Credit Union Locator is a tool for finding credit unions near you. 

Who you’ll work with: As with a bank, you’ll be assigned a loan officer, who will receive a commission or bonus for writing your loan.

Mortgage Banks

White-Glove Treatment or Lower Rates?

Getting in touch with an online lender may be more difficult than with traditional lenders. If you’d prefer more hand-holding, consider whether online lenders’ often lower rates and fees are worth the tradeoff.

What they are: These banks, such as AimLoan and PennyMac, only offer home loans. Many online lenders, like Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans, operate as mortgage banks.

Who you’ll work with: A mortgage bank will assign you a loan officer, who will receive a commission or bonus from the lender’s gross fees for writing your loan. An online lender is going to offer less hand-holding.

Mortgage Brokers 

What they are: Mortgage brokers are essentially personal home loan shoppers — they act as liaisons between home buyers and mortgage lenders to help people find the lowest rates and the best mortgage terms. They’re able to get home buyers the best mortgage rates because they leverage their existing relationships with lenders — something individual home buyers can’t do. By doing the heavy lifting for the borrower, the idea is that they make loan shopping more convenient — and perhaps a bit faster. 

Who you’ll work with: A mortgage broker can be an individual agent or a group of agents, who act as independent contractors. In exchange for their services, mortgage brokers typically charge a 1% to 2% fee of the loan amount, which is either paid by the borrower or the lender at closing.

Now that you’re armed with the basics, you’ll want to give yourself time to weigh the options about which lender, exactly, to work with.

It Pays to Shop Around Before You Commit

Over the life of the loan, seemingly subtle differences could add up to tens of thousands of dollars. That money belongs to future you and all your dream vacations, renovations, and remodeling #goals.

So before you choose your specific lender …

  • Thoroughly research any retail bank, credit union, mortgage bank, mortgage broker, or online option you’re considering. Make sure you’re clear on what they can offer you. About one in five (21%) home buyers said they regret their choice of mortgage lender, according to a J.D. Power survey. You’re doing your homework so that won’t be you.
  • Interview lenders. You’re aiming for a shortlist of three. (You’ll see why it’s three in a minute.) If you’re thinking about selecting an online lender, make sure you take into account these tips and tricks.
  • Don’t be shy about seeking advice. Survey your family, friends, and coworkers —  especially the ones who are nerdy about money.
  • Ask your real estate agent for a second opinion. They have experience with reputable lenders, particularly in your city or town.

Now, let’s say you’ve narrowed your list of potential lenders to at least three candidates. The next step? Finding out whether they will give you a loan.

You Should Seek Out a Lender’s (Pre-)Approval, Too

There’s a world of difference between being pre-qualified for a loan and being pre-approved. Pre-approval means you’ve got skin in the game. It means you’re a boss. And it’s proof that you can buy.

Besides being the grown-up thing to do, pre-approval puts you in a better position when you make an offer. Everyone takes you more seriously. Pre-approval provides evidence to your real estate agent and the seller (or seller’s agent) that a trusted financial institution is willing to finance the purchase.

In most housing markets, sellers are going to expect your to be pre-approved when you make your offer. And when you’re pre-approved, you’re more likely to have your offer accepted — or at least, you won’t lose out on a bid because you have to go back to the bank to get approved for a loan.

As for pre-qualification, it’s an approximation and not necessary unless you have no clue about your creditworthiness and just want a snapshot.

By contrast, with a pre-approval, a lender typically goes deeper and tells you more specifically how big a loan you can get. Caution here: Just because the lender says you can take out a loan for an amount, doesn’t mean you should. Consider your lifestyle and monthly budget to decide on the responsible loan amount for you. 

Keep a Lid On Credit Pulls

Lenders pull your credit to pre-approve you, which can ding your score. But don’t let that hinder your comparison shopping; credit bureaus cut mortgage shoppers some slack. Still, this isn’t the time to apply for a car or furniture loan.

To get pre-approved, you must also authorize a lender to pull your credit. 

  • Borrowers with credit scores of 760 or higher can typically qualify for the lowest interest rates.
  • Borrowers with credit scores below 650 may need to apply for a non-conventional mortgage, such as a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan — a government-backed loan that requires a minimum credit score of 580 but lets borrowers make as low as a 3.5% down payment.
  • Borrowers with credit scores below 580 can still qualify for FHA loans, but they’ll have to make at least a 10% down payment. The lower the score, the tighter the requirements become.

When you’re pre-approved, you’ll receive a Loan Estimate. This three-page document is about to be your new best friend.

It Makes Good Sense to Get Pre-Approved by at Least Three Lenders

A Loan Estimate spells out a future loan’s terms, including:

  • The interest rate
  • The length of the loan
  • Estimated costs of taxes and insurance
  • How interest rates and payments might change over time
  • Other important financials

By comparing loan estimates, you can effectively size up your loan options and decide which lender is best for you — and your future. (If you need help navigating the details, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a sample Loan Estimate with helpful tips and definitions.) 

Getting pre-approval early in the process also gives you an edge over other buyers. Here’s why: 

  • The amount you’re approved for can help you determine your price range, and thus save time and frustration when shopping.
  • It sends a signal to your agent and sellers that you’re serious about buying a home.
  • It’ll help you move quickly to make an offer when you see a home you like.

And it’s an excuse to celebrate! You now have everything you need to move ahead with that one special lender — and, at the same time, connect with an officer or broker who can help you select the home loan product that’s best for you. 

So have a cocktail. Do a dance. Lay back and relax in one of those fancy sheet masks. You’re a (huge) step closer to getting a new house.

HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogic helps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

Sharp Homeowners Know June Is the Best Time to Do These 5 Things

Like cleaning your siding — just be sure to start from the bottom and go up.

Do This Now illustration arm with watch
Image: Simone Golob/Offset

Could it really be summer?!

Tackle these five summer maintenance tasks during June’s longer days and better weather — and save yourself time and money this winter.

#1 Update Outdoor Lighting

Outdoor stone steps lit with pathway lighting
Image: Rosann M. Kelley, photo/ Outdoor Artisan, Inc., design

In June, winter nights are probably the last thing on your mind. But early summer is the perfect time to plan for those “OMG it’s only 4:30, and it’s already dark ” moments by adding or updating landscape lighting.

The most energy-efficient, easy-to-install option is solar lighting, but it won’t perform as well on dark or snowy days. For light no matter the weather, install electric.

LED bulbs last up to five times longer and also use less energy than comparable bulbs.

#2 Clean Your House’s Siding

Home with bright green painted siding
Image: Kristin Diehl

With a bit of preventative maintenance, your home’s siding will stay clean and trouble-free for up to 50 years. Fifty years! Clean it this month with a soft cloth or a long-handled, soft-bristled brush to guarantee that longevity.

Start at the bottom of the house and work up, rinsing completely before it dries. That’s how you avoid streaks.

#3 Focus on Your Foundation

Brick exterior wall with damage
Image: Martb/Getty

There’s no better time for inspecting your foundation than warm, dry June. Eyeball it for crumbling mortar, cracks in the stucco, or persistently damp spots (especially under faucets). Then call a pro to fix any outstanding issues now, before it becomes an emergency later.

#4 Seal Your Driveway Asphalt

Sealed asphalt driveway at pink house
Image: Cveltri/Getty

Your driveway takes a daily beating. Weather, sunlight, cars, bikes, and foot traffic – all of these deteriorate the asphalt. Help it last by sealing it. Tip: The temperature must be 50 degrees or higher for the sealer to stick, making June a good month for this easy, cost-effective job.

#5 Buy Tools

Lawn tools hanging in a garage
Image: Jo Facer, The Edible Flower

Thanks to Father’s Day, June is the month everyone can get a deal on tools, tool bags, and that multitool you’ve had your eye on. If it’s time to replace a bunch of tools, or you’re starting from scratch, look for package deals that offer several at once. These can pack a savings wallop, offering 30% off or more over buying the tools individually.

Kelly Walters headshot

KELLEY WALTERS

Kelley Waltersis a Southern writer and editor. She focuses on interior design and home improvement at outlets from HGTV to Paintzen. She lives in Italy a month every year, drinking Negronis and writing in internet cafes. 

Make an Offer Like a Boss

These 10 money- and time-saving steps can help you craft a winning bid.

Tips on making an offer on a house illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Ah, the offer!

Know Your Limits | Learn to Speak “Contract” | Set Your Price | Figure Out Your Down Payment | Make an Earnest Money Deposit | Review Contingency Plans | Read the Fine Print | Make a Date to Settle |  Write a Fan Letter to the Seller |  Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

Cinematically speaking, this is the iconic moment — we’d forgive you if you imagined, say, putting a hand on your agent’s shoulder and whispering (in your best Vito Corleone) that you’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Think Before Making Unreasonable Demands

People like to do business with people they trust. Don’t nitpick over small items like a torn window screen or a $50 valve on a hot water heater. That will just anger the seller.

In reality, it’s not that simple (or dramatic). Your offer marks the beginning of a back-and-forth between you and the seller, typically with real estate agents advising you both.

The more intentional you are about your offer, the better your chances of making a successful bid. Follow these 10 steps, and you’ll be well prepared — that’s a true story. (“The Godfather” again. We couldn’t resist.)

#1 Know Your Limits

Your agent will help you craft a winning offer. You can trust your agent’s advice on price, contingencies, and other terms of the deal: It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The more collaborative you are with your agent, the more quickly you’ll be able to move.

But ultimately, it’s you who decides what the offer will be — and you who knows what your financial and lifestyle limits are. Buying a home means mixing strong emotions with business savvy, so now is also a good time to reflect on your “musts.”

HOAs Mean Business

Don’t fudge Fido’s weight if there’s a weight restriction where you’re buying. If you move in based on a fib, the condo or homeowners association can make you get rid of your dog or move. Really.

  • Have a top limit to your offer price because you’re also saving for retirement and love beach vacations? Stick to it. 
  • Want a vegetable garden or to paint your home’s exterior purple? Make sure your homeowners association rules permit it. 
  • Besides reading HOA rules, find out how much the HOA has in reserves to cover common area repairs. You don’t want to be slapped unexpectedly with a special assessment. 
  • Want a dog-friendly community? Make sure there are no pet weight limits preventing you from cohabitating with your (extra-large) canine bestie.

#2 Learn to Speak “Contract”

Essentially, an offer is a contract. The documents and wording vary across the country.

In the spirit of due diligence, take time to review sample offer forms before you’ve found a house (LawDepot.com has purchase agreements for each state). If you’re high-maintenance, a real estate attorney can explain the documents to you so you’re familiar with their vocabulary when you’re ready to pull the trigger on an offer with your agent. Your agent will have offer forms for your state. 

#3 Set Your Price

Homes always have a listing price. Think of it as the seller’s opening bid in your negotiation to buy a home.

As the buyer, your offer will include an offer price. This is the first thing home sellers look at when they receive a bid.

Your agent will help you determine whether the seller’s listing price is fair by running comps (or comparables), a process that involves comparing the house you’re bidding on to similar properties that recently sold in the neighborhood.

Several factors can also affect your bargaining position and offer price. For example, if the home has been sitting on the market for a while, or you’re in a buyer’s market where supply exceeds demand, the seller may be willing to accept an offer that’s below the list price. Or if the seller has already received another offer on the home, that may impact the price you’re willing to offer. Your agent will help you understand the context here.

#4 Figure Out Your Down Payment

To get a mortgage, you have to make a down payment on your loan. For conventional loans (as opposed to government loans), making a 20% down payment enables borrowers to avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), a monthly premium that protects the lender in case the borrower defaults on the loan.

But 20% isn’t always feasible — or even necessary. In fact, the median down payment in 2019 for buyers overall was 16 percent, and 6 percent for first-time buyers, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. Your lender will help you determine what the best down payment amount is for your finances. Depending on the type of loan you get, you may even be able to put down as little as 0% on your mortgage.

You might qualify for one of the more than 2,400 down payment assistance programs nationwide. Many of them make funds available to households earning as much as 175% of area median income. In other words, middle-income households. And the savings can be substantial: Home buyers who use down payment assistance programs save an average of $17,766 over the life of their loan, according to real estate resource RealtyTrac. Find out more about down payment assistance programs in your state.

You can use an online mortgage calculator to see how different down payments would affect your mortgage premiums and how much you’ll pay in interest.

#5 Show the Seller You’re Serious: Make a Deposit

An EMD — short for earnest money deposit — is the sum of money you put down as evidence to the seller that you’re serious (read: earnest) about buying the house. If the seller accepts your offer, the earnest money will go toward your down payment at closing. However, if you try to back out of the deal, you might have to forfeit the cash to the seller.

A standard EMD is 1% to 3% of the sales price of the home (so, that would be $2,000 to $6,000 on a $200,000 loan). But depending on how hot the market is where you live, you may want to put down more earnest money to compete with other offers. 

In most cases, the title company is responsible for holding the earnest money in an escrow account. In the event the deal falls through, the title company will disperse the funds appropriately based on the terms of the sales contract. Title companies also check for defects or liens on a seller’s title to make sure it can be transferred cleanly to you.

#6 Review the Contingency Plans

Most real estate offers include contingencies — provisions that must be met before the transaction can go through, or the buyer is entitled to walk away from the deal with their EMD.

For example, if an offer says, “This contract is contingent upon a home inspection,” the buyer has a set number of days after the offer is accepted to do an inspection of the property with a licensed or certified home inspector.

If something is wrong with the house, the buyer can request the seller to make repairs. But most repairs are negotiable; the seller may agree to some, but say no to others. Or the seller can offer a price reduction, or a credit at closing, based on the cost of the repairs. This is where your real estate agent can offer real value and counsel on what you should ask the seller to fix.

Just remember to keep your eye on the big picture. If you and the seller are bickering over a $500 repair to the hardwood floors, keep in mind that’s a drop in the bucket in relation to the size of the bid.

In addition to the aforementioned home inspection contingency, other common contingencies include:

  • financing contingency, which gives home buyers a specified amount of time to get a loan that will cover the mortgage.
  • An appraisal contingency, where a third-party appraiser hired by the lender evaluates the fair-market value of the home to ensure the home is worth enough money to serve as collateral for the value of the mortgage.
  • clear title contingency, where the buyer’s title company verifies that the seller is the sole owner of the property and can legally convey ownership to the buyer.
  • home sale contingency, where the transaction is dependent on the sale of the buyer’s current home.

Although contingencies can offer protection to buyers, they can also make offers less appealing to the seller because they give buyers legal ways to back out of the sale without any financial repercussions. So, if you’re going up against multiple offers, making an offer with fewer contingencies can potentially give you an edge over the competition.

In other words: A chill offer is an attractive offer. But keep in mind you have to be comfortable with the risks that come with this strategy. If you don’t have a financing contingency, for example, and you can’t get a mortgage, you’d likely lose your earnest money deposit since you’re on the hook. (An outcome that’s decidedly un-chill for you.)

#7 Read the Fine Print About the Property

The sales contract states key information about the property, such as the address, tax ID, and the types of utilities: public water or private well, gas or electric heating, and so on. It also includes a section that specifies what personal property and fixtures the seller agrees to leave behind, like appliances, lighting fixtures, and window shades. The seller provides prospective buyers with a list of these items before they submit an offer. This can be another area of negotiation.

Carefully reviewing the property description also helps you know, for example, if the seller plans to take that unattached kitchen island with them when they move. (Stranger things have happened.)

#8 Make a Date to Settle

The sales contract you submit to the seller must include a proposed settlement date, which confirms when the transaction will be finalized. The clock starts as soon as the purchase agreement is signed. If you don’t close on time, the party that’s responsible for the delay may have to pay the other party compensation in the form of “penalty interest” at a predetermined rate.

A 30- to 60-day settlement period is common because it gives the typical home buyer time to complete a title search and obtain mortgage approval, but settlement periods can vary. Some sellers, for example, prefer a longer period so they have more time to move or look for their next house. Being flexible, with respect to the closing date, could give you more negotiating power in another area of the deal.

One thing that’s the same no matter where you live is that you’ll have a three-day period prior to settlement to review the Closing Disclosure, or CD — a five-page form that states your final loan terms and closing costs.

Once the sales contract is signed, the parties can change the settlement date if they both sign an addendum specifying the new day.

#9 Write a Fan Letter to the Seller

Want to make a truly compelling offer? Pull on the seller’s heartstrings by attaching a personal letter to the bid documents. Tell a compelling story about your family and your connection to the area. Get deep about your roots.

Also, sincere flattery can go a long way. Compliment the seller on how their kitchen renovation looks Apartment Therapy–worthy, for instance, or how the succulents in their landscaping remind you of a resort in Palm Springs.

Your agent can help you gather background on the sellers (e.g., are they crazy about their labradoodle, like you are about yours? Did they run a small business from the home, like you dream of doing?). And you should — of course — refer to information you gleaned during the open house or private showing. Use this intel to write a message that really speaks to the seller, and it may very well seal the deal.

#10 Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

If you’re making a lowball bid or going up against multiple offers, the seller may decide to make you a counteroffer — a purchase agreement with new terms, such as a higher sales price or fewer contingencies.

At that point, it’s up to you to accept the new contract, make your own counteroffer to the sellers, or walk away.

HOUSELOGIC

HouseLogic helps consumers make smart, confident decisions about all aspects of home ownership. Made possible by REALTORS®, the site helps owners get the most value and enjoyment from their existing home and helps buyers and sellers make the best deal possible. 

12 Questions You’ll Wish You Asked Before You Moved In

Avoid regrets by knowing what questions to ask a REALTOR® or owner before you commit to a new home.

Burst water pipe
Image: IanRedding/Shutterstock

If you bought a house with no maintenance issues big or small, let us know. That would be one for the record books. In reality, most homeowners find a problem, quirk, shortcoming, whatever, within the first couple of months.

To actively ferret out your home’s trouble spots and head off headaches, know the right questions to ask before you buy. That doesn’t mean potential problems go away, but you’ll have eyes wide open and can adjust your budget accordingly.

And if you’ve already settled in, getting answers to these key questions will help you get to work putting the shine on your castle. Ask the previous owner, your agent, and your new neighbors for helpful answers.

#1 Has There Ever Been a Busted Pipe?

A broken pipe isn’t rare; in fact, water damage caused by a frozen or burst pipe is a leading cause of homeowners insurance claims, at around 22% of all home insurance losses, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

What bursts? Typically exposed water pipes in unheated basements and crawl spaces, along with exterior faucets. 

Another prime suspect of water damage: old washing machine hoses.

A good inspector usually can tell if water damage has occurred, and any damage should be disclosed by the previous owner at the time of sale. Nevertheless, you should:

  • Make sure exposed pipes in unheated areas are protected with pipe insulation.
  • Install frost-proof spigots on all exterior faucets. The spigots let you put a shutoff valve inside your home so freezing isn’t likely.
  • Check that washing machine hoses are in good condition and replace, if necessary, with braided steel hoses with brass fittings ($11 to $18 for a 5-foot hose). They’re much stronger and longer lasting than rubber hoses.

The big fallout from water damage is moisture problems you won’t see — behind drywall and trim — which can lead to mold. If you know there’s been a major leak, a mold remediation pro ($200 to $600) will tell you if mold is present and the steps required to remove it.

#2 How Old is the Roof?

Knowing the approximate age will give you a good idea of how soon you’ll face — and need to budget for — repairs or replacement. A new roof is no small matter: The “Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® pegs the median national cost of an asphalt roofing replacement at $7,500.

The most common type of roofing — regular asphalt shingles — needs to be replaced after 15 to 20 years. Here are estimated average life spans for other types of roofing materials:

  • Top-of-the-line (architectural) asphalt shingles: 24 to 30 years
  • Metal (galvalume): 30 to 45 years
  • Concrete tile: 35 to 50 years
  • Wood shakes: 20 to 40 years

If you don’t know the age of your asphalt roofing, use these general guidelines to determine if new shingles are in order:

1. Sand-like roofing granules accumulate in the bottoms of gutters and flow out through downspouts, but otherwise the roofing looks in good shape. Inspect for deterioration in spring and fall.

2. Bare spots begin to appear where patches of protective granules have worn away, and the edges of shingles start to curl — a strong signal that you need new roofing.

3. Shingles become brittle and begin to crack and break. You might be able to replace a few. But if roofing nail heads become exposed (that is, they’re no longer hidden by the overlapping shingles), an expensive roof leak is likely.

Tip: Know how many layers of roofing your house has. Most building codes allow two layers (because of weight concerns): the original roofing, and one re-roofing layer over that.

#3 Any Infestations of Termites, Carpenter Ants, or Other Pests?

This should be disclosed by the previous owner at time of sale. But even if the owner dealt with a past infestation — and can offer proof, such as a receipt for pest control — that doesn’t mean the little buggers have been totally eliminated.

Whatever conditions made your house ripe for infestation in the first place — a slow leak under the house, soft rotting wood that attracts insects — may still be present. Plus, many infestations aren’t confined to one house. It may be a neighborhood-wide problem.

Be proactive, because the average cost of a termite extermination treatment around the perimeter of a 2,500-square-foot house is $1,700 to $3,200. Repairs to wooden framing, sheathing, and siding can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

You should:

  • Ask neighbors about any problems they’ve had with pests.
  • Seal cracks and holes around your house.
  • Keep attics, basements, and crawl spaces dry and well-ventilated.
  • Make sure gutters and downspouts are in good repair, and that the soil around your foundation slopes away from your house at least 6 inches over a 10-foot distance.
  • Repair or replace any rotted wood.
  • Keep firewood and lumber piles at least 20 feet from your home.

#4 Any Pets Buried in the Backyard?

Headstone for dog buried in family's yard
Image: John H. Gámez

For a grieving homeowner, it can make sense to bury Bosco in his favorite spot under the old oak tree.

On one hand, we sympathize; on the other, it’s kinda creepy. If you didn’t know, you might go out to with a shovel to plant a bunch of hostas. Surprise! You’ve unearthed Bosco.

If you ask this question and the answer is yes, you can:

  • Ask where the animal is buried and simply avoid gardening in that spot.
  • Ask the previous owner to remove the remains.
  • Remove the remains yourself.

If the previous owner refuses your request, you’re not exactly on firm legal ground. Disclosure laws are hazy on this point. Check your state’s disclosure laws.

Most states allow pets to be buried in a yard as long as they’re a prescribed distance from waterways, water sources, and nearby residences (usually 100 to 200 feet); the animal is buried 6 inches to 2 feet in depth; and there’s some sort of precaution (a kitty coffin or a covering of stones would do the trick) so the carcass can’t be dug up by animals. Major cities may not allow any type of pet burial. Aask your county’s board of health and animal control agency for local regulations. 

If you find out there’s a buried pet and want it removed, write a letter to the previous owner requesting removal — and keep a copy. If you decide to go to court, you’ll want a document that proves you made the request. 

Better yet, hire an attorney to draft a letter. A letter from a lawyer commands attention. 

The bottom line: If you drag this all the way to court, it’s probably not worth the aggravation and bad blood. A better solution: Hire someone to dig out the remains and take them away, or do it yourself. Then plant those hostas.

#5 Any Paranormal or Nefarious Activity?

Crime scene tape outside of a house
Image: Lori Rossilli-Bush

Maybe for the sake of party conversation, you’re hoping the answer is yes. Regardless, ask. 

Haunted houses fall into the category of what real estate pros call “stigmatized houses” — homes that have been the site of happenings like:

  • Ghost sightings and other paranormal activity
  • A murder or suicide
  • A death due to an accident or unusual disease
  • A meth lab

Again, real estate disclosures aren’t consistent. About half of all states have disclosure requirements for stigmatized houses, although most don’t include ghosts. 

If the seller reveals the house to be stigmatized, you’ll have negotiating power. A stigmatized house generally sells for 10% to 25% below market value. 

A meth lab carries the risk of residual toxic chemicals. If you suspect that kind of sordid history but it’s not being disclosed, you can check old news accounts or ask the local police for records of arrest.

You’ll want to ask the seller and your real estate agent directly if you’re concerned about ghosts and ghouls, and check your local real estate laws to get the local lowdown on disclosing paranormal activity.

#6 What are Monthly Utility Costs?

You can’t get away from paying utilities, so know what your monthly budget is up against. Be sure to get an average cost — not the lowest monthly bill — and ask when peak months are. 

While you’re at it, ask what kind of energy sources your house appliances use — gas, electric, propane, or a combination. That’ll help you understand where you might upgrade to energy-efficient appliances to save energy costs. 

Remember that energy savings starts with the simplest of tasks, like sealing air leaks.  

#7 Has the Sewer Ever Backed Up?

As properties age and trees and other plants get bigger, roots find their way into sewer lines between a house and the street, causing clogs. It’s a mess for sure, and most homeowner insurance policies don’t cover damage from backed-up sewers. 

Plan to have the sewer line cleared (about $150) every other year. 

For $40 to $50 per year, you can add an endorsement to your insurance policy to cover damage from a backed-up sewer. 

#8 Is There Documentation on Warranties?

Home warranties organized in a binder
Image: Michelle from Put a Little Shush in Your Home

If the previous owners were conscientious enough to stash warranties and appliance manuals, be sure to get them. 

If you get the paperwork, look for purchase dates on major appliances, so you’ll know how old they are and when they might decide to poop out. If you’re ready to upgrade, you can I.D. which appliances are least energy efficient and target those first. 

Tip: Keep all warranty cards and product manuals yourself. If you decide to sell, those records show you care about your house and become a marketing asset. 

Related: How to Buy Energy-Saving Appliances

#9 How Much Insulation Is in the Attic?

After sealing air leaks and weatherstripping around doors and windows, adding insulation is one of the best ways to gain efficiency and keep your house cozy. 

Knowing how much insulation you have lets you decide if an investment in more insulation is worth the cost. In colder regions, for example, a $1,500 attic insulation upgrade from R-11 to R-49 saves about $600 per year in energy costs, and you’ll see a payback in about three years. 

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends adding more insulation if the thickness of your attic insulation is less than 11 inches (R-30). 

Is the previous owner unsure? Peek in the attic. If the attic floor is insulated and you can see the tops of the ceiling joists, you should budget an insulation upgrade. If insulation was installed between the roof rafters — and you can see the edges of the rafters — you can beef up the insulation by covering over the rafters with rigid insulating foam board. 

#10 How Big is the Water Heater?

To avoid a family rebellion, make sure your water heater is big enough to cover the needs of your household. Here’s a helpful guide from Johnson, Tenn.-based manufacturer American Water Heaters: 

Water Heater Sizing Guide

Family SizeDemandGallon Capacity Needed
  ElectricGas
5+High75
 Regular8050
3-4High8050-75
 Regular5040
2-3High5040-50
 Regular4040
1-2High40-5040-50
 Regular3030


Most water heaters have a life expectancy of about 13 years. A new high-efficiency water heater costs $900 to $2,000, depending on the size and model you choose.

#11 When Was the Last Time the Septic Tank Was Pumped?

A typical septic system should be pumped every three to five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Association. But the number of people in the house can affect that recommendation. We like this chart from septic installer Van Delden in San Antonio, showing about how often (years) you should pump based on capacity. A pumping costs $200 to $300. 

Septic Tank Pumping Schedule

Tank SizeHousehold Size (Number of People)
(in gallons)1234
5005.8 yrs3 yrs1.5 yrs1 yr
75094.22.61.8
1,00012.463.72.6
1,250 7.54.83.4
1,500 964.2
1,750  6.55

#12 Will My SUV Fit in the Garage?

A truck that doesn't fit in a home's garage
Image: Rose Hewitt

It’s a fairly common doh! moment, says Sacramento, Calif., REALTOR® Elizabeth Weintraub. “Many garages are too low to accommodate the height of a big, newer vehicle.” 

Cabinets and workbenches can shorten overall garage space, too, making length an issue. 

With full-size SUVs and trucks nearing 20 feet in length and almost 7 feet tall when equipped with a roof rack, sizing up the garage space is a good idea before you buy. 

Worst case: You buy without checking and come sailing happily home for the first time to discover — too late — your Chevy Suburban is too tall to fit in the garage. 

Knowing everything you can about your home gives you a leg up on surprises, lets you budget smartly, and gives you royal satisfaction with your new castle.

John Riha

JOHN RIHA

John Rihahas written seven books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He’s been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. 

5 Surprising (and Useful!) Ways to Save for a Down Payment

One of the biggest misconceptions of home buying? The 20% down payment. Here’s how to buy with a lot less down.

Illustration of man nailing dollar bills to a roof
Image: Jacob Thomas/Offset

Buying your first home conjures up all kinds of warm and fuzzy emotions: pride, joy, contentment. But before you get to the good stuff, you’ve got to cobble together a down payment, a daunting sum if you follow the textbook advice to squirrel away 20% of a home’s cost.

Here are five creative ways to build your down-payment nest egg faster than you may have ever imagined.

1. Crowdsource Your Dream Home

You may have heard of people using sites like Kickstarter to fund creative projects like short films and concert tours. Well, who says you can’t crowdsource your first home? Forget the traditional registry, the fine china, and the 16-speed blender. Use sites like Feather the Nest and Hatch My House to raise your down payment. Hatch My House says it’s helped Americans raise more than $2 million for down payments.https://www.youtube.com/embed/yFKT7XZPykc?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1HouseLogic

2. Ask the Seller to Help (Really!)

When sellers want to a get a deal done quickly, they might be willing to assist buyers with the closing costs. Fewer closing costs = more money you can apply toward your deposit.

“They’re called seller concessions,” says Ray Rodriguez, regional mortgage sales manager for the New York metro area at TD Bank. Talk with your real estate agent. She might help you negotiate for something like 2% of the overall sales price in concessions to help with the closing costs.

There are limits on concessions depending on the type of mortgage you get. For FHA mortgages, the cap is 6% of the sale price. For Fannie Mae-guaranteed loans, the caps vary between 3% and 9%, depending on the ratio between how much you put down and the amount you finance. Individual banks have varying caps on concessions.

No matter where they net out, concessions must be part of the purchase contract.

3. Look into Government Options

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, offers a number of homeownership programs, including assistance with down payment and closing costs. These are typically available for people who meet particular income or location requirements. HUD has a list of links by state that direct you to the appropriate page for information about your state.

HUD offers help based on profession as well. If you’re a law enforcement officer, firefighter, teacher, or EMT, you may be eligible under its Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program for a 50% discount on a house’s HUD-appraised value in “revitalization areas.” Those areas are designated by Congress for  homeownership opportunities. And if you qualify for an FHA-insured mortgage under this program, the down payment is only $100; you can even finance the closing costs.

For veterans, the VA will guarantee part of a home loan through commercial lenders. Often, there’s no down payment or private mortgage insurance required, and the program helps borrowers secure a competitive interest rate.

Some cities also offer homeownership help. “The city of Hartford has the HouseHartford Program that gives down payment assistance and closing cost assistance,” says Matthew Carbray, a certified financial planner with Ridgeline Financial Partners and Carbray Staunton Financial Planners in Avon, Conn. The program partners with lenders, real estate attorneys, and homebuyer counseling agencies and has helped 1,200 low-income families.

4. Check with Your Employer

Employer Assisted Housing (EAH) programs help connect low- to moderate-income workers with down payment assistance through their employer. In Pennsylvania, if you work for a participating EAH employer, you can apply for a loan of up to $8,000 for down payment and closing cost assistance. The loan is interest-free and borrowers have 10 years to pay it back.

Washington University in St. Louis offers forgivable loans to qualified employees who want to purchase housing in specific city neighborhoods. University employees receive the lesser of 5% of the purchase price or $6,000 toward down payment or closing costs.

Ask the human resources or benefits personnel at your employer if the company is part of an EAH program.

5. Take Advantage of Special Lender Programs

Finally, many lenders offer programs to help people buy a home with a small down payment. “I would say that the biggest misconception [of homebuying] is that you need 20% for the down payment of a house,” says Rodriguez. “There are a lot of programs out there that need a total of 3% or 3.5% down.”

FHA mortgages, for example, can require as little as 3.5%. But bear in mind that there are both upfront and monthly mortgage insurance payments. “The mortgage insurance could add another $300 to your monthly mortgage payment,” Rodriguez says.

Some lender programs go even further. TD Bank, for example, offers a 3% down payment with no mortgage insurance program, and other banks may have similar offerings. “Check with your regional bank,” Rodriguez says. “Maybe they have their own first-time buyer program.”

Not so daunting after all, is it? There’s actually a lot of help available to many first-time buyers who want to achieve their homeownership dreams. All you need to do is a little research — and start peeking at those home listings!

Erik Sherman author photo

ERIK SHERMAN

Erik Shermancovers business, technology, finance, personal finance, and economics for such outlets as CBS MoneyWatch, Inc.com, Fortune.com, and Forbes.com. He’s the author or co-author of 10 books on a variety of subjects. You can follow Erik on Twitter.

Are Closing Costs Tax Deductible?

Here’s the scoop on what’s tax deductible when buying a house.

Dotted lines and arrows against brown background
Image: tigerstrawberry/Getty

Note: In light of COVID-19 crisis, the IRS has extended the income tax payment and filing deadline for individual and business returns from April 15, 2021, until May 17, 2021. This relief does not apply to estimated tax payments for tax year 2021 that are due on April 15, 2021. You don’t need to file additional forms to qualify for this extension.

The answer to whether closing costs are tax deductible — or mortgage interest and property taxes for that matter — is often maddeningly, “It depends.”

Basically, you’ll want to itemize if you have deductions totaling more than the standard deduction, which for 2021 is $12,550 for single people and $25,100 for married couples filing jointly. Every taxpayer gets this deduction, homeowner or not. And most people take it because their actual itemized deductions are less than the standard amount.

Closing Costs

Most Popular in Taxes

The one-time home purchase costs that are tax deductible as closing costs are real estate taxes charged to you when you closed, mortgage interest paid when you settled, and some loan origination fees (a.k.a. points) applicable to a mortgage of $750,000 or less.

But you’ll only be able to benefit from them if all your deductions total more than the standard deduction.

Costs of closing on a home that aren’t tax deductible include:

  • Real estate commissions
  • Appraisals
  • Home inspections
  • Attorney fees
  • Title fees
  • Transfer taxes
  • Mortgage refi fees

Mortgage interest and property taxes are annual expenses of owning a home that may or may not be deductible. Continue reading to learn more about those.

Mortgage Interest

Yearly, you can write off the interest you pay on up to $750,000 of mortgage debt. Most homeowners don’t have mortgages large enough to hit the cap, says Evan Liddiard, CPA, director of federal tax policy for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. But people who live in pricey places like San Francisco and Manhattan, or homeowners anywhere with hefty mortgages, will likely reach the maximum mortgage interest deduction.

Note: The $750,000 cap affects loans taken out after Dec. 16, 2017. If you have a loan older than that and you itemize, you can keep deducting your mortgage interest on debt up to $1 million. But if you refi that loan, you can only deduct the interest on the amount up to the balance on the day you refinanced – you can’t take extra cash and deduct the interest on the excess.

Home Equity Loan Interest

You can deduct the interest on a home equity loan or a second mortgage. But — and this is a big but — only if you use the proceeds to substantially improve your house, and only if the loan, combined with your first mortgage, doesn’t add up to more than the magic number of $750,000 (or $1 million if the loans were existing as of Dec. 15, 2017).

If you use a home equity loan to pay medical bills, go to Paris, or for anything but home improvement, you can’t deduct the interest.

State and Local Taxes

You can deduct state and local taxes you paid, including property and income taxes (or sales taxes in states where there is no income tax), up to $10,000. That’s a low cap for people who live in places where state and local taxes are high, says Liddiard. To give you an idea of how low: The average amount New Yorkers have taken in state and local tax deductions in past years is about $22,000.

Loss From a Disaster

You can write off the cost of damage to your home if it’s caused by an event in a federally declared disaster zone, like areas in Florida after Hurricane Michael or Shasta County, Calif., after a rash of wildfires.

This means standard-variety disasters like a busted water pipe while you’re on vacation or a fire caused because you left the toaster on aren’t deductible.

Moving Expenses

This deduction is also only for some. You can deduct moving expenses if you’re an active member of the armed forces moving to a new station.

And by the way, no matter who you are, if your employer pays your moving expenses, you’ll have to pay taxes on the reimbursement. “This will be a real hardship to many because it’s non-cash income,” says Liddiard.  Some employers may gross up the reimbursement amount to provide cash to pay the tax, but many likely will not.

Home Office

This is a deduction you don’t have to itemize. You can take it on top of the standard deduction, but only if you’re self-employed. If you are an employee and are working from home during the pandemic, you can no longer write off home office expenses. You claim the deduction on Schedule C.

Student Loans

Anyone paying a mortgage and a student loan payment will be happy to hear that the interest on your education loan is tax deductible on top of the standard deduction (no need to itemize). And you can deduct as much as $2,500 in interest per year, depending on your modified adjusted gross income.

Ways to Increase Your Eligible Deductions

There are some other costs that can be itemized not related to being a homeowner that could bump you up over the standard deduction. This might allow you to write off your mortgage interest. Charitable contributions and some medical expenses can be itemized, although medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

So if you’ve had a hospital stay or are generous, you could be in itemized-deduction land.

Also, if you’re a single homeowner, it could be easier for you to exceed the standard deduction, Liddiard says. The itemized deductions on your house will probably more quickly break the $12,550 standard deduction threshold than a couple’s similar house will break their $25,100 threshold.

Tax-Savvy Home-Buying Ideas

If you’re a prospective homeowner with an eye to making the most efficient use of your tax benefits, here are a few ways to buy smart:

  • Especially in expensive areas, buy a less expensive home so you don’t hit the cap on mortgage debt and local and property taxes, says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert for TurboTax.
  • If you’re buying a higher price home, make a bigger down payment so your original mortgage doesn’t exceed the $750,000 cap.

How to Decide If You Can Itemize

To see whether you have enough deduction to itemize, plug your numbers into this clever tool from TurboTax, and you’ll get their recommendation in just a few seconds.

Though every homeowner’s tax benefits will be a little different, in the end, you’re building equity, you’ll likely make money when you sell, and you have the freedom to paint your walls any color you want and get a dog.

A headshot of Leanne Potts

LEANNE POTTS

Leanne Pottsis an Atlanta-based journalist and serial home remodeler. She’s tackled five fixer-uppers and is working on a sixth. She’s written about everything from forest fires to dog-friendly decor and spent a decade leading the digital staff of HGTV.

The Everything Guide to Selling Your First Home

How to figure out exactly what you want, and how to work with the experts who’ll help you get it.

First-Time Home Seller's Guide illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Selling, a famous salesman once said, is essentially a transfer of feelings.

You love and cherish your home. You want the next owner to fall in love with it, too — through photos, through words, and through the experience of walking through your front door. But, perhaps most, you want to get the price you want.

This isn’t a small task. Selling a home requires work. It requires time. The journey isn’t always easy. There will be frustrations. But when you seal the deal and move on to your next chapter  — wow, what a blissful, boss feeling.

Below, we preview and link to each step in your journey.  We’ll discuss how to know what you want (and what your partner wants, if you’re selling together). How to understand the market, and ways to make a plan. And most importantly? How to create relationships with experts and trust them to help you get the job done.

Now, let’s talk about selling your house.

Know, Exactly, What You Want

First things first: You need to know what you want (and what your partner wants) in order to sell your home with minimum frustration. Why are you moving? What do you expect from the process? When, exactly, should you put that For Sale sign in the yard? We can help you get your thoughts in order with this home selling worksheet.

Do Your Research

Unless you bought your home last week, the housing market changed since you became a homeowner. Mortgage rates fluctuate, inventory shifts over time — these are just a few of the factors that affect the state of the market, and every market is unique. Educate yourself on what to expect. Start with our study guide on the market. 

Interview and Select an Agent

This is the most important relationship you’ll form on your home selling journey. Pick the right agent and you’ll likely get a better sales price for your house. Here’s how to find and select the expert who’s right for you.

Price Your Home

How much is your home worth? That’s the … $300,000 question. Whatever the number, you need to know it. This is how your agent will help you pinpoint the price.

Prep Your Home for Sale

Today, home buyers have unfettered access to property listings online, so you have to make a great first impression — on the internet and IRL. That means you’ll have to declutter all the stuff you’ve accumulated over the years, make any necessary repairs, and get your home in swoon-worthy condition. Here’s how to stage your home. 

Market Your Home

Home buyers look at countless listings online. The best-marketed homes have beautiful photos and compelling property descriptions, so they can get likes — which can amount to buyer interest — on social media. Agents may also use videos, virtual tours, texts, and audio messages. It’s time to consider how to promote your property.

Showcase Your Home

Your agent will help you get your home in show-ready condition, emphasizing its assets and helping buyers envision themselves there. The agent will disinfect your home before and after a showing to ensure that you and any visitors are safe. To help keep sellers safe, agents are also using virtual showings, relying on Zoom or Facetime to walk a buyer through your home.

Receive Offers

Yes, you might get offers plural, depending on your market. Assuming you’ve collaborated with your agent, you’ve likely positioned yourself to receive attractive bids. Your agent will review each offer with you to determine which is best for you. (Read: The offer price isn’t the only factor to consider: Here’s why.)

Negotiate With the Buyer

To get the best deal for you, you’ll likely have to do some negotiating. Your agent will help you craft a strategic counteroffer to the buyer’s offer, factoring in not only money, but contingencies, etc. Let’s talk about how to ask for what you want.

Negotiate Home Inspection Repairs

Ah, the home inspection. It’s as much a source of anxiety for buyers as it is for sellers. Nonetheless, most purchase agreements are contingent on a home inspection (plus an appraisal, which will be managed by the buyer’s lender). This gives the buyer the ability to inspect the home from top to bottom and request repairs — some even could be required per building codes. The upshot: You have some room to negotiate, including about certain repairs. Once again, your agent will be there to help you effectively communicate with the buyer.

Close the Sale

Settlement, or closing, is the last step in the home selling process. This is where you sign the final paperwork, make this whole thing official, and collect your check. Before that can happen though, you’ll have to prepare your home for the buyer’s final walk-through and troubleshoot any last-minute issues. We’ve got you covered with this closing checklist

Are Closing Costs Tax Deductible?

Here’s the scoop on what’s tax deductible when buying a house.

Dotted lines and arrows against brown background
Image: tigerstrawberry/Getty

Note: In light of COVID-19 crisis, the IRS has extended the income tax payment and filing deadline for individual and business returns from April 15, 2021, until May 17, 2021. This relief does not apply to estimated tax payments for tax year 2021 that are due on April 15, 2021. You don’t need to file additional forms to qualify for this extension.

The answer to whether closing costs are tax deductible — or mortgage interest and property taxes for that matter — is often maddeningly, “It depends.”

Basically, you’ll want to itemize if you have deductions totaling more than the standard deduction, which for 2021 is $12,550 for single people and $25,100 for married couples filing jointly. Every taxpayer gets this deduction, homeowner or not. And most people take it because their actual itemized deductions are less than the standard amount.

But will you have enough deductions to itemize?

To see, you need to know what’s tax deductible when buying or owning a house. Here’s the list of possible deductions:

Closing Costs

The one-time home purchase costs that are tax deductible as closing costs are real estate taxes charged to you when you closed, mortgage interest paid when you settled, and some loan origination fees (a.k.a. points) applicable to a mortgage of $750,000 or less.

But you’ll only be able to benefit from them if all your deductions total more than the standard deduction.

Costs of closing on a home that aren’t tax deductible include:

  • Real estate commissions
  • Appraisals
  • Home inspections
  • Attorney fees
  • Title fees
  • Transfer taxes
  • Mortgage refi fees

Mortgage interest and property taxes are annual expenses of owning a home that may or may not be deductible. Continue reading to learn more about those.

Mortgage Interest

Yearly, you can write off the interest you pay on up to $750,000 of mortgage debt. Most homeowners don’t have mortgages large enough to hit the cap, says Evan Liddiard, CPA, director of federal tax policy for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. But people who live in pricey places like San Francisco and Manhattan, or homeowners anywhere with hefty mortgages, will likely reach the maximum mortgage interest deduction.

Note: The $750,000 cap affects loans taken out after Dec. 16, 2017. If you have a loan older than that and you itemize, you can keep deducting your mortgage interest on debt up to $1 million. But if you refi that loan, you can only deduct the interest on the amount up to the balance on the day you refinanced – you can’t take extra cash and deduct the interest on the excess.

Home Equity Loan Interest

You can deduct the interest on a home equity loan or a second mortgage. But — and this is a big but — only if you use the proceeds to substantially improve your house, and only if the loan, combined with your first mortgage, doesn’t add up to more than the magic number of $750,000 (or $1 million if the loans were existing as of Dec. 15, 2017).

If you use a home equity loan to pay medical bills, go to Paris, or for anything but home improvement, you can’t deduct the interest.

State and Local Taxes

You can deduct state and local taxes you paid, including property and income taxes (or sales taxes in states where there is no income tax), up to $10,000. That’s a low cap for people who live in places where state and local taxes are high, says Liddiard. To give you an idea of how low: The average amount New Yorkers have taken in state and local tax deductions in past years is about $22,000.

Loss From a Disaster

You can write off the cost of damage to your home if it’s caused by an event in a federally declared disaster zone, like areas in Florida after Hurricane Michael or Shasta County, Calif., after a rash of wildfires.

This means standard-variety disasters like a busted water pipe while you’re on vacation or a fire caused because you left the toaster on aren’t deductible.

Moving Expenses

This deduction is also only for some. You can deduct moving expenses if you’re an active member of the armed forces moving to a new station.

And by the way, no matter who you are, if your employer pays your moving expenses, you’ll have to pay taxes on the reimbursement. “This will be a real hardship to many because it’s non-cash income,” says Liddiard.  Some employers may gross up the reimbursement amount to provide cash to pay the tax, but many likely will not.

Home Office

This is a deduction you don’t have to itemize. You can take it on top of the standard deduction, but only if you’re self-employed. If you are an employee and are working from home during the pandemic, you can no longer write off home office expenses. You claim the deduction on Schedule C.

Student Loans

Anyone paying a mortgage and a student loan payment will be happy to hear that the interest on your education loan is tax deductible on top of the standard deduction (no need to itemize). And you can deduct as much as $2,500 in interest per year, depending on your modified adjusted gross income.

Ways to Increase Your Eligible Deductions

There are some other costs that can be itemized not related to being a homeowner that could bump you up over the standard deduction. This might allow you to write off your mortgage interest. Charitable contributions and some medical expenses can be itemized, although medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

So if you’ve had a hospital stay or are generous, you could be in itemized-deduction land.

Also, if you’re a single homeowner, it could be easier for you to exceed the standard deduction, Liddiard says. The itemized deductions on your house will probably more quickly break the $12,550 standard deduction threshold than a couple’s similar house will break their $25,100 threshold.

Tax-Savvy Home-Buying Ideas

If you’re a prospective homeowner with an eye to making the most efficient use of your tax benefits, here are a few ways to buy smart:

  • Especially in expensive areas, buy a less expensive home so you don’t hit the cap on mortgage debt and local and property taxes, says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert for TurboTax.
  • If you’re buying a higher price home, make a bigger down payment so your original mortgage doesn’t exceed the $750,000 cap.

How to Decide If You Can Itemize

To see whether you have enough deduction to itemize, plug your numbers into this clever tool from TurboTax, and you’ll get their recommendation in just a few seconds.

Though every homeowner’s tax benefits will be a little different, in the end, you’re building equity, you’ll likely make money when you sell, and you have the freedom to paint your walls any color you want and get a dog.

A headshot of Leanne Potts

LEANNE POTTS

Leanne Pottsis an Atlanta-based journalist and serial home remodeler. She’s tackled five fixer-uppers and is working on a sixth. She’s written about everything from forest fires to dog-friendly decor and spent a decade leading the digital staff of HGTV.

Make an Offer Like a Boss

These 10 money- and time-saving steps can help you craft a winning bid.

Tips on making an offer on a house illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Ah, the offer!

Know Your Limits | Learn to Speak “Contract” | Set Your Price | Figure Out Your Down Payment | Make an Earnest Money Deposit | Review Contingency Plans | Read the Fine Print | Make a Date to Settle |  Write a Fan Letter to the Seller |  Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

Cinematically speaking, this is the iconic moment — we’d forgive you if you imagined, say, putting a hand on your agent’s shoulder and whispering (in your best Vito Corleone) that you’re going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Think Before Making Unreasonable Demands

People like to do business with people they trust. Don’t nitpick over small items like a torn window screen or a $50 valve on a hot water heater. That will just anger the seller.

In reality, it’s not that simple (or dramatic). Your offer marks the beginning of a back-and-forth between you and the seller, typically with real estate agents advising you both.

#1 Know Your Limits

Your agent will help you craft a winning offer. You can trust your agent’s advice on price, contingencies, and other terms of the deal: It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The more collaborative you are with your agent, the more quickly you’ll be able to move.

But ultimately, it’s you who decides what the offer will be — and you who knows what your financial and lifestyle limits are. Buying a home means mixing strong emotions with business savvy, so now is also a good time to reflect on your “musts.”

HOAs Mean Business

Don’t fudge Fido’s weight if there’s a weight restriction where you’re buying. If you move in based on a fib, the condo or homeowners association can make you get rid of your dog or move. Really.

  • Have a top limit to your offer price because you’re also saving for retirement and love beach vacations? Stick to it. 
  • Want a vegetable garden or to paint your home’s exterior purple? Make sure your homeowners association rules permit it. 
  • Besides reading HOA rules, find out how much the HOA has in reserves to cover common area repairs. You don’t want to be slapped unexpectedly with a special assessment. 
  • Want a dog-friendly community? Make sure there are no pet weight limits preventing you from cohabitating with your (extra-large) canine bestie.

#2 Learn to Speak “Contract”

Essentially, an offer is a contract. The documents and wording vary across the country.

In the spirit of due diligence, take time to review sample offer forms before you’ve found a house (LawDepot.com has purchase agreements for each state). If you’re high-maintenance, a real estate attorney can explain the documents to you so you’re familiar with their vocabulary when you’re ready to pull the trigger on an offer with your agent. Your agent will have offer forms for your state. 

#3 Set Your Price

Homes always have a listing price. Think of it as the seller’s opening bid in your negotiation to buy a home.

As the buyer, your offer will include an offer price. This is the first thing home sellers look at when they receive a bid.

Your agent will help you determine whether the seller’s listing price is fair by running comps (or comparables), a process that involves comparing the house you’re bidding on to similar properties that recently sold in the neighborhood.

Several factors can also affect your bargaining position and offer price. For example, if the home has been sitting on the market for a while, or you’re in a buyer’s market where supply exceeds demand, the seller may be willing to accept an offer that’s below the list price. Or if the seller has already received another offer on the home, that may impact the price you’re willing to offer. Your agent will help you understand the context here.

#4 Figure Out Your Down Payment

To get a mortgage, you have to make a down payment on your loan. For conventional loans (as opposed to government loans), making a 20% down payment enables borrowers to avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), a monthly premium that protects the lender in case the borrower defaults on the loan.

But 20% isn’t always feasible — or even necessary. In fact, the median down payment in 2019 for buyers overall was 16 percent, and 6 percent for first-time buyers, according to the National Association of REALTORS®. Your lender will help you determine what the best down payment amount is for your finances. Depending on the type of loan you get, you may even be able to put down as little as 0% on your mortgage.

You might qualify for one of the more than 2,400 down payment assistance programs nationwide. Many of them make funds available to households earning as much as 175% of area median income. In other words, middle-income households. And the savings can be substantial: Home buyers who use down payment assistance programs save an average of $17,766 over the life of their loan, according to real estate resource RealtyTrac. Find out more about down payment assistance programs in your state.

You can use an online mortgage calculator to see how different down payments would affect your mortgage premiums and how much you’ll pay in interest.

#5 Show the Seller You’re Serious: Make a Deposit

An EMD — short for earnest money deposit — is the sum of money you put down as evidence to the seller that you’re serious (read: earnest) about buying the house. If the seller accepts your offer, the earnest money will go toward your down payment at closing. However, if you try to back out of the deal, you might have to forfeit the cash to the seller.

A standard EMD is 1% to 3% of the sales price of the home (so, that would be $2,000 to $6,000 on a $200,000 loan). But depending on how hot the market is where you live, you may want to put down more earnest money to compete with other offers. 

In most cases, the title company is responsible for holding the earnest money in an escrow account. In the event the deal falls through, the title company will disperse the funds appropriately based on the terms of the sales contract. Title companies also check for defects or liens on a seller’s title to make sure it can be transferred cleanly to you.

#6 Review the Contingency Plans

Most real estate offers include contingencies — provisions that must be met before the transaction can go through, or the buyer is entitled to walk away from the deal with their EMD.

For example, if an offer says, “This contract is contingent upon a home inspection,” the buyer has a set number of days after the offer is accepted to do an inspection of the property with a licensed or certified home inspector.

If something is wrong with the house, the buyer can request the seller to make repairs. But most repairs are negotiable; the seller may agree to some, but say no to others. Or the seller can offer a price reduction, or a credit at closing, based on the cost of the repairs. This is where your real estate agent can offer real value and counsel on what you should ask the seller to fix.

Just remember to keep your eye on the big picture. If you and the seller are bickering over a $500 repair to the hardwood floors, keep in mind that’s a drop in the bucket in relation to the size of the bid.

In addition to the aforementioned home inspection contingency, other common contingencies include:

  • financing contingency, which gives home buyers a specified amount of time to get a loan that will cover the mortgage.
  • An appraisal contingency, where a third-party appraiser hired by the lender evaluates the fair-market value of the home to ensure the home is worth enough money to serve as collateral for the value of the mortgage.
  • clear title contingency, where the buyer’s title company verifies that the seller is the sole owner of the property and can legally convey ownership to the buyer.
  • home sale contingency, where the transaction is dependent on the sale of the buyer’s current home.

Although contingencies can offer protection to buyers, they can also make offers less appealing to the seller because they give buyers legal ways to back out of the sale without any financial repercussions. So, if you’re going up against multiple offers, making an offer with fewer contingencies can potentially give you an edge over the competition.

In other words: A chill offer is an attractive offer. But keep in mind you have to be comfortable with the risks that come with this strategy. If you don’t have a financing contingency, for example, and you can’t get a mortgage, you’d likely lose your earnest money deposit since you’re on the hook. (An outcome that’s decidedly un-chill for you.)

#7 Read the Fine Print About the Property

The sales contract states key information about the property, such as the address, tax ID, and the types of utilities: public water or private well, gas or electric heating, and so on. It also includes a section that specifies what personal property and fixtures the seller agrees to leave behind, like appliances, lighting fixtures, and window shades. The seller provides prospective buyers with a list of these items before they submit an offer. This can be another area of negotiation.

Carefully reviewing the property description also helps you know, for example, if the seller plans to take that unattached kitchen island with them when they move. (Stranger things have happened.)

#8 Make a Date to Settle

The sales contract you submit to the seller must include a proposed settlement date, which confirms when the transaction will be finalized. The clock starts as soon as the purchase agreement is signed. If you don’t close on time, the party that’s responsible for the delay may have to pay the other party compensation in the form of “penalty interest” at a predetermined rate.

A 30- to 60-day settlement period is common because it gives the typical home buyer time to complete a title search and obtain mortgage approval, but settlement periods can vary. Some sellers, for example, prefer a longer period so they have more time to move or look for their next house. Being flexible, with respect to the closing date, could give you more negotiating power in another area of the deal.

One thing that’s the same no matter where you live is that you’ll have a three-day period prior to settlement to review the Closing Disclosure, or CD — a five-page form that states your final loan terms and closing costs.

Once the sales contract is signed, the parties can change the settlement date if they both sign an addendum specifying the new day.

#9 Write a Fan Letter to the Seller

Want to make a truly compelling offer? Pull on the seller’s heartstrings by attaching a personal letter to the bid documents. Tell a compelling story about your family and your connection to the area. Get deep about your roots.

Also, sincere flattery can go a long way. Compliment the seller on how their kitchen renovation looks Apartment Therapy–worthy, for instance, or how the succulents in their landscaping remind you of a resort in Palm Springs.

Your agent can help you gather background on the sellers (e.g., are they crazy about their labradoodle, like you are about yours? Did they run a small business from the home, like you dream of doing?). And you should — of course — refer to information you gleaned during the open house or private showing. Use this intel to write a message that really speaks to the seller, and it may very well seal the deal.

#10 Brace Yourself for a Counteroffer

If you’re making a lowball bid or going up against multiple offers, the seller may decide to make you a counteroffer — a purchase agreement with new terms, such as a higher sales price or fewer contingencies.

At that point, it’s up to you to accept the new contract, make your own counteroffer to the sellers, or walk away.

Don’t panic: The next part of our guide walks you through the counteroffer process, and it offers strategies to give you more negotiating power.

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