In many ways, nothing makes you feel more grown up than buying your first home—but the amount of new information you'll have to wade through in the process might make you feel like you're right back in high school math class.
Figuring out how much to offer? Choosing an inspector? Negotiating over who will fix the leaking bathtub? Luckily, unlike high school, you're totally allowed to cheat this time around. And by cheating we mean hiring an experienced professional—a real estate agent—to guide you through all these new challenges.
As soon as you decide to buy a home, you should start looking for a real estate agent, who can provide everything from emotional support to research to strategic advice. Perhaps best of all, as a buyer, the agent's services generally won't cost you anything: The buyer's agent traditionally gets paid a percentage of the sale price by the seller. [ref] Fannie Mae [/ref]
Real Estate Agents Provide Neighborhood Know-How
When I moved to Chicago, I thought I knew where I wanted to live: the North Side. But after getting to know my family and our needs and budget, our fantastic real estate agent Lera recommended a suburb we weren't very familiar with. Once she drove us out to Oak Park to view some houses and have brunch at the spot that would later become our neighborhood favorite, we were in love. Without Lera, we would have never become part of that wonderful community.
A good agent will be familiar with the schools, recreation opportunities, crime rate and public transit in different areas, and help you pinpoint where to begin your search. [ref] The HUD Home Buying Guide [/ref]
Choosing a House That Works for You
You probably have a basic idea of what you want: Two bedrooms and a yard for your dog are on your must-haves list. A good agent will find and show you all the houses in your chosen area that meet your criteria. But her role doesn't stop with looking up listings and setting up viewing appointments. A great agent looks at each property with an experienced eye and can point out expensive future repairs (what are those dangling wires in the garage?) or opportunities you may not have noticed, like space for a tiny guest house in the back yard.
The Price is Right
When you've settled on the perfect starter home for you, your agent should conduct a market analysis for you. This means that he or she will look up the most recent sales of similar nearby homes—also known as comps—to come up with an educated guess at how much the seller will accept. Your agent may also feel out the seller's agent on how motivated the seller is; for example, if the seller needs to move across the country next week, he may be more likely to settle for a lower price.
A top-notch agent we once worked with told me that in a rapidly changing market she doesn't just rely on publicly listed recent sales because these are about a month old by the time they're published. Instead, she's always asking colleagues what their most recent selling and buying prices were so she can advise her clients not just where the market is at the moment, but where it's going.
Time to Negotiate
Your agent really starts earning her commission when it's time to write an offer and settle on a final contract. If there was something that bothered you about the home when you viewed it, like dirty carpets, she'll stipulate in the contract that the seller should take care of it. She'll put in escape clauses known as contingencies that will give you the chance to withdraw or change your offer based on what happens after it's accepted; for instance, she should put in an inspection contingency that gives you the right to cancel the deal or offer less money if the inspector tells you the air conditioner is on its last legs.
Some sellers might accept the first offer you make, while others might decline to throw in the drapes you asked for or even counteroffer with an ask for more money. Negotiating directly with a stranger would be stressful and awkward, so it's great to be able to let your agent know what you want and then let her do the talking.
A Smooth Close
There are so many tasks to get done and papers to fill out before you can close on your home. It helps to have an agent who has been through it all before at your side—and can calm your nerves as the big closing day approaches. Some states require a real estate attorney to review the final documents before you sign, but in other states, it's typically the job of the agent to make sure everything in the final contract is perfect.
Making the Most of Your Relationship
There are things you can do to help your agent help you. One important thing is to provide as much information as possible both about your budget and needs up front, followed by feedback throughout the process. If the houses your agent shows you on the first day aren't to your taste or if you feel that she's limiting the search to too small an area, let her know. Most agents are happy to make adjustments as they go along since their goal is the same as yours: to get you into a new home.
That said, you shouldn't only rely on your agent for advice. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau points out that agents and other real estate professionals make money based on your decisions, and advises that you also run your agent's advice by trusted friends or relatives who have been through the homebuying process before. [ref] Consumer Financial Protection Bureau [/ref]
Disclaimer: The above is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered tax, savings, financial, or legal advice. Please consult your tax advisor. All calculations and information shown here are for illustrative purposes only. All third parties listed above are for demonstration purposes only and are not affiliated with LendingHome. All views and opinions expressed in this post belong to the individuals referenced. NMLS ID: 1125207 Terms, Privacy & Disclosures. Copyright LendingHome Corporation 2019.