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Real estate: Tips on buying and financing your first home

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Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 8:00 pm

(ARA) - For many younger Americans, the dream of owning their first home is alive and well. But for others, it's still an elusive dream.

Only five years ago, it was relatively easy to finance a home, but the Great Recession and the mortgage market's meltdown have made it difficult for many people to qualify for home loans. The shifting state of home values and prices has complicated matters. In some markets, values have plunged by more than 40 percent. While that has created once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for younger people to enter the real estate market, others have taken a more cautious approach, waiting to see if prices will continue to fall.

Whether you're ready now or will be down the road, buying your first home takes preparation. Here are some tips from FindLaw.com, the nation's leading website for free legal information, on how to get started.

Save aggressively for your down payment. Many first-time homebuyers seek a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Association, which insures loans made by lenders for qualifying homebuyers. The program allows buyers to put down as little as 3.5 percent of a home's cost. However, if the home you want to buy doesn't qualify for the program, you'll need to obtain a conventional loan, which will require you to put down anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the purchase price as a down payment to qualify for a mortgage.

Get your finances in order. Lenders are now taking a closer look at debt-to-income ratio (percentage of monthly income that goes toward debt payments) and housing-to-income ratio (percentage of monthly income that goes toward housing payments). In general, responsible lenders follow the 28/36 percent rule - no more than 28 percent of your monthly income should go to housing costs, and no more than 36 percent of your monthly income should go to debt (including auto loans, credit cards and other loans).

Clean up your credit report. Your credit score is critical to a mortgage application. The higher your score, the more likely you can qualify for a mortgage and obtain favorable terms (a lower down payment and lower monthly payments). By law, you can request one free credit report per year through one of the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You should request your report to review your score and correct any mistakes well before you apply for a mortgage.

Don't apply for credit. Keep in mind that a mortgage lender is determining your ability to pay back a mortgage up until the minute you sign the mortgage papers. In general, it's not a good idea to take on more debt such as an auto loan or a new credit card within a year of buying a home.

First-year expenses. First-time homebuyers can be so focused on trying to put together a down payment that they sometimes forget about the expenses that go into setting up a household. You should consider putting away an additional $5,000 to $10,000 for expenses such as a lawnmower, furniture and basic decorating, and for potential repairs involving your furnace, air conditioning, water heater and other appliances.

Shop around. It's important to shop around to get the best home possible for your dollar. And likewise, it's critical to shop around for a mortgage too. Get at least three to four proposals from different mortgage lenders before deciding on the best offer.

Don't expect your dream home. Many first-time homebuyers purchase what's called a "starter" home or a "fixer-upper." While these are often relatively small and need some repairs, they're also an opportunity to enter the real estate market and build sweat equity. To spot a starter home, look for one that needs some love and attention in a neighborhood with houses that are well maintained or being remodeled.

Hire an attorney. If you purchase a home directly from the seller without the assistance of a real estate agent, an experienced real estate attorney can help you write up a purchase agreement, according to FindLaw.com. Some sellers may be interested in this option, because it can save them thousands of dollars in commission fees. A real estate attorney also can counsel you on dealing with legal problems that can arise during the process of buying a home, such as during the title search.

Home inspection. Even if you've come across the deal of a lifetime, never buy a house without a home inspection. An inspection will alert you to potential problems that may not be obvious to a person buying his or her first home. It also may be useful if you need to sue the seller for concealing problems with the home.

To learn more about how to buy your first home, visit www.FindLaw.com.

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