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First-Time Home Buyer Guide

February 3, 2024 5 mins

Owning a home is part of many members’ financial goals. In addition to providing shelter, a home can create generational wealth or serve as a long-term investment. Understanding the process and knowing how to prepare are key ingredients to successfully achieving homeownership. Here are our top pointers for first-time home buyers.

Ensure you are ready to make a long-term commitment

Buying a home is a decision that will result in long-term changes to your lifestyle and budget. Before buying a house, you should determine your readiness by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have a stable source of income?
  • Do I have an emergency fund that can cover 3-6 months of living expenses in case I lose my job?
  • Can I commit to staying in the home for at least 5 years?

If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions, you should consider taking a pause on homebuying until your situation changes.
When calculating how much money you need to buy a house, consider one-time expenses as well as new, recurring bills. Here are the main upfront costs to consider when saving for a home:

  • Down payment: Your down payment requirement will depend on the type of mortgage you choose. Some conventional loans aimed at first-time home buyers with excellent credit require as little as 3% down, but many require at least 5%. For example, a 3% down payment on a $300,000 home is $9,000 while a 5% down payment is $15,000. Use a down payment calculator to determine how much you need to save, and then set up automatic transfers from checking to savings to get started.
  • Closing costs: These are the fees and expenses you pay to finalize your mortgage, and they typically range from 2% to 6% of the loan amount. Your closing costs on a $300,000 loan could be between $6,000 and $18,000. That’s money you must pay on top of your down payment. In a buyer’s market, you can often ask the seller to pay a portion of your closing costs, and you can save on some expenses, such as home inspections, by shopping around for less expensive providers.
  • Move-in expenses: Remember to budget for moving costs, which typically run up to $2,500 for most local moves. (Long-distance moves are usually much pricier.) You may also need some cash after the home purchase to cover immediate home repairs, upgrades, and furnishings and decor.

Owning a home comes with ongoing expenses such as property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Make sure you budget for these costs in addition to your monthly mortgage payment.

Get preapproved for a mortgage

A preapproval shows sellers that you’re a serious buyer who can get financing quickly. It also helps you know what you can afford before shopping for homes. Nothing is worse than finding a home you love only to find out you don’t qualify for the mortgage or can’t afford the loan payments. Preapproval also helps you avoid last-minute surprises or delays related to qualification. Additionally, understanding the difference between a prequalification and a preapproval is key:

  • Prequalification Letter: This is an estimate of what you might qualify for, based on an informal review of your income, debts, and other information.
  • Preapproval Letter: This is an official approval form that states how much you qualify for based on a careful review of documents including your income and assets, together with information gathered on your credit history and credit score.


Buying a home is a decision and one that will result in long-term changes to your lifestyle and budget.”

Check and polish your credit

A good credit history is essential when buying a home because it affects your mortgage interest rate and other loan terms. Lenders will pull your credit report when issuing a preapproval letter and will monitor your credit throughout the loan process. This is essential when buying a home because it affects your mortgage interest rate and other loan terms. Lenders will pull your credit report when issuing a preapproval letter and will monitor your credit throughout the loan process.

  • Check your credit report for free at Look for inaccurate information, like accounts you don’t recognize, and file a dispute to have any inaccurate information removed.
  • Put new credit and purchases on hold. Opening new accounts or taking on new debts can impact your credit score and could risk your loan approval
  • Stay current on payments for your current obligations. Even just one late payment can impact your ability to get a low interest rate on a mortgage.

Understand your first-time home buyer loan options

There are many home loan options out there, what type you select will be determined in part based on your credit, down payment amount, and how much you are borrowing:

  • Conventional loans: Conventional loans are the most common type of home loan. They can either be conforming or jumbo, which refers to the loan amount being under or over the conforming loan limit. You can purchase a home with as little as 3% down in some cases, but many may require 5%.
  • Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans: An FHA loan can allow you to buy a home with less strict financial and credit score requirements than a conventional loan. You can get an FHA loan with a 3.5% down payment and a credit score as low as 620. If your score is below 580, you will need a 10% down payment.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) loans: VA loans are exclusively for veterans, active-duty members of the armed forces and National Guard, and qualified spouses. You can buy a home with 0% down if you qualify for a VA loan.
  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans: USDA loans are for people who want to buy a home in a qualified rural or suburban area. You can get a USDA loan with 0% down, subject to household income restrictions.
  • Down payment assistance programs: Many nonprofit organizations offer down payment help for borrowers who meet their specific requirements. These assistance programs can be in the form of grants or loans. You usually have to be a first-time homebuyer to qualify.

Find a real estate agent

A good real estate agent will help guide you through the home buying process. Look for an agent who has experience in your desired area and who is responsive. Additionally, only a buyer’s agent will work on your behalf – don’t rely on the seller’s agent to represent your best interests. A buyer’s agent can assist you by:

  • Showing you properties that fit your needs and budget.
  • Helping you decide how much to offer for a home.
  • Submitting the offer to the seller on your behalf.
  • Assisting with negotiations between you and the seller’s agent after the offer is submitted.
  • Setting the terms of the contract, including the Earnest Money Deposit (EMD), also known as a Good Faith Deposit.

If you make an offer on a house, you must usually provide an EMD as an act of good faith and to show you’re a serious buyer. This deposit is usually between 1% and 3% of the sale price and signals your commitment to the transaction. The EMD will go toward your down payment. However, if you back out of the transaction for any reason not shown on the list of acceptable contingencies, you risk losing the deposit.

Get a home inspection

A professional inspection can reveal hidden problems with the property that could affect its value or safety. You can use this information to negotiate with the seller or back out of the deal if necessary. This inspection is different from the home appraisal ordered by the lender, which provides an opinion of the home’s worth based on market trends and recent comparable sales (comps).
The Earnest Money Agreement often includes certain contingencies, which spell out allowable scenarios for cancelling the transaction without forfeiting the earnest money deposit, including a home inspection contingency.
It may seem overwhelming, but Patelco is here to help guide you through the process. We can assist you every step of the way and help you avoid the common pitfalls that can trip up unprepared home buyers, and help you achieve your goal of homeownership!


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