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The smart way to go from renting to owning

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POSTED August 5, 2011 12:35 a.m.

If you’ve paid attention to any news media over the past few years, you know that the housing market has dropped off. From a seller’s perspective, that makes life a lot harder. But for a buyer, it can mean a wider world of options and opportunities. For those want to become owners rather than renters, it’s vitally important to make smart decisions - as the markets have shown.

Many factors contribute to the real estate market’s current sluggishness, and one of them is the fact that lenders are reluctant to give loans to homebuyers. After the housing market crisis, it’s not surprising that they would be more demanding in their lending practices, but for those eager to buy, it means that you need to present a pristine financial profile.

There’s no limit to the amount of real estate browsing you can do - either online or in your ideal neighborhood - but before you get serious about purchasing a home, take these tips into consideration.

• Pay down your debt. Before you even apply for a mortgage, it’s important that you reduce your debt load. The smaller it is, the better for your debt-to-income ratio, which lenders use to determine how much they’ll allow you to borrow. Items like car loans, child support and alimony, credit card bills and student loans are all factors that the lender will consider. Paying down debt can have the added benefit of improving your credit, as well.

• Check up on your credit. Having good credit is another essential element in smart home buying - it can affect how lenders view you, and the terms of your mortgage. The better shape your credit is in, the better your potential to get the mortgage of your dreams. Every year, you’re entitled to a free credit report from one of the three major reporting agencies, like Equifax. Use it as a starting point that will give you an idea of your overall credit picture. Look for areas that can be improved upon and track your progress by checking your credit again after you’ve put in some work to bring it up.

• Make the biggest down payment possible. The era of zero-down is over, and for good reason. A down payment - and a sizeable one - can help ease the strain of a mortgage in coming years. A minimum of 20 percent down is a good idea, and if you can do more than that, so much the better. If you don’t think you can afford a down payment of 20 percent or more on a house you’re considering, it might be time to shop around for a less expensive home that is more budget friendly.

• Be an informed buyer. There is a seemingly endless list of things to know about buying a home, and the faster you want to buy, the faster you’ll need to learn it all. One of the best things you can do is take a first-time homebuyer class offered by a reputable organization - some cities even offer them for free. Be sure you know the ins and outs of items like closing costs, adjustable rate versus fixed rate mortgages, how your credit report affects mortgage rates and the documentation you’ll need to get a mortgage. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to make smart decisions that will make you a happy homeowner for years to come.

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