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Here's How to Prepare If You Want to Buy a Home in This Competitive Market

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Brace yourself for another competitive year in the housing market.

Home sales are expected to grow 6.6% in 2022, a 16-year high, according to Realtor.com. The typical winter lull isn't even necessarily happening. Home prices actually accelerated from November to December, said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.

While Realtor.com is forecasting prices will rise 2.9%, the pace is slower than last year. Inventory will remain limited, but is expected to rebound from 2021 lows.

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The bottom line is that buyers need to be prepared before they start shopping around.

"You're going to have to act quickly when you find a home when you want," Hale said.

Here's what you can do now to put yourself in the best position to find your new home this year.

Look at your credit

Your credit score is an important factor in getting a mortgage and the type of loan you'll get. It also impacts the interest rate you'll receive and potentially how much money you need for a down payment.

By checking your credit score ahead of time, you'll know whether you'll need to make any changes to try to increase that number.

Also, get a copy of your credit report to check for any errors or unpaid bills, which may also affect your credit score. Consumers can get their credit report up to once a week for free from the nation's three largest credit reporting firms — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — through April 2022.

Manage debt

Lenders will also look at your debt-to-income ratio, which is the amount of debt relative to your income, when determining your loan. If you have debt, try to pay it down before you start house hunting, suggests Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors.

Consider using any year-end bonus money or cash gifts to pay it off. If you don't have debt, put that cash into savings to help with your down payment.

Contact a mortgage lender

Reach out to a lender as soon as possible, at least to ask questions and find out what they need from you in order to preapprove a mortgage, said Kevin Parker, vice president of field mortgage at Navy Federal Credit Union.

"We like members to start off with an understanding of the process," he said.

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You can use online calculators to figure out what you can afford and whether it makes sense to buy or rent. You'll also want to know how much money you'll need to bring to closing, since there are fees — known as closing costs — that are due in addition to your down payment.

You can also get preapproved for a mortgage before you start house hunting, since you'll need it before you submit a contract for a house.

Draft a budget

Just because you are preapproved by a mortgage lender for a certain amount of money to spend, doesn't mean that is your budget.

Look at your monthly expenses to determine what you can afford to pay each month. Don't forget about interest rates, which are expected to rise this year and will therefore increase your monthly mortgage payments.

The National Association of Realtors is predicting rates will reach 3.7% at the end of the year, still low by historical standards.

Make a list

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Write down your "must-haves" and your "nice-to-haves," Hale advised. This way, when you have to make a quick decision you already know what trade-offs you want to make.

It can also help you in a bidding war, which is easy to get carried away with in a highly competitive market.

"Focus on the goal you set out for yourself, like your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves and your budget," Hale said. "Stick to that. Be persistent."

Consider low down-payment options

First-time homebuyers may not be aware that there are options for low down payments, Lautz said.

Federal Housing Administration loans, for instance, offer down payments as low as 3.5%. Check out the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's website, HUD.gov, and other local resources to see what may be available to you.

"Doing your research beforehand can help you," Lautz said.

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