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Essential house-hunting checklist for first-time homebuyers

Part of: First-time homebuyer’s guide

What we'll cover

  • Tips for picking a real estate agent

  • How to choose a neighborhood

  • Best practices when making a competitive offer

Regardless of how long you’ve been house hunting, you’ll eventually reach the home stretch and will need to focus on the small details.

Are we there yet? A homebuying itinerary for first-time homebuyers. Use this timeline to map out your homebuying journey. 6 to 12+ months before: Review your finances. Prep for the house hunt. 2 to 6 months before. Collect the required paperwork for mortgage pre-approval. Select your real estate agent. 1 to 2 months before. Get pre-approved for your home loan (good for 60 to 90 days). The house hunt begins. Find your home. Make an offer and negotiate. Sign the contract. 30 to 45 days before. Finalize your home loan. Schedule an inspection. Complete the closing process. Closing day. Sign the final paperwork. Congrats, you’re a homeowner!

No matter what your homebuying map looks like, these essential steps will help you reach your final destination.

Find the right real estate agent for you

As you embark on your homebuying journey, you’re probably wondering if you need a real estate agent . Especially when purchasing your first home, it can be helpful — and eliminate some of the stress — to have a seasoned pro guiding you through the process. An agent’s network also can connect you with homes that fit your criteria and once you find the right one, they can negotiate on your behalf.

If you decide to use an agent, identifying a strong partner is critical. It’s always a good idea to interview several candidates before picking one who best suits you. When speaking with prospective agents, be sure to ask these key questions to make sure you’ve found your match (and a qualified candidate):

  • Are you licensed?

  • How long have you been in the real estate industry?

  • How many clients are you currently working with?

And don’t forget to ask friends and family for recommendations. Personal referrals can help you narrow the field.

Especially when purchasing your first home, it can be helpful — and eliminate some of the stress — to have a seasoned pro guiding you through the process.

Discover your perfect neighborhood

Whether you’re debating between city and suburban living or comparing school districts, you have a lot to consider when selecting a location. From the grocery store around the corner to the proximity to schools to the coffee shop nearby, a lot of tiny details make up the places we live and work.

As you map out your priorities for your future neighborhood, keep these key elements in mind:

Neighborhood considerations to keep in mind when shopping for a home and why they matter.
Consideration Why it matters
Safety You want to feel secure in your new home. Online mapping tools can help you in your research. Ally Home offers a home search tool that shows you a crime heatmap by county.
Essentials Think through all of those services you use regularly — grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, dentist and doctor options. While they don’t need to be around the corner, you may not want to trek 30 minutes to make your weekly grocery run. 
Commute time
Unless you work from home, you’ll want to take into account how long it will take you to travel to work. If you plan to drive, look at the distance and traffic patterns. If public transit is your preferred transportation method, you might prioritize proximity to train stations or bus stops.
Schools If you have kids or plan to start a family, take a look at what schools are nearby and what districts your potential homes are in. Even if you don’t plan to have a family, school districts can affect home value, so it’s worth keeping in mind, even if it’s not a priority. 
Perks In addition to the must-haves, create some nice-to-haves on your neighborhood wishlist, too. If you love getting a workout in every day, you might want a gym nearby. A nice coffee shop within walking distance could be a selling point. Or maybe you want a little privacy and want a place with a fence or extra acreage. 

Shop for a home with confidence

Once you’re ready to officially start looking, pre-approval on a loan from a mortgage lender can give you a serious financial advantage. You have options when getting pre-approved (which may be considered pre-qualification by some lenders).

You could get a pre-approval letter from a lender, which provides a documented estimate of how much you can borrow to buy a home. A verified pre-approval letter (VPAL) delivers the same, but with even closer scrutiny from your potential mortgage lender. A VPAL shows a serious commitment on your part to any seller you submit an offer to and signals you’re a step closer to an approved loan.

Heading: Pre-approval vs. VPAL. Subheading: At first glance, pre-approval and a verified pre-approval letter (VPAL) from Ally Home may look the same. Understanding the differences may help you find the right fit for your homebuying journey. Keep in mind, the terminology and requirements may change depending on the lender. Information required for pre-approval: Self-reported estimate of your income, assets, etc. Information required for VPAL: Documents including proof of income (recent W-2s, tax returns, paystubs, bank statements.) Credit check for pre-approval: Soft credit pull (won't affect credit score.) Credit check for VPAL: Hard credit pull (may cause your credit score to drop.) Process for pre-approval: Can be completed online in as little as three minutes with Ally Home. Process for VPAL: Schedule a call with a home loan expert and fill out an application online. The review may take several days. When to apply for pre-approval: When you want an idea of how much home you could afford. When to apply for VPAL: When you are actively searching for a house. Pre-approval (may be considered “pre-qualification” by other lenders).

Whether you opt for pre-approval or VPAL , both options let sellers know you’re buttoned up and ready to move quickly, which can help you stand out from other buyers.

Put your game face on

Few things beat the joy of finding the right house but walking through those doors and falling in love is just the first step. Now you have to make the seller an offer they can’t refuse (aka a competitive offer). If you’re working with a real estate agent, they can help you determine the value of the property and negotiate the price, but that first offer sets the tone.

In addition to your own budget, when determining your offer, you should also think about:

  • The quality and characteristics of the home

  • The location

  • Price changes

  • How motivated the seller is

  • How much you want the home

Forge your own path

The road to home ownership looks different for everyone. Finding your way can be a little scary. Mapping out these critical checkpoints en route to your first home can help you stay motivated and on track.

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