What first-time home buyers need to know about closing costs

Published August 7, 2015|6 min read

Policygenius Image

Updated July 11, 2019: Ah, those halcyon days of being a renter. They were simpler times. Times when the most complicated a lease got was when they wanted first and last month’s rent or when they said you could paint the walls but only if you repainted them before you moved out unless the landlord liked the new paint.

But there comes a time in many people’s lives when they start wondering if maybe they should stop renting and start owning. If maybe they should trade the simplicity of a rental agreement for the potential financial benefits of owning your own home. (And, in fact, in some states, they probably should.)

For the first-time prospective homebuyer, you’re about to encounter a whole new world of paperwork and confusing things you’ve never had to worry about before. Like amortization, which sounds like the name of a death metal band, but is actually the process by which you pay off your principal debt (the loan itself) via your fixed, scheduled mortgage payment.

But let’s put amortization (and death metal) aside, and talk about a term you’re probably quite familiar with: closing costs.

What are closing costs?

Well, closing costs are just like they sound: costs you pay (or agree to pay) at closing. And there are a lot of them. Common closing costs include:

  • Mortgage application fee

  • Origination fee for the lender’s administrative costs

  • Appraisal fee

  • Inspection fee

  • Attorney fee

  • Title search fee

  • Survey fee

  • Title insurance

  • Homeowners insurance (We can help you find affordable homeowners insurance here).

  • Prepaid property taxes, interest and private mortgage insurance

What are these fees exactly? Well, during your house hunt, you may have noticed a lot of people were doing a lot of work for you for "free." They ran a credit check and didn’t ask you for a dime. A house inspector drove 45 minutes just to check out the place you want to buy, and you didn’t even have to tip him.

But nothing’s free. The home inspector’s not inspecting the home because he enjoys looking for termites (OK, maybe he does like looking for termites, but he’s still going to get paid for it.) Likewise, the realtors, the bank, the title company, the lawyers who created the documents, the surveyor, they all need to be paid.

Plus, you're responsible for putting a certain amount of money into escrow (a fund the lender uses to make payments for your property taxes and homeowners insurance.)

How much are closing costs?

It’s a little bit intimidating when you go into how many different fees comprise closing costs. Some of them small, some not. There’s no definitive list of all the kinds of fees you pay during closing or how much each one will cost. The particulars depend on everything from where you live to what kind of deal you’ve struck with the buyer or the bank. For instance, in some cases, you can lower your interest rate by paying "points" upfront—essentially, paying interest upfront in exchange for a lower rate.

You’ll rarely be paying any of the closing fees separately. So, the best way to think about it is as a single cost. And that cost is, on average, between 2% and 5% of the purchase price. That’s a small percentage, but we’re typically talking about a larger whole. If you buy a $300,000 house, that means you could pay up to $15,000 in closing costs.

In other words, closing costs should not be overlooked. They are not the equivalent of a little bit of sales tax that you hardly notice when they ring you up at your local coffee shop. (Check out our favorite coffeehouses in each state.)

That said, sometimes closing costs are downplayed. Here are some common closing cost myths.

The seller pays the closing costs

You’ve probably heard this a lot. Make no mistake about it, this is a good thing for you, the buyer. But it’s also a little bit of an illusion. Or, more accurately, a tactic.

In a seller’s market, a seller might get over their asking price and have backup offers. In that case, don’t expect they’ll pay your closing costs. However, if a seller does not have a bidding war, and is working hard to close the deal with you, you may get them to pay some of your closing costs.

However, that’s almost always tied to them saying "no" to your request to lower their price. So let’s go back to that $300,000 house. You may have wanted to get it for $290,000. If the seller wants to keep the sale price at $300,000, they can counter by keeping the price but paying your closing costs. (In either case, a strong home offer letter can help.)

Also, this tactic may swing more in your favor, or more in their favor. Again, let’s say you were hoping to nab that house for $290,000 instead of $300,000. Sure, your closing costs could be as high as $15,000. Or, they could be closer to $6,000 (or maybe even less). In other words, if you pay $10,000 more than you wanted on your house, in exchange for the seller paying your closing costs, it’s likely they’re the ones who got the better deal.

Just roll most of it into the loan

So you’re going to buy a $300,000 house, and as such you’ve set aside a whopping $60,000 as a 20% down payment. And now here you’re told you owe somewhere around $10,000 in closing costs. Whoa, now you’ve got to come up with $70,000 in all? "No worries. We can roll a lot of this into the loan," you might hear.

Ah, what a relief! Well, it’s a relief in terms of how much cash you’ve got to come up with right here, right now. But, rest assured, those costs are there. And now that they’re part of your loan, you’re paying even more for them because you’re also paying interest on them. It’s kind of like putting it on a credit card. A credit card that you don’t pay off for 15 to 30 years.

It’s a no-closing-cost mortgage

This seems like the perfect solution, doesn’t it? Want to avoid closing costs, just get a no-closing-cost mortgage, right? Wrong. This type of mortgage doesn’t really get rid of your closing costs. Rather, it does the same thing as the above: It rolls those costs into the loan. And it does this by giving you a higher interest rate.

A higher interest rate means you pay more per month (every month), of which less goes toward the actual house you’re buying, and more towards all those closing costs you supposedly didn’t have to pay for. Really, a "no-closing-cost mortgage" is a total misnomer. Like "amortization," which by all rights should totally be a death metal band, but instead is some death-metal sounding word for how you pay off your debt.

Closing costs aren’t bad, sketchy things, and they’re not intended to be hidden costs that take advantage of anyone. They’re all legitimate fees because, the fact is, buying and selling a home takes a lot of work, and the people doing that work need to be paid for it. And as we just learned, no matter how you spin it, they will be paid, no matter what. The good news is that your lender should give you a GFE ("good faith estimate") when you qualify of what your closing costs might be.

The GFE is not a guaranteed number by any means, but it should at least be a rough idea—and fair warning.

On the hunt for a home? Our partner ConsumersAdvocate can help you rate-shop. Note: We may receive compensation when you click on the map below.

Disclosure: This post contains referances to products or services from one or more of our advertisers or partners. We may receive compensation when you click on links to them.

Image: Breno Assis

Get essential money news & money moves with the Easy Money newsletter.

Free in your inbox each Friday.

Easy Money phones image