Armed with your down payment and your pre-approval letter for a mortgage loan, the next step is finding the house that will best meet your family's needs. With realistic expectations, patience and plenty of research, you'll be well on your way.
Once you narrow the search to neighborhoods you like, you'll want to determine the maximum house price you can afford. Even though you're pre-approved for a set loan amount, it doesn't mean you can afford it. You'll want to factor in other expenses, including retirement and college savings, vacations, and home maintenance and repairs, when you calculate how much you can afford for a monthly payment. And don't forget to budget for homeowners insurance and property taxes. There's also homeowner's assocation fees, especially in newer developments.
Next, differentiate your needs versus your wants. You need three bedrooms, but a fourth room would be nice for a play room or guest room. You need a two-car garage, but a larger one would be nice for storage. You need a functional kitchen but want hardwood floors. You need two bathrooms but want a luxurious master suite. You get the picture.
As you begin your house-hunting venture, prepare a checklist. Break it down between exterior and interior characteristics. Make notes on each feature and make notes. Some people give each a 1 to 10 score, which is fine, but the first few houses you see will score differently than the last few because you have many more to compare against. Also, after viewing many homes, the numbers begin to lose meaning.
Some of the exterior features to rate might include size of yard, quality of fence, paint condition, roof condition, window conditions, garage, back yard. When it comes to interior, think about square footage; the floor plan; condition of walls; the size, quality, and functionality of the various rooms and closet and storage space.
If you find a house you like, offer a competitive bid. Keep in mind you'll likely be competing against other offers—especially if interest rates are low and the spring buying season is in full bloom.
And don't forget—once you make an offer, make it contingent upon the findings of a professional home inspection. If any major defects surface, you'll want to have the leverage to renegotiate or back out of the deal completely.