Begin to gather the basic documents you will need to get pre-approved
Some, but not all, of the documents you will probably need are: Two years of W-2's and your most recent month of pay stubs, three months of bank statements, rental history, two forms of valid photo ID, etc.
Finding out how much you can afford is the first step, but sellers will be much more receptive to potential buyers with a pre-approval letter. They want to know they are not taking their home off the market for a buyer who cannot qualify for the loan. It will also help you narrow your search and allow you to search within your affordable price range.
Make a list of your wants and needs
It is best to create two separate lists. The first one should be of items you must have in a home, such as number of bedrooms and bathrooms, school district, location, etc. The second list should be of items you wish to have in your new home but are not absolutely necessary, such as a pool, den or home office, etc.
Take pictures to help refresh your memory on individual properties. Do your research on the school districts, crime rates, location and proximity to shopping, freeways, etc.
Include inspection and financing contingencies in your offer. Have the property inspected by a professional inspector. Request a second walk-through prior to closing to ensure no major changes have taken place since the last time you viewed the property.
Once you've opened escrow
By the time you get to escrow you have already come to an agreement with the seller on the purchase price, closing date, and contingencies. You will be asked for a down payment on the home you are purchasing. The escrow company will handle most of what goes on during the escrow period. Your deposit check will be cashed, and assuming the sale goes through, this money will be applied towards the purchase price of your home. (Make sure there are sufficient fund in your account to cover this check!) If for any reason the sale does not finalize, you may be entitled to receive all of your deposit back. Although in certain situations the seller can keep this money as liquidated damages. The escrow period is typically about 30 days, but may be longer or shorter. It is during this time that each item specified in the contract must be completed. Each contract is different, but the most common contingencies are inspection, financing, and marketable title. A title officer will review the title report to ensure a "clear title", meaning there are no legal issues preventing sale or new ownership. Your lender will require you to obtain home insurance before the sale can close.
Once all of your inspections have been completed and contingencies have been removed, your escrow and loan officers will work together to produce the final documents to be signed, and request your final closing funds. Once all documents are signed and funds are received, the title company will record the new title with your county and escrow will close, and your real estate agent will deliver the keys to your new home!
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