A credit score is a numerical representation of your credit report. FICO scores range from 300 to 850, and the higher your score, the better. “Good credit is like gold when obtaining a mortgage,” says Denise Supplee, a Pennsylvania agent. Typically, you’ll get the best interest rate on a loan if your score is 740 and above. “A higher credit score should net you a lower mortgage rate,” says Lee Gimpel, co-creator of The Good Credit Game, which specializes in financial education. “That lower rate, even if it’s only 1 or 2 percent lower, can mean saving thousands of dollars per year.” If your credit score falls short, get busy repairing it. Correct any errors that might be on your report, start paying all your bills on time, and get your credit limit raised. Note, though, that you shouldn’t max out your card each month. It’s best to use 30 percent or less of your total available credit.
2. Don’t open new credit cards.
If you think resisting taking a selfie when you’re face-to-face with your fave celebrity is a testament to your willpower, that’s sissy stuff compared with turning down every offer to open a credit card, even if you could save 20 percent (or more!) on your holiday purchases. Tempting as saving at checkout can be, opening new credit may hurt your chances of getting a mortgage, or at least of getting the best rate on a loan.
“By opening the account, you have created another line of credit,” says Paul Anastos, president of Mortgage Master, a division of loanDepot, a nonbank lender. “That credit line, and what is borrowed, can change the application numbers and jeopardize the application.” What could save you a few dollars now could cost you far more in the long run if your mortgage payments will be higher. And along those same lines, “Don’t overspend during the holiday season,” says Dean Sioukas founder of Magilla Loans, an online lending exchange. “Especially on impulse purchases that can be tempting during the holidays.”
3. Suggest financial gifts for the holidays.
Besides the mortgage loan, you’ll need a sizable amount of cash to buy a house. There’s the down payment to consider, closing costs, and moving costs. You should also set aside money for unexpected repairs and costs, says Brian Betzler, regional sales manager at TD Bank. Not being prepared “is probably why nearly half of millennials incurred up to $5,000 in unexpected costs during the mortgage process, according to a TD survey,” he says.
A potential solution? Bulk up that emergency fund. “Instead of getting gifts for the holidays, [prospective homebuyers] can suggest cash instead that will be put toward their home,” says Paul Sian, a Kentucky and Ohio agent. And remember, you might be getting some money back after you file your tax return. Don’t blow it on vacation. “A tax refund is a great way to add to your cash reserves for a down payment,” says David Hosterman, branch manager of Castle & Cooke Mortgage in Colorado.
4. Interview potential real estate agents.
If your neighbor, relative, or friend of a friend happens to know (or is) a real estate agent, that’s great. This person might be the perfect agent for you. But you owe it to yourself to shop around. “Look for [an agent] who is knowledgeable, good, integral, and can assist you in reaching the goal of homeownership,” says Chantay Bridges, a Los Angeles, CA, real estate agent. “Make sure they are not a novice, new, or just unaware of how to do a specific transaction.” The end of the year is usually a slow time for agents, so chances are they’ll be more accommodating to making an appointment on your schedule.
5. Keep tabs on interest rates.
If you hear that interest rates are at historic lows or that interest rates are on the rise, you should not assume that you can get the rock-bottom rate. Not everyone gets the same interest rate on a mortgage loan. It depends on your financial picture and on the lender you choose. “Everyone knows that home prices are, at least to some extent, negotiable, but we find loans to be the same,” says Warren Ward, CFP with WWA Planning & Investments in Indiana. He advises that homebuyers shop around for the lowest interest rates. Note that closing costs can vary too, so discuss with your real estate agent ways to keep yours down. “We saved $150 on the closing fees by selecting the cheapest title company,” says Ward. “I guess that’s not much, but I think most people would bend over to pick up three $50 bills if they were lying on the sidewalk.”
6. Find a mortgage lender.
Before you even start looking for a home (and yes, we even mean browsing online listings), look for a mortgage lender to find out if you can afford to buy a home. If you can’t right now, there’s no use torturing yourself by finding your dream home that’s just out of reach. But how do you find a lender? “If you have a bank you’ve been with for years, ask them,” says Bridges. “Your [real estate agent] can also refer a good lender to you. Compare [that lender] with two others. Look at what they offer, costs, points, and how long to close.” Once you know how much home you can afford, perform your home search based on your preapproval amount or less.
7. Get preapproved.
When a lender gives your financials the once-over and preapproves you for a mortgage, you’ll be able to show sellers that you really can buy their house. But how do you get preapproved? By preparing a few documents, which you can do several months in advance of the actual purchase. Here’s what you need to buy a house.
- Tax returns for the past two years
- W-2 forms for the past two years
- Paycheck stubs from the past few months
- Proof of mortgage or rent payments for the past year
- A list of all your debts, including credit cards, student loans, auto loans, and alimony
- A list of all your assets, including bank statements, auto titles, real estate, and any investment accounts
Paul Anastos also advises not to change jobs, make big purchases, or miss any debt payments as you prepare to get a mortgage.