If you never bought a house, it's just smart business to work with a real estate agent. But if you've been there and done that, you might not need an agent to hold your hand through the home-buying process. When you find a house you want to buy, the seller's agent will be more than happy to help you navigate the transaction; however, keep in mind that legally she doesn't represent your interests.
Apply for a mortgage. Meet with your preferred loan officer to fill out the paperwork. Submit the required supporting documentation, which typically includes, but certainly isn't limited to, the pay stubs for two to three pay periods, your bank and investment account statements for the past two or three months and your tax returns for the last two years. Ask your loan officer for a loan preapproval letter; this will put you in a much stronger negotiating position than a prequalification letter.
Shop for houses. Browse the consumer website of your local multiple listing service. Drive by properties first, and then call the property's listing agent when you're ready to take a peak inside. Attend open houses, generally held on weekends; these can be low-stress opportunities to see houses since you can breeze in and out without getting into a lengthy discussion with the listing agent. Make appointments with owners to view For Sale by Owner properties. For personal safety reasons, make appointments during daytime hours and always visit such listings with your partner or a friend.
Check the neighborhood comparative market analysis, or comps, when you find a house on which you'd like to make a move. Viewing this report helps you determine the best price to offer. Call the listing agent and ask her for the comps; she'll pull a report for you if she knows you're serious about making an offer. If you'd rather do such research without the listing agent's help, scan your local MLS consumer database, online real estate websites or your local newspaper's real estate section for information about sold properties.
Submit an offer on the house. Get the ball rolling by calling the listing agent to draw up the offer paperwork. Even if you and your partner are brimming with excitement, put on your poker faces since you, rather than an agent representing you, will be doing all the talking. Let the listing agent know how much you'd like to offer and how much good-faith money you're willing to attach to the offer. Tell the agent if you'd like the contract to be contingent on a home inspection and final loan approval; this means you can get out of the contract without penalty if the house isn't up to snuff or your loan isn't approved. Also, let the agent know when you'd like to close on the loan -- and if you have a preferred title and escrow company you want to handle the closing. Give the listing agent a copy of your loan preapproval letter and a check for the good-faith deposit. Her broker won't cash it until you and the seller agree on price and terms. The listing agent will take the offer to the seller to review and sign.
Stick to the terms of the contract once you and the seller reach an agreement. Arrange your home inspection and follow through with your lender's requests for information in a timely manner. Call the title and escrow company once or twice before closing to ensure everything's on track for closing. Let the escrow agent know where to reach you if anything comes up.
Check your bank account balance to confirm your down payment funds a few days before closing; the escrow agent will send you a copy of the HUD-1 Settlement Statement with an itemized list of charges so you'll know how much you need to bring to the closing table. Make an appointment with the listing agent to do a final walk-through on closing day. Check every room in the house to ensure that it looks the same as the last time you saw it. Walk around the outside of the house as well.
Attend the closing. The closing agent, usually an attorney, will explain all the paperwork you need to sign. She is, however, a neutral, third party representing the transaction and not you or the seller. So, consider inviting your attorney to the closing in case you have any questions you want answered by someone representing your interests.
Maya Black has been covering business, food, travel, cultural topics and decorating since 1992. She has bachelor's degree in art and a master's degree in cultural studies from University of Texas, a culinary arts certificate and a real estate license. Her articles appear in magazines such as Virginia Living and Albemarle.