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The Art of Buying a Home

By Quelbesa

I heard my most memorable quote regarding home ownership a few years ago, and it came from our company's CEO. Having come from modest means, our CEO, who hails from Meridian, Mississippi was raised by a single mother. He recalls the day as a twelve-year-old boy, when his family moved into their first home: "Immediately, we felt differently about ourselves."

I can say that this also applies to my wife and me. Trust me when I tell you that I've never suffered from low self-esteem at any point in my life. However, that first night as a brand-new homeowner, I underwent a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude I will never forget.

Home ownership is the proverbial "American Dream", and indeed over two-thirds of Americans own their home (or at least are mortgaged to hilt for it.) Owning one's home has several benefits (in addition to the intangible incremental self-worth noted above):

  • It is an investment that (under most normal circumstances) will appreciate in value over time.
  • The United Stated (IRS) Tax Code provides the opportunity for substantial tax deductions on home mortgage interest.
  • Typically, you can use someone else's money to acquire your dream house. Please note, this does not mean that it would be free, but rather that with minimal down payment, and appropriately using the tool of debt one can get into the house.

In the interest of disclosure, there are certainly down sides and risks to home ownership:

  • Potential for decline in value. The real estate market can "tank" for various reasons, and would jeopardize the value of the investment.
  • Investing in the wrong home, neighborhood, or geographic location can result in lost opportunity, meaning that your rate of return may end up being less than what it would have been had you invested your money in an alternative investment vehicle (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, a Las Vegas casino, etc.)
  • You all of a sudden take on the cost of all maintenance-related expenses, be they routine ones, or heavy-duty expensive ones.

Clearly, home ownership is not for everyone. In my humble opinion, however, if carefully studied and analyzed in advance, home ownership's benefits will far outweigh the risks for those who are interested in it.

The following are some tips in performing due diligence on a home purchase that will help any first-time homebuyer. A lot of these are from my personal experience as a first-time homeowner, including mistakes I made and wished someone had told me in advance, like I'm relating to you.

There are 5 key items that one has to focus on in the home buying process:

  1. Determine How Much You Can Afford
  2. Obtain a Mortgage Loan
  3. Select a Real Estate Agent
  4. Choose the "Right" Home For You
  5. Negotiate & Close the Purchase

1. Determine How Much You Can Afford

The first step in finding a home is figuring out how much you can afford to spend. Unless you just hit your state's lottery, this will probably mean that you're going to need to borrow money, otherwise known as getting a mortgage.

Taking out a mortgage is probably the biggest obstacle facing prospective homeowners. There are several key questions involved in this process:

Do you make enough to pay the lender back?
Your lender will want to know not only how much money you have, but how much you will likely make over the next 30 years. Also, what are your other debts? Do you owe money for college or on credit cards? Do you have any other assets? Things like stocks and mutual funds or real property like a boat or a car are also considered in figuring out how much a bank will lend you.

As a general rule most lenders prefer that you to come up with at least 20% of the value of your new home for a down payment before they will give you a mortgage. However, there are special financing arrangements for which most of us qualify that will enable you to get your new home for as little as 3% of the asking price. I'll address mortgage loan types and those special programs a bit later.

Additionally, the lender, through the use of various formulas, will figure out your ability to take on the additional monthly mortgage payments to your existing debts and monthly expenses. Without boring you with the details of the various formulas, let me tell you the basics of what you need to know: Minimize your monthly debt payments by either paying off those credit card balances, car loans, student loans and other miscellaneous loans, or at least substantially pay them down prior to applying for the mortgage.

What is your credit rating?

Like most Ethiopians (and I would imagine most immigrants to this country) my wife and I did not fully comprehend the value of our credit rating. To be very direct, every loan, every loan application, every inquiry into your credit by prospective employers and landlords – everything – is recorded on your credit history. Of course, in addition to your applications and original amounts, the timeliness of your monthly payments and current balances, along with your monthly payment amounts, is recorded month by month. Any debt collection efforts, any bankruptcy declarations, any debt "work-out" is recorded for the prospective lender to see.

Your credit report is one of the most sacred personal data sources that you should protect. Easily, it can make or break your aspirations of home ownership. The "Big Three" credit reporting agencies are Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union. For about $8 each (less in some states) you can order reports directly from their websites. These reports will indicate your history of paying your bills on time. The best advice I can give you here is to quickly obtain your report and see what's on it. To be sure, errors sometimes do happen, where as an example, a former creditor mistakenly recorded that you made a payment 30 days late, or a fraudulent account was opened in your name, etc. You should clear these up in advance of letting the lender take a peek at your credit report. My added tip is to review your credit report at least annually to ensure that nothing untoward is being recorded about you.

Do you have something to use as collateral?
In case you can't repay the loan, the bank can decide to do something really nasty: foreclose on the mortgage and repossess the house. That means they own it, and you no longer do. Your house, the one you worked so hard for, now belongs to the bank, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever loan you money again. Obvious tip: Avoid this scenario at all costs. Once you do obtain your mortgage, be ever more diligent about any added debt you take on, as it may end up overwhelming your ability to make monthly, on-time mortgage payments.

2. Obtain a Mortgage Loan

What exactly is a mortgage? It's a loan from a financial institution to you. In return, you pay interest on the amount loaned. The lender also has first dibs on your house in case you are unable to pay back the loan.

A loan has three facets: 1) size (how many dollars you need to borrow); 2) percentage rate (how much you pay in interest on the loan); and 3) term (how long it will take to pay off the loan). The first of these is self-explanatory

The other two are more complicated. Let's look first at the interest rate.

Interest Rate

This is the primary reason that the lender will lend you his money. This rate can and will vary from institution to institution, from day to day (sometimes several times a day) and from borrower to borrower. One thing remains constant, however, those applicants with the best credit get the lower rates. This stands to reason, as most lenders want those with a proven track record in debt repayment, and will provide the added incentive of a slightly lower rate to attract those borrowers.

There are several ways by which you can research prevailing interest rates in your market. One such resource is Bankrate Monitor. Of course, you can also your local newspaper's weekly real estate edition as well.

The Term
The most common term (length) for a fixed-rate mortgage is 30 years, with 15 years the next most common.

Clearly, though a 30-year mortgage gives you the flexibility of paying back the loan in smaller monthly payments, you will pay much more interest over the "life" of the loan (in most cases double) on a 30-year mortgage. Once again, the concept of 30 years to pay off a mortgage may be a foreign one to most of us Ethiopians, as our parents had only 7 – 10 years to pay off theirs back in the Home Land.

Types of Mortgages

Fixed-Rate Mortgage
This is the most basic type of mortgage. Because the interest rate of your mortgage stays constant through the life of the loan, your monthly payment will never change. Loans for homes are usually for 15 or 30 years.

ARM
This is short for "adjustable-rate mortgage." The interest rate on these kinds of loans will change periodically (depending on the loan arrangements). Generally, the first-year's rate (also known as the "teaser" rate) will be a couple of percentage points below the prevailing market rate. Starting the second year, the interest rate on the loan will start rising (it will be tied to an "index" and will have annual and lifetime "caps") As a result, unlike fixed rate loans, the monthly payment on an ARM loan will vary through the life of the loan.

"Hybrid" Loans
This is a cross between the two types of loans. Typically a hybrid loan is fixed for 1, 3, 5, 7, or 10 years and then converts to an ARM. This means you get stability of a fixed loan for a given amount of time, and then be subject to the fluctuations of an ARM loan for the rest of the loan term.

Although these are the most common types of mortgages, several other creative financing deals can be struck with your lender that can be derivations of the some or all of the above with fixed or variable terms, "amortization" and interest rates.

My recommendation on the kind of mortgage to take out will vary by the interest rate environment. In the current (June 2000) rate market, where interest rates are very high, I certainly would not recommend a fixed rate loan as the way to go. However, in a lower-rate environment (like the late '90s) one would do well to obtain a fixed rate, in anticipation of rates increasing. As an example, one may take out a hybrid (e.g. 7-year fixed) with the hopes that interest rates will decline and enable the borrower to "re-finance" his loan, even before the 7 years are up.

The Lender: Bank or Mortgage Broker?

Mortgage Broker
Mortgage brokers are analogous to your local supermarket. They have access to many and many different programs. In some cases, especially where credit is not flawless, and "nonconforming" properties are involved, a mortgage broker can find funding for you. They charge a fee, and are sometimes compensated by the lenders. They provide a great service for many consumers, and originate over 50% of loans in the country.

Mortgage brokers normally originate the loan, process it, and pass it along to a lender, who sells it to an investor. These investors range from state pension funds to government and quasi-government companies such as the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA), or "Fannie Mae"; the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), or "Freddie Mac"; and the Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA), or "Ginnie Mae." A mortgage broker can in many cases speed up your closing time, do all the processing, and get you a better rate.

The mortgage broker is compensated on commission, and he is going to have higher closing fees and is allowed by law to charge whatever he wants for loan processing.

A good rule of thumb: Ask what the broker's fee will be. You can then make an informed decision as to whether paying that fee will be worth it over time if you get a better deal on a loan.

Banks and Mortgage Bankers
The term "mortgage banker" can refer either to a loan officer who works at a bank or to the bank itself. Banks generally have a corporate approach, in which the mortgage bankers are told, "These are the fees -- don't deviate from them." So there is more stability in terms of what the person sitting across the desk from you is going to charge for his services.

Which Should You Use? In short, whichever gives you the best deal. That's why you should shop around first and find out all you can. It shouldn't matter to you as to who will ultimately own or service the loan, in comparison to your monthly expenditure.

Where can you get a mortgage?
There are thousands of mortgage lenders across the country, each having many different loan products. From lenders who will only sell to the most creditworthy borrowers (at the best rates) to those who will lend 50% of a property's value (at high rates), there's a mortgage product for just about everyone.

One of the first places to check is your local bank. This can result in a reasonably good deal for the qualified customer. In many other cases, the bank will not have a program that fits your needs, or you may fall outside the guidelines of its lending ability.

Once you have visited your bank, look in the real estate section of your local newspaper for the rates at other banks. It's a good idea to start the research on your own, before bringing in a mortgage broker, so that you'll 1) avoid the "hard sell" from the get-go, and 2) have a better idea of what you could find on your own.

The Web
The Web provides you the opportunity to comparison shop, right from your own computer. Not only that, but you don't have to hunt down a hundred different banks -- certain "aggregator" sites have done that for you. Links to the three largest loan aggregators are listed at the bottom. By the way, there is no reason why you shouldn't take out a loan with a bank in California if you live in Virginia, or vice-versa.

When should I shop for a mortgage?
As a general rule, you should secure a mortgage before you ever start looking for a house. Not only will you feel more confident knowing that you'll have a certain amount of money, but you'll be a more serious candidate to sellers.

What information should I get from the mortgage company?
There are many questions to ask prospective lenders (down payment required, interest rate, loan terms, loan types, fees and any prepayment penalties.) If you're like me, you may find yourself feeling a little nervous. After all, you may feel that they have total control of the situation. But don't think of it that way. You are going to pay them a lot of money for a very long time. They serve you, not the other way around. Don't let them take advantage of you or bully you into a deal that isn't to your advantage.

Getting Pre-approved

One of the worst scenarios I can think of goes as follows: You've spent a lot of time researching and finding the perfect neighborhood you want to live in, the cutest little house with the best backyard, and you think you can even afford it. It has everything you ever wanted. You've spent a couple hundred hours finding your new treasure, you've spent a couple hundred dollars on fees and property inspections, and you have mustered up your courage to make an offer. Your heart is so set on it that you've even started telling your friends your new address.

And then the bank calls.

Your mortgage application has been denied. Woyew!

How could you have saved yourself from this heartache? With a pre-approval for a mortgage. In fact, I strongly recommend you get one before you go any further in the home-finding process.

What is pre-approval? It's basically a quick look from a lending institution at your creditworthiness. With a pre-approval letter in your hand, you're immediately in a stronger negotiating position with any seller. Note that this is different from another "pre" – the Pre-qualification letter. The former is a much more serious commitment to you by the lender, whereas the latter, while not quite worthless, is more of an "informal agreement", where the lender hasn't verified the information you've provided (income, credit, job, finances, etc.)

Both will give you a feel for how much you can borrow in advance.

Seller Financing
"Seller financing" means that you pay the seller directly for a period of time, rather than borrow money and pay at once. With a seller mortgage, you can often negotiate a better interest rate and avoid the various fees charged by lending institutions. Seller financing can be attractive if for some reason you can't qualify for a loan. More importantly, it enables you to avoid the dreaded mortgage insurance.

One situation in which such financing is available occurs when the seller has had difficulty selling the house. If that's the case, you'll naturally want to know why. Also, sellers are not in the lending business. They tend to want a short-term mortgage -- usually not longer than three years. After that time, you will have to get a mortgage from a regular lender and pay the seller in full.

There are other reasons why a seller might want to provide financing. It gives him a steady stream of income and return without having to pay capital gains tax. The seller also has collateral -- the house. If the buyer defaults, then the seller can take the house back.

Down payment

Should you put down less than 20%? Well, if you've got the money, there are advantages to putting 20% down. For one thing, you immediately have substantial equity in your home. This may be important to you psychologically. In addition, you'll avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance. The best word of advice I can offer in terms of accumulating enough money for your downpayment is: Live below your means and sacrifice. There is no better feeling than reaping the benefits of self-discipline through home ownership.

If you simply haven't got the money, some last-ditch ways are to borrow from friends and relative, play the lotto, or go to Vegas and take your chances.

Special Loans

Thanks to several innovative programs sponsored by the US government, it's possible for a lot of us to own a piece of the American Dream. The programs have been successful in spurring home ownership.

FHA Loans
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). FHA's objective is to assist in providing housing opportunities for low- to moderate-income families. FHA has both single family and multifamily mortgage lending programs. The agency does not generally provide the funds for the mortgages, but rather insures home mortgage loans made by private lenders such as mortgage bankers, savings and loans, and banks.

Home owners with FHA-insured loans usually only have to make a small down payment (about 3% of the value of the home). They also enjoy a lower interest rate, between 0.5% and 1% below the interest rates on other mortgages. The down side is that they do indeed have to purchase private mortgage insurance, or -- as it's called under these loans -- mortgage insurance premium (MIP).

VA Loans
these are loans insured by the Veterans Administration (VA). These loans are often made without any down payment at all, and frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available. The basic requirement for qualification is that the applicant be a veteran of the United States armed forces. The application process is very simple and very quick, compared to other types of more "conventional" loans.

3. Select a Real Estate Agent

The real estate agent/broker plays a very important role in not only locating the right home for you, but in providing you with vital information that will come in handy in the negotiation phase of your home purchase. That's why it's very important that you spend the necessary amount of time up front selecting the right agent.

The traditional real estate agent is required to have a fiduciary relationship to the seller. Therefore, it is imperative that you select a buyer's agent to represent you. This person expressly works for you, but is typically paid his/her commission by the seller – a somewhat contradictory term, I realize, but welcome to the world of real estate!

The first rule of thumb I'd offer (once again, based on personal experience) is to shy away as much as possible from engaging a personal acquaintance (your friend Bob who moonlights in real estate, your cousin Tamrat's girlfriend Lemlem, who just got her real estate license, etc.) Times will be a little tense while you look for a home, and personal relationships take away from the effectiveness of your agent – trust me on this.

In selecting your real estate agent, I recommend the following up-front research:

  • Look through your local newspaper's weekly real estate section. Realtors love to tell you who their top "producers" in each area of your city are – complete with nice pictures and volume statistics. You should take note of those agents who specialize in the part of town you're interested in.
  • Obtain recommendations from your acquaintances.
  • Narrow down your list to no more than five agents and interview each one. If who've hired employees in the past and conducted interviews, apply the same criteria. If haven't had the pleasure yet, consider this excellent learning ground. Ask detail questions about their expertise and experience level with the side of town you're interested in. At the end of the interview you have to honestly determine your level of trust in this person.

Once you decide on a realtor, the next step will be to sign a contract with that person. You need to make clear who pays the realtor's commission prior to signing the contract, and make sure it's noted as such on your contract. Most of your better agents will want you to sign an exclusive agreement.

I'm personally not crazy about this arrangement, as it contractually prevents you from employing another agent the same time that you're working with this agent concede this point. However, I concede this point (refer to "welcome to real estate above"), but strongly advise against signing a long-term exclusive with anyone, especially the first time around. I recommend a 90-day term. This will give you enough time to gauge the effectiveness of the agent, and to make a change if you deem that you're not getting anywhere with your first agent.

4. Select the "Right" Home For You

The best advice I received from a mentor of mine when we were searching for our home was: "Choose the worst/cheapest house in the best neighborhood."

There are several reasons for adopting this strategy. The key reason is that you want to be the beneficiary of value appreciation by the "better" homes, without paying the exorbitant prices your neighbors did.

In selecting your home, you will run the gamut of choices between new homes, re-sales, bank or government foreclosures and so-called "fixer-uppers". You can find nice deals in any of the above categories of homes, however, to economize on your time, I would advise you (especially as a first-time homebuyer) to stay away from new construction (you building your own home) and fixer-uppers. These can be laden with land mines that you will not be able to appreciate as a rookie. It may prove to be an interesting experiment for your second or third home – something to look forward to.

5. Negotiate and Close the Purchase

The Asking Price

This is where your buyer's agent really comes in handy. He or she should be able to guide you through the process of making an offer that is within your range. I will quickly hasten to underscore the theme to this whole essay in taking control of your destiny and not handing it over to your realtor – just wisely using their counsel. Here are some helpful steps you should take in evaluating an offer price on the property:

  • Check out Home Price Check. There you'll find a database of more than 20 million U.S. home purchase prices. You can search by location -- just type in the address of that house you're interested in, and it will pull the price history of that property. You can also find out the selling price for all homes that sold on a specific street. In addition, you can search for all the homes that sold within a price range in a given city. This will help give you a good idea of recent housing prices in your area.
  • Your offer price should be based on local market values as well as on how well the house is priced. Find out how fast homes are selling, and whether they are selling for close to the asking prices. In certain "hot" markets, well-priced homes sell for very close to the list price -- usually within five percent. In slower-paced markets, the gap between the list and sale price may be considerably more than five percent.
  • Your agent should provide you with comparable sales information (known as "comps" in real estate vernacular), and should show you comparable listings. If you skip this crucial step, and blindly make an uneducated offer, you could overpay for a property that is priced too high for the market.
  • Know how much you can pay. By the time you make an offer to buy a house, you should be pre-approved for a loan (see above.) If you are not, talk to a loan agent or mortgage broker before you make an offer to make sure that you can qualify for the financing you need to complete the purchase.
  • Find out as much as you can about the sellers. Why is the house being sold? Are the sellers transferring, divorcing, or selling to settle an estate? Have they bought another house, or do they need to sell before they can buy? If the sellers have already bought another home, they may be willing to accept a lower price if the buyer can close quickly.
  • Also, find out how long the house has been on the market. Is the current list price the original list price? Have there been price reductions? How long ago was the last price reduction made? If the price was reduced some time ago, and the house still is not selling, the sellers may be considering another price reduction. If so, they may be receptive to a lower offer.

Once you take the above steps, you will be ready to "take the plunge" and make an offer. This was a very nervous process for us as first-timers, and there's a part of you that just wants to bail out of the whole thing tight there and then. Any offer you make should have at least two contingencies: 1) You're ability to obtain adequate financing, and 2) The property passing an independent inspection. This is a very important "insurance policy" for you and will enable you to have an expert identify major problems before you own the home. See section below for details on your home inspection.

Once you make your offer, one of three things will happen: 1) It will be accepted, 2) it will be rejected, or 3) you will receive a counteroffer. If it's accepted, skip to the next section. If it's rejected, you can still come back with a higher offer if you're really interested in the house. And if there's a counteroffer, you're now in a negotiation.

Offer And Counteroffer

Since you should have done your homework on how much you can afford and the relative value of the house in comparison to the local market, you should have an easier time with the counter-offer than you think. If the seller made you a counter-offer of their own, remember that you don't have to accept that, but can offer your own counter-offer to theirs. Once you settle on an offer amount, communicate is to your agent (the protocol is that your agent communicates all offers to the seller's agent.)

You can specify to your agent that the offer you've made is good for 24 hours. This lets the seller know that it's serious, and that you don't want this to drag on indefinitely. It also motivates the seller's agent to get in touch with the owner right away. This doesn't mean that they must accept the offer within 24 hours; it means that the ball will be back in your court within 24 hours (assuming that they don't reject the offer outright). It's smart from a psychological standpoint:

One final tip in negotiations: Keep your emotions in check (this will be very hard) and avoid "falling in love" with the house. If you find yourself in a state of high anxiety, step back. This may seem like your dream house, but there are going to be others. Really. Your agent should help you with this -- if he or she feels that the seller is just asking too much, they're probably right. There are many houses in which you can be happy, so stand firm when you've decided that you've reached your upper limit.

The Home Inspection

No matter how many times you've toured your new house, there will always be something that you're going to miss. Why kick yourself later when you can hire someone to make sure that everything's up to snuff?

You need to find a good home inspector. He's going to give you information that will either add to your comfort level, send you back to the negotiating table, or send you back to your home search. In any event, it's critical information.

Here are some helpful tips on finding the best inspector:

  • A good resource for identifying a good inspector in your local area is American Society of Home Inspectors, where members must abide by a certain code of conduct and have attained a certain level of training and experience. Make sure your guy is one of them.
  • Find out exactly what is covered in the inspection. You want to know the details on all of the property's major structural and mechanical systems, from top to bottom.
  • Ask if you can come along on the inspection. If he says no, go with someone else. When you find someone who says yes, go with him and watch what he does.
  • Ask for references. This is a must. Anyone who refuses to give references should be crossed off your list. You might hear, "But I respect the privacy of my clients. Surely you can understand that." Don't fall for it.

If the place passes the inspection, and you obtain your financing, you're ready to close on the house. That means you're actually going to buy this property. And that means you've got to be ready for closing costs.

Closing Costs

Closing costs are the many fees and taxes associated with purchasing a home. They include searches, clearances, and reports to process the transaction. Depending on where you live, they can easily add up to thousands of dollars. They're generally around 3% to 6% of the purchase price of the home.

Your lender is required to give you a written, good-faith estimate of all your closing costs within three days of your applying for a loan. However, don't go into the process of buying a home without knowing about them.

Closing

Once your offer has been accepted, your financing is in place, and your home inspector has given the thumbs up, you're ready to do the deal, that is, to close.

On the day of closing, or the day before, the purchaser is allowed a walk-through of the property. All plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning -- all the major systems of the house -- have to be "in working order." Otherwise it is the seller's responsibility to get them up to scratch. You've already had the home inspection, of course, so there should be no major surprises here. However, that doesn't mean that there won't be. So take your time on your walk-through, even though you'll feel a natural urge to get this thing out of the way so that you can take possession of your house.

The big day is here: the day on which, officially, you become a homeowner. You're going off to "settle" the deal, to "close" on your new home. What's going to happen? What should you expect, and what do you need to bring?

The length of time the closing takes depends on how smoothly things go. It's likely to take about one hour for you to sign all the paperwork. If there are surprises (see below) at closing, it will take longer.

Your buyers agent will be helpful at the closing. You'll need to have in hand your new homeowner's insurance policy showing that you have, indeed, insured the house, and a cashiers check for the down payment. The settlement sheet is a document that lists all of the closing costs and the particulars of your loan. Once you review and sign the settlement form, you are ready to "take possession" of your new home. This means the house is yours. It means that, after you've signed all these documents, the hands over the keys to the house to you. Congratulations! Elell-ellel!!

At this point, the seller gives you whatever package of information he may have on equipment at the house. This includes things like the instruction booklet for the washing machine; information on how that timer-light above the front door works; how you re-code the automatic garage door opener; how-to manuals for the refrigerator and the food disposal, etc., etc.

Your hard work has paid off … enjoy your new home!

Helpful Web resources:

General Resources

www.consumerworld.com/pages/home.htm

www.ehome.com

www.hud.gov

www.relibrary.com/main_page.asp

www.consumerworld.com

www.c21homepros.com

www.homefair.com

Resources on Mortgage Shopping

www.countrywide.com

www.iown.com

www.mortgageIT.com

www.lendingtree.com

www.mbaa.org/

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