There’s no simple, single answer when asking how long it takes to buy a house. The home buying timeline will vary hugely from person to person and from place to place.
And it depends on the point from which you start the clock. If you begin counting down from when you open a savings account for a down payment and closing costs, the answer could be several years.
But, if you already have those saved and need to find your perfect home and go through mortgage approval processes, it might take a few months. Read on to learn more about the home buying timeline.
In this article (Skip to...)
- Preparing to buy a house
- Saving for a down payment
- Getting preapproved
- Finding an agent
- Making an offer
- Inspection and appraisal
- Closing on the home
- Next steps
Preparing to buy a house
In 2022, some first-time home buyers couldn’t secure a home because they were competing with many other buyers in stronger financial positions. But, in 2023, the national housing market was cooling off, and it became easier for many buyers to get their offers accepted.
While we can’t predict what your specific home buying timeline will look like, we can break the process into its components, and provide a general idea of how long each might take. So, let’s get started with that.
Creating a budget and determining affordability
You need to begin by surveying the housing market where you want to buy. This is easily done online. But you might like to visit some open houses to see what different budgets get you in your area.
The potential trap is to save enough to close on a home you love. By the time you’ve saved what you need, home-price inflation may well mean you can afford a less-desirable home.
So, build into your calculations the extra you’ll need to afford the sort of place you want when you’re ready to buy. Websites such as Realtor.com and Redfin.com show trends in local housing markets, updated monthly.
Down payment and closing costs
Don’t fall for the myth that you need a 20% down payment. Yes, there are advantages if you do have that much.
But most first-time buyers start with mortgages requiring only a 3% or 3.5% down payment or home loans with zero money down. VA loans (for veterans and service members), and USDA loans (for rural buyers with modest or moderate incomes) require no down payment at all.
Meanwhile, all states, some cities and counties, and countless other organizations run down payment assistance programs. Each of these sets its own level of help. And their offerings vary hugely.
But, if you’re lucky, you might be in line for a grant or easy loan that covers your entire down payment. A few offer to cover closing costs, typically at 2% to 5% of your loan amount. So, be sure to check out what you might be entitled to.
Down Payment Assistance Programs & Grants in Every State | 2023
Saving for a down payment and closing costs
Once you decided how much you must save to buy your home, you must set some goals and milestones. Begin by asking how quickly you want to be ready to start house hunting.
Then, divide the amount you need by the number of months between now and then. That gives you your monthly savings target as a dollar amount. By all means, adjust that figure if you get a significant annual bonus, a worthwhile tax refund, or some other regular but exceptional income.
Automate and monitor your savings
If you reckon that monthly target’s comfortably affordable, set up an automated payment from your checking account to your dedicated savings, money market, or CD account. But, if you think it’s too affordable, bring forward your home-buying plans and increase the monthly amount accordingly.
Of course, if you can’t afford your monthly savings target, you have two choices. You can push back your home-buying plans to the point a new target is achievable. Or you can change your lifestyle, making sacrifices that allow you to stick to your original schedule. Or a bit of both.
Be sure to monitor your savings account. Check at least each quarter to ensure you’re on schedule for your target date. If you can’t meet the milestones you set, you may have to delay your home purchase. But, if you’re hitting them too easily (maybe you had a raise), you could increase your monthly target so you ultimately can buy your home earlier or afford a nicer one.
How long does saving a down payment take?
Naturally, there are countless variables in the saving process. But the two big ones are:
- How much you need to save
- How much you can afford to save
When it comes to how much you need, the housing market in the place you want to buy is the biggest factor. In early 2023, realtyhop looked at the time it took an average family to save a down payment in different markets. It assumed a savings rate of 20% of the area’s median income and a target of 20% of the median sale price. Of course, you don’t need such a big down payment.
In Glendale, CA, it would take more than 15 years to save enough to buy a home at the median listing price for the city with 20% down. In Detroit, it would take two years and seven months. Those are the two extremes and other cities fall between them.
You can see why there are no easy answers to how long it takes to save a down payment. Choose the right type of mortgage and qualify for a down payment assistance program, which might take hardly any time.
So, saving may be the shortest portion of your home buying timeline. Or it could be by far the longest.
Getting preapproved for a mortgage — a shortcut in the home buying timeline
A mortgage preapproval involves getting a letter from a lender that says it’s willing to lend to you in principle up to a specified amount. Sellers and real estate agents will treat you much more seriously if you have one in your pocket.
Getting preapproved is much more credible than getting prequalified. That’s because the lender will have checked your credit and financial position before preapproving you. With prequalification, it takes your word for most things, which requires a greater — and rare — level of trust on the part of sellers and agents.
Getting preapproved takes very little time. Some lenders, with automated operations, can issue a letter within hours. Others typically take a few days.
Only those with complicated finances have to wait a bit longer. And even they aren’t likely to find this a significant part of their home buying timeline.
Finding a real estate agent
It’s generally a smart move to appoint a buyer’s agent. But only if you pick a good one.
Buyer’s agents often know about homes coming onto the market before others. And they get you in to tour them early. They should advise you on the price you should offer and then negotiate on your behalf.
An expert one can be worth her weight in gold. But her services usually won’t cost you a cent. Instead, buyer’s agents typically take a part of the commission the seller pays to the selling agent. Just make sure that’s the arrangement in your case.
House hunting in the home buying timeline
Finally, we get to the fun bit of the home buying timeline. Getting online and out and about to open houses to confirm what you can afford, and then choosing the home that suits you best. If you have a buyer’s agent, use them to the full.
Making an offer on a home
Again, a buyer’s agent can make a huge difference at this point. They should advise you on the home’s likely market value and present a strategy that will get you the best deal possible.
Let them do the research in consultation with you. If you’ve picked well, they should know the seller’s agent and the local market well. They may suggest going in with a very low opening offer, but be open to coming closer to the asking price if they advise it’s a smarter move.
Your offer is likely to include some “contingencies.” These make your offer contingent on certain things happening. And they are likely to include your mortgage going through to closing and the home inspection being satisfactory. Some people may also need a contingency concerning the sale of their existing home.
Recently, there have been good reasons to avoid as many contingencies as possible. Too many buyers chasing too few homes let sellers pick the contingency-free offers. But contingencies may make a comeback if supply and demand even out, as currently seems possible.
Getting a home inspection and appraisal
An appraisal is simply an independent local expert’s professional opinion of the market value of a home. And your mortgage lender will organize one on your behalf. Here’s what to do if there’s a gap between that appraisal and the selling price.
Appraisers are not necessarily construction experts and won’t usually check for defects. To avoid nasty surprises, you’ll want to commission a home inspection. According to HomeAdvisor, these on average cost $281 — $402 in 2022-23.
Home inspection checklist: What do home inspectors look for?
Home inspections frequently throw up defects that the buyer — and often the seller — know nothing about. Use the leverage these give you to negotiate reductions in your previously agreed purchase price.
Sometimes the seller will agree to a price reduction, but he may instead wish to have the work done himself before closing. That’s fine but be sure to check during the walk-through (see below) that everything is now satisfactory.
If necessary, bring a contractor or specialist to assure the standard of the work. That’s especially important if you’re looking at problems that will be expensive to fix (foundations, roofs, etc) or pose health hazards (electrics, mold, asbestos removal, lead paint, etc).
Closing on the home
Let’s define closing as the time it takes from applying for your loan on a particular home to finally signing the contract that makes you the new owner. You can expect it to take between 30 and 60 days for that whole process.
That’s not too big a bite out of your home buying timeline. Don’t forget, some processes, such as your appraisal and the home inspection, will happen during that period. And that’s just an average, with some types of mortgages taking longer to close than others.
Once your appraisal’s in — and any details resolved — it usually takes less than two weeks for your lender to finalize your mortgage approval. And you’ll then receive a closing disclosure from your lender laying out your loan’s final terms.
Be sure to read that carefully.
You must not do anything that materially affects your mortgage offer after getting your mortgage disclosure. So, don’t quit your job to switch industries or start a business. Don’t open or close new credit accounts. And don’t move large sums around except to send the amount you need to close to the attorney or “escrow” (often the title company) handling your closing. There’s a long list of things to avoid in the article at the end of the link in this paragraph.
Once you’ve finished reading your closing disclosure and are satisfied, you’re ready to close.
But, before you do, arrange a final walk-through. This is your last chance to raise any outstanding issues, so take it seriously and check the whole home carefully.
In particular, ensure any work done by the seller to address defects shown in the home inspection has been completed properly. And have professional advice on hand if you’re likely to need it.
Closing — The last, brief step in the home buying timeline
This is the quick and easy bit, running to maybe an hour or two. Take along:
- Photo ID
- A cashier’s or certified check for the sum you need to close, assuming you haven’t already transferred the funds electronically. Cash is likely to raise red flags
- Any outstanding documents requested by the title company or your loan officer
The rest is just reading and signing. Oh, and receiving the keys to your new home.
Next steps to begin your home buying timeline
Most young Americans still dream of being homeowners. And your first step is to resolve to make that dream a reality.
- Scoping your local housing market — What sort of home can you afford? Use our mortgage calculators to help
- Choosing the type of mortgage that suits you best
- Checking your eligibility for local down payment assistance programs
- Setting goals and milestones for saving for your down payment and closing costs
As soon as you’re ready to get preapproved for a mortgage, get quotes from multiple lenders. We can help with that. Then ask the one offering the best deal to send you a preapproval letter.
After that, you’ll have a buyer’s agent and your lender’s loan officer to hold your hand throughout the rest of the process.