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Q: Do I need a real estate agent and how do I go about finding one?
A: With advances in on-line resources available today, many buyers question whether they should work with an agent. But an experienced agent earns his or her commission. In a fast moving real estate market, a good agent may learn of real estate listings before they hit the general market and can always ease the way in working with a seller and his listing agent (both at the time an offer to purchase is made as well as throughout the escrow process). When selecting an individual realtor, good questions to ask relate to experience, special education and certifications they have received, references, also check the Department of Real Estate consumer information website at www.dre.cahwnet.gov to verify the licensure and record of an agent. Additional sources of referrals are friends, co-workers and neighbors who have recently sold or purchased property.  
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Q: Does it make sense to pay more points for a lower interest rate?
A: Whether to pay an upfront fee known as "points" in order to lower your mortgage interest rate can be a tough decision -- there you are, making one of the largest purchases of your life, and you have to come up with a few more thousand dollars by the closing. However, over time the savings in interest payments can be well worth that initial financial stretch.One point is 1% of the loan principal; for example, if you were borrowing $250,000 at two points, you'd pay $5,000 up front. There is normally a direct relationship between the number of points lenders charge and the interest rates they quote for the same type of mortgage, such as a fixed rate. The more points you pay, the lower your rate of interest, and vice versa.
Before deciding whether it's worth paying points, factor in how long you plan to own your house. The longer you live there (or pay down the mortgage), the better off you'll be paying more points up front in return for a lower interest rate. You'll reach a break-even point, when you've worked off what you spent on the upfront payment via your monthly savings. On the other hand, if you think you'll sell or refinance your house within two or three years, it's a better idea to get a loan with as few points as possible, since you're unlikely to reach that break-even point. A good loan officer or loan broker can walk you through all your options and trade-offs such as higher fees or points for a lower interest rate.
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Q: Are low down payment options available for buyers who can't afford a 20% down payment?
A: Although loans were widely available to people putting less than 20% down during the real estate boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, lenders have since become much more cautious. Even if you can afford high monthly mortgage payments and have a high credit score, you may have trouble finding loans requiring as little as 5% to 15% down -- and the loan you find will likely require you to pay a much higher interest rate and more points than if you'd made a larger down payment.

The exception are FHA-insured loans, which make provision for buyers with lower than optimal credit scores and unable to make down payments. More and more homebuyers are using these -- but you need to meet separate qualification criteria. See an experienced mortgage broker for help.

Also, if you put down less than 20% or use an FHA-backed loan, you will likely have to pay for mortgage insurance (MI).
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