7 Tips for Buying Your First Home in the U.S.

Help finding your way through the complex U.S. real estate market.

Ask your real estate agent to explain U.S. homebuying customs to identify any differences from those of your home country. Image: Mary Kay Coletta

Nothing says you’re truly an American like owning a home. And just over half of all foreign-born households living in the U.S. own their own home. If you’re ready to join them, try these seven tips for American-style homebuying success — the process here may be quite different from what you’re used to.

1. Be ready to prove who you are. You don’t have to get your citizenship, a green card, or any particular type of visa before you buy a home. But you do need:

  • A valid foreign passport, or two or more current photo identifications, such as a driver’s license, to show who you are.

Although property ownership isn’t tied to immigration or visa status, there are rules about how long you can stay, so if you’re not a citizen, check out U.S. visa requirements before you purchase.   

2. Plan to get a mortgage, so you don’t have to save your money for years to become a homeowner and start building equity. The U.S. home loan market offers many safe, affordable mortgages, including ones that allow Muslims to buy a home without violating Islamic laws against paying interest.

To get a U.S. mortgage, you must establish credit and earn a good credit score. To boost your score:

  • Open U.S. bank and credit card accounts.
  • Report all your income on your tax returns. Lenders use tax returns to verify your income and decide how much you can afford to borrow to buy a home.

When it’s time to apply for a mortgage, you’ll find major banks with global operations have experience working with foreign buyers and tend to have a process for verifying credit established in other countries.

3. Work with a REALTOR® who is a Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) and who has experience, training, and education in helping foreign-born homebuyers. An experienced real estate or title attorney can help you protect your interests, too.

Tell your real estate agent how the homebuying process works in your native country and ask her to explain U.S. home-buying customs to identify any differences. Even within the U.S., local differences exist in how people buy and sell homes. Knowing how homes are sold here and what to expect with closing costs, inspections, and the negotiation processreduces your stress and helps you get a good deal on your first home.

4. Don’t be shocked by Americans’ casual attitudes toward buying or selling real estate; it’s a byproduct of the relaxed U.S. business culture. Although real estate contracts must be in writing, the process leading up to the sales contract signing may be more informal and casual than it would be in your home country.

5. Learn to convert from the U.S. standard measurement into metric, or pick up a metric converter app so you can better estimate room and home sizes while shopping.

6. If you’re not fluent in English, or prefer speaking in your native language, choose inspectors, mortgage bankers, and REALTORS® fluent in your own language. Although it’s possible to get translated copies of standard real estate documents, you’ll likely have to sign the English versions during your home purchase.

7. Consider all the real-estate related expenses you’ll have as a homeowner, including property taxes, homeowners insurance, and maintenance costs. Set up a financial plan for your home so you know how much money to set aside for ongoing expenses.