First-time buyers are still struggling in the United States. In 2018, approximately a third of homes were sold to folks new to the property ladder. Compare that to 50% back in 2010. And if you’re a millennial, things are even tougher. Compared to your generation X counterparts when they were 25-34, you’re 8% less likely to own a home.
Student loans, tight credit, not being able to afford a down payment, and spiraling home prices in certain locations are all seemingly good reasons to stop people from a house purchase. In this guide, however, we’re going to give you some essential tips and tools to help get you on that properly ladder, even if you’re not in tip-top financial shape.
Don’t Listen to Cookie-Cutter Advice
We can hear the sighs already. You’ve seen the countless Buzzfeed-style ‘Top 10 Ways to Buy Your First Home’; all talk, no substance. The same advice everywhere, most of which you know already. ‘Save more money to buy a better house’. Um, yeah, thanks, couldn’t have thought of that one.
No, we’re going to approach things a little differently. For example, instead of telling you that your credit needs to be at a certain level, we’re going to tell you how you can make that happen. We also go against the myth of 20% down, giving you the right way of buying a home with a small deposit. You get the idea.
What annoys us is that much of the advice you see out there is a combination of cookie-cutter tips, myths, urban legends, and downright lies. People are either lazy with their research, looking to create a bit of clickbait, or they’re trying to sell you something. Our first tip? If it’s everything you’ve heard before and there’s no data to back it up, don’t listen to it.
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Forget the 20% Down Myth
Saving for a down payment is what holds most people back from buying a home. According to a Convergys Analytics report, 49% of people believe that you need a 20% down payment to buy a home. And we’re talking required, rather than ‘you probably should’.
The reality doesn’t quite match the 20% myth, however. This is why we felt we had to put this section near the top of the guide, as many people are probably missing out on a home they may be able to purchase. For example, the median down payment for a home purchase in 2017 was approximately 5%. There are also many government programs specifically designed to encourage first-home buyers (we list some of them in the section below).
Leverage Tools and Resources
Compared to just a decade ago, first-time buyers have at least one major advantage: the internet. Al Gore’s ‘invention’ has opened up a wealth of resources that weren’t available until very recently. Instead of having to gather your advice from friends and realtors, you can now equip yourself with pretty much everything you need to know about buying a house. Leverage the online tools and resources available and you’ll make a smarter financial decision.
Of course, you need to know where to look. We’re making it a little bit easier for you; here are our favorites guides, resources, and tools (we’ve also added a few international ones for those of you not based in the United States):
Government Guide: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an in-depth impartial resource to guide you through the process. It takes you through a checklist of what you need to do before making an offer, how to get a mortgage, as well as the closing process. HUD.gov also offers a pretty good alternative guide.
Government programs to help you buy a home: The government is aware that there’s a housing crisis for certain groups of the population. According to Urban.org, there are 2,527 programs available nationwide (page 23 on the linked report) to help you get on the property ladder.
Check out USA.gov’s resource, which lists government programs available. We’re talking loans for first-time buyers, help for veterans, and individual state programs. We also recommend hitting “down payment assistance programs + your location/state” on Google to get specific advice for your target market. California, for example, offers the MyHome Assistance Program.
Affordability: Calculating how much you can afford isn’t the simplest, especially if math isn’t your strong point. We like Karl’s Mortgage Calculator. It has everything you need, no frills or annoying pop-ups, it just works.
Looking for properties: For the United States, it’s Zillow. Hands down.
‘Shark’ your potential home first: You want to find out everything about your potential new purchase first. PropertyShark is an excellent site that gives you a bunch of info, such as demographics, tax, neighboring houses, and more. Trulia.com provides similar information.
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Australia: If you’re looking for a guide in Australia, we recommend looking for that .gov.au domain name. These are government sites, which means the advice will be quite reliable (at least when it comes to the facts). Go for advice that’s specific to your target state. For example, if you’re wanting to buy something in New South Wales, head on over to the state’s Fair Trading website’s mortgage section.
When it comes to tools, commercial websites are a step above anything else we’ve found (caveat emptor, of course). We’re a fan of Lendi’s calculators and financial tools resource, as it provides more than just a basic borrowing power calculator (though you get that too!). For example, you get Oz-specific tools, such as a stamp duty calculator (it’s basically a government tax).
United Kingdom: When it comes to the United Kingdom, there’s only one king when it comes to financial advice (sorry about the bad pun!): Martin Lewis’ MoneySavingExpert.com. The Mortgages & Homes section of the website is unbeatable.
They’ve put together a first-time buyer’s PDF guide, there’s a basic mortgage calculator, advice on how to boost your chances of getting a mortgage, and much more. Anything we say about the UK is superfluous: head on over there now if you’re from the British Isles. Another good resource is the government’s Money Advice Service, which offers impartial advice on mortgages.
Potential Roadblock: Your Credit Score
It’s not the down payment that prevents you from buying a house. If anything is going to pose a significant problem, it’s probably your credit score. It’s all about financing and getting the right mortgage; if your credit score isn’t what it should be, even a 20% deposit may not help you.
Let’s do some myth clearing first. It’s not true that you need a credit score over 700 to get yourself a reasonable mortgage deal. It’s also entirely untrue that only people with amazing credit scores can get on the property ladder. And while your credit score is definitely important, your dreams to buy a home won’t necessarily stand or fall on that ‘magic number’. Yes, you need to try and increase it and yes, it’s a significant part of the equation, but don’t give up on owning a home just because of your credit.
Think your score doesn’t adequately reflect your situation? Or perhaps you’ve turned over a new leaf and you want to correct past mistakes? Your credit score takes a couple of things into account: your credit payment history, any outstanding debts, how long you’ve had credit (i.e. been in the system), the types of credit you’ve used in the past (credit cards, loans, car, etc.), and how much new credit you’ve taken out. There’s plenty that you can do to rectify the situation.
Here are some tips to boost your credit score as quickly as humanly possible:
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- Pay your bills. It’s an obvious one, but it’s absolutely essential that you pay your bills on time. Stick to the deals you’ve made with your chosen companies and you’ll either improve or at the very least maintain your score.
- Credit utilization % should be low. Just because you have a credit card that allows you to spend $10k doesn’t mean you should max it out. Stick to around 30% usage (in this case, $3k) as a general rule and you’ll be fine.
- Piggyback. If you have bad credit, it may be an idea to add yourself as an authorized user on, for example, your partner’s/husband’s/wife’s credit card. This allows you to ‘piggyback’ on that account, enhancing your credit score.
Do Your Own Research
Our final piece of advice is simple: do your own research. We’re confident that we’ve put together a solid guide here, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. We don’t tackle your specific financial or personal situation (obviously, we can’t!), nor can we provide advice for every single location on the planet. And ultimately, a lot of what we’ve said is subjective and a matter of opinion.
We recommend taking the resources and advice we’ve pointed you to and then doing some more leg work. That final call to buy a home is ultimately yours to make.
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