A Home of Your Own: How to Evaluate Your Financial Readiness and Save for That Big Down Payment

4 Things You Shouldn't Overlook When Buying a Home

Everyone wants a piece of the American dream, and for many people that dream includes owning a home. But owning a home is one of the biggest financial steps you can take in your life, so it’s important to carefully assess your financial situation before jumping in headfirst.

We’ve asked some financial and real estate experts to share their tips to help you prepare for the exciting plunge into homeownership.

1. Keep Track of Your Spending

Creating a budget—and tracking your spending to ensure you stick to it—is an important first step to get a sense of where you stand. Roshni Chowdhry, innovation and product development lead at SafetyNet, says, “Understanding where you allocate your money will give you a realistic expectation of what you can afford.” Whether you use a pen and paper, Excel, or an online tool, tracking the inflow and outflow of money for at least a month is a good place to start.

2. Evaluate Your Down Payment

According to Bank of America’s recently released Homebuyer Insights Report, almost one-third of first-time buyers believe they need 20% of a home’s price for a down payment. However, that’s not always the case.

Down payments can range between 5% and 20%, and according to Kathy Cummings, senior vice president of homeownership solutions at Bank of America, “There are affordable entry points to homeownership that require significantly less than 20%.” Keep in mind, however, that the lower the down payment, the higher your monthly mortgage payments will be. You may also have to pay mortgage insurance if your down payment is under 20%.

3. Crunch Some Numbers

Before you start working with a real estate agent, do your due diligence and utilize online tools like mortgage calculators so you are well informed and ready to answer the slew of questions your agent will have for you.

Account for any additional costs, too. Michelle Waymire of financial advisory firm Young + Scrappy says, “When planning for a big purchase, be sure to include all the incidental costs associated with it. For example, saving for a house doesn’t just include a down payment; you also need to consider closing costs and an emergency fund to have on hand in case of home maintenance needs.”

4. Get the Purchasing Power of a Pre-Qualification

Once you know how much money you have to play with each month, Tami Halton Pardee, a real estate broker and founder of Halton Pardee + Partners, recommends speaking to a mortgage broker—whom your real estate agent can introduce you to—to get pre-qualified for a mortgage. “Getting pre-qualified and having a realistic sense of what your spending ability is prior to beginning the house hunt leaves you much more mentally and emotionally prepared,” she says.

Also, if you’re pre-qualified and find a home you like, your offer will be taken much more seriously than someone who is not pre-qualified.

5. Keep an Eye on Your Credit

If you’re gearing up to buy a home, there’s one three-digit number that should be a top priority: your credit score. A high credit score will qualify you for the best loans at the best rates, saving you substantial interest over the life of your mortgage.

Beth Kobliner, a personal finance expert and bestselling author, says, “One of the best ways to build [your credit score] up is by paying your bills on time, every time—that means credit cards, utilities, and student loans. Automating these payments can make the process less painful. Plus, keep an eye on your utilization ratio. That’s the amount of credit you’ve used—on a credit card, say—compared to the amount of credit available to you.” Many experts agree that keeping your utilization under 30% will prevent it from hurting your overall credit score.

6. Start Saving Now

As soon as possible, start socking money away for that down payment. A favorite saving tactic amongst many financial experts is to automate the process so you don’t have to think about it. Justin Lavelle, chief communications director of online background check platform BeenVerified.com, says, “Once you know how much you need, you want to start saving in a way that makes it routine. Auto withdrawal services are a good way to do this. Set up certain amounts that will automatically be deposited into a savings account for your future purpose.”

If buying a home will cost you more than what you are currently paying for housing, Lavelle suggests aiming to save that difference amount so you can get comfortable with a lower monthly outlay. 

7. Consolidate Your Debts 

Try reducing expenses by consolidating any debt, and put what you save in interest into your down payment savings fund. Personal finance expert Andrea Woroch says, “If you’re carrying a revolving balance across your credit cards, for instance, tighten up your budget and save money by consolidating debt into one easy-to-manage personal loan with a low interest rate.”

Buying a house is no small accomplishment, and it takes time to do it right. By following the tips listed here, though, you’ll be on a path to homeownership before you know it.

For further information on how to prepare for a mortgage, check out our Mortgage Resource Center. 

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Buying a Home? Ask Your Partner These 4 Questions First

Row of colorful garden homes with two stories and white pillars in suburban neighborhood of Fayetteville, Arkansas

Buying your first home is incredibly exciting, but there’s also more than a little bit of stress that comes with it. A house is a big purchase, and it brings a whole host of new hurdles beyond the initial price tag.

If you’ll be purchasing your first house with your significant other, one way to avoid some of that stress is to have a few important conversations before you even start your house search. Based on my experience buying a house with my husband, these are a few of the questions I’d suggest chatting about before you set out to find your perfect pad.

How Long Do We Plan to Live There?

You don’t have to set an exact time frame on your house purchase, but it’s a good idea to see if you’re both on the same page before you find a place to live. You should try to stay in the home at least until you hit your break-even year to recoup the purchasing costs. And depending on where the house is located, that could be several years down the road.

To determine whether you’ll be able to make that much of a commitment, have a frank conversation with your partner about your plans in the coming years. Do you see yourself building a family in this house? Are you both happy in your current jobs, or do you foresee a job search in the future that could make for a long commute? Life throws curveballs, of course, but talking about these things ahead of time will help you narrow down the type of house you both want based on your future goals.

How Much House Can We Afford?

This is one of the most important questions you should discuss with your significant other before buying a house. It’s not uncommon for people to get approved for mortgages with monthly payments that would, in actuality, be very hard for them to afford. Only you and your partner know how your finances work out on a monthly basis, so sit down and have a solid look at everything to fully understand how much money you can put toward a mortgage each month and still feel comfortable. You may also want to consult with a financial adviser together.

Keep in mind that putting down less than 20% of your overall home cost at closing will likely mean that you’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance (PMI) on top of your monthly mortgage fee. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help you determine an affordable down payment, as well as tools to help you figure out how much house you can afford.

Are We Looking for a Fixer-Upper?

Some people prefer a house they can add their own touches to, while others would rather walk into a house that’s perfect for them without having to change a thing. Talk about this before your house hunt so you’ll know whether or not you’re both willing to put in the effort (and money) for any necessary updates if that’s the route you decide to go.

How Will We Save for Miscellaneous House Expenses?

When you own your own home, there is no end to the list of things you’ll spend money on. From leaks and cracks to peeling paint and clogged gutters, it seems like there’s always something that needs fixing. Of course, some of those things can usually wait, but in order to fix larger issues—especially those that need urgent attention, like plumbing problems—you’ll need an immediate flow of cash. Chat about how you plan to pay for surprises that crop up, and if you don’t already have an emergency savings account, start one today.

After you’ve talked over these four critical questions with your significant other and come to a decision that makes you both happy, it’s time to start looking. And when you’re ready to make an offer, check out our Mortgage Resource Center for more information on how to take that next big step.

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How Real Estate Agents Use Your Favorite Restaurants to Sell Homes

If you love to eat, you'll want to check out our top picks for some of the best foods the world has to offer.

That pizza place down the street could make or break your home sale. The best real estate agents know how to use your favorite restaurants as evidence of a great neighborhood when they market your home to buyers—helping you get a faster sale and a better price.

Top real estate agent George Graham stands behind using your favorite haunts to your advantage when selling your home. He told us that “having great food options is definitely a consideration a person makes when buying in an urban location.”

How does your real estate agent use the trendy diner down the street to sell your house? We interviewed three top real estate agents to show you their tricks of the trade.

1. Seller’s Agents Talk Up Restaurants as a Big Part of the Community

Restaurants help create the pulse of a neighborhood. When buyers decide on a location, the neighboring restaurants and shops are an essential component to the life—and the energy—of the area they’re investing in. That’s why real estate agents often use the best restaurants in the area to advertise how great the home is. As Minneapolis real estate agent Alexander Boylan pointed out, agents are “not only selling a house, but they’re also selling a community.”

Boylan went on to say that real estate agents will often “advertise restaurants as a selling point for the home because of the walkability of the neighborhood.”

That isn’t just the case in Boylan’s market. Graham told us that many buyers are concerned with the walkability of a listing. He said that pointing out “the close proximity to great shopping, food, and restaurants is helpful, especially if you are dealing with a downtown location.”

Elizabeth Weintraub, a top-performing seller’s agent in Sacramento, even tried out the top Mexican joint in the neighborhood of her latest listing and wrote about it on her blog.

She writes, “The location is perfect. Imagine living a half block away from William Land Park. It is also close to Starbucks and a terrific Mexican restaurant with outdoor dining, Dali’s Kitchen. . . . The point is, if I lived at this home with a view of William Land Park, I would be dining almost nightly at Dali’s Kitchen.” Weintraub specifically calls out the name of the restaurant to advertise how close that house is to delicious food.

Agents use your favorite neighborhood restaurants to market your house and its community in a few ways:

1. They call out five-star restaurants or hole-in-the-wall treasures in the listing description.
2. They tell buyer’s agents the top restaurants they can tell their clients about.
3. They talk up amazing eats at the open house.

In your next meeting with your real estate agent, tell them about your favorite restaurants in the area. They can use those trendy or quaint spots to advertise your house and your neighborhood’s charms.

2. Buyer’s Agents Meet Clients at Restaurants to Show Off the Location

Buyer’s agents will use restaurants to show off the location and help their clients settle on a house. Realtor® Alex Boylan told us, “Sometimes when I have a first-time client meeting and I know they want to be in a certain area, we’ll meet at the coffee shop or the local restaurant and I’ll tell them, ‘This is a part of the community!’ That is a selling point for the community they want to be in.”

This immersion in the neighborhood helps buyers get a solid grasp of its vibe and culture. It’s similar to exploring a city for the first time—you wouldn’t visit the tourist traps to get to know what it’s really like. You’d walk up and down the city’s streets, find a coffee shop, and sit there for a while. That’s what buyer’s agents do to give their clients a more complete picture of the area.

Boylan even goes the extra mile and “buys gift cards for the clients as welcome home gifts for moving into the neighborhood so they can visit their local restaurants.”

The best way you can get buyer’s agents to show their clients the great restaurants in your area is to communicate with your own real estate agent. They can talk to top buyer’s agents at their firm and in the area to make sure they know the hot spots and family-friendly joints perfect for a coffee meeting that shows off the neighborhood.

3. Seller’s Agents Use Restaurants to Attract Buyers with Active Social Lives

Restaurants are an important part of social life for millennials, and nearby eateries are also a big draw for couples and families who take their kids out to eat after school or after activities on the weekend. Without nearby spots, these clients are forced to travel farther to meet up with friends or for a great meal, which isn’t ideal.

According to Weintraub, showing off the great restaurants in the area can be a big draw for millennials who brunch and party at the local haunts with their friends. She told us that “properly marketed, a hot-spot restaurant or even a trendy hole-in-the-wall near a group of homes is a big selling benefit to many millennials today. That particular buying group likes to meet friends at restaurants and watering holes. That’s their social life. They generally do not entertain at home.”

Take note of which restaurants you think your agent should use to market to specific types of buyers. For example, the pasta place with delicious spaghetti and paper tablecloths the kids can draw on is a great place to show off to families. The trendy bar-restaurant combo with the best cocktail in town is perfect for nightlife-hungry millennials. It really depends on your area, and your agent will know the type of buyer you’ll need to woo.

Your Local Food Scene Is One of Your Property’s Greatest Assets

The best way you can take advantage of your favorite restaurants is to tell your real estate agent about them. Though they will be a local expert and probably have a good idea of which eats are the best, they won’t know exactly which ones are your favorite and why. So tell your agent about the hole-in-the-wall diner that you love because your kids love the apple pie. Specifics like that help agents market your house even better.

As Boylan told us, telling buyers about the best restaurants really says, “Hey welcome to the community—now go enjoy it!”

Once you’ve successfully sold your own home by leveraging the power of your local eateries, you may be in the market for a new home—and a new mortgage. Find out everything you need to know about mortgages in our Mortgage Learning Center.

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How a Coat of Paint Can Determine Your Home’s Sale Price

An inexpensive can of paint holds a lot more power than you think.

From the time of year to the neighborhood, a lot of factors come into play when you’re selling a home. But here’s one variable you might not have considered — color.

During open houses and online searches, the colors of your home are constantly working for or against you. That’s according to Zillow, a real estate and rental marketplace, which examined over 32,000 photos from sold homes around the country to see how certain paint colors impacted their average sale price compared to homes of similar value with white walls. Here’s what they found.

A Change of Trends

The colors that added value to your home just a year ago can now be hurting its sale price. In 2016, painting your kitchen a shade of yellow could help your home sell for $1,100 to $1,300 more. However, this year, a yellow kitchen could lower your home’s value by an estimated $820, according to Zillow.

Some color preferences remained consistent, with terracotta walls still devaluing a home. Just last year, homes with terracotta walls sold for $793 less than Zillow’s predicted selling price. This year, that number more than doubled, with homes with terracotta walls selling for $2,031 less.

The takeaway: If you’re looking to sell your home, you may want to avoid a terracotta shade. Also be cautious in general when choosing dark and bold colors.

Keep it Light

“Painting walls in fresh, natural-looking colors, particularly in shades of blue and pale gray, not only make a home feel larger but also are neutral enough to help future buyers envision themselves living in the space,” said Svenja Gudell, Zillow’s chief economist, in a statement.

In fact, homes with blue bathrooms, including lighter shades of blue or periwinkle, sold for $5,440 more than expected, Zillow found. Kitchens with light blue-gray walls sold for $1,809 more than expected, and walls with cool, natural tones like soft oatmeal and pale gray also had top-performing listings.

Light, simple walls performed best among sellers, however, walls with no color had the most negative impact on sales price. Homes with white bathrooms or no paint color, for instance, sold for an average of $4,035 less than similar homes, Zillow noted.

Head Outside

As if it isn’t stressful enough worrying about your rooms’ colors, your home’s exterior color can also impact its sale price.

To that end, buyers typically enjoyed a pop of color, with homes featuring dark navy blue or slate gray front doors selling for $1,514 more. Buyers also responded positively to trendy mixes of light gray and beige, or “greige,” exteriors versus basic tan stucco and medium-brown shades.

If you’re trying to sell your home, a can of paint can be a wise investment — so long as you choose the right color. Keep these findings in mind before you head to the paint store. Likewise, just as color impacts sale price, know that selling your home can impact your credit. Don’t forget to check your credit report card before you start picking out paint chips.

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The High Cost of Ignoring Today’s Low Mortgage Rates

It’s no secret interest rates are the main driver of the nation’s loan volume. In the first quarter of 2016, mortgage refinances were 23.5% higher than the same quarter the year before (an eight-year high for an opening quarter). First mortgages also were about 10.3% higher than the year before, thanks to continued low interest rates.

Fixed-rate mortgages are currently below 4%. Here is why waiting for a better rate could be a risky could move.

The Markets Will Continue to Move

The pricing associated with interest rates moves daily, in some cases multiple times per day. It is normal for a lender to be pricing out with a certain interest rate at 10 a.m., and then have a change that same day at 2 p.m., resulting in a different fee and cost structure just hours apart. The market is always moving whether you pull the trigger on a new mortgage or not. The takeaway here is to not get fixated on a particular interest rate in order to justify the entire transaction. Focus on the big picture.

Let’s say you’re eyeing a 3.625%, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage and, for whatever reason, it takes you a couple of weeks to put together your financials to lock in an interest rate. The market moved and you end up with a 3.875% rate on a 30-year term instead. This is still considered a win.

(Mortgage tip: For every .125 of a percent on every $100,000 borrowed that changes the payment $7.25 per month. For example, the difference between 3.625% versus 3.875% on a $417,000 is $58 in payment difference.)

The Cost of Procrastination

The cost of procrastination can add up quickly.

When refinancing: Let’s say you stand to save $200 per month by pulling the trigger now using our example at 3.625%. Each month you don’t refinance, you are literally stepping over dollars. Six months of procrastination is equivalent to a cost of $600 just by waiting, and that’s if the move is in the direction you want.

When buying: Using our $417,000 example using a rate range between 3.625 to 3.875% the difference in rate over the term of the loan is $21,294 in interest. Moreover, when buying a home, the cost can add up as a difference in purchase price can sway buying power, which can result in property payment change.

Practical Approach

What are rates going to do in the future? No lender has a crystal ball. If you are debating whether to buy or refinance a home, first thing to ask is “can I afford this new payment?” The second question to ask is “is this new loan truly helping me accomplish my larger financial goals?” Interest rate is important to both questions undoubtedly, but big picture should be the target.

The best time to take out a mortgage is whatever time you are in a place that you can justify the expense for the net tangible benefit. It is always the right time as long as you can afford the mortgage and you’re not throwing good money after bad. Let interest rates be a guiding factor only.

Also keep in mind that your credit report and any outstanding loans you have will be closely examined, so it’s best to have as high a credit score as possible in order to score a lower interest rate. (You can view two free credit scores, updated monthly, on Credit.com.)

A final thought: Your lender cannot control the time frame for how long you take in putting together your supporting documentation, or what your house appraises for. At the end of the day, ask yourself if the rate and cost structure you end up with still allow you to accomplish your goals. Let that be your guide to obtaining a great mortgage.

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The 10 ZIP Codes Americans Are Flocking To

arizona

If you’re interested in living somewhere that has plenty of growth in jobs and housing, this list is for you.

Realtor.com recently took a look at cities across the country and put together their list of “boom towns” by combining projected measures of job creation, household formation and new construction for 2016 and determining their five-year projected household growth.

The areas who made the list have as much as five times the average job growth of the top 100 counties in the country. And there’s some serious growth happening outside of jobs, too, though. According to the website, household growth in each of these areas is between one and seven times the average growth of the top 100 areas, while new home starts are between one and six times the average growth in the top 100 counties, And each of the top 10 individual ZIP codes are projected to see a growth in households of between 9% and 19% over the next five years, Realtor.com found.

At the top of the list is Phoenix suburb Gilbert, Arizona. The town’s population doubled every five years from 1980 to 2000, and buildout is anticipated in 2030 with a population of 305,000, according to the Town of Gilbert’s website. Gilbert also has one of the highest median incomes in the state of Arizona at $80,080, and a population of three persons per household.

“The strength of the residential real estate market is closely correlated to growth in jobs and households,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, said in a press release. “The good news for these markets is that these growth factors have already started to translate into new construction. At the same time, it may be a year or so before some markets on our list start to see an increase in inventory. If anything, this is a road map for where builders should be thinking about where to break ground next.”

Here’s Realtor.com’s list of the top 10 cities for job and housing growth.

1. 85297 — Gilbert, Arizona

Largest Neighborhood: Power Ranch

2. 90012 — Los Angeles

Largest Neighborhoods: Historic, Cultural, Elysian Park, Mission Junction

3. 75201 — Dallas

Largest Neighborhoods: Downtown, Arts District, Uptown, Farmers Market

4. 33132 — Miami

Largest Neighborhoods: Downtown, Midtown, Seaport

5. 89179 — Las Vegas

Largest Neighborhood: Mountain’s Edge

6. 98121 — Seattle

Largest Neighborhood: Belltown

7. 27571 — Rolesville, North Carolina

Largest Neighborhoods: Villages of Rolesville, Carlton Pointe, Cedar Lakes

8. 11249 — Brooklyn, New York 

Largest Neighborhood: Williamsburg

9. 60603 — Chicago

Largest Neighborhoods: The Loop, downtown Chicago

10. 30363 — Atlanta

Largest Neighborhood: Atlantic Station

If you’re looking to buy a new home, it’s good to make sure you can meet down payment requirements before shopping for a mortgage. You should also make sure you can handle monthly mortgage expenses and safely cover other ancillary costs, like real estate agent fees, property taxes, home insurance and repairs. And your credit should be in tip-top shape. Scores of 740 and higher generally earn the best terms and conditions on a mortgage. You can see your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com to learn where your credit currently stands.

Thinking of moving out of your current city or state? Check out our list of the most affordable places to live in the U.S.  

More on Mortgages & Homebuying:

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The Free Tool That Can Help You Unearth Your Home’s Secrets

homes secrets

Prepare to go down a rabbit hole: Real estate data company RealtyTrac has just released the beta version of Home Disclosure, a new tool that puts a treasure trove of public data — on more than 115 million homes in the U.S. — at your fingertips.

There’s a ton of data, including estimated property values, environmental risks, public and private school rankings, tax history, neighborhood demographics and crime. In all, Home Disclosure explores 42 factors that can impact a homeowner’s “health, safety and financial security,” the company says.

Home shoppers could always access much of this info through government databases and other websites, but Home Disclosure puts it all in one place. For now, the tool is free, though RealtyTrac says there will be a “full launch early next year.” Currently, users can store reports for 30 days and print PDFs for comparison shopping.

The tool is designed to help homebuyers make educated decisions, but it’s fun even if you’re not looking (or don’t have enough cash yet). I now know how much my landlord paid for my building and that he borrowed more than its current estimated value. I also know how much he’s been paying in annual property taxes and where all the sex offenders live within a mile — and what they look like. Other fun facts: There are dozens of reports on environmental hazards and my apartment has never served as a drug lab.

You can have a field day searching loan information on your neighbors’ home, seeing how much your former house is worth and exploring the sex offender registry in your hometown. It’s like the real estate version of Facebook — and you may never want to log off.

If you’re looking to buy a home, there’s a lot of information you can harness to make your decision beyond home comparisons. You should know how much money you have saved for a down payment, how much house you can afford and where your credit stands. You can check your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

More on Homebuying:

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