Can you stay put for three to five years? If you'll be off to grad school in a year or are angling for a job transfer, why bother? Buying a house involves a lot of upfront effort, and you won't want to have to do it again in a year or two. Buying a house also involves expensive "transaction costs" like loan setup fees, property inspections, and more -- sometimes in the thousands of dollars. And if you need to move during a market slump, you could have to sell for less than you purchased for -- plus pay commissions to the real estate agents (averaging 5-6% of the house purchase price, or $5,000 for every $100,000).
Does a home-improvement hobby sound exciting? Some homeowners like nothing better than to pull out the tools, buckets, and plaster to paint the bedroom purple or re-tile the bathroom. But such projects can eat up every weekend, even if you're just overseeing contractors. And those are the optional improvements -- every house needs basic fix-ups and ongoing maintenance. Calling the landlord can start to sound pretty good. Ask your home-owning friends with similar interests how maintaining their houses fits their lifestyles. You might want to choose a lower maintenance option, like a condo, where your monthly association fees will relieve you of maintenance duties.
Are your finances organized? If you never balance your checkbook, occasionally forget the credit card bill, or hand a tax preparer an overstuffed shoe box in April, it's time to get organized. First, to get a mortgage with good terms, you'll need a clean credit history. Order your free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com, and resolve any errors. Second, you'll need to set aside extra money for house repairs and annual property tax and insurance bills (ouch). Third, to take advantage of tax deductions that come with homeownership, you'll have to keep good financial records.
Do you know your housing market? Browsing the real estate section of the paper isn't enough -- you need to know what houses have actually sold for in the neighborhoods where you're hoping to buy. Local real estate agents can help you with this, and you can plug local addresses into a website that tracks recent, completed sales -- try www.realtor.com. Also, start going to open houses, to get a sense of what's available.
Can you scrape together enough cash? You'll need cash for various "closing costs," and for a down payment (20% is standard, unless you qualify for an FHA-backed loan). Closing costs typically include not only the transaction costs mentioned above, but homeowners' insurance, mortgage insurance, your share of that year's property taxes, and more. The total is usually around 2%-3% of the house price, depending on what state you live in, what kind of mortgage you get, and more -- see www.bankrate.com for a state-by-state analysis of the loan portion of buyers' closing costs.
What's your budget for ongoing costs? Figure out how much income you bring in each month after taxes and other withholdings. Then calculate how much you spend each month for regular costs (like food, transportation, clothing, and regular debt payments -- but not rent), plus occasional costs (dental visits, car insurance). Subtract the second figure from the first, and you've got the amount of your monthly spare cash.
Will your spare cash cover ongoing house costs? To get an idea of what a mortgage will cost you, use one of Nolo's mortgage calculators. Also budget for homeowners' insurance (usually between about $450 and $1,300 per year), maintenance (roughly 1% of the house's purchase price each year), property taxes (check your state's average, using the housing data on www.bestplaces.net), utilities (see the cost of living data at www.bestplaces.net), and decorating and furniture.
Can you compromise? Your first home may not feature everything you'd dreamed of -- but at least it will be yours! And by breaking into the market and waiting until the house appreciates (or adding value yourself with improvements) you may be able to trade up later -- though perhaps much later, depending on where the real estate market goes. Flexibility usually pays off: Consider going for a condo or fixer-upper, buying with a friend, getting a loan from a family member, or buying a duplex and renting out a unit in order to break into the market.
Feeling ready to move forward? Learn more using comprehensive books like Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart, or How to Buy a House in California, by George Devine, Ira Serkes, and Ralph Warner.