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The Ultimate 2021 Checklist For First-Time Homebuyers

Lindsay Mott  |  January 21, 2021

The real estate market is hot… but are you really ready to buy your first home? If this is the year, make sure you’re fully prepared with this checklist.

Are you looking to buy your first home in 2021? Congrats! The market is booming and interest rates are low, but do you have everything you need to navigate this competitive market? 

Lexie Holbert, home and lifestyle expert for, says 2021 will be an interesting year for home buyers. Prices will continue to increase (just not as quickly as they did in 2020) and interest rates will likely rise to around 3.4% for a 30-year fixed mortgage by the end of the year (up from 2.9% right now). Holbert says we’ll also start to see more inventory toward the end of 2021. Amanda Pendleton, Zillow home trends expert, agrees. Zillow is forecasting home sales for this year to reach a 40-year high, and says that 2021 will be a blockbuster year in real estate that will really kick off during the spring home shopping season.

“Everybody wins in a market like this,” Pendleton says. “Buyers win because of the rates, and sellers win because of the demand.”

Zillow is also forecasting that home values will climb more than 10% over the next year, so there are advantages to jumping in the market now if all other conditions indicate it’s the right time for you to buy. We created a checklist for the first-time buyer so you can feel prepared as you search for the home of your dreams… Even if you don’t plan to buy until later in the year, it’s time to start now to set yourself up for success. 

The Ultimate Checklist For The First-Time Buyer 

Figure out what you can afford before you start looking. 

It’s important to know what you can afford at closing, and how much a certain price range of home will cost you every month in terms of your mortgage payment. 

You’ll also need to factor appraisal fees, inspection fees, closing costs, and of course, your down payment. The last thing you want is for your journey into first time homeownership to put a strain on your finances — nobody wants to be “house poor.” You also need to plan ahead for property taxes, insurance, possible mortgage insurance, utilities, sewer and trash fees, HOA fees, maintenance charges, and more. 

Holbert suggests doing what’s termed “playing house,” aka, figuring out what you’ll likely owe each month and then taking that amount out of your budget monthly like a “mock” mortgage payment. Then, see how that feels. Will you be able to manage your other expenses and daily spending? Are you going to be comfortable spending that amount for the next 30 years? Completing this exercise will hopefully give you a baseline for a mortgage amount you can comfortably afford. 

Get your financial house in order. 

Think about your credit score leading up to a home purchase. You’ll need to try and boost it, or at least don’t hurt it, before you get pre-approved for your mortgage. In the months before you plan to apply, see where your credit score is and work to improve it if you need to. A better score can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the life of your mortgage. 

You also want to make sure you’ll have some cushion in your bank account after you make your down payment — in other words, don’t clean out your emergency fund and your vacation fund in order to make your new home happen, Holbert says. 

Get pre-approved — not just pre-qualified. 

First time homebuyers who get pre-approved for their mortgage can make a competitive offer quickly when they find their dream home. If you’re pre-approved for full financing, you can make a confident offer and stand out from other buyers who won’t be able to close as quickly. 

And in your journey to pre-approval, you can go mortgage shopping. Comparing offers and shopping around for the best deal can save you money in the long run as lenders’ rates can vary  substantially, according to Pendleton. 

Make your lists, and check them twice. 

You may not be ready to buy your first home just yet, but it’s a good idea to start looking around to see what your budget gets you in the areas you’re interested in. This can help you narrow in on neighborhoods you love. During this time you should also emotionally prepare yourself that there are “a lot of fish in the sea.” Four out of 10 buyers don’t get the first house they make an offer on, according to Pendleton, and with the market so competitive right now, you should brace yourself for a few disappointments along this journey. 

Decide on your future home’s “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves.” What can you live without? Pendleton says that half of all buyers have to make compromises to buy a house, so decide now what those are. Are you willing to have a longer commute or will you take a smaller kitchen if there’s a gorgeous master bath? Deciding where you’re willing to compromise ahead of time can help with the stress of having to make a quick decision. 

Get tech savvy. 

Houses are selling fast – the nationwide median is 13 days, according to Pendleton, so use technology to your advantage. Save searches on your favorite websites (like Zillow and to get personalized recommendations for homes you might like, check out the pictures, and take 3D tours so you can narrow down your choices without driving all over town. 

Sticking To Your Guns (And Your Price Range) 

When looking at homes, do NOT view ones outside of your price range. Repeat with us now: I will only look at houses in my price range. It’s so dangerously easy to get overly excited, so looking at a house that’s too expensive can only cause you long-term regret. And with the competitive nature of the market right now, a house that’s a little outside your price range now could end up being a lot out of your price range if a bidding war happens. 

And if you happen to get into the thick of one of those bidding wars yourself, make sure you’re fully comfortable with what you’re offering. And don’t be tempted to waive something big, like the inspection, in order to make things happen on a faster timeline. Even the most beautiful house isn’t worth taking risks over.  

And if you don’t find your dream home this spring or summer as you may be hoping to do — please don’t worry. Holbert says there will be more listings on the market in fall and winter, a time when there are traditionally less buyers looking for a deal. 

“The market is going to be competitive,” says Holbert. “Be patient. It will all work out like it should.” 


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