Not so long ago, in a not-so-distant land, owning a home was thought of as the safest "investment" around. Fast forward to the present day, and home ownership seems super scary to many people who can afford homes, and would like to own them, but are paralyzed by the fear of buying a lemon, or having a mortgage catastrophe. Â
Here are 4 simple steps to minimize the risk that you'll become the main character in a homeownership horror story. Â
1.Â Stick with a fixed-rate mortgage.Â Recent data shows that adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, are increasingly popular, rising from 9 percent of the mortgage market in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 12 percent in the first quarter of this year.Â This might seem crazy to some, but in financially aggressive crowds, the lure of low, 3 percent(ish) interest rates on ARMs is enough to overcome any qualms.Â As well, today's ARMs tend to have lower lifetime interest rate caps and require payment of principal, so they don't adjust as violently as the subprime interest-only and option ARMs that contributed to the foreclosure crisis.
If the thought of your mortgage payment changing over time gives you the shakes, you don't want to live in a state of interest rate obsession for the next few decades, or you simply crave the simplicity and predictability of knowing what your housing payment will be for the next 15, 20 or 30 years, then stick toÂ
a fixed-rate mortgage.Â The rates are higher, but with a fixed-rate loan, the risk of scary payment changes are not only lower, they are non-existent.Â
2.Â Put - and keep - a home warranty in place.Â One of the most frightening things about going from renter to homeowner is the prospect of being solely responsible for the care and feeding of your home and all its systems and appliances. Responsibility for both the costs and the actual logistics of repairing things like a leaky roof, a broken hot water heater or a haywire electrical fixture looms large in the minds of first-time buyers, in particular.Â
A home warranty plan kicks in when escrow closes, and depending on the coverage you select, will cover your home against the breakdown of major systems and even some appliances, like furnaces and water heaters.Â In some cases, you can even upgrade the coverage to protect against roof leaks and some plumbing issues. When a covered item breaks down, just remember to call the home warranty company first - for the cost of a service call you can get the item repaired or even replaced, if necessary.Â I remember the home warranty company replacing a $900 water heater in my first home; what a godsend!
Talk with your agent - you might even be able to negotiate for the seller to pay for the first year's cost of the warranty.Â Just remember to renew it when it expires every year, to keep a cap on your risk of unexpected repair costs for the duration of your tenure as a homeowner.
3.Â Get repair bids and estimates, not just inspections.Â After you find the home of your dreams (or the home of your budget!) and get into contract, you'll have a contingency or objection period ranging from 7 to 17 days during which you can obtain all the inspections you want.Â Most buyers start out with a general property inspection, a pest inspection and a roof inspection, then get more specialized inspections if the property calls from it.Â Pest and roof inspectors will generally provide an inspection report AND a repair bid for any work they find needs to be done. Â
But the overall home inspection could very well list a dozen needed repairs, upgrades and maintenance items, without providing any information about how much those repairs will cost.Â If your inspection report surfaces work you'll need to have done to fix things (or avoid bigger fixes down the road), work with your agent to schedule actual repair contractors to come in and give you bids on the work before your contingency or inspection period expires.Â That will position you to negotiate around repair costs with the seller, or to know what you're getting yourself into, cost-wise, if you take the property as-is.
4.Â Buy on the 10-year plan.Â Warren Buffett once famously advised stock investors to "only buy something that you'd be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years."Â The same advice is good for buying a home in today's real estate market.Â Take on a mortgage you know you can sustain, buy at a price you can comfortably afford and avoid having to sell because you need to move for some urgent reason, or because the home no longer meets your needs. Â
You can take this last step to hedge against losing money on your home by planning your space, career and lifestyle needs out 5, 7, even 10 years in the future - everything from how many bedrooms and garage spaces you'll need to where you'll want to be located, geographically - and selecting a home that will meet those needs for that foreseeable future. As a general rule of thumb, the harder hit the area was in the recession, the longer you should plan to hold it.
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