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8 questions every first-time homebuyer should ask

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From the finances to the school district, what you need to ask yourself before embarking on your first home purchase

Aubrie Pick

This story was originally published in June 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.

Buying your first home is a big deal, and very exciting, but you shouldn’t rush into this decision. Owning a home might not be something for which you are ready, even if you can afford it. To help first-time homebuyers figure that out, we queried real estate experts to compile the eight key questions every potential homeowner should ask before making an offer on their first home.

Why am I buying a home?

“I know it sounds silly,” says Elizabeth Kee, a real estate broker at CORE in New York City, “But I ask everyone this question first. There are many responses, and you'd be surprised to know that many times I end up talking people out of purchasing when they are buying for the wrong reasons.”

One example she shared is people who want to be investors because they heard flipping New York real estate is very profitable. “[It] can be true only if you never have to sell, and you can sell when the time is right,” Kee says.

Can I afford to buy a home?

“I always start with the financials because as future buyer, or potential future buyer, you have to know whether you qualify to purchase or not,” says real estate agent Elice Shikama of RE/MAX in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. “Without being able to qualify, there’s no further steps you can take.”

If you are being lent money by a friend or family member so you can borrow money to buy a home, you probably can’t afford a home. “There is a reason banks don’t let you borrow money to borrow money,” says Kee. “You should likely only buy if the money is a gift that never has to be repaid.”

Before you finalize the answer about being able to afford a home, Lynnette Bruno, Trulia’s Vice President of Communications, recommends you factor in staying there for five to seven years. “There are many one-time costs associated with buying a home and moving, and you’ll unlikely be able to recoup if you sell your home in less than three years,” she says. “You are gradually, over time, building your equity,” says Shikama.

How much money am I qualified for?

If you have enough money to purchase a home as a cash transaction, you’re quite fortunate. But most first-time homebuyers will need a mortgage, so finding out how much of a mortgage you qualify for is a crucial step before starting the actual search for a home. “Determining your buying power is crucial to determining if you can buy what you want to buy,” says Kee.

“Understanding how one can liquidate other investments (while limiting penalties) and learning how to borrow money, based on your income, assets, and liabilities are often overlooked,” says Kee. If you plan to finance any portion of your purchase, you need to understand different mortgage products and how each product can affect your repayment monthly and long term.

Who is my team?

The homebuying process usually requires a host of professionals working for you. “Buying a home is not only a significant investment, it can also be a difficult task and without the right team, success will be difficult,” says Kee.

You likely need a financial advisor to help you navigate your current financial situation. You’ll also need a mortgage broker or banker to help you select the right mortgage product for a property they are willing to make a loan for. “They need to be knowledgeable and able to be patient with you to educate you on what types of loans they can offer you for what you want to buy,” Kee says. You also need a real estate attorney and a real estate agent, both local and knowledgeable, and a title agency.

Who are my trusted personal advisors?

Yes, you need to have the professionals on your side, but you also need people who really know you personally.

“These are the people who will give you an objective opinion on the purchase of your home. Don't bring the friend who doesn't want to go to the second open house because they want to go to brunch and don't bring your mother if she wants you to wait to buy a home until you get married, have a baby, or have more money,” Kee says.

Once you decide you want to buy your home, you want someone to support that decision, take it seriously and help you to make one of the most important decisions of your life.

Are there any environmental issues in the area?

Shikama says to check for nearby Superfund sites—extremely polluted sites containing hazardous materials that require long-term cleanup—or other contamination that could leach into groundwater or emit fumes. There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the country, all of which are identified on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

How are the schools?

Shikama recommends you check the local school system’s website to see if it has reports, but many real estate agents will help compile the information. If you’re not raising a family, the school system may not matter to you, but it may impact your home’s value when it comes time to sell.

What’s the crime rate?

You love the house and the schools have excellent ratings, but is it a safe place to live? Shikama says that real estate agents themselves won’t tell you a place is safe because that could leave them liable. It’s recommended that you get in touch with the local police precinct or police department to collect statistics and make the judgment for yourself.

There are also a number of online databases that you can search. Neighborhood Scout, Crime Reports, My Local Crime, and City-Data all break out reports by location. Family Watchdog also provides information on registered sex offenders.

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