How to buy a house in 2021: 8 tips for winning the COVID homebuying season

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With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, plan to rely heavily on technology and minimize in-person contact this homebuying season. (iStock)

You might be wondering how to buy a house right now. With COVID-19 vaccinations well underway, the end of the pandemic appears to be within reach. But the real estate market may not return to pre-pandemic normalcy anytime soon, if ever.

With continuing uncertainty about coronavirus variants, in-person schooling, and remote work, buying a home during a pandemic can be stressful. At the same time, borrowing is cheap right now, and some people do have enough clarity about the future to know they want to buy.

Find out how to navigate the common challenges homebuyers are facing with this 2021 homebuying guide. If you’re shopping around for a home loan, visit Credible to compare mortgage rates from our partner lenders and lock in a great rate today.

What to expect for the 2021 homebuying season

Although the average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is still relatively low, mortgage rates have risen steadily this year. And housing markets all across the country are fiercely competitive.

Whether you’re ready to jump in or just curious, here’s how this homebuying season will likely be different from seasons past.

Virtual home tours will remain popular

Online home listings have evolved significantly over the years. Long gone are the days where you could only expect a few grainy photos to browse. Now, you’ll see high-resolution images, drone shots, and 3D virtual home tours that help buyers assess the condition of the home and how well the layout flows.

With the pandemic still ongoing, buyers will continue to expect more visual information about homes before considering an in-person visit.

Viewings will continue by appointment only

Traditional open houses where any number of strangers can crowd inside a home are unlikely to return soon, if at all. Besides the health risks, these showings tend to attract the merely curious more than serious buyers, making them a potential waste of time for sellers and agents. It’s now common for sellers to limit in-person showings to serious prospects by appointment only.

Mortgage rates will likely stay low

Mortgage rates aren’t as low as they were in parts of 2020, but the Federal Reserve doesn’t see rates increasing significantly until after 2023. That’s good news for buyers, because lower rates increase purchasing power. National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun expects the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage to average 3.5% this year.

Sight-unseen sales will keep happening

In competitive markets, the only way to buy a home in another city may be to make an offer without touring the property in person. Virtual home tours and detailed video walkthroughs with agents make this prospect less risky than in the past.

Home appraisal and inspection contingencies also remain important to protect buyers from overpaying or ending up in a money pit.

Remote closing is the new normal

Mortgage lenders that didn’t already offer online applications, electronic documents, and remote closings sped up their plans to adopt new technology last year. It’s less necessary than ever to apply for a loan in person if you live in an area with fast and reliable internet service. In states that allow it, you can even get essential mortgage and real estate paperwork notarized remotely via webcam.

The seller’s market will remain strong

Many parts of the country don’t have enough inventory, meaning buyers will remain at a disadvantage. One thing that might improve inventory: some sellers who were afraid to list last year might feel more comfortable once they’re vaccinated.

In competitive markets, getting pre-approved for a mortgage can strengthen your offer. It tells sellers you’re financially able to close the deal. This February, properties typically spent just 20 days on the market, compared to 36 days in February 2020. Housing experts expect both home sales and home prices to increase this year.

8 tips for buying a house during COVID-19

To buy a house during COVID-19, you’ll want to view many homes online to figure out what features are most important to you and narrow down the properties that are worth seeing in person. In some cases, you may decide to place an offer without touring the property firsthand, in which case you should ask your agent to provide a live virtual tour.

Because competition for homes may remain high due to low inventory and low mortgage rates, get your personal finances in order and have a solid idea of what your dream home looks like so you can place an offer as soon as you find what you’re looking for.

1. Brush up on mortgage lender requirements

Why it’s important: You’ll learn if you have what it takes to qualify for a home loan.

Housing markets are as competitive as ever right now, and getting approved for a mortgage is suddenly a much harder task. More and more lenders are choosing to only issue mortgages to borrowers with stellar credit histories.

Whether you’re applying for a conventional, FHA, VA, or USDA loan, the minimum qualifications will fall somewhere in the ranges below — but you’ll want to make sure you’re well above them to boost your chances at qualifying.

  • Min. down payment: 0% to 3.5%
  • Income: 12 to 24 months of steady, ongoing income
  • Credit score: At least 620 for most loans, but sometimes lower
  • Max Debt-to-income ratio: 36% to 50%

If you don’t meet these requirements yet, start taking steps to save more, pay down debt, stabilize or increase your income, and improve your credit score.

2. Establish your homebuying budget

Why it’s important: You’ll know what you can afford before you set your heart on a particular home or location.

Opinions differ on whether it’s smarter to stretch your budget for the better home or compromise to leave yourself more financial breathing room. Think about your personal risk tolerance and safety net when making this decision.

A mortgage is a substantial commitment, so you’ll want to consider not just what payment you can afford today, but what payment you may be able to afford in the future. Consider the large expenses associated with maintaining a home and shifts in your personal life that might eat into your budget.

  • Potential home expenses: A new roof, a new HVAC system, a new coat of exterior paint, or other home improvements.
  • Potential personal expenses: Childcare, care for elderly parents, changing jobs, and personal health issues.

Sit down and create short- and long-term budgets to evaluate whether you can handle the housing payment you want to take on, including principal, interest, property taxes, and homeowners insurance. Credible’s online pre-approval tool can also help you figure out how much you can afford and what your monthly payment would be.

3. Compare offers from multiple lenders

Why it’s important: Getting multiple offers can save you thousands of dollars.

Small differences in interest rates can add up to thousands of dollars in interest over the life of a loan. And with thousands of mortgage lenders in the United States, there’s no excuse not to shop around. 

A lower interest rate also increases your buying power. Shopping around, then, can mean the difference between affording your dream home or losing a bidding war. See how much a 1% difference can make.

Credible can help with this process. You can securely submit your application details to several lenders at once to save time and find a better deal.

4. Get pre-approved

Why it’s important: It shows sellers your purchase offer is likely to close.

For sellers, accepting an offer means taking their home off the market. If your offer falls through, the seller has to go through the process of listing, showing, and evaluating offers all over again. The delay may affect their moving plans and cost them money.

These hassles are largely preventable when you show you’re serious by submitting a pre-approval letter from your lender along with your purchase offer.

That said, a deal can still fall through if the property doesn’t appraise high enough, if the home inspection reveals major problems, or if you lose your job, get seriously ill, or make a financial mistake that turns your approval into a rejection.

5. Tour properties safely

Why it’s important: You don’t want to catch or transmit COVID-19.

Touring homes in person is safer now than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. We understand how the virus spreads and what precautions to take. Some people also have bolstered immunity against the virus thanks to vaccines and natural antibodies.

Still, you can save time, respect sellers’ and agents’ time and COVID boundaries, and keep yourself and others safe, by doing virtual tours of properties first and limiting in-person home tours to the most promising options.

6. Avoid falling into a bidding war

Why it’s important: Exceeding your homebuying budget can add unnecessary stress to your life for years to come.

In a highly competitive market, you can avoid a bidding war by making your highest and best offer right away. If someone beats you with a better offer, you’ll know you could not have done any better.

Keep sight of your long-term goals during the home shopping process. Remember that you want to have money every month to do other things besides pay the mortgage. You don’t want your housing payment to take up all your disposable income.

Also, avoid the temptation to make a more competitive purchase offer by waiving inspection, appraisal, or financing contingencies. If anything goes wrong and you have to back out, you’ll lose your earnest money deposit.

7. Be realistic about closing timelines

Why it’s important: Closing late can be costly.

The average time to close a purchase loan in February was 53 days, according to ICE Mortgage Technology. Ask your lender how long its home closing process takes. That way you don’t lose money by promising a home seller you can close on a shorter deadline than is realistic.

Also, make sure your mortgage rate lock will be long enough to get you to closing. If your rate lock expires and rates increase, the new, higher payment might mean you no longer qualify for a mortgage.

8. Get ready for a remote closing

Why it’s important: It’s safer and more convenient than an in-person closing.

In-person closing has become less common since the pandemic began. If your lender offers remote closing, you may need a webcam on your computer or phone to complete the process. A notary can verify your identity and witness your signature in states that allow remote online notarization via video call.

Even if you will not be finalizing your loan this way, you may receive all your closing documents electronically and sign most of them online. Ask your lender to send these documents along with your closing disclosure so that you have three days to carefully review everything, ask questions, and can make any necessary corrections before your closing date.