The purchase of a home is among the biggest financial decisions people will make in a lifetime. Taking a qualified homebuying class will do more than teach you how to get a mortgage or pull together a down payment - it will help you determine the amount of home you can afford without endangering other lifetime financial goals.
If you think this training is just for first-timers, think again. Real estate markets change, and so do homebuying environments. It is worth considering taking a class each time you're making a home purchase, especially if it has been a significant number of years between purchases. The homebuying class can keep you up to date on what you'll need to know this time around.
Where can you find these courses? Many private lenders offer their own training, but governments -- local, state and federal -- are the main source for instructional classes for homebuyers. In fact, on both the public and private side, these classes are often tied to special loans or funding assistance for the qualified.
Most homebuyer trainings are free - if you're asked to pay, get an explanation for what those costs cover.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a list of approved state and local agencies that offer a range of homebuyer education options - some even help first-time buyers obtain grants and other financial assistance with their down payments. HUD has backed up this effort with additional funding this year.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Department of Agriculture (USDA) also offer assistance and educational programs for qualified buyers. Meanwhile, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored agencies that keep mortgage funding flowing through our lending system, also support their own homebuyer education options. In fact, a 2013 Freddie Mac study indicated that pre-purchased financial counseling may cut the likelihood of a first-time homebuyer becoming seriously delinquent by nearly 30 percent.
If you think the homebuying process is overly complicated, you're not alone. A 2015 survey by NeighborWorks America indicated that 70 percent of Americans think so, noting that the perception is higher among new college graduates, adjusting to managing their student loans.
Most Americans don't seem to know there's help out there. In an earlier 2013 study, NeighborWorks noted that nearly three quarters of Americans had no idea about federal or state down payment assistance or related programs to help people understand homebuying.
Here are some of the major topics a thorough homebuying class should cover:
1. Homebuying readiness. Explore the general questions around a homebuying decision, such as why you want to settle in a particular area, how long you plan to stay, what kind of property you're considering and where you are in your career and lifestyle. You may also be asked to answer specific financial questions to support your thinking, which should not be shared with others. The best courses will help you determine answers to the big questions, such as whether you should buy a home or stick with renting.
2. Budgeting and credit. These courses will help you evaluate how you handle money. Do you have a budget? If not, do you know how to create one? Do you understand your credit rating and what goes into determining your score? If you have debt, how are your efforts going to pay it off? Essentially, what you don't know about spending and borrowing can limit your ability to buy a home.
3. Preapproval for mortgage financing. Navigate the nitty-gritty of the loan process - what a mortgage is, the various types of mortgages, how they work and what it takes to be preapproved for a mortgage. Preapproval involves filling out a full mortgage application, typically with a fee to cover an extensive credit check as if you were actually buying a home. Pre-approval, unlike prequalification, allows a potential borrower to receive a loan commitment for a specific amount, which can grease the wheels in a potential purchase and focus the search on properties in the right price range.
4. Knowing what you can afford. Analyze the above and consider the reality of what kind of property you can really afford to buy. Look at price limits and locations and ways to get more for your money, including specific local, state and federal borrowing programs you may qualify for. Buying your dream home can seem nice, but it can turn into a nightmare if you can't afford the home while living within your means.
5. Your home search. Determine how, when and where to shop for specific properties within the neighborhoods you are interested in and how to get the best overall deal for what you're buying.
6. What you'll need to close a home sale in your chosen community. Buying a home can also include an introduction to the specific regulatory and cost environment where you're planning to live. For example, your course should take you through such things as community-specific housing laws and zoning restrictions that could affect what you'll be investing in the property, property tax issues (particularly if an assessment is pending), your home titling process, inspection requirements and the other costs linked to legal processes and paperwork.
7. The aftermath. A solid homebuying class should give you a wide picture of the costs you'll face after the sale and how to manage them so you don't put the rest of your finances in jeopardy. Being too "house poor" not only puts you at a risk of losing the property, it can threaten other important financial goals.
Including a certification of course completion with your loan application won't guarantee loan approval. But if you've recently improved your borrowing status based on what you've learned, it may help to have that certification in your file. If you're hoping to qualify for a government-sponsored mortgage program that offers a low loan rate, down payment credit or other benefits, you're likely to need certification before you'll be accepted.
Finally, if you have your eye on particular lenders in your community, call them to see whether homebuying education can be a helpful factor in getting approved for a loan. Ask them to explain how they evaluate such training and what courses they recommend. Always ask whether any homebuyer class has a fee and why. Also, get a second opinion - if you work with a qualified financial professional, ask what he or she thinks about the course and its benefits.
As you consider such a course, don't think narrowly about what you can get out of it. It's not just about getting the mortgage. It's a chance to ask about how a home purchase may affect other aspects of your financial life - all personal finance goals should be considered equally.
Bottom line: It never hurts to seek additional education to better understand your finances, particularly if you are looking to buy a new home. Whether it's your first home purchase or your second or third, take a few hours to better understand the mortgage process, improve your credit and shop smarter for a home you can actually afford.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.