Buying a Home: What To Do and How To Do It

Once you are ready to buy a home, you will need to be as informed as possible. This guide discusses how much money to save for a down payment, how to work with a real estate agent, how to negotiate, and what you need to know about closing on your new home–including fees and other costs.

Because home ownership is a substantial investment and a long-term commitment, it is important to become as knowledgeable as possible about the process of buying a home including how much you need to save for a down payment, the process of finding the right home for you, negotiating the best possible deal, and the various aspects of closing.

Deciding How Much to Spend

Before deciding on the price range of the home you plan to buy, think about how much you want to pay out each month in mortgage payments. Use a mortgage calculator (online) to figure out what your payments would be and try to make as large a down payment as possible to reduce your principal loan amount.

The Mortgage Payment

A mortgage payment consists of the mortgage loan payment (principal and interest), property taxes (in most cases), and homeowner’s insurance. It might also include private mortgage insurance if your down payment is less than 20 percent.

Caution: The lender will set a maximum on how much you can borrow, but you use the maximum only as a starting point in deciding how much you will borrow.

Tip: To get an estimate of the maximum mortgage amount ask a real estate agent to help you get “pre-qualified” by a lender.

When deciding how much to borrow, be sure to take into account saving for your retirement, your financial goals, and your current lifestyle. If your monthly payments do not allow you to meet these needs, buying that particular home may not make financial sense.

Caution: To avoid having your dream home turn into a nightmare, calculate how much you realistically can spend on the monthly mortgage payment. Do not forget to add in the real estate taxes and mortgage insurance.

Lenders will be happy to pre-qualify you by giving you a preliminary limit on the amount they would be willing to lend you. This pre-qualification is not a commitment on the lender’s part; lenders will not commit to a mortgage until they have the property appraisal and all of your supporting documentation, but the maximum loan amount they are willing to offer can be helpful for planning purposes.

The maximum debt is based on your income and debt level. It depends on current interest rates, the term of the mortgage, and the property taxes. To get a rough idea, the maximum debt amount is usually about three times your annual gross income.

The Purchase Price

Having decided how much of a monthly mortgage payment you can realistically afford, you are now ready to set a price range for your new home. Give this range to potential real estate agents during your first visit or use it to rule out homes that are out of your price range.

Planning Aid: See the Financial Calculator: How much house can I qualify for?

Tip: Don’t be afraid to look at homes that are 15 to 20 percent over your price range. In many cases, you will be able to negotiate the price down.

The Down Payment

Try to make as large a down payment as possible. There are two reasons for this: (1) lenders will generally not require you to pay for private mortgage insurance if you can come up with a 20 percent down payment and (2) the sooner you pay off your mortgage, the better off you will be financially.

To save the 20 percent down payment, you may need to go on an “austerity plan” for a year or two. Many home buyers also use cash gifts or loans from family members to meet the 20 percent figure. If you cannot save 20 percent of the purchase price, you will still be able to get financing, however.

Working With Your Real Estate Agent

You can save yourself much time and trouble by knowing what to look for in a real estate agent.

If you find that your real estate agent is not doing his or her best to find you the home you want or is otherwise not meeting your expectations, don’t hesitate to make a change. Avoid the mistake of staying in the relationship because you have invested time in it. Rather, get out as soon as you can. The real estate agent will cost you money, so make sure you are getting your money’s worth.

You can shop for and buy a home without an agent, but you will need to put in much extra time to do an agent’s work: search for properties, schedule appointments to see them, coordinate inspections, and negotiate. Home buyers who already have a property in mind that they want to buy are the best candidates to do the deal without an agent.

Agents’ Titles and What They Mean

When looking for a real estate agent, you may come across the following commonly used titles. Here is a basic definition of each:

  • Principal broker: This is a person who is licensed to operate a real estate office. He or she may either work alone or employ other agents. Several years of experience are required to obtain this licensure. Anyone selling real estate must work under the supervision of a principal broker.
  • Realtor: A realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, along with a state realtors’ association and a local board of realtors. Realtors are bound by a code of ethics. They are able to access a local computerized database of homes for sale known as the multiple listing service.
  • Agent: This is the general term for any licensed professional in the real estate sales business.
  • Listing agent: A type of agent who signs up the home seller and lists the home with the multiple listing service.
  • Selling agent: An agent who finds a home for sale (through the multiple listing service) and finds a buyer for it.

Note: On a home sale, the listing agent and the selling agent split the commission with each other and with their principal brokers.

Positive Traits to Look For in a Real Estate Agent

To find such a competent and experienced real agent, interview several candidates at different agencies and ask the following:

    • Is the Agent Full-Time? 
      Make sure the agent works in the field full-time. Otherwise, he or she may not be up-to-date on the fast-changing information and skills required for the job.
    • Is the Agent Experienced? 
      Be sure the agent has been doing the type of work you will need him or her to do for at least a few years. For example, if you are looking for a modest single-family home in the suburbs, make sure the agent has not spent the last five years handling mostly rentals or mansions.
    • Does the Agent Listen and Communicate Clearly? 
      The agent must be able to understand your priorities in purchasing a home and to tell you what you need to know about a home. For instance, if you tell the agent repeatedly that you must have wood floors and a tree-lined neighborhood, and he or she persists in showing you linoleum floors on crowded streets, then get a new agent.
    • Is the Agent Willing to Negotiate For You?
      To get the best home for your dollar you will have to negotiate with the seller on the price. The agent plays a crucial role in the negotiation process between the buyer and seller. If he or she is not willing to show you houses that are 20 percent over your price range or to vigorously negotiate with the seller, find a new agent.
  • Is the Agent Careful In His or Her Work? 
    You need an agent who will cover all the details that go into buying a home. Someone who takes shortcuts in order to generate as many home sales as possible will not do you any good.

Tip: Ask the candidates for references from recent clients in neighborhoods where you are house-hunting. That will help you determine whether the agent has the traits you want.

What Traits to Watch Out For

Here are some traits a good buyer’s real estate agent should not have. Most of them have to do with the conflicts of interest that arise with any commissioned salespeople. Basically, a commission salesperson’s goal is to see that as many deals close as possible while putting in the minimum of hours. However, many agents still provide good service.

  • The agent who tries to push you into making a decision before you are comfortable doing so is to be avoided.
  • Avoid agents who urge you to go over your price range.
  • Avoid agents who push you to buy their agency’s listings over other properties, or who push you to use the attorneys or inspectors they recommend.
  • Dishonest agents have been known to help the seller hide a defect, or to look the other way. The only way to protect yourself from such deceit is to use an objective inspector.

Finding the Right Home

When searching for a home, you must remember to remain focused on what you want (and don’t want) in a home. You may want to keep a list of items that are important to you, such as the location of the neighborhood, building materials used in a home, and proximity to schools.

Do not take anyone’s word for it. Investigate for yourself. Visit schools, walk around the neighborhood, look under carpets to see what the floors are made of and stay in the basement for a while to see how damp it is. You may also want to drive through the neighborhood after dark to see if it is a safe place to live.

Tip: In order to have a benchmark for comparing home prices, find out what the price per square foot is for homes you are looking at. To find the price per square foot, divide the asking price by its square footage. Sources of a home’s square footage include the local tax assessment agency, the real estate agent, and the home builder. You should verify any statement that might be self-serving.

Negotiating the Selling Price

Buying a home requires negotiating skills because successful negotiation can often save you tens of thousands of dollars. Here are some tips to keep in mind when negotiating for your hoped-for home:

  • Be willing to walk away from a deal. If you decide you must have a certain house, you have already lost negotiating power. There are other good properties out there.
  • Learn everything you can about the property before making your offer. For instance, how long has it been on the market? Has the buyer dropped the asking price? Why is the owner selling? The answers to these questions will help you to negotiate.
  • Know what comparable homes are selling for.
  • If the seller refuses to budge on price, try to negotiate for something else. For instance, try to get the seller to pay for repairs or improvements you would have done yourself.
  • Don’t forget the real estate agent’s commission. It may also be negotiable.

Arranging for the Mortgage

When you and the seller finally agree upon a price and sign a contract, the next step (unless you’re paying cash or have arranged another type of loan) is to get a mortgage. In fact, most home sales are contingent upon the buyer obtaining a mortgage.

Getting the right mortgage is also important in that it too can result in savings of tens of thousands of dollars over the term of the mortgage. Because the discussion of mortgages is quite extensive, it is beyond the scope of this Financial Guide. Rather, it is covered in detail in other related Financial Guides such as:

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: MORTGAGES ALTERNATIVES: How To Choose The Right One.

What is a Mortgage Service Provider?

A mortgage servicer collects your monthly payments and handles your escrow account. It also is required to give you an annual statement that details the activity of your escrow account. This statement shows your account balance and reflects payments for property taxes and homeowners insurance.

When you apply for a home mortgage, you may think that the lender, or loan originator, will service the loan until it is paid off or your house is sold. This assumption is not always true. In today’s market, mortgage servicing rights often are bought and sold.

If you are notified that your home mortgage servicing has been sold to another company, you may wonder how it will affect your loan terms and monthly payments. Some consumers have complained that they were not given enough notice of loan servicing transfers and were unfairly charged late fees and penalties. The National Affordable Housing Act was passed to address some of these concerns.

To protect borrowers, the National Affordable Housing Act requires lenders or mortgage servicers (the company that borrowers pay their mortgage loan payments to) to do the following.

  • They must provide a disclosure statement that says whether the lender intends to sell the mortgage servicing immediately; whether the mortgage servicing can be sold at any time during the life of the loan; and the percentage of loans the lender has sold previously.

  • The lender also must provide information about servicing procedures, transfer practices, and complaint resolution.

They must notify you at least 15 days before they sell your loan unless you received a written transfer notice at settlement. If your loan servicing is going to be sold, you should receive two notices, one from the current mortgage servicer and one from the new mortgage servicer. The new servicer must notify you not more than 15 days after the transfer has occurred.

The notices must include the following information:

  • The name and address of the new servicer

  • The date the current servicer will stop accepting mortgage payments, and the date the new servicer will begin accepting them

  • Toll-free or collect call telephone numbers for both the current servicer and the new servicer that you can call for information about the transfer of service

  • Information about whether you can continue any optional insurance, such as credit life or disability insurance; what action you must take to maintain coverage; and whether the insurance terms will change

  • A statement that the transfer will not affect any terms or conditions of the contract you signed with the original mortgage company, other than terms directly related to the servicing of such loan

For example, if your old lender did not require an escrow account but allowed you to pay property taxes and insurance premiums on your own, the new servicer cannot demand that you establish such an account. They must grant a 60-day grace period, in which you cannot be charged a late fee if you mistakenly send your mortgage payment to the old mortgage servicer instead of the new one.

If you believe you have been improperly charged a penalty or late fee, or there are other problems with the servicing of your loan, contact your servicer in writing. Include your account number and explain why you believe your account is incorrect.

Within 20 business days of receiving your inquiry, the servicer must send you a written response acknowledging your inquiry. Within 60 business days, the servicer must either correct your account or determine that it is accurate. The servicer must send you a written notice of what action it took and why.

If you believe the servicer has not responded appropriately to your written inquiry, contact your local or state consumer protection office. You can also send your complaint to the FTC. Or, you may want to contact an attorney to advise you of your legal rights. Under the National Affordable Housing Act, consumers can initiate class action suits and obtain actual damages, plus additional damages, for a pattern or practice of noncompliance.

Tip: Do not subtract any disputed amount from your mortgage payment. Many mortgage services will refuse to accept partial payments. They may return the check and charge a late fee, or declare the mortgage is in default and start foreclosure proceedings.

Inspecting the Home

The home inspection is an objective visual examination of the physical structure and systems of the house from the roof to the foundation. The standard home inspector’s report will include an evaluation of the condition of the home’s heating system; central air conditioning system (temperature permitting); interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic, and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors; the foundation and basement; and the visible structure.

If problems or symptoms are found, the inspector will refer you to the appropriate specialist or tradesperson for further evaluation.

Why is the inspection necessary? The purchase of a home is probably the largest single investment you will ever make. Therefore, you should learn as much as you can about the condition of the property and the need for any major repairs before you buy, so that you can minimize unpleasant surprises and difficulties afterward.

Of course, a home inspection will also point out the positive aspects of a home as well as the maintenance that will be necessary to keep it in good shape. After the inspection, you will have a much clearer understanding of the property you are about to purchase and will be able to make a confident buying decision.


The inspection fee for a typical one-family house varies geographically, as does the cost of housing. Similarly, within a given area, the inspection fee may vary depending upon the size of the house, particular features of the house, its age, and possible additional services, such as septic, well, or radon testing.

Tip: Check local prices on your own. Do not let cost be a factor in deciding whether or not to have a home inspection or in the selection of your home inspector. The knowledge gained from an inspection is well worth the cost, and the lowest-priced inspector is not necessarily a bargain. The inspector’s qualifications, including experience, training, and professional affiliations, should be the most important consideration.

Why You Can’t Just “Do It Yourself”

Even the most experienced homeowner lacks the knowledge and expertise of a professional home inspector who has inspected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes. An inspector is familiar with all of the elements of home construction, proper installation, and maintenance. The inspector understands how the home’s systems and components are intended to function together, as well as how and why they fail.

Further, most buyers find it very difficult to remain completely objective and unemotional about the house they really want, and this may affect their judgment. For the most accurate picture, it is best to obtain an impartial third-party opinion by an expert in the field of home inspection.

How to Find a Home Inspector

The best source of recommendations is a friend or business acquaintance who has been satisfied with a home inspector they have used. Real estate agents are also generally familiar with home inspectors and should be able to provide you with a list of names from which to choose.

Whatever your referral source, be sure to ascertain the home inspector’s professional qualifications, experience, and business ethics before you make your selection. You can do this by checking with your local Better Business Bureau as well as by verifying the inspector’s membership in a reputable professional association such as the American Society of Home Inspectors.

When Do You Call In the Home Inspector?

A home inspector is typically called right after the contract or purchase agreement has been signed. It is not necessary for you to be present for the inspection, but it is recommended. By following the home inspector around the house, by observing and asking questions, you will learn a great deal about the condition of the home, how its systems work, and how to maintain it. You will also find the written report easier to understand if you’ve seen the property first-hand through the inspector’s eyes.

Tip: Before you sign, be sure that there is an inspection clause in the contract, making your purchase obligation contingent upon the findings of a professional home inspection. This clause should specify the terms to which both the buyer and seller are obligated.

What if the Report Reveals Problems?

No house is perfect. If the inspector finds problems, it does not necessarily mean you should not buy the house, only that you will know in advance what to expect. A seller may be flexible with the purchase price or contract terms if major problems are found. If your budget is very tight, or if you do not wish to become involved in future repair work, this information will be extremely important to you.

What if you find problems after you move in? A home inspection is not a guarantee that problems will not develop after you move in. However, if you believe that a problem was already visible at the time of the inspection and should have been mentioned in the report, your first step should be to call and meet with the inspector to clarify the situation. Misunderstandings are often resolved in this manner. If necessary, you might wish to consult with a local mediation service to help you settle your disagreement.

Tip: Though many home inspectors today carry Errors & Omissions liability insurance, litigation should be considered a last resort. It is difficult, expensive, and by no means a sure method of recovery.

Checklist of Home Needs

For each home you are considering, bring a copy of the following list and fill it in. This form will enable you to have a record of all the homes you visit and to compare their features. You may be able to fill in much of the information from the multiple listing service sheets your real estate agent provides. Write down the size, materials, and any other comments you have about each item.

Date of visit:________________
Asking price:________________
Square footage________________
Price per square foot________________
Financing available (FHA, VA, other)________________
Number of bedrooms:________________
Number of baths:________________
Location of sunrise:________________
Size of master BR:________________
Size of 2nd BR:________________
Size of 3rd BR:________________
Size of 4th BR:________________
Size of 5th BR:________________
Size of master closet:________________
Size of 2nd closet, location:________________
Size of 3nd closet, location________________
Size of master bath:________________
Size of 2nd bath, location:________________
Size of 3rd bath, location:________________
Size of kitchen, location:________________
Size of DR, location:________________
Size of living room, attributes:________________
Other rooms, size and attributes:________________
Appliances (number, condition):________________
Attic, attic vents:________________
Ceiling fans:________________
Garage, adequacy:________________
Garage, door opening convenience:________________
Cost of utility bills (ask homeowner):________________
Floors (material, condition):________________
Humidity, mildew:________________
Lead-based paints:________________
Year of construction:________________
Comments about exterior, siding:________________
Doors (ext.):________________
Grading, drainage:________________
Lot size:________________
Landscaping, yard:________________
Septic system:________________
Swimming pool:________________
Overall comment:________________
Accessibility during bad weather:________________
Nearby properties (use of property and comments on neighbors):________________
Driving time to:________________
Place of worship:________________
Day care:________________
Noise levels:________________
Proximity of police, firefighters:________________
School district:________________
Restrictions (e.g., on landscaping):________________
Flood, earthquake, other disaster likely:________________
Garbage removal:________________

Renting vs. Buying

Other than whether you can afford a new home, here are some additional factors that you should consider when deciding whether to rent or buy:

  • When home prices are down, home ownership is a less valuable investment. Of course, owning a principal residence is not just an investment
  • When comparing the costs of renting against the costs of owning, factor in the valuable income tax deductions available for mortgage interest payments
  • You may not have to pay tax on the capital gain when you sell your principal residence
  • In a period of high-interest rates, owning a home is more costly
  • Those who move frequently, every four years or less for example, are often better off renting than buying

Additional Resources

Consumer Information Center

Request the consumer information catalog. Handbooks cover subjects such as adjustable rate mortgages, mortgage lock-ins, and mortgage refinancing. Other titles cover home safety issues, such as asbestos and the use of wood-burning stoves.