Thinking about buying soon? Make sure your credit is in order

There’s no more important time to work on your credit score than when you’re about to apply for a mortgage. Improving your credit can save you a ton of money-we’re talking about thousands of dollars over the life of the loan. Here are the actions you can take that will have a notable impact on your score.

Pay down your credit card balances Credit utilization is one of the biggest factors in determining your credit score. Your credit utilization should at least be less than 30 percent of your limit, and it’s even better if you can get it below 15 percent. This rule applies to both individual cards and your overall credit limit.

It may even be worthwhile to use some of the cash funds you were planning to use for a down payment to pay off credit card balances.

Do no harm While you certainly want to improve your score if possible, at the very least you’ll want to keep it steady. Avoid opening new lines of credit if you’re applying for a mortgage in the very near future. This will cause a hard inquiry to show up on your credit report.

Take care of negative items It’s good practice to check your credit report for negative items a few times a year-you can get one free report from each of the three major bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) per year.

If you find any negative items (collections, late payments, etc.), write a letter to the original creditor. Explain the circumstances that led to the negative item, and request that it be removed from your report. It can be surprisingly effective, and removing a negative item will improve your credit score in a hurry. You can find some good templates for a request letter online.

Five tips for first-time buyers

No matter how much time you spend on researching and educating yourself about your home purchase, it’s hard to cover every detail. Here are a few tips for avoiding rookie mistakes with your first home purchase.

  1. Save as early as you can: Even if you think you’re years away from buying your first home, try to start saving for your down payment. It makes a huge difference in your monthly payments, and helps avoid paying Private Mortgage Insurance.
  2. Be thorough with mortgage shopping: There are countless resources out there that can help you get the best terms for your mortgage. It may seem like a lot of work to shave less than a point off your mortgage rate, but it’ll save you thousands in the long run.
  3. Consult a skeptic: You’re likely to fall in love with a home, and that can make it difficult to take problems seriously. Bring along a skeptical friend or family member who can give you an honest opinion.
  4. Be patient with getting settled: You’ll be anxious to make your new home your own, but take some time to see how your budget truly shakes out. In other words, hold off on big furniture purchases and remodeling projects.
  5. Make sure you’re happy with the neighborhood: The house may be perfect, but don’t discount the surroundings. You don’t want to end up in the suburbs if you’re going to miss walking to your favorite coffee shop, and you don’t want to settle for the city if you’re looking forward to some peace and quiet.

Budget friendly projects with a big ROI

Not all home improvement projects are created equal. Some renovations may cost a lot but not add significant value to your home. This list goes in the opposite direction: Here are some inexpensive home improvement projects that will not only increase your enjoyment of your home, but will also increase the home’s value.

  1. High quality ceiling fans: In a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, ceiling fans ranked No. 1 as the most-wanted decorative item. If your ceiling fans are outdated, replace them with something in the $400 range-it’ll make a big difference when it’s time to sell.
  2. Trees: Mature trees can be worth as much as $10,000 toward the value of your home. Trees also protect your home from the elements and prevent erosion.
  3. Energy efficiency: Buyers are increasingly interested in saving energy, so any efficiency update is worthwhile. Switching from a wood to gas fireplace is a great start.
  4. Outdoor lighting: Exterior lighting is great for highlighting the accents of your home, and you can typically expect a 50 percent return on investment.
  5. Molding: You can finish a room with crown molding or railing for as little as $1.50 per foot if you take a DIY approach, and it’s extremely desirable among prospective buyers.

Three ways to ease your fears about making a move

With low inventory in many markets throughout the country, many homeowners are afraid to sell their homes because they’re concerned that they may not be able to find a new one. This can be a real problem, but if you are seeking to sell-whether to upgrade or find a new neighborhood-there are a few ways to combat the low inventory.

Look to buy first In most markets it is a real mistake to put your home up for sale before you start looking for your new property. Identify the geographic area where you are interested in buying. Even if you don’t see anything on Zillow, it doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t find the right home.

Think outside the box Be proactive! Keep in mind that there are probably many people like you who want to make a move but are afraid as well. Have your real estate agent send a letter to the neighborhoods in the geographic areas where you want to live. The letter should be heartfelt and personal while announcing that you are ready to buy a home in that neighborhood. You could find a home to buy that may not even be currently listed or for sale.

Protect yourself legally Each state varies in how the purchase process is conducted. Talk to your real estate professional about adding a clause in the purchase contract for the home you are selling that will enable you to not sell the home if you cannot find a suitable home to buy.

Prevent accidents in your home by following these simple suggestions

Don’t ignore the old adage that most accidents happen in the home. Here are a few preventative measures you can take to help avoid some of the most common causes of accidents.

Slips, trips, and falls
The stairs are the most common cause of accidents. Be sure that the handrails are in place. They should be fastened tightly and strong enough to support an adult. Also make sure the surface of the steps have traction and nothing that would trip someone.

Beds, mattresses, and pillows
Oddly enough, these items account for a high number of accidents from people falling out of bed, and they can also cause neck and back pain. The lesson here is if your bed is hurting your back you should replace it. After all, we spend a large percentage of our lives sleeping.

Desks, cabinets, shelves, and racks
Unless you’re trying to appear on America’s Funniest Home Videos, be sure to avoid overloading these objects or loading them unevenly. If you have children, consider tethering these to a wall to prevent them from falling or tipping.

Poisoning
Poisoning affects a surprisingly high number of people, and the major issue is a toxic combination of medication. Be sure to talk to your physician if you are taking multiple medications.

Avoid these two big mortgage mistakes

We all know that searching for and viewing potential homes is the fun part of the home-buying process. The not-so-fun part? The mortgage.

But if you don’t pay attention to the details, your mortgage can end up dragging down the enjoyment of your new home and cause some major regrets. Here are a few mistakes to avoid to ensure that you love your mortgage terms as much as your hew home.

Don’t find your home first: Shopping around for the best mortgage rate should be the first step in the home buying process. You may even want to talk to a mortgage broker a full year before you plan to buy. It’ll give you time to get your affairs in order to qualify for the best rate, could save you thousands of dollars in the long run, and you won’t feel rushed to accept an unattractive loan because you’re worried you’ll miss out on your dream home.

Don’t forget your real budget: There’s often a big difference between what a lender says you can afford and what you can actually afford. Your debt-to-income ratio doesn’t include the money you spend on hobbies, or the cost of commuting to work, or maintenance and utility costs.

Really sit down and examine your spending before committing to the loan amount the lender is offering. You won’t enjoy your home nearly as much if it’s eating into your favorite hobbies.

What affects property values?

Some the features that increase property values are obvious—like a remodeled bathroom, a modern kitchen, or a sought-after neighborhood. But here are a few features and circumstances you have not have realized can affect property values.

1. The neighbors: Not every neighborhood or community has an HOA that can keep the neighbors from going overboard with decorations or neglecting to care for their home. Homes adjacent to crazy neighbors can potentially be undervalued.

2. Trendy groceries and coffee: Recent statistics suggest that if your home is a short walk from popular grocery stores like Whole Foods or coffee chains like Starbucks, it can actually appreciate faster than the national average.

3. Mature trees: A big beautiful tree in the front yard is enviable, and it’s not something that can be easily added to any home. Homes with mature trees tend to get a little boost in value.

4. Parking: This isn’t too much of an issue if you live in the suburbs or in a rural area, but residents in dense cities can have real problems with parking, and homeowners might need to rent a spot just to guarantee a place to park each night. That’s why having guaranteed parking in urban areas will raise property values.

5. The front entrance: First impressions matter to buyers—many will cross a home off their list within 10 seconds of stepping through the front door. An appealing front door, a friendly entryway, and a functioning doorbell are all necessities for getting top dollar.

From decorating to staging

Here is a difference between the two—here’s how to get your home ready to sell Once you’ve decided to put your home on the market, you’re looking to sell quickly for the best possible price. One tactic that can help sell your home faster is staging.

At first, staging may seem like a real estate term that doesn’t actually mean anything. Isn’t staging just decorating? Well, not exactly …

Appeal to the masses
Your home is likely decorated to your tastes. It could be colorful and eclectic, or rugged and industrial. But when you’re staging your home, rather than appealing to a specific decorating sense, you want to furnish your home in a way that appeals to everyone—and more importantly, doesn’t turn anyone off who just isn’t into your personal style.

Tone down the personal flourishes
Buyers want to be able see themselves in a home and imagine how they’d make it their own. Unfortunately, that means less of your own style as you’re preparing for your move. Cut down on family photos, bold artwork, and unusual furniture. Do some major decluttering so the buyer can see all the space and storage opportunities. It may be sad to start removing the items that make your house a home, but it’s an important part of the process.

Mass appeal doesn’t mean “boring”
Your staged home can still be colorful, just stay away from extremes. If you paint, stick to whites, grays, or neutrals. Add flourishes of color with window treatments or accent furniture, but try to choose items that will appeal to both genders.

Call a pro
There are likely several staging companies in your area. If you need a recommendation, reach out to your trusted real estate professional.

Priority tasks for your move in

Moving into a new home is an exciting time, and you’re probably daydreaming about decor and paint schemes and new furniture. But before you get into the fun stuff, there are some basics you should cover first.

Change the locks
Even if you’re promised that new locks have been installed in your home, you can never be too careful. It’s worth the money to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that no one else has the keys to your home. Changing the locks can be a DIY project, or you can call in a locksmith for a little extra money.

Steam clean the carpets It’s good to get a fresh start with your floors before you start decorating. The previous owners may have had pets, young children, or just some plain old clumsiness. Take the time to steam clean the carpets so that your floors are free of stains and allergens. It’s pretty easy and affordable to rent a steam cleaner—your local grocery store may have them available.

Call an exterminator
Prior to move-in, you probably haven’t spent enough time in the house to get a view of any pests that may be lurking. Call an exterminator to take care of any mice, insects, and other critters that may be hiding in your home.

Clean out the kitchen
If the previous occupants wanted to skip on some of their cleaning duties when they moved out, the kitchen is where they probably cut corners. Wipe down the inside of cabinets, clean out the refrigerator, clean the oven, and clean in the nooks and crannies underneath the appliances.

The Home Buying Road Map

12 Steps to Home Buying Success

  1. Meet with a real estate professional: Discuss the type of home you’re looking for, including style, price, and location.
  2. The Buyer’s Advantage: As the home buyer, your agent’s commission is paid by the seller of the home in almost all circumstances. This means your representation costs you nothing!
  3. Get Pre-Approved: You will need pay stubs, W2s, and bank statements. Knowing what you can afford is critical to a successful home shopping experience
  4. Search for Homes: The fun part! Your agent will schedule showings and help you find the perfect home.
  5. Advanced Search: Not all real estate websites are the same. Your real estate professional has tools and systems to ensure you see every available home that meets your criteria.
  6. Make an Offer: Your agent will prepare your offer based on the price and terms you choose.
  7. Negotiation and Contract: It may take a few tries to get it just right, but hang in there. You’re on your way!
  8. The Contract: In most cases the contract provides you with a timeline to obtain financing as well as time to inspect the physical condition of the home. Your real estate professional will inform you of all your rights and responsibilities related to the contract.
  9. Under Contract or In Escrow: You and the seller have agreed to the price and terms. The home is effectively held for you until closing.
  10. Final Details: Perform due diligence, order the appraisal, conduct an inspection, and review terms with the lender.
  11. Preparing for Closing: You will be finalizing your loan, reviewing documents, and discussing the findings from the inspection. Your agent will manage this entire process for you.
  12. Closing: This is the transfer of funds and ownership. A title company or an attorney typically acts as an independent third party to facilitate the closing.

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