Live through a few rent increases, and it may seem like home ownership makes more financial sense than writing ever-higher checks to your landlord. After all, when you own you can build home equity, you’ll get a few tax breaks, and you can “fix” your monthly housing payment—although you’re on the hook for repairs.
It’s not just your perception that rents are high. According to recent national rent report (August 2015) from Zumper, the top 10 real estate markets in the United States now demand mortgage-like payments from renters. In New York and San Francisco, median rents top $3,000, while in Washington DC, San Jose, and Boston median rent tops $2,000. In Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and Oakland median rent exceeds $1,600.
But is buying—and all the financial commitment it entails—worth jumping into, just to avoid further rent increases? While the question is worth asking, financial advisors say the answer isn’t black and white. The decision still depends on some classic variables—how long you plan to stay in the place, whether you can fund the down payment and home repair costs over time, and how your debt load and credit score influence financing choices.
Still, in many markets where rents have swollen and home prices have remained relatively constant, it’s possible to save money owning. Take this example from housing finance giant Freddie Mac —where a couple paying $1,400 for rent can put 5% ($10,000) down on a $200,000 house and obtain a mortgage with the same monthly payment as their rent, and, via tax breaks, appreciation and avoiding annual rent hikes, save over $90,000 by owning versus renting over a 7-year period.
If rent increases are encouraging you to buy, here are some considerations financial advisors encourage you to keep in mind.
Prequalify with a mortgage broker, then go visit your financial advisor
These two professionals can help paint the financial picture of home ownership. First, a mortgage broker can show you your borrowing options based on your credit score and available down payment. Then a financial advisor can help you model how owning under these conditions would impact your financial plan over time. While home lenders will let you borrow up to a certain maximum to own, that doesn’t mean you should borrow the maximum, many financial advisors caution.
Only buy when you can commit to staying three to five years
Most financial advisors recommend avoiding buying a home unless you plan to stay a minimum of three to five years. Many first time buyers make a low down payment (less than 5%), so you need to stick around to build up equity (your ownership stake). Additionally, buying a home comes with transaction costs, as does selling a home. To make those costs worth it, you’ll need to stay. Additionally, there’s also no guarantee your home’s price will rise and thus make you some money when you sell—although the longer you stay the better your odds of an increase in value.
Clean up your credit card debt
“If you’re carrying credit card debt, you’re not ready to buy,” says Dean Shah, an advisor with Stonegate Wealth Management in Oakland, NJ. He’s not referring to a card you use and pay off in full each month, but to significant balances you’re slowly paying off over time. He advises that would-be owners pay off all credit card debt before shopping to own. That’s because when you own, you’ll be responsible for home maintenance and improvement – which will swiftly become overwhelming if you have chronic credit card debt.
Keep a cash reserve
Many buyers raid their savings and dip into retirement funds to come up with a down payment on a new place. Even if you’re steadily employed, many advisors caution against emptying all piggy banks just to own. Rita Cheng, an advisor who is CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Rockville, Maryland, says if you’re left with less than one month of living expenses after buying (and can’t quickly replenish your savings), you may be cutting it too close. Shah is more conservative, suggesting that buyers keep a six-month cash reserve. In a house you’ll pay for maintenance. And in apartment-like condo buildings you will pay monthly homeowners dues and can also be subject to surprise “special assessments”extra dues paid by all condo owners—for building-wide repairs. You’ll need some savings around in either case.
What’s your renter budget versus homeowner budget?
Landlords typically rent to those for whom a monthly payment doesn’t exceed a certain percentage of income. The same is true for lenders, who determine what you can borrow based on debt-to-income ratios. While for younger adults spending 33%-36% on housing is standard, sometimes it is OK to spend more to own, says Cheng. For instance, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington where she works, she knows young adults who spend up to 45% of income to own—but that is because unlike a suburban buyer these owners use inexpensive public transportation and thus don’t have to pay for a car loan, auto insurance, or gas. As income rises, their housing payments will shrink as a fraction of income.
Practice for the new mortgage and maintenance payments
Owning a home means you are your own landlord. You’ll need to understand how to maintain (or hire help with) your home’s systems and budget 1-2% of your home’s purchase cost annually for maintenance —and possibly more if you buy an old home or fixer you plan to repair. One way would-be owners can plan for the higher costs to own is to “practice their new payment,” says Shah. This means if your rent is $1,000 and a mortgage might be $1,400, start paying $1,400 now –$1,000 to rent and $400 to savings. This way you’ll learn what it’s like to live on your new (lower) disposable income, plus this technique will also help you save up for your down payment.
Discuss your down payment with your financial advisor and family
Over-spending to own can curb other important forms of investment (401k, IRA) and savings you need for your financial future. While a mortgage broker can tell you what’s possible, a financial advisor can tell you what makes financial sense and help you time and prepare for a purchase. “A lot of times I hear from people when it’s already too late,” says Shah. “They’ve already purchased.” One tip he and Cheng mentioned: Many buyers don’t know it is possible to receive family gifts ($14,000 annually, tax-free, from each individual) which can be used toward a down payment—a great option if you’re fortunate to have relatives capable and willing to help you get into a home you can afford. It’s also possible to develop a down payment plan that doesn’t curb retirement and emergency fund savings levels.