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Your Best Home Buying Checklist

Victoria Araj10-minute read

June 07, 2023


Want to make a move? The good news is that there is no “right” or “wrong” time to buy a home – it all depends on when you’re personally and financially ready.

Be prepared: While reality TV shows make home buying look like a snap, in real life it can be an involved process. And it’s normal to have questions; after all, you’re probably preparing to make the most expensive purchase of your life. But the great news is that you don’t have to feel overwhelmed.

Why’s that? Because we’ve prepared a checklist designed to help you successfully manage and complete every step of buying a house.

1. Determine How Much Home You Can Afford

The best way to start your home buying process is by determining your budget. After all, this can be complex enough without looking at homes that are outside your price range. And who wants to fall in love with something that’s unattainable?

By identifying a realistic budget, you can embark on your search with a firm understanding of your price range. Getting preapproval early on in the house hunt can help you figure out what your buying budget is and help you set realistic goals.

Here are some ways to help determine how much home you can truly afford:

  • First you’ll need to determine your debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which is just what it sounds like – your monthly expenses versus your monthly cash intake. This includes all the bills you have to pay, divided by your gross monthly income.

  • When you consider your debts, include any recurring bills, such as student loans, car payments, child support payments – anything that you pay on a monthly basis.

  • To secure a qualified mortgage from most lenders, your DTI should be no higher than 43%. But remember that’s the “outside” number you can spend – and it doesn’t mean that you necessarily should.

Have you ever heard of being “house poor”? That means that you spent so much money on your home that you don’t have funds left over for activities, such as eating out or traveling, or even the many expenses that will come on top of your mortgage. You’ll want to budget for the fun stuff, like furniture, fresh paint and plants for your new patio pots, but also the “unfun” stuff that inevitably comes along with homeownership, such as routine maintenance and even unexpected big-ticket items like a new hot water heater.

By building some breathing room into your budget, you’ll be able to enjoy your new home without having it become a source of financial stress. This handy home affordability calculator will give you a great place to start!

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2. Save For A Down Payment

Your mortgage payment is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s also important to make a sizable down payment, which will save you a good chunk of money over the life of your loan. Here’s how:

  • A down payment of 20% or more will exempt you from private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI is typically required with a down payment of less than 20%. The cost of PMI coverage is based on risk factors, such as your DTI and credit score. It’s an expense that any homeowner would prefer not to have.

  • A bigger down payment will often result in a lower interest rate; that’s because a lower loan-to-value ratio (LTV) decreases your lender’s risk.

  • The bigger the initial payment against principal, the less interest a borrower will pay over the life of the loan, potentially saving thousands of dollars.

  • A bigger down payment results in smaller monthly payments because you owe less on the house.

  • Smaller monthly payments could positively influence future borrowing power, which means you’re more likely to qualify for a car loan, credit or other financing.

Tips For Saving

Knowing that a bigger down payment will result in paying less over the life of your loan can make it less painful to save. Not sure where to start? Here are some ideas:

1. Build a budget: It’s hard to save money when you don’t even know where it’s going. By developing a budget and tracking your outflow, it’s easy to see where you can plug the holes – perhaps by eating out less or putting a moratorium on online shopping.

2. Set up automatic savings: You’ve heard the adage “pay yourself first.” By setting up automatic savings through your bank account, it can be easier to save that money because you’ll never even see it.

3. Get a side gig: Whether you can tutor kids or deliver food for nearby restaurants, there’s likely something you can do to earn some extra cash to put towards that down payment. This also could be a good time to find out about some “passive income” opportunities that can help you build your bank account 24/7.

The best part about any of these tactics is that they will help you increase your credit score, which will be beneficial to you not only now as it increases the likelihood of securing a mortgage, but in the future as it can save you money by potentially qualifying you for a lower interest rate.

3. Find A Real Estate Agent You Can Trust

While you might want to do some looking on your own, whether you’re browsing online listings or attending open houses, most home buyers find value in working with a real estate agent or REALTOR®.

Not only can they help scout out prospective homes, but they can provide expert knowledge on the market. Their expertise can help guide you on:

  • Whether an asking price is appropriate
  • Sizing up the pros and cons of homes
  • Which are the up-and-coming neighborhoods
  • The mortgage and preapproval process
  • Negotiations and bidding wars
  • Paperwork and the closing process

A good agent is imperative to guiding home buyers through many of the later steps on the home buying checklist. They are the ones on your side, watching out for your best interest – all of which helps take the stress off you and help you manage your emotions.

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4. Get A Mortgage Preapproval And Choose A Lender

This might seem premature, but we assure you, it’s not. Before you even start looking at homes, you should shop around for mortgage lenders, and/or let a mortgage broker handle the shopping for you. In today’s housing market, the seller wants to have confidence that you will be able to purchase the house if you make an offer, and that comes through preapproval.

One simple and effective way to seek an approval – and, eventually, a lender – is through Rocket Mortgage®.

That’s because they do much of the paperwork upfront – they pull your credit report, decide (at least tentatively) on a preapproval amount, and help you choose a loan type (fixed-rate, FHA, conventional, etc.) and loan term or length (15 years, 30 years, etc.) that’s right for you. That can put you one step closer when it comes time to making an offer on your dream home.

It’s important to note that a letter of preapproval does not imply a commitment to a particular lender. In fact, it’s in your best interest to ask a variety of potential lenders to compete for your business, allowing you to find the loan that’s most financially advantageous.

5. Find The Perfect Home For You

Well, finally we got to the good part, right? Of course, this is a matter of opinion. For some home buyers, this step can be overwhelming.

That’s why it’s smart to ask your real estate agent to weigh in. They often can offer advice on subjects that you might not have considered, such as whether the home is in the right school district for you or if it’s been on the market a while (and therefore might have a potentially anxious seller who’s ready to deal).

But make sure to do your own looking, too, by checking out homes online and visiting them to get a better sense of your own tastes and needs. You can drive around to find appealing homes in your neighborhood of choice or use Rocket Homes® to find possibilities.

Once you’ve seen a wide variety of homes, your real estate agent can help you narrow your search by using results from a multiple listing service (MLS), where listings tend to be more timely and accurate. Note that one disadvantage to the MLS is that it doesn’t include homes for sale by owner (FSBO).

As with any decision-making process, the more data you have, the less likely you are to make mistakes. So, use every tool at your disposal to effectively hunt for houses in your price range.

6. Make A Smart Purchase Offer

You’ve settled on “the one.” And now we’re back to the finances and how to make a smart purchase offer. This is where your real estate agent will shine; make sure to consult with them when deciding how much to offer for a particular home.

Your agent can help put a vast array of criteria into perspective. For example, your offer number will depend on a number of diverse factors:

  • How hot the housing market is, both nationally and locally
  • How long the house has been on the market
  • Whether there are already offers out there on the house

In a slow market, home buyers can reasonably hope for a small discount on the asking price, but in a more competitive market, making an offer below asking price might lead to your offer being rejected.

And remember that your offer includes more than just the round number of the purchase price. You also want to include terms, such as how soon you need to be in the house, and contingencies, such as whether you need to sell an existing house first.

This is also the time at which your mortgage preapproval marks you as a serious buyer. Even better, a Rocket Mortgage Verified Approval helps save you time during the house hunt, and it can be a great negotiation tool when you find your dream home. Sellers want an offer that won’t fall through, and a Verified Approval builds on a preapproval – making it a stronger, reliable offer.

A purchase offer usually also requires including an earnest money deposit (often 1 – 3% of the home’s value) that will be put into escrow. That money will stay there in a third-party account until your offer is accepted, and then it will be applied to the down payment and mortgage closing costs.

However, if the sale falls through because you changed your mind, you may forfeit that money. The earnest money can be safeguarded through the contingencies you negotiate as part of your offer; one such contingency can be a passing home inspection.

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7. Hire a Real Estate Attorney

Yes, we’re adding someone else to the cast of characters – a real estate attorney. In some states, having a real estate lawyer is required; in other states, they’re not mandated, but can still be smart to have, especially for complex legal situations.

For example, what do you do if there is an existing tenant or if you have questions about the title or an easement? Foreclosures and short sales are other tricky situations where a real estate attorney’s advice could be handy.

A real estate attorney is specially equipped with knowledge to answer all these legal questions, and also look over the purchase agreement, title documents and other paperwork to make sure it’s all in good order. While a real estate attorney adds one more expense at a time when you might feel overwhelmed, the peace of mind that one can provide can be well worth the investment.

Again, since a home is one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make, your home buying checklist should include ensuring that you have taken every step to assure your due diligence.

8. Schedule a Home Inspection

It’s impossible to accurately judge every aspect of a house’s integrity and fitness before making an offer. This is where a home inspection comes into play.

Although you’ll bear the fee, it’s well worth it in the long run, because a home inspection will protect you from unforeseen costs and liabilities. For example, you’ll know how much “roof life” is left, whether the foundation is failing or if the electrical system is up to par.

The home inspection is also likely to reveal minor problems. Don’t worry, almost every inspection does, so there’s no reason to panic.

Instead, you can use these issues to your advantage as a bargaining chip for negotiating seller concessions or a reduced overall purchase price, given of course that you signed an inspection contingency. And check with your real estate agent to find out if this is appropriate – you want to be wary of nickel-and-diming a seller in a hot market.

In addition to a general home inspection, you should consider ordering specialty inspections, such as for radon or mold.

9. Prepare For Closing

Assuming that the inspection passes muster, you’ll soon be ready to close. This is when you want to make sure your finances are in order so that they are liquid when it comes time to pay all costs due at closing. You’ll also want to avoid making any purchases or financial changes that can affect your credit score.

During this waiting period, your lender will arrange to have an independent third party make their own appraisal of the property. If the appraised amount is significantly lower than the agreed-upon purchase price, buyers can ask the seller to lower the price or assume some of the costs due at closing.

If you’re considering renovations and improvements to your future home, seek permission from the current owners to shop around for contractors, painters, carpenters and other tradesmen who will complete the work. Not only does this sort of work take time, but it can be difficult to schedule professional workers on short notice, so you’ll appreciate the long lead time.

You’ll also want to look into homeowners insurance; while you’ll want it anyway, you’ll likely need to show proof at the closing if your home is financed with a mortgage.

10. Close On Your New Home

And now the big day is here. Get ready to sign a lot of papers, but don’t worry, you’ll have time to review all of them prior to closing.. You’ll also need to bring a few pieces of documentation to your home closing; your real estate agent and mortgage lender will help you with the specific list, but you’ll definitely need the following:

  • Identification
  • Proof of insurance
  • Checks or cashier’s check to cover closing costs
  • Your patience (there is lots of paperwork)

And then, the magic moment comes when you get the keys to your new home. Congratulations!

It’s time to cross the threshold and enjoy the comfort and ambience of your brand-new home! You’ve earned it.

The Bottom Line

House hunting can be stressful if you don’t know what you can afford and you’re not familiar with the steps of the home buying process. But it doesn’t need to be. As long as you take the time to gather the right documentation, find a REALTOR® or real estate agent you trust, and determine your financial and personal goals, buying a house will feel like a breeze.

Mortgage preapproval lets you shop smarter while making you a more competitive buyer. If you’re ready to start your house hunt, take the first step and get preapproved today!

Take the first step toward buying a house.

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Victoria Araj

Victoria Araj is a Section Editor for Rocket Mortgage and held roles in mortgage banking, public relations and more in her 15+ years with the company. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in political science from Michigan State University, and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan.