First-time Homebuyer’s Guide: Preparing for your first mortgage

Published March 12, 2020
by Better

Taking out a home loan is a complicated process, and preparation is key. Knowing what to expect, and when to expect it could make the difference between a clear path to homeownership or getting caught up in the weeds.

This guide will walk you through the whats, whens and whys of preparing for your first mortgage.

9–12+ months out: assessing and planning

Get in the homebuying headspace
A good place to start is to simply ask yourself why you want to buy. Looming rent hike? Growing your family? Moving to a new city? Trying to build equity? Are you looking for a “starter” home or a place to settle down forever? Can you commit to staying in the same neighborhood for awhile? Are you ready to take on homeowner duties like repairs? How you answer these questions might impact the decisions you make throughout the homebuying process.

Think through your budget
Getting a sense for how much you can afford will probably be one of your first steps. If you’re a renter, calculating the cost of renting versus buying is also a good place to start. Our home affordability calculator can help give you a ballpark for what you can afford and how much your monthly payments would be. Being ready is more than just being able to make monthly payments. Having emergency savings is foundational to your financial health, especially if you become a homeowner — if you’re unable to afford surprise home repairs, health care expenses, or other emergencies, you run the risk of having to take on more debt, or even going into foreclosure.

Learn what lenders are looking for
When it comes to getting a mortgage, it’s helpful to think like a lender. Ultimately, when a lender is deciding whether to give you a loan (and what the terms will be), they want to know: can you pay now, can you pay later, and do you have proof?

Lenders evaluate loan candidates based on four factors: assets, income, credit and debt-to-income ratio. You can learn more about these factors, and how to meet lenders’ criteria for each here.

3–6 months out: understanding your options

Check in on your financial picture
Once you’ve made the leap from “thinking about buying a home” to “shopping for a home in the coming months,” take another close look at your finances. Having a clear picture of what you’re working with will help you determine a more accurate budget for your dream home. Check your credit score again (it won’t impact your score), and recalculate your debt-to-income ratio to see where you stand.

Consolidate your down payment funds
Lenders are all about proof. We’re required to make sure the money in your accounts is really yours, and we’ll need to see two months worth of bank statements for any funds you plan on using for your down payment. If we notice any big transfers or deposits, we’re required to ask for explanations for the transfers, as well as letters verifying that down payment gifts from friends and family members are truly gifts, not loans. And you may have guessed this by now, but we won’t be able to use unsourceable funds (like cash under your mattress).

To save yourself headaches later, start consolidating all your down payment funds into one account now. That way, your two month transaction history won’t raise red flags when you do start the mortgage process.

Get a better sense for how much house you can afford
Now is a good time to get a more accurate estimate for how much you can afford. While our affordability calculator can give you a quick sense of your budget range, our basic pre-approval process will help you get a more precise number.

Apply online for our 3-minute basic pre-approval
As part of our online basic pre-approval process, we’ll run a soft credit check (which doesn’t affect your score) so we can give you a more precise amount for what you can borrow. We’ll also give you your score instantly (FICORiskScoreClassic04 from Transunion, to be specific), so you know what we know. Getting our basic pre-approval is free and there’s no obligation to keep working with us.

Learn about your financing options
There are a few key decisions you’ll need to make when deciding on a financing path:

  • Whether you want a fixed or adjustable-rate mortgage
  • If you want to pay points or take credits
  • How much you’ll put towards your down payment

You can learn more about navigating your financing options here.

Practice your mortgage payment
Running the numbers is one thing, having a mortgage bill come in every month is another. Since you’ve got some time, consider using it to “practice” your mortgage payments and get a true sense of how buying a home will affect your monthly budget. If your estimated mortgage payment is more than your current rent, start putting aside the extra amount every month to simulate making mortgage payments. Does your budget still feel comfortable? If not, you may want to re-think how much you can really afford.

Bonus: you can put the extra money saved during this exercise toward your down payment.

Start researching neighborhoods
This is the fun part — it’s time to start thinking about where you’ll be putting down roots. Take a look at home prices in the areas you’re interested in. Depending on your budget, you may need to expand your search. Visit the neighborhoods on your radar. Talk to residents to get a feel for the community, and research school districts if you have kids (or plan on having them). Now is also a good time to start getting recommendations for real estate agents. They’re an important part of the homebuying process, so you want to make sure you’re partnering with someone you can trust and like working with.

Try to avoid new credit inquiries and job changes
The trick to minimizing paperwork in the mortgage process is to give lenders less to investigate when it comes to your finances. Just like it’s a good idea to start consolidating your down payment funds early (so you have a clean transaction history when lenders pull your two months of bank statements), it’s also a good idea to avoid new credit inquiries (which impact your credit score).

So if possible, hold off on applying for things like car loans or credit cards until after your mortgage has been funded. Same goes for changing jobs, as lenders will need to look into any employment gaps or dips in income. Again, if a job switch is unavoidable, inform your lender as soon as possible so they can help you with any additional paperwork.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re well on your way to funding the purchase of your first home.

Next up? Learn how to apply for your mortgage.

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