home buying process timeline

The Complete Home Buying Process Timeline For First-Time Buyers

The journey to homeownership is exciting, but it can be overwhelming and filled with uncertainty for first-time buyers. Navigating the complex world of real estate, mortgages, and negotiations can leave many aspiring homeowners feeling lost and stressed, unsure of where to begin or how long the process will take.

As a first-time homebuyer, you’re likely juggling many responsibilities, from work and family to personal life, all while trying to make one of your life’s most significant financial decisions. The lack of clear guidance and understanding of the home-buying process can lead to costly mistakes, missed opportunities, and even the dream of homeownership slipping through your fingers.

That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive guide on the complete home-buying process timeline for first-time buyers. Our step-by-step breakdown will provide a clear roadmap, giving you the confidence and knowledge to make informed decisions throughout your home-buying journey. From understanding your financial situation and getting pre-approved for a mortgage to searching for the perfect home and closing the deal, we’ll be with you every step of the way, making your dream of homeownership a reality.

Getting a Preapproval/Prequalification

A preapproval or prequalification is when a lending institution gives you an estimate of how much they’re willing to lend you. The lender will base your preapproval on your credit score and other financial information.

You don’t need a preapproval, but having one in hand can make the home-buying process easier and help you move fast when you find a house you want.

Otherwise, you could find the perfect house, but the offer could be refused because you have nothing to back it up.

home buying process timeline

Going to House Showings and Finding the Right House

The next step is finding the right house. Go to open houses and work closely with your real estate agent to find something that fits your needs.

Finding the right house will probably be the longest step. Usually, it takes about six months, and you may see over ten houses before finding the “right one.”

In hot markets, though, some buyers look at dozens of houses before finding the house they want.

Making an Offer on a House

Once you find the right house, it’s time to make an offer. Your offer will be crafted by your real estate agent. They will help you come up with a fair and reasonable offer.

You’ll also need to deposit, typically 1-3% of the purchase price.

The deposit is not an extra fee; it’s part of your down payment. The deposit shows the seller that you’re serious about buying the house and have the funds to do so. It’s called earnest money.

You will forfeit that money if you pull out of the offer later.

home buying process timeline

Getting an Offer Accepted and Opening Escrow

Escrow is when a third party holds onto funds during a transaction. Escrow ensures that both the buyer and seller are protected.

You’ll also order a home inspection and get an appraisal done during this time. And often, the escrow company will also start the title search. But these steps are discussed later.

Usually, the seller tells you which escrow company they want to use. Your earnest money check will go into this account.

Applying for a Mortgage

The next step is applying for a mortgage. Applying can be done online, over the phone, or in person, but you’ll almost always benefit from going with a lender that your real estate agent recommends. Local lenders respond faster and can usually give better rates.

You’ll need to provide some financial information, such as your W-2 forms from the past two years, bank statements, and tax returns. The lender will then do a “hard pull” of your credit to check your score.

This step is the last chance you have to find a good lender. When you make your offer, you usually make it contingent on the loan type already (conventional, FHA, etc) because that matters regarding the closing.

But you can still shop around for a lender as long as you do it very quickly. Don’t try to change lenders late in the buying process. Do not try to change loan types.

house under contract

Home Inspection and Negotiations

Once you’re in escrow, the next step is to get a home inspection done. This is important because it will help you identify potential problems with the house before buying it.

The inspector will look at the condition of the house and the systems (plumbing, electrical, etc.) to ensure they’re up to code.

You can use that information to negotiate with the seller if there are any major problems. For example, you might ask them to fix the problem before closing or give you credit at closing.

You can also ask for a home warranty, covering repair costs for a certain period after you move in.

Repairs and Re-Inspections

If the seller agrees to make repairs, they will have a limited time. Once the repairs are completed, an inspector will confirm they were done correctly. 

If everything looks good, you’re one step closer to closing on the house. On the other hand, if everything isn’t fixed as to your requirements, you may need to go back to the negotiating table.

Home Appraisal (and Low Appraisals)

The home appraisal is important because it determines how much the bank will lend you.

The appraiser will look at comparable homes in the area that have sold recently and compare them to the house you’re buying. They will also look at the house’s condition and determine its value.

If the appraisal comes in low, you can do a few things.

  • You can ask the seller to lower the price of the house.
  • You can ask the lender to lend you more money.
  • You can bring more cash to the table.

Or you can walk away from the deal.

Today, appraisals can be slightly more unpredictable because the housing market moves quickly. Appraisers are busy, and an appraisal takes a while. You should order your appraisal immediately after opening escrow to avoid delaying your transaction.

new house for sale

Title Search and Insurance

The title search is important because it will help you ensure no liens or other problems with the property.

For example, if the previous owner didn’t pay their taxes, there could be a lien on the property.

An error will occur, such as an old mortgage not being released from the property. But you need these issues resolved before you purchase the property because otherwise, you won’t have a clear title. A mortgage lender will require this, even if it wasn’t a good idea.

You should also get title insurance, which will protect you if there are any problems with the title in the future, such as something the title company missed.

The Underwriting Process

You may wonder why the mortgage lender didn’t do this earlier. Underwriting is when the lender reviews your financial information to determine if you’re a good candidate for a loan. But it’s an extensive process that takes time.

They will examine your credit score, employment history, and financial documents. Underwriting is when they’ll decide with certainty what type of loan you can get and how much they will lend you. This is done initially through prequalification, but it isn’t binding.

If there are any red flags, the underwriter will ask for more information or ask you to fix the problem. For example, if your debt-to-income ratio is high, they might ask you to pay off some debts before closing.

The underwriting process can take a few days or a few weeks. You might be surprised that the underwriting process lasts nearly 30 days.

They want to do a final verification to ensure you haven’t opened new credit lines or lost your job. That can be stressful, but it makes sense. You won’t get out of underwriting until about a week before closing.

During this time, you should also get home insurance. Your mortgage lender will require it.

Clear to Close

Once you’re out of underwriting, the lender will give you a “clear to close” notice. Everything has been approved, and you’re ready to proceed with the loan. Your “clear to close” essentially means that nothing else can happen to impact your loan.

buying a house with $100k student loans

The Final Walkthrough

The final walkthrough is your last chance to inspect the property before closing. Your real estate agent will schedule this just before closing. It’s important to ensure that the home is in the same condition as when you first made the offer and that the required repairs have been completed.

If there are any problems, you can ask the seller to fix them or renegotiate the deal. But at this stage, it is certain to introduce delays.

Once you’re satisfied with the property’s condition, you can close. Take your time and be cautious when going through the final walkthrough. If you don’t notice something, likely, you’re not going to be able to get it resolved later.

The Closing Table

The closing table is where the deal gets finalized. Closing is when you sign all the paperwork and pay any remaining fees.

You must bring a cashier’s check or wire transfer to cover your down payment and closing costs.

Closing costs are the fees associated with getting a mortgage loan. They can include appraisal fees, loan origination fees, and title insurance.

You can usually negotiate who pays the closing costs. The most common arrangement was for the seller to pay most of the closing costs and the buyer to pay a smaller portion. Today, the buyer often covers the closing costs.

If you’re buying a home with a mortgage, you must bring proof of homeowners insurance to the closing table.

The closing process can take a few hours. You’ll usually have a chance to review most documents a few days prior. It’s legally required that you receive your lending disclosures at least 72 hours beforehand.

Getting the Keys

After closing, you’ll finally get the keys to your new home.

You can celebrate your homeownership and start planning your housewarming party. Once you have keys in hand, the property is yours.

how long does it take to sell a house

Exception: Buying a House in Cash

The above timeline is based on buying a house with a mortgage. If you’re buying a house in cash, everything is streamlined. Once you make the offer, escrow is opened. You will still need to do a title search and should still do a home inspection and appraisal, but that’s up to you. Buying a house in cash can take as little as a couple of weeks.

The home-buying timeline (and process) will also differ for a new home. Then, you’ll be working with a builder, sometimes for years.

What Can Delay a Closing?

Several things can delay a closing. The most common is that the underwriter finds something that needs to be fixed.

It could be as simple as an error on your credit report or a missing piece of documentation.

More serious issues, like a low appraisal, can also delay closing. And, of course, every underwriter has a horror story about a buyer who opened up a $20,000 line of credit just before closing to buy furniture.

If there’s something wrong with the property, that can also cause delays. For example, if the house doesn’t have a clear title, that must be fixed before you can close the property. But if the delay is on the seller’s side, it’s usually fairly easy to fix with an extension.

The good news is that most delays are relatively minor and can be easily resolved. The key is to stay in communication with your lender and real estate agent so that you can quickly address any issues.

how long does it take to buy a house

Conclusion

That’s the complete home-buying timeline. Buying a house is a big decision. There’s a lot of paperwork and people involved in the process. But if you’re prepared for what’s ahead, it can be a smooth and rewarding experience.

Now that you know the basics of buying a house and the home-buying timeline, you’re one step closer to taking that homeownership journey. Just know that it is something that will require patience, and it will take some time.

FAQs

What is the first step of buying a home?

The first step of buying a home is to get pre-approved for a mortgage. You’ll need to provide your lender with some financial information so they can determine how much they’re willing to lend you.

How long does it take to buy a house?

The entire process of buying a house can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. It depends on how fast you move through each step of the process. If you’re buying in cash, it can take as little as days.

What do I need to bring to the closing table?

You must bring a cashier’s check or wire transfer to cover your down payment and closing costs. You’ll also need to bring proof of homeowners insurance.

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