Buying Real Estate is part of the American dream. For those who have never been down the "buying real estate" path yet, you just...
1. Get Pre-Approved. Even if you don't think you can afford it, or are concerned about a down payment, or your credit - the first thing you should do is talk to a skilled mortgage lender. It's their job to help you fix your credit, tell you how much you can afford, and help make it all happen. They will advise you if a down payment is needed (it may not! Many people arrange to buy a home with nothing down, $500 down, or 5% down), how much your monthly payment will translate to (i.e. tell them you want to spend $X a month, and they'll translate that into a purchase price of $Y). If you need to repair your credit, they'll be able to refer someone or give you some tips and help on how to fix it up.
2. Once you meet with a mortgage lender, you'll get a letter of pre-approval. It looks informal, but what matters is the listing agent (representing the sellers of a house you later want to buy) calling them and doing some research on whether you can in fact close and purchase the property. You then take this letter to a Realtor (R) / Real Estate Agent (note: Realtor is a real estate agent that adheres to a code of ethics; for practical purposes they're essentially the same, though a Realtor(R) has more accountability and is therefore more highly recommended). This is step 2 of buying real estate.
3. The fun part: Shopping! Step 3 of buying real estate usually involves you looking at a bunch of properties on the internet, driving around some neighborhoods, then when you see some homes you think you might like, just email or call your agent and ask to go see it. Don't get too hung up on this, and at first, go see some houses even if you know it's not quite right - just to get some ideas of what you like and don't like. On paper, or on the computer, a house is just a bunch of numbers - 3 bedrooms, 1873 square feet, etc. - but in person, you'll find that the "bones" of a house, they layout, and the materials vary widely. On each home, communicate what you like and don't like to your agent. Ideally, you should do this on each home, and by listing your favorite points, and factors you didn't like, you'll help your agent slowly hone in on what you really want. This is step 3 of buying real estate, and it usually turns out to be more work than you expect. By the way, it's OK if a house or condo or lot seems OK on paper, but just doesn't feel right. Trust your gut...buying real estate is emotional and you want to feel at home. Usually, if something doesn't feel right, it's because it reminds you of some other home, and many times, people ultimately buy a home that feels like a home they lived in as a child and therefore feel at home in.
4. The exciting part of buying real estate comes when you find a home you want. Just tell your agent this one feels right, and you'd like to put in an offer. Let your agent do the negotiating for you, it's their job, and they get paid by the seller so the service is essentially free. You can call the mortgage lender back now and tell them you're finally buying real estate, and give them the purchase price you want to offer, along with any other expenses such as taxes and insurance. They can give you a more exact payment on the house, which you'll then give your agent a range to offer, starting low with a walk-away price. The agent helping you in buying real estate will know the conventions and strategy best for your local market and sniff out competing offers, etc. This offer will then be accepted or declined or counter-offered.
5. The nerve-wracking part of buying real estate is closing the actual transaction. Once your offer is accepted, you then start a 2-way "dance" called "escrow" or "under contract" or "closing". This means the further you get into the deal, the more committed you are financially, and the more committed the seller is because they're packing their life into boxes. Expect a bit of buyers remorse - it always happens about a week in, and just remind yourself why you like the house and imagine your life in your new home. Also, expect that the closing date is just a guideline, and it could be earlier by a few days, or later by a few days. Most commonly, people close in about 30-45 days. Depending on your state, you'll sign a new loan on about day 25 or day 29, and then move in about day 30 (or 45, depending on your contract period). You'll sign a binding loan and get keys, the seller gets cash (and their old loan paid off, if they have one), and the bank gets an enforceable contract that you make house payments toward. Once it "records" the deal is 100% done, you own the home, and about 6 weeks later you'll make your first house payment to the bank.
Buying real estate is fun, and can make a big impact in how you live your life. For most Americans, buying real estate is one of the most important financial investments they ever make, and regardless of market it continues to prove a good investment simply due to inflation if not market appreciation. Just as your grandparents paid 15 cents for coffee and bought their first house for what seems like little money, so will your grandchildren (or you in your old age!) look back on buying real estate that first time as "cheap". Back when people were buying real estate for $5,000 for a home, the average income was only $1200 a year for some... our relationship with money changes over time. Once you cross the buying real estate bridge, you'll not only build wealth - but you'll build a home filled with memories as well.