1. Start with your credit. Credit reports are kept by the three major credit agencies, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. They show whether you are habitually late with payments and whether you have run into serious credit problems in the past.
A credit score is a number calculated from a formula created by Fair Isaac based on the information in your credit report. You have three different credit scores, one for each of your credit reports.
A low credit score may hurt your chances for getting the best interest rate, or getting financing at all. So get a copy of your reports and know your credit scores. Try Fair Isaac’s MyFICO.com.
Errors are common. If you find any, contact the agencies directly to correct them, which can take two or three months to resolve. If the report is accurate but shows past problems, be prepared to explain them to a loan officer.
2. Set your budget. Next, you need to determine how much house you can afford. You can start with an online calculator. For a more accurate figure, ask to be pre-approved by a lender, who will look at your income, debt and credit to determine the kind of loan that’s in your league.
The rule of thumb is to aim for a home that costs about two-and-a-half times your gross annual salary. If you have significant credit card debt or other financial obligations like alimony or even an expensive hobby, then you may need to set your sights lower.
Another rule of thumb: All your monthly home payments should not exceed 36% of your gross monthly income.
The size of your down payment will also determine how much you can afford.