If you’re thinking about buying a house, you’re undoubtedly feeling the squeeze. Houses are barely posted to Zillow before they’re in contract, often well above asking price. You don’t have time to even review the listing, let alone tour the place, and it’s gone. Meanwhile, mortgage rates keep ratcheting up, meaning more of your monthly payment goes to the bank instead of your square footage. It’s enough pressure to make your eyes twitch like Luisa Madrigal’s, but there’s hope, as long as you have the right help. We spoke to real estate agents, pored over sales data and surveys, and gleaned insights from the pros at Realtor.com to uncover the new rules of homebuying in 2022, so you can collect those keys without getting in over your head.

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1. Interview Three Agents First

Roughly four out of every five people contact one real estate agent, and that’s the person they go with to buy a house, according to the National Association of Realtors. They’re your sherpa to guide you in this process, and given that you’re making one of the biggest purchases of your life, it’s worth vetting a few to make sure you find the right fit. Namely, someone who gets—and will seek out homes that fit—your needs. (For example, are you buying your first home, or are you looking to run an Airbnb or rental? For the former, you may want an agent well-versed in the quality of local schools, whereas with the latter, you may be more interested in someone who knows every town’s short-term rental regulations.)

“You’ll want to ask some important questions when vetting an agent, like how long they’ve been working locally, how many sales they’ve assisted with [and] if they have contacts, such as home inspectors, attorneys [and] home stagers, who can help make the process go smoother,” says Realtor.com Deputy News Editor Clare Trapasso. “You can also ask for referrals from previous clients.”

Just like that classic rule to talk to three pros to get a quote on a home repair, it’s worth meeting with a few people to find an agent you feel comfortable with.

2. Get Pre-Approved Right Away

In the past, you might have gotten away with looking at homes before you were pre-approved for a mortgage. Now, with most homes on the market for just 17 days, it’s worth getting pre-approved immediately. It shows sellers that a bank has verified you’ve got the funds to pay for this house. And, like seeking out a lender, it’s worth using a mortgage marketplace to shop around for the best rate—especially if your credit score is below 679. Zillow found that the lower your credit score, the wider the range of mortgage rates you’d receive.

homebuying rules off market
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3. Go Off the Market

With fewer homes on the market, several real estate agents we’ve spoken to have mentioned they’re often asking clients what neighborhoods they want to live in, then going out and knocking on doors (or networking, or using a service with exclusive listings, like Roofstock) to find homes that aren’t on the market—but are interested in selling. This requires extra legwork on your real estate agent’s part (which may be worth discussing in your vetting process), and it can be the difference between spinning your wheels and finally getting an offer accepted.

4. Give Yourself a Bigger Budget Buffer

Remember the 30 percent rule, which dictates that 30 percent of your income should go toward housing? That rule was made in the ‘60s, and it didn’t account for things like student loans (let alone 2022’s skyrocketing inflation rates). Some experts suggest lowering that figure and following the 28/36 rule instead: Your mortgage payment should be 28 percent or less of your pre-tax income, and less than 36 percent of your total debt. It provides a cushion, though we’ll be honest: It’s easier said than done. The median household income in the U.S. is $67,521, which amounts to a mortgage payment of $1,575.

But there’s a strong argument for giving yourself a bit more of a buffer: “What buyers are spending on bills, gas and groceries today may be higher in six months or a year,” Trapasso says. “So buyers want to give themselves enough room to comfortably afford their mortgage, account for rising living expenses, and continue to put away money in savings/emergency funds.”

5. Buy with the Long Haul in Mind

Yes, interest rates are the highest they’ve been in the last 10 years, spiking suddenly these past few months, but…deep breaths. Don’t let that pressure you into making a rash decision. (Three-quarters of those who bought a house in the past two years have at least one regret, with 38 percent saying they wish they spent more time searching for a home.) “There is a difference between compromising and settling,” Trapasso says, and knowing your deal-breakers can help you walk away from a deal you might regret later.

It's also worth noting that as interest rates climb, we may see fewer offers on homes overall. That cooldown could lower asking prices—and cause a dip in home values across the board. That makes it all the more important that if you’re thinking of buying now, think with the long-term in mind: “If you plan to remain in your home for five- to 10-years, you are likely to recoup that amount if the housing market dips. But there is no guarantee,” Trapasso says.

6. Ditch the Love Letters

You may have heard of people penning letters to sellers to convince them to accept their offer, but resist the urge: A Zillow survey of premiere agents found that it was the least effective strategy. Plus, it can put you at risk of violating the Fair Housing Act, if your letter includes any personal demographic information that may sway the seller’s decision.

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