Five Steps to Take Before Buying a Home

When you’re considering buying your first home, you’re probably full of excitement about achieving the American dream. Unfortunately, this dream could turn into a nightmare if you haven’t made sure that you’re financially ready for the costs of becoming a homeowner. Before you call a realtor, take these five steps to get all your ducks in a row.

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1. Calculate what you can comfortably spend

The last thing you want to do is make yourself “house poor” by spending more of your income on a home purchase than you should. The “affordability standard” for housing is that you should spend no more than 30% of your income on housing costs (including insurance and property taxes), while many mortgage lenders prefer that your housing cost is no greater than 28% of your income.

Your outstanding debts can also impact the amount you can spend on a home. Most lenders want a total debt-to-income ratio — including your mortgage payments and other debts — to be around 36% or less, although you can still get a standard mortgage with a ratio as high as 43%.

This means if your income is $50,000, you could reasonably afford about $1,170 per month for your total housing costs if you stuck to the 28% rule — assuming you didn’t have a substantial amount of other debt that would push your total monthly payments above the recommended 36% of income. If we also assume you can pay 20% down and qualify for an interest rate of 4%, then you could potentially afford a home price of up to $250,000. That may or may not be a realistic price in your area, and you may want to aim lower if you have other sizable debts.

2. Save a down payment of 20%

In our example above, we factored in having a 20% down payment when calculating the price of the home you could afford. Paying at least 20% of the value of the home up front is vital, because it allows you to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI). PMI insures your lender in the event that you’re unable to make payments and the lender must foreclose on you. On a $200,000 loan, PMI could cost you $100 a month or more, depending on how much you paid up front — and you could be paying it for several years.

You’re stuck with PMI until you pay your loan down to 78% or less of the home’s original value. Once you prove to your lender that you’ve reached that milestone, your lender is required to drop the PMI requirement. .

If you don’t have a down payment, not only will you waste thousands of dollars on PMI and additional interest payments, but you’ll also put yourself at substantial risk. When you make a 20% down payment on a home, the value of the house would have to fall more than 20% for the home to be worth less than you owe on it. If you only make a tiny down payment, however, even a slight downturn in the market could mean you’re underwater — i.e., your home is worth less than you still owe the bank. This makes it difficult or impossible to sell unless you can bring cash to the real estate closing for the difference between what your house sells for and what you still owe.

3. Save an emergency fund of three to six months’ worth of living expenses

When you’re a homeowner, you are responsible for everything that goes wrong in your house. Instead of calling a landlord when the furnace breaks or the pipes freeze, you have to call — and pay for — a repair man. If the problems are costly to fix, or can’t be fixed, you’re the one on the hook. If you don’t have money set aside to cover maintenance, repairs, and replacements, then you’ll have to use credit. You don’t want to be paying interest on your new fridge for the next 10 years, so make sure you have an emergency fund to cover the many costs of being a homeowner.

Not only can an emergency fund help you pay for surprise repairs, but it can also ensure that you don’t lose your home in the event that an illness, job loss, or other crisis puts a major strain on your household finances. If you cannot pay your mortgage because your income has taken a hit, you could be foreclosed on, lose your house, and end up with ruined credit. You don’t want this to happen, so save up enough money to pay the mortgage for several months in case something goes wrong.

4. Get pre-approved for a mortgage loan

When you have your financial house in order, it’s time to prove to the bank that you’re ready for the responsibility of taking on a mortgage. You want to get pre-approved by your chosen financial institution before you start shopping for a home. Getting pre-approved means you’ll have a clear idea of what the bank will lend you so you don’t shop outside of your price range. You’ll also be taken much more seriously by real estate agents and any potential sellers to whom you make an offer. Some sellers won’t even consider offers from someone who isn’t pre-approved, because there’s no way to know whether the financing will be available to complete the sale.

If you want your bids to be competitive and you want to know you’re shopping for houses that are priced right, provide your financial information to the bank before you start house shopping and get a pre-approval letter to take with you.

5. Find a buyer’s agent

Although you can technically buy a house without an agent, it’s usually a bad idea to try it — especially if it’s your first home. An agent can help you spot red flags that should send you running away from a prospective home. Agents know the market and can help you make a reasonable offer so you don’t overpay, and they can also guide you through the steps of the buying process, like getting a home inspection.

You’ll want to be sure you find a buyer’s agent, rather than letting the seller’s agent represent both you and the seller. A buyer’s agent is focused only on your interests and has lots of experience helping homebuyers find the house of their dreams. If you’ve already made sure you’re financially ready before calling a realtor, your agent can help you make the buying process low-stress and successful.

Six Ways to Rustle Up a Down Payment for a Home

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The down payment. It’s the only thing keeping you from a home of your own. You’ve got a good job, you’re paying down debt, and mortgage rates are still remarkably low. And rental rates are getting ridiculous.

Let’s see if we can break down this home buying barrier.

It doesn’t always take 20% down

If you’re a first-time home buyer, the down payment hurdle you have to clear may be quite a bit lower than you think. Traditionally, lenders have preferred 20% down, but a lot of low down payment options are available, especially to first-time buyers.

Mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs or Agriculture Department can be go-to low down payment loans. In fact, mortgages backed by the VA and the USDA — for those who qualify — usually don’t require a down payment at all. A funding fee is charged on VA loans, but even that can be rolled into your monthly loan payment.

You could get an FHA-backed loan with as little as 3.5% down, but you’d have to pay mortgage insurance to help lenders defray the costs of loans that default.

Conventional loans, which aren’t backed by the government, also offer low down payment programs to first-time buyers. Down payments of just 3% are common. Some lenders will offer 0% down loans. Mortgage insurance will enter the picture here, too.

However, a lower down payment usually means you’ll pay a higher interest rate.

Crowdfunding a down payment

Crowdfunding is the ultimate dream for snagging sudden money from strangers, other than the lottery. It can be done, but there are some catches.

First, you’re not going to get this done on Kickstarter; personal fundraising isn’t allowed there. Sites like GoFundMe are best suited for hard-luck appeals like medical expenses for life-threatening diseases, so it’s unlikely you’ll get a lot of help there when you’re pitching to raise money for a mortgage down payment. But who knows?

FeatherTheNest.com might be an option to consider. It lets you build an online profile for a gift registry where contributions to your down payment can be funneled into a linked bank account. The service seems particularly suited for engaged couples and newlyweds. The transaction fees are pretty stout, though — totaling about 8% on each donation.

Family down payment gifts and loans

Getting help from family members might be another way to go.

Garrett Clayton, CEO of AmCap Mortgage in Houston, cautions that receiving a gift toward a down payment takes a “full circle” of documentation to satisfy a mortgage lender’s requirements. The donors will have to verify in writing not only that they made the gift but that they have the financial ability to make such a donation. That will require them to provide bank statements as proof, along with a letter confirming that the donation is a gift and not a loan.

“From a lender perspective, if it is something that will be required to be paid back, then we would need to take those terms of repayment into the calculation of the borrower’s [debt-to-income] ratio, to make sure they still qualify,” Clayton says.

However, while properly documented gifts are acceptable to lenders, you might not want to rely exclusively on the kindness of family members, he adds.

“We see that borrowers that have none of their own money in the transaction are way more likely to default on loans,” Clayton says. “I would much rather do a loan to a 600 FICO client that has 100% of their own down payment, versus a 780 client that is getting 100% [of their down payment as a] gift.”

State and local down payment assistance

Here’s a little-known source of down payment help: state and local assistance programs. Rob Chrane, CEO of Atlanta-based DownPaymentResource.com, says the service has identified close to 2,500 initiatives across the nation.

There are programs in every state, implemented by government agencies, nonprofits, foundations and even employers. Assistance can have a geographic focus as wide as the nation or as narrow as a city — all the way to hyperlocal initiatives targeted as tightly as neighborhoods, and even house by house.

Programs change often; they’re funded, defunded and sometimes funded again.

Often, it’s a matter of matching a property to a program, Chrane says, based on a home’s location and price. Assistance requirements typically set a maximum sale price for a county or other geographic definition. Obviously, these programs aren’t meant to help borrowers buy million-dollar homes or vacation properties, he says.

“There’s typically some maximum household income limit,” Chrane adds. That can vary by location, as well as the number of members in a household, he says. Even statewide programs will have income requirements that are often higher in metropolitan areas and lower in rural areas.

A 2016 study by Attom Data Solutions determined that the typical down payment assistance program benefit, calculated over the life of a loan, was $17,000. The total combined an average savings of nearly $6,000 on the down payment with over $11,000 in monthly house payment savings over the life of a loan.

Benefits can be layered. Chrane says users of the website who were eligible for assistance qualified for an average of eight programs last year.

“There are some myths and misperceptions around this,” Chrane says. “Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, this is only for really low-cost housing, in targeted census tracts, distressed neighborhoods…and very low-income households. It’s much more widely available than that.”

Tapping retirement accounts

If you have a retirement nest egg, you might be tempted to tap a portion of it to help with the down payment. Employer-sponsored 401(k) plans often allow for penalty-free hardship withdrawals or loans. But if you’re under 59½, you’ll pay income taxes and a 10% penalty on the withdrawal. And loans can trigger an immediate repayment — or taxes and a penalty — if you lose your job.

IRA withdrawals for home purchases are allowed, up to $10,000. Roth withdrawals are tax-free and without penalty if you’ve had the account for at least five years. Tapping a traditional IRA will trigger income taxes.

The most obvious strategy
There’s always the spend-less-than-you-earn-and-save-it strategy to building a down payment fund. Maybe a few savings tips can help you there.

More than likely, it may take a combination of strategies to get you into a home with a decent down payment — and still have a little left over to cover those unexpected homeownership expenses.

~Hal Bundrick, NerdWallet