As a real estate agent, I’ve seen it all when it comes to buying and selling homes in the Atlanta area! Whether you’re a first-time home buyer or a seasoned vet when it comes to real estate, these 10 tips will prepare you to manage this huge and life-changing undertaking as smoothly as possible, save money, and avoid any unpleasant surprises along the way.

Know Your Out-of-Pocket Costs

It’s no secret that buying a home is a huge financial undertaking, but you should know exactly how much capital you need to have available before you begin your search. There are four principal expenses that buyers are responsible for during the home-buyin process:

Down payment: Every buyer will be required by their lender to place a down payment on the home they are buying. This can vary widely, depending the type of mortgage you choose, your credit, and the lending institution. Other factors, like incentives for first-time home buyers, can lower your down payment. However, buyers should be aware that a smaller down payment will mean larger monthly mortgage payments, and calculate what their monthly budget allows them to put toward their home.

Inspection costs: Buyers must pay to have inspections performed on the property they are interested in purchasing. While this is an optional expense, it’s a critical step that every buyer should take to understand the true value of the home they want to buy. Depending on the home inspection, other inspections may be recommended by your agent.

Closing costs: Buyers must pay a variety of closing fees and expenses before they can call a home their own. Your agent will be able to explain these costs to you, but they generally range from 2% to 5% of the loan amount. In some cases, you can negotiate with the seller to assume some of these costs.

Move-in costs: Among the funds you set aside for your home purchase, don’t forget about the cost of moving from your old residence to your new one! In addition, your new property may need repairs, construction, upgrades or modifications that you’d like to make for it to be truly your dream home.

Check Your Credit

Your credit score plays a vital role in helping lenders decide if you qualify for a mortgage and determine your interest rate. To get a more accurate idea of what price range you should be looking at in your search, get copies of your credit reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. There are many ways to improve a low credit score, including managing your debt, paying all bills on time, and keeping your credit cards open. Discuss your credit score with your financial advisor or your realtor to learn how it can affect the home buying process.

Shop Around for Mortgages

A mortgage is a major financial commitment, and one that should not be entered into lightly. Depending on your down payment, credit score, and the length of the mortgage term, you’ll have a variety of options to choose from, and you should explore all of them to find the best fit for your budget. Consult your realtor, financial advisor or lender for more information.

Research Assistance Programs and Incentives for First Time Buyers

Programs and special rates exist at the state and federal level that make it easier for first-time buyers to purchase their homes. In the state of Georgia, the Georgia Dream Program offers a variety of mortgage options for first-time buyers, which includes people who have not owned a home in the past three years. First-time home buyers can also take advantage of tax credits.

Get Pre-approved

A mortgage pre-approval letter is important for several reasons. It is an initial confirmation from a lender, after checking your credit score, income and other pertinent financial information, that you qualify for a loan of up to a certain amount. This also tells the seller that you are a serious buyer who is one step ahead of other prospective buyers.

Choose the Right Agent

Your agent can make all the difference between a smooth, straightforward process that saves you time and money, and a costly, chaotic and stressful experience. Check out my five essential services every buyer should expect from their agent to know what to look for when looking for your agent. Speak with a few different agents, ask for references, and see how you feel. The right agent will be your ally throughout the process, and take the time to get to know you so he or she can find the home that suits your budget and lifestyle.

Identify Your “Must-Haves” vs. “Nice-to-Haves”

In an ideal world, we would all live in homes that were perfectly suited to us and came with every luxury and amenity we wanted. The reality is that most of us need to make a concession or two when it comes to settling on our next home. To help you choose the right property, make a list of the essential features your home must have for you to buy it, and the perks or features you would like to have but aren’t deal-breakers. Do you prefer apartments, townhouses or single-family homes? If you have young children, the schools near your new home may be of paramount importance. A pool, on the other hand, might be a luxury you could do without if everything else fit your needs. Some buyers are happy to spend less on a “fixer upper” that they can improve over time, while others want their homes in move-in condition as soon as they close. The more you detail your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, the easier it will be for your realtor to find your dream home.

Get the Home Inspected

Many buyers skip the home inspection process, often because they don’t want to incur an additional expense. It’s a crucial and necessary investment in your home. An inspection will give you the full diagnosis of your home’s structural health and value. It will identify issues you can’t see on a tour, and give you invaluable leverage at the negotiating table. You may need more than one inspection, as a standard home inspection doesn’t cover potential issues like mold or pests. Without it, you’re making a life-changing financial decision without having all the information you need.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

A home purchase is a negotiation, and there are many things to negotiate! The asking price, needed repairs, and closing costs are all on the table, and the more information you have about the home you’re buying, the more prepared you will be to get the price you want. How motivated is the seller? How long has the property been on the market? Has the inspection revealed major issues that must be resolved before the home is sold? These and other factors can have a major impact on the price of the property.

Buy adequate home insurance

Your lender will require you to buy homeowners insurance before closing the deal. Home insurance covers the cost to repair or replace your home and belongings if they’re damaged by an incident covered in the policy. It also provides liability insurance if you’re held responsible for an injury or accident. Buy enough home insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding the home if it’s destroyed.