Hey, Buyers: These Home Appraisal Tips Are for You

What to expect, when to negotiate, and how to deal when things don’t go your way.

Home appraisal illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Most people have deeply personal reasons for wanting to buy a home. Maybe it’s the bathroom that feels like a dreamy, modern spa. Or that two-tiered deck just made for parties.

Your lender doesn’t care about the freestanding tub. Or the built-in outdoor fire pit. Their only concern is that the house you buy is worth as much as the value of your mortgage.

To them, a house isn’t a home. It’s collateral. (Harsh, but true.) If someday, for some reason, you can’t make your mortgage payments, the lender can foreclose on the home and sell it to recoup all or some of its costs. (Even harsher, but also true.)

For that reason, a home must be valued at, or above, the agreed-upon purchase price, and this has to happen before you can close on a house. That’s where a home appraiser comes in. 

A Home Appraiser Is Neutral (Like Switzerland)

After you sign a home purchase agreement (the contract between you and the seller about the terms of the pending sale), and before your lender approves your loan, the home you’re buying must pass an appraisal — an assessment of the property’s value by an unbiased third party: the appraiser.

Does the Appraiser Have the Big Picture?

Agents should make sure the appraiser has details on everything from the home’s major upgrades, like an addition, to the age of major systems and structures, like the roof and HVAC.

An appraiser is a state-licensed or -certified professional. Their job is to assess an opinion of value — how much a house is worth. The appraiser is on no one’s side. They don’t represent you or the seller; instead, this person is a contractor chosen by your lender through an appraisal management company (AMC), a separate, neutral entity that maintains a roster of appraisers.

Appraisers survey a house in person, using five main criteria to determine the value of a home:

  • Location
  • Age
  • Condition
  • Additions or renovations
  • Recent sales of comparable homes

Be Prepared to Pay for the Appraisal — or to Negotiate

Generally speaking, the home buyer is responsible for paying for the appraisal — and the fee is typically wrapped into your closing costs. However, who pays for appraisal is negotiable. It never hurts to see if the seller is willing to cover it.

Not All Square Footage Is Equal

If the home you want has a finished basement, don’t assume it’ll appraise for more because of it. Below-ground space is valued at less per square foot than space above.

How much money are we talking about? The average professional home appraisal will run between $287 and $373, according to estimates by the home-professionals resource HomeAdvisor.com. Costs can vary depending on the square footage and quirks of the house, with higher appraisal prices for larger or more unique homes.

Appraisals Take a While, So Be Patient

Typically, a purchase agreement has a “home appraisal contingency” requiring that the appraisal be completed within 14 days of the sales contract being signed. Because it takes appraisers some time to visit your house and write a report — up to a week, or longer in a busy housing market — your lender will order the appraisal immediately after you sign the purchase agreement.

So, You Have a Valuation. Here’s What It Means — and What to Do Next

When the appraisal is finished, the appraiser issues a written report with his or her opinion of the value of the home. To produce the report, they use their analysis of the property and data from comparable homes, as well as review the purchase offer. The report will outline their methodology and also include photographs that they’ve taken of the property, inside and out.

You and your lender will both receive a copy of the report. Three things could happen next: 

  1. If the appraiser’s valuation matches the price you and the seller agreed to for the home: Your lender will proceed to underwrite your loan. Great news: This is the final step in your loan-getting process!
  2. If the appraiser’s valuation is higher than what you’re paying for the home: Congratulations! You’ve gained immediate equity. How, you ask? Let’s say, for example, you’re paying $200,000 for the house. If the appraiser says it’s worth $250,000 — jackpot. That’s an instant $50,000 in equity. (Keep in mind, this is very rare.)
  3. If the appraisal is lower than what you’ve agreed to pay for the home: Your lender won’t give you a loan for more than the appraised value. If you and the seller agreed on $200,000, for example, but the appraisal is $190,000, that creates a $10,000 shortfall. So what happens next?

Don’t despair — not yet. If you’re faced with a low appraisal, there are several ways the deal can still go through.

If an Appraisal Is Low, You Can Still Make It Work

Before we talk strategy, some reasons why appraisals come in lower than expected:

Pinpointing Comps

An appraiser should be very familiar with the area the home is in, given that markets can vary within blocks. A good comp rule of thumb to avoid incorrect valuations: Would a buyer likely purchase the comp if the subject property wasn’t available?

  • The seller overvalued the price of the home. 
  • The appraiser isn’t familiar with the neighborhood.
  • The appraiser overlooked pending sales data.
  • The appraiser had trouble finding comparable homes, or missed comparable homes, so they compared your home with properties outside the neighborhood.
  • Home prices in the area are changing so fast that the listing agent’s price no longer reflects the market.
  • The appraiser rushed the job.

If the appraisal comes in low, your agent will offer recommendations about how to proceed. In general, your best strategy is to persuade the seller to lower the sales price, or to split the difference between the home’s appraised value and the price with you. This is when you can rely on your agent — and their negotiating skills — to go to bat for you.

You can also appeal the appraisal assessment. You’ll work with your agent to research comparable homes that support the sales price you agreed upon with the seller and present this information to your lender, who will forward it to the appraiser for a re-evaluation of the home’s value. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the appraiser to decide whether to revise their valuation of the property.

Alternately, you can ask your lender for a second appraisal, though there are caveats:

  • You’ll have to pay for it out of pocket (or persuade the seller to foot the bill).
  • You’re more likely able to challenge an appraisal for a conventional loan than a government loan. And you’d need solid facts to back it up in either case.
  • There’s no guarantee that it will be higher and meet the sales price.

The last option: You can come up with the cash yourself to cover the difference between the home’s price and the appraised value. 

If you don’t want to take that route (and who could blame you?), a purchase agreement’s home appraisal contingency gives you the ability to walk away from the deal scot-free, and with your earnest money deposit in hand.

But today, let’s assume it all works out. With the appraisal behind you, you’ll be one step closer to closing on that house.

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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. 

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. 

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.

Your Stress-Free Guide to Shopping for Home Loans

With this super-simple breakdown of loan types, you won’t get overwhelmed — you’ll find the right mortgage.

How to choose a mortgage when buying a house
Image: HouseLogic

When it comes to buying a house, most people know what they prefer: a bungalow or a condo, a hot neighborhood or a sleepy street.

Mortgages, too, come in many styles — and recognizing which type you should choose is just slightly more involved than, say, knowing that you prefer hardwood floors over wall-to-wall carpeting.

First things first: To pick the best loan for your situation, you need to know what your situation is, exactly. Will you be staying in this home for years? Decades? Are you feeling financially comfortable? Are you anxious about changing loan rates? Consider these questions and your answers before you start talking to lenders. (And before you choose a lender, read this.)

Next: You’ll want to have an understanding of the different loans that are out there. There are lots of options, and it can get a little complicated — but you got this. Here we go.

Mortgages Are Fixed-Rate or Adjustable, and One Type Is Better for You

Let’s start with the most common type of mortgage, that workhorse of home loans — the fixed-rate mortgage.

A fixed-rate mortgage:

  • Lets you lock in an interest rate for 15 or 30 years. (You can get 20-year loans, too.) That means your monthly payment will stay the same over the life of the loan. (That said, your property taxes and insurance premiums will likely change over time.)

It’s ideal when: You want long-term stability and plan to stay put.

Here’s what else you need to know about fixed-rate mortgages:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage offers a lower monthly payment for the loan amount (for this reason, it’s more popular than the other option, the 15-year).
  • 15-year fixed-rate mortgage typically offers a lower interest rate but a higher monthly payment because you’re paying off the loan amount faster.

Now let’s get into adjustable-rate, the other type of mortgage you’ll be looking at. 

An adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM): 

  • Offers a lower interest rate than a fixed-rate mortgage for an initial period of time — say, five or seven years — but the rate can fluctuate after the introductory period is over, depending on changes in interest rate conditions. And that can make it difficult to budget.
  • Has caps that protect how high the rate can go.

It’s ideal when: You plan to live in a home for a short time or you expect your income to go up to offset potentially higher future rates.

Here’s what else you need to know about adjustable-rate mortgages:

  • Different lenders may offer the same initial interest rate but different rate caps. It’s important to compare rate caps when shopping around for an ARM. 
  • Adjustable-rate mortgages have a reputation for being complicated. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises, make sure to read the fine print.

A general rule of thumb: When comparing adjustable-rate loans, ask the prospective lender to calculate the highest payment you may ever have to make. You don’t want any surprises.

Conventional Loan or Government Loan? Your Life Answers the Question

Which fixed-rate or adjustable-rate mortgage you qualify for introduces a whole host of other categories, and they fall under two umbrellas: conventional loans and government loans. 

Conventional loans: 

  • Offer some of the most competitive interest rates, which means you’ll likely pay less in interest over the period of the loan.
  • Typically you can get one more quickly than a government loan because there’s less paperwork.

Who qualifies? Typically, you need at least a credit score of 620 or above and a 5% down payment to qualify for a conventional loan.

Here’s what else you need to know about conventional loans:

  • If you put less than 20% down for a conventional loan, you’ll be required to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), an extra monthly fee designed to mitigate the risk to the lender that a borrower could default on a loan. (PMI ranges from about 0.3% to 1.15% of your home loan.) The upshot: The lender has to cancel PMI when you reach 22% equity in your home, and you can request to have it canceled once you hit 20% equity.
  • Most conventional loans also have a maximum 43% debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, which compares how much money you owe (on student loans, credit cards, car loans, and other debts) to your income — expressed as a percentage.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set limits on how much money you can borrow for a conventional loan. A home loan that conforms to these limits is called a conforming loan: 

  • In most cities, the maximum amount for a conforming loan is $453,100. 
  • In high-cost areas, such as New York City and San Francisco, the limit is $679,650.
  • Limits are revisited annually and are subject to change based on each area’s average home price.

A home loan that exceeds these limits is called a jumbo loan:

  • Jumbo loans typically require a higher down payment (up to 30% for some lenders) and a credit score of at least 720. Some borrowers can qualify while putting down 20%, but their credit score has to be higher. 
  • They also tend to have stricter debt-to-income requirements, generally allowing for a maximum DTI ratio of 38%.

There are practical considerations to take into account before getting a jumbo loan too, mainly: Are you comfortable carrying that much debt? The answer depends on your current financial situation and long-term financial goals. 

Government loans:

  • Include loans secured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development.
  • Are meant to stimulate the housing market and enable folks who may be unable to qualify for conventional loans to still become homeowners.

Who qualifies? That depends on which government loan you’re looking at.

If you’ve had trouble qualifying for a mortgage because of income limitations or credit: 

FHA loans are used by a broad swath of people, including those with lower credit scores and income. 

  • You can get an FHA loan with a down payment of 3.5% if you have a minimum credit score of 580. You can still qualify with a credit score below 580 — even with no credit score — but the down payment and other requirements will be much higher.
  • FHA loans conform to loan limits set by county; these limits typically range from $294,515 to $679,650 in high-cost areas. You can view the FHA mortgage caps for your county at hud.gov.
  • If you get an FHA loan, you must pay an upfront mortgage insurance premium (MIP) and an annual premium of 0.85%. Currently, the MIP is 1.75% of the loan amount — so, $1,750 for a $100,000 loan. This premium can be paid upfront at the mortgage closing, or it can be rolled into the monthly mortgage payment. 

Also, a heads-up — the date an FHA loan was issued affects the MIP. 

  • If you received an FHA loan on or before June 3, 2013: You’re eligible for canceling MIP after five years, but you must have 22% equity in your home and have made all payments on time.
  •  If you received an FHA loan after June 3, 2013: To stop paying MIP, you’d have to refinance into a conventional loan and have a current loan-to-value of at least 80%.

If you’re in the military, a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse:

  • VA loans offer active or retired military (or a veteran’s surviving spouse) a mortgage with a 0% down payment. 
  • VA loans also can have more lenient credit requirements — typically around a minimum 620 credit score — and lower DTI requirements.
  • The VA only allows lenders to charge 1% maximum to cover the costs of originating and underwriting the loan, so you save money at closing. There is, however, an additional upfront, one-time funding fee of 2.15%. 

VA loans also don’t charge borrowers mortgage insurance — potentially helping you save a significant chunk of cash on your monthly payment.

Given the benefits, a VA loan is often the best mortgage option for people who qualify.

If your income is limited and you live in a small or rural town:

USDA loans are mortgages for limited-income home buyers in towns with populations of 10,000 or less, or that are “rural in character,” meaning that some areas that now have bigger populations are grandfathered in. You can see whether your town is eligible on the USDA’s website

  • USDA loans typically have lower interest rates than non-USDA loans.
  • Down payments can be as low as 0%. 
  • USDA mortgages also have more lenient credit score requirements than conventional loans. 
  • Income limits to qualify depend on location and household size. 
  • USDA loans charge an upfront mortgage insurance fee of 1% of the loan amount and annual mortgage insurance premium of 0.35%. 
  • And USDA loan borrowers must buy a “modest home” — a property with a market value deemed reasonable for the area, though the USDA does not set specific price limitations.

Only a select number of lenders offer USDA loans; here’s a list of USDA-approved lenders nationwide

If your job is to help people:

Niche programs, like the Neighbor Next Door from HUD, allows teachers, law enforcement officers, first responders, and government workers — as much as 50% on eligible homes in revitalization districts. 

Note: Down payment assistance programs offer qualified buyers such things as grants and interest-free loans. Start with your state’s housing finance agency to find options.

Now You Know the Basics. It’s Time to Call for Backup

Speaking of your lender: Ultimately, you’ll be working with your loan officer or broker to narrow down these choices, and to find a loan that works for you and your finances. (Just another reason why it’s important to choose a lender you’re comfortable with.)

Your real estate agent should be able to offer some insight, too. And because they don’t earn a paycheck from your loan selection, their advice about mortgages should be impartial.

You know your stuff. And you know whom to ask for help. Who’s overwhelmed? Not you. 

HouseLogic logo

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. 

 

What You Should Really Know About Browsing for Homes Online

It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt!

Shopping for houses online illustration
Image: HouseLogic

Oh, let’s just admit it, shall we? Browsing for homes online is a window shopper’s Shangri-La. The elegantly decorated rooms, the sculpted gardens, the colorful front doors that just pop with those “come hither” hues.

Browser beware, though: Those listings may be seductive, but they might not be giving you the complete picture.

That perfect split-level ranch? Might be too close to a loud, traffic-choked street. That handsome colonial with the light-filled photos? Might be hiding some super icky plumbing problems. That attractively priced condo? Miiiight not actually be for sale. Imagine your despair when, after driving across town to see your dream home, you realize it was sold. 

So let’s practice some self-care, shall we, and set our expectations appropriately. 

  • Step one, fill out our home buyer’s worksheet. The worksheet helps you understand what you’re looking for. 
  • Step two, with that worksheet and knowledge in hand, start browsing for homes. As you do, keep in mind exactly what that tool can, and can’t, do. Here’s how.

You Keep Current. Your Property Site Should, Too

First things first: You wouldn’t read last month’s Vanity Fair for the latest cafe society gossip, right? So you shouldn’t browse property sites that show old listings.

Get the latest listings from realtor.com®, which pulls its information every 15 minutes from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), regional databases where real estate agents post listings for sale. That means that realtor.com®’s listings are more accurate than some others, like Zillow and Trulia, which may update less often. You wouldn’t want to get your heart a flutter for a house that’s already off the market.

BTW, there are other property listing sites as well, including Redfin, which is a brokerage and therefore also relies on relationships with brokers and MLSs for listings.

The Best Properties Aren’t Always the Best Looking

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But what they don’t say is a picture can also hide a thousand cracked floorboards, busted boilers, and leaky pipes. So while it’s natural to focus on photos while browsing, make sure to also consider the property description and other key features.

Each realtor.com® listing, for example, has a “property details” section that may specify important information such as the year the home was built, price per square foot, and how many days the property has been on the market.

Ultimately though, ask your real estate agent to help you interpret what you find. The best agents have hyper-local knowledge of the market and may even know details and histories of some properties. If a listing seems too good to be true, your agent will likely know why.

Treat Your Agent Like Your Bestie

At the end of the day, property sites are like CliffsNotes for a neighborhood: They show you active listings, sold properties, home prices, and sales histories. All that data will give you a working knowledge, but it won’t be exhaustive.

To assess all of this information — and gather facts about any home you’re eyeing, like how far the local elementary school is from the house or where the closest Soul Cycle is — talk to your real estate agent. An agent who can paint a picture of the neighborhood is an asset.

An agent who can go beyond that and deliver the dish on specific properties is a true friend indeed, more likely to guide you away from homes with hidden problems, and more likely to save you the time of visiting a random listing (when you could otherwise be in the park playing with your canine bestie).

Want to go deeper? Consider these sites and sources:

Just remember: You’re probably not going to find that “perfect home” while browsing listings on your smartphone. Instead, consider the online shopping experience to be an amuse bouche to the home-buying entree — a good way for you to get a taste of the different types of homes that are available and a general idea of what else is out there. 

Once you’ve spent that time online, you’ll be ready to share what you’ve learned with an agent.

HouseLogic logo

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. 

The Everything Guide to Buying Your First Home

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

Home buying steps illustration
Image: HouseLogic

So you’re thinking about buying your first home. Your very own house (and mortgage). A place to call — and make — your own.

It’s a big move, literally and figuratively. Buying a house requires a serious amount of money and time. The journey isn’t always easy. It isn’t always intuitive. But when you get the keys to your new home — that, friend, can be one of the most rewarding feelings pretty much ever. 

The key to getting there? Knowing the home-buying journey. Knowing what tools are at your disposal. And most importantly? Creating relationships with experts who can help you get the job done.

That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll show you not only the major steps you’ll take during the home-buying process, but also explain the relationships and experts you’ll need along the way. We’ve even made a handy infographic that outlines the home-buying process from start to finish. 

You ready to live the dream? Here we go. 

Do Your Homework

Oh sure, everybody wants to jump right into open houses. But before you even set foot into a foyer, you should identify your list of “musts” and “wants.” This list is an inventory of priorities for your search. And there’s so much to decide: Price, housing type, neighborhood, and school district — just to name a few.

If you’re planning to buy a home with a partner (in life or in real estate), fill the worksheet out with them. You want to be on the same page while buying a house. If you’re not, you’ll be less able to give agents or lenders the information they need to help you. And you risk wasting time viewing homes you can’t afford — or don’t even want in the first place.

Start Shopping

Once you know what you’re looking for, the next step is to start looking at listings and housing information online. (This part? You’re going to crush it.)

Find a Great Agent

Your relationship with your real estate agent is the foundation of the home-buying process. (And your agent = your rock.) He or she is the first expert you’ll meet on your journey, and the one you’ll rely on most. That’s why it’s important to interview agents and find the agent who’s right for your specific needs.

Choose a Lender

Once you’ve found your agent (AKA, your new best friend), ask him or her to recommend at least three mortgage lenders that meet your financial needs. This is another big step, as you’ll be working with your lender closely throughout the home-buying process.

Pick a Loan (It’s Not So Bad)

Once you’ve decided on a lender (or mortgage broker), you’ll work with your loan agent to determine which mortgage is right for you. You’ll consider the percentage of your income you want to spend on your new house, and you’ll provide the lender with paperwork showing proof of income, employment status, and other important financials. If all goes well (fingers crossed) you’ll be pre-approved for a loan at a certain amount. (Sweet.)

Go to Showings and Look Around

Now that you have both an agent who knows your housing preferences and a budget — and a lender to finance a house within that budget — it’s time to get serious about viewing homes. Your agent will provide listings you may like based on your parameters (price range, ZIP codes, features), and will also help you determine the quality of listings you find online.

Then comes the fun part: showings, which give you the unique opportunity to evaluate properties. Your agent will help you navigate showings, whether virtual or in-person.

Make an Offer

Once you find the home you want to buy, you’ll work with your agent to craft an offer that not only specifies the price you’re willing to pay but also the proposed settlement date and contingencies — other conditions that must be agreed upon by both parties, such as giving you the ability to do a home inspection and request repairs.

Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate

Making an offer can feel like an emotional precipice, almost like asking someone out on a date. Do they like me? Am I good enough? Will they say yes? It’s stressful! Some home sellers simply accept the best offer they receive, but many sellers make a counteroffer. If that happens, it’s up to you to decide whether you want your agent to negotiate with the seller or walk away. This is an area where your agent can provide real value by using their expert negotiating skills to haggle on your behalf and nab you the best deal.

Get the Place Inspected

If your offer is accepted, then you’ll sign a contract. Most sales contracts include a home inspection contingency, which means you’ll hire a licensed or certified home inspector to inspect the home for needed repairs, and then ask the seller to have those repairs made. This mitigates your risk of buying a house that has major issues lurking beneath the surface, like mold or cracks in the foundation. (No one wants that.) Here’s what to expect.

Ace the Appraisal

When you offer to buy a home, your lender will need to have the home appraised to make sure the property value is enough to cover the mortgage. If the home appraises close to the agreed-upon purchase price, you’re one step closer to settlement — but a low appraisal can add a wrinkle. Not one you can’t deal with. Here’s how to prepare.

Close the Deal

The last stage of the home-buying process is settlement, or closing. This is when you sign the final ownership and insurance paperwork and make this whole thing official. There’s some prep work you have to take care of first.

When it’s all said and done — break out the rosé. You’ll have the keys to your new home!

How to Find the Right Person to Sell Your House

Your guide to hiring the listing agent who can set you up for success.

Finding a Listing Agent Who's Right for You
Image: HouseLogic

Your home is where you’ve lived and loved, where you’ve laughed and cried, where you’ve huddled and snuggled. You’re the pea, your home is the pod. And you’ve been through a lot together.

Now that it’s time to put it on the market, you’re likely experiencing some sadness, plus plenty of anxiety. Because really: How often does your future depend on selling your past? If you’re a little overwhelmed, we don’t blame you.

But there’s also good news: You don’t have to go it alone. 

A listing agent has your back when it comes to the financials, like setting a listing price and marketing, staging, and making repairs to your house. He or she can also help you navigate more personal issues, such as your timeline, and what you’re hoping to achieve with the sale.  

For all of those reasons, it’s important to find an expert who is right for you and your specific situation, and who can help you get what you want. Here’s how.

Know What a Listing Agent Can Do for You

Before you start interviewing prospective agents, have a clear sense of what you want to get out of the selling process. When so much money is on the table, it’s crucial to know what your goals are, so that you can find an agent who really speaks to them.

Then, it helps to understand what a listing agent does (other than sell your most valuable asset — no big deal).

The listing agent will: 

  • Work with you to price your home
  • Market your home (we’re talking pretty pictures, social media promo, cute staging — the works)
  • Negotiate with home buyers
  • Usher the home sale through inspection and closing

Now, let’s break all of that down . . .

Pricing your home. This is the BIG question, right? How do I set the price? The short answer is you’ll need to trust your agent to recommend a smart listing price. 

So how can you tell whether an agent — a relative stranger to you — is choosing the best price for your home? You need to do two things:

  1. Know, generally speaking, what your property is worth. Do your own research on the prices of local comps, (but understand the limits of online property sites). Run your info by your agent for an informed perspective. 
  2. Ask the agent for pricing information on homes he or she has recently sold. Specifically, what the differences were between their listing prices and how much the homes ultimately sold for. 

When it comes to the agent’s pricing history, you’re looking for accuracy. Anyone could suggest a high price for your home, knowing it’s what you’d like to hear. But nobody (especially you) wants to have a house languish on the market, or to reduce a price repeatedly.

Marketing your home. The listing agent will also get the word out that your house is on the market, using a combination of old-school (but powerful) marketing techniques — such as direct mail, signage, and open houses — and the modern methods we know and love, like social media. Savvy agents will post pics of your house on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and any other platform that can get likes plus the attention of other real estate agents who can bring buyers to the table.

Negotiating with buyers. When offers start pouring in, your agent will negotiate with prospective buyers on not only the sale price but also on what contingencies (aka special circumstances) are attached to the contract. As with any negotiation, there could be some stressful, fraught moments with the buyers. You’ll want an agent who can step up for you, and who has a negotiation style that you’re comfortable with.

Closing the sale. Once you’ve signed a purchase agreement with a buyer (woo-hoo!), your agent will help you navigate the sale’s remaining steps. This includes negotiating home repair requests post inspection and dealing with any last-minute surprises before closing.

The average listing agent does all of the above. A great listing agent does all of the above, while also inspiring your confidence — that they’re getting the best price for you, and that they’re representing you and your home in the best possible light. 

So, let’s talk about how to find and hire that kind of agent.

Ask These Questions to Find a Great Listing Agent

Here, time is on your side. Aim to hire a listing agent six to eight weeks — or more — before the day your house is listed on the market (also known as the “go-live date”). You’ll be grateful for the cushion, especially if the agent you ultimately hire recommends that you make repairs or upgrades to your home before it’s listed. (That wouldn’t be unusual.)

To find prospective agents, start with your network. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues for recommendations. Word-of-mouth endorsements, as always, can be priceless.

You can also turn to another trusted friend: the internet. Property websites such as realtor.com® have directories that let you search for agents in your area. These databases can clue you into important details, such as an agent’s years of experience, number of homes sold, and past client reviews.

Three out of four home sellers only contact one candidate before picking their listing agent, according to a NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® report. While that may be the norm, it’s smarter to shop around. Interview at least three agents before deciding on the one you want to work with. 

During the interviews, ask these questions to help assess whether an agent is the right fit you:

  • Do you work as an agent full-time? As in most professions, work experience doesn’t guarantee skill. That said, much of real estate is learned on the job.
  • How long have you been in the business? Generally, the more experience an agent has, the more they’re tapped into the local market. 
  • How many homes have you sold in my neighborhood in the past year? You don’t need to find an agent who specializes only in your community, though that would be ideal. You do want someone who has recently sold at least a few homes in your neighborhood and knows the local and hyper-local inventory.
  • What’s the typical price range of homes you sell? Most agents work across multiple price points, but you don’t want an agent who has never sold a home in your range.
  • What’s your fee? An agent should be able to articulate their value and explain their commission rate.  
  • How will you market my home? You don’t want to hire someone who’s just going to stick a For Sale sign in your yard and call it a day. The agent should present a comprehensive marketing plan for your listing. This should include strategies for staging your home, taking professional photographs of your home, promoting the listing on social media, marketing to other brokers, and scheduling open houses.
  • Will I be working with you directly, or with a team? Some agents lead or work as part of a sales team. The lead listing agent shares client responsibilities with other agents. Where one agent may handle private showings for a listing, another may host open houses. A benefit is that for the same fee, you get many people working for you. But if you want the sole attention of the listing agent, you may want to stick to a one-on-one arrangement. 
  • Will you provide one-on-one service? Whether you’re working with one agent or a team, ask how responsive they can be to you, your timeline, and your goals.
  • How long on average are your listings on market? Your average sold-to-list price? This can help you suss out whether the agent is a solid marketer and negotiator. These are real estate stats that the agent can pull from your local multiple listing service, or MLS. 

The bottom-line: It’s in your best interest to pick an agent who understands your goals, fits your personality, and can get your home sold for top dollar. When you meet someone who can offer all of the above, congratulations — you’ve found your listing agent.

First Thing: Know What You’re Signing up For

Now that you know what you’re getting when you find the right listing agent, let’s make sure you know what you’re committing to when you sign that agent’s “representation agreement.”

The most common type of representation agreement is the exclusive right-to-sell agreement — a legally binding contract that states you’re going to use that agent to sell your house. Under this agreement, you’re giving the agent (and the agent’s brokerage) the right to sell the home for a mutually agreed-upon time period and compensation. IOW: You get peace of mind that you have a dedicated agent; the agent gets peace of mind that you’re only using their services. Other common terms include the agent’s duties to you, like marketing, and a dispute resolution plan.

There are other types of representation agreements, where agents don’t have exclusive rights to sell the property — meaning multiple agents can try to sell the home and compete for the commission. However, when agents know a listing is exclusively theirs, they’re fully invested in selling the property (which, again, should also give you peace of mind).

Every contract has an expiration date, but the length of the contract can vary. Some are three-months; others six months. It all depends on what you and the agent agree upon. If the contract expires before your house is sold, you can re-list your home with another agent. 

Of course, there’s a chance you sign an exclusive listing agreement but just aren’t satisfied with the job your agent is doing. To protect yourself, make sure the representation agreement has a cancellation or termination clause that lets you void the contract before the expiration date without any financial penalty.

Understand How a Listing Agent Gets Paid

So  . . . at the end of the day, how do listing agents get compensated for their work? 

Real estate commissions — including the listing agent’s commission — are typically charged as a percentage of the home’s sales price. For example, on a $300,000 house, a 6% commission would cost $18,000. Commissions are negotiable. The commission is usually split between the listing agent and the buyer’s agent as well as their respective brokers. 

A caveat: If an agent represents the seller and the buyer, the agent becomes a dual agent and earns both sides of the commission. In dual agency, you may have more room to negotiate the rate — just keep in mind that you’re not being represented exclusively as you are in single agency. You may want to hire an attorney to review documents and help you negotiate.

The listing agent’s commission fee often covers the cost of professional photos, marketing and marketing materials, and any administrative fees charged by the agent’s brokerage. 

Also, consider this: Great agents — with their pretty photography, HGTV-worthy staging tricks, and marketing smarts — earn their keep. 

So, if you’ve read all of the above, you’ve done your homework to find a great agent. Now you’re ready to sell that house.

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HouseLogichelps 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. 

How to Be a Savvy Open House Guest

Getting smart — about what to do, ask, and avoid — can move you ahead of the crowd.

Asking the right questions at open houses
Image: HouseLogic

Editor’s Note: As restrictions related to Covid-19 begin easing up, the National Association of REALTORS® is encouraging virtual home showings, regardless of whether in-person showings are allowed by states or local communities.

If you’re considering holding an open house, your agent will have an honest conversation with you about any concerns, including whether doing so would contradict current government recommendations or mandates, especially in geographic areas with shelter-in-place mandates. If after discussing these issues, you and your agent mutually agree to an open house, your agent will discuss necessary precautions to minimize exposure to and the spread of COVID-19.

Ah, the open house — a chance to wander through other people’s homes and imagine yourself knocking out walls and gut rehabbing their kitchens. This is what dreams are made of (or at least episodes of HGTV).

In all seriousness, going to open houses (and scheduled private showings) is one of the most exciting parts of the home-buying experience. Beyond the voyeuristic thrill, visiting houses allows you to assess things that you just can’t see online.

Most Popular in Buy a Home: Step-by-Step

Anyone who has taken a super-posed selfie knows that a picture doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Professional listing photos can make small rooms look spacious, make dim rooms bright, and mask other flaws of a home — but you don’t know any of that until you actually see the house yourself.

You can tour houses at any point, but it can be helpful to first discuss your needs and wants with your partner (if you have one), do some online research, and talk with your agent and your lender. That way, you — and your agent — can take a targeted approach, which saves you time and can give you an edge over your buying competition.

So, before you start viewing, follow these tips to get prepared. 

Make It Your Job to Know Which Houses Are “Open”

There are four ways to know when a house is available for viewing:

  • Ask your agent. He or she will have details on specific properties and can keep you informed of open houses that fit your criteria.
  • Use listing websites. A number of property sites let you search active listings for upcoming open houses. On realtor.com®, for instance, when searching for properties, scroll over the “Buy” tab and click the “Open Houses” link to see upcoming ones in your area.
  • Scroll social media. On Instagram, for example, you can search the hashtag #openhouse, or similar tags for your city (#openhousedallas, for example), to discover open houses. Many real estate agents and brokerages also post open house announcements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; find ones from your area and start following.
  • Drive around. Cruise through the neighborhoods you’re interested in — it’s a good way to get a sense of the area amenities — and look for open house signs. 

And while you’re searching, be sure to jot down the location, time, and date for any open house that strikes your fancy. It will make it that much easier to plan times and routes for hitting as many homes as possible.

Get There Early (and Say Hi to the Neighbors)

If you’re seriously interested in a home, show up to the open house early. That way you’ll beat the rush, and the agent showing the house (AKA the host) will have time to focus on you and your questions.

And don’t be shy! Many home buyers hop from one open house to the next without talking to the listing agent. But chatting up the host can help you learn information that you wouldn’t get by only touring the premises.

If a house seems like a match, take a walk around the neighborhood. Strike up conversations with the neighbors to get an insider’s perspective on what life in that community is really like — families, singles, what the vibe on the block is like, and whether the homeowner’s or condo association (if there is one) is easy to work with.

Ask Lots of Questions, But Avoid TMI

To make the most of your open house visits, have a list of questions in mind for the host — and take notes while you’re there, so you can keep track of what you learned. 

At the same time, remember this: Your interaction with the host could be the beginning of negotiations with them. If you end up making an offer, you’ll use the information you’ve gathered to inform your bid. (They’ll also remember that you were an engaged yet courteous person, which can’t hurt your cause.) 

Equally important: Oversharing could hurt your negotiating power. 

Be careful about what information you share with the agent hosting the event. This person works for the seller — not you. The host can and will use stats they’ve gleaned about you to counter, reject, or accept an offer. 

Keeping that in mind, here are eight questions you can ask a host to help determine whether a house is a good fit for you:

  1. Have you received any offers? If there are already bids on the table, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to make an offer. Keep in mind: Listing agents can’t disclose the amount of any other offers, though — only whether they exist.
  2. When does the seller want to move? Find out the seller’s timeline. If the seller is in a hurry (say, for a new job), they may be willing to accept an offer that’s below list price.
  3. When is the seller looking to close? Price isn’t the only factor for many home sellers. One way to strengthen your offer is to propose a settlement date that’s ideal for them. For example, a 30- to 45-day closing is standard in many markets, but the seller may want more time if they haven’t purchased their next home yet.
  4. Is the seller flexible on price? Most listing agents won’t tip their hand when you ask this question, but there’s always a chance the agent says “yes.” And, in some instances, the seller has authorized their agent to tell interested buyers that the price is negotiable. In any case, you might as well ask. (It’s kind of like googling for a coupon code when you buy something online.)
  5. How many days has the home been on the market? You can find this information on the internet, but the seller’s agent can give you context, especially if the house has been sitting on the market for a while. Maybe the home was under contract but the buyer’s financing fell through, or the seller overshot the listing price and had to make a price reduction? Knowing the backstory can only help you.
  6. Has the price changed? You can see if there’s been a price reduction online, but talking to the listing agent is the only way to find out why the seller dropped the price.
  7. Are there any issues? Have there been any renovations or recent repairs made to the home? Some upgrades, like new kitchen appliances, are easy to spot, but some are harder to identify. Specifically ask about the roof, appliances, and HVAC system because they can be expensive to repair or replace. BTW, repairs like a leaky faucet, aren’t  things that need to be disclosed.
  8. What are the average utility costs? Many buyers don’t factor utility bills into their monthly housing expenses, and these costs can add up — particularly in drafty older homes. Ask the listing agent what a typical monthly utility bill is during the summer and during the winter, since heating and cooling costs can fluctuate seasonally. Be prepared for higher utility bills if you’re moving from an apartment to a single-family home.

Now that you’ve got your answers, there’s one last thing to do: Thank the host before you go. You never know — you could be seeing them again at the negotiating table soon.

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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.