How Much House Can I Afford?


8 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

What's a rule of thumb to determine how much mortgage you can afford? There's no one rule, but these four tips will tell you. 

Home ownership should make you feel safe and secure, and that includes financially. Be sure you can afford your home by calculating how much of a mortgage you can safely fit into your budget.

Why not just take out the biggest mortgage a lender says you can have? Because your lender bases that number on a formula that doesn’t consider your current and future financial and personal goals.

Think ahead to major life events and consider how those might influence your budget. Do you want to return to school for an advanced degree? Will a new child add day care to your monthly expenses? Does a relative plan to eventually live with you and contribute to the mortgage? Do you like to travel?

Consider those lifestyle issues as you check out these four methods for estimating the amount of mortgage you can afford.

#1 Prepare a Detailed Budget

The oldest rule of thumb says you can typically afford a home priced two to three times your gross income. So, if you earn $100,000, you can typically afford a home between $200,000 and $300,000.

But that’s not the best method because it doesn’t take into account your monthly expenses and debts. Those costs greatly influence how much you can afford. Let’s say you earn $100,000 a year but have $1,000 in monthly payments for student debt, car loans, and credit card minimum payments. You don’t have as much money to pay your mortgage as someone earning the same income with no debts.

Better option: Prepare a family budget that tallies your ongoing monthly bills for everything -- credit cards, car and student loans, lunch at work, day care, date night, vacations, and savings.

See what’s left over to spend on home ownership costs, like your mortgage, property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable.

#2 Factor in Your Downpayment

How much money do you have for a down payment? The higher your downpayment, the lower your monthly payments will be. If you put down at least 20% of the home's cost, you may not have to get private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender if you default and costs hundreds each month. That leaves more money for your mortgage payment.

The lower your down payment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for and the higher your monthly mortgage payment.

But, if interest rates and/or home prices are rising and you wait to buy until you accumulate a bigger downpayment, you may end up paying more for your home.

#3 Consider Your Overall Debt

Lenders generally follow the 43% rule. Your monthly mortgage payments covering your home loan principal, interest, taxes and insurance, plus all your other bills, like car loans, utilities, and credit cards, shouldn’t exceed 43% of your gross annual income. 

Here’s an example of how the 43% calculation works for a home buyer making $100,000 a year before taxes:

Your gross annual income is $100,000.
Multiply $100,000 by 43% to get $43,000 in annual income.
Divide $43,000 by 12 months to convert the annual 43% limit into a monthly upper limit of $3,583.
All your monthly bills including your potential mortgage can’t go above $3,583 per month.
You might find a lender willing to give you a mortgage with a payment that goes above the 43% line, but consider carefully before you take it. Evidence from studies of mortgage loans suggest that borrowers who go over the limit are more likely to run into trouble making monthly payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns.

#4 Use Your Rent as a Mortgage Guide

Use a calculator that compares renting and owning to help you see what makes sense for you.

If you’re struggling to keep up with your rent, buy a home that will give you the same payment rather than going up to a higher monthly payment. You’ll have additional costs for home ownership that your landlord now covers, like property taxes and repairs. If there’s no room in your budget for those extras, you could become financially stressed.

Also consider whether or not you’ll itemize your deductions. If you take the standard deduction, you can’t also deduct mortgage interest payments. Talking to a tax adviser, or using a tax software program to do a “what if” tax return, can help you see your tax situation more clearly.

#5 Find a Loan Officer

The first step in finding a good loan officer, is determining what type of mortgage you need. And what type of credit score you have and the type of income you receive.

Do you need an FHA mortgage with a low down payment? Are you a first-time homebuyer? Are you looking for a Jumbo mortgage? Are you self-employed or are you paid on commissions or bonuses? Is your credit score low? You'll want a loan officer who's experienced in handling your type of situation.

When shopping for a good loan officer don't be afraid to interview them. Even if they have been referred by someone. We all have different situations and what might be a good lender/loan officer for one person, may not be a good fit for you.

#6 Questions to Ask

When interviewing loan officers, ask them how many years they have been a licensed mortgage loan officer. Ask for their NMLS number. Look them up on the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and see what their record shows or if they have any complaints listed:

How long have they been with their current company (and previous companies)? Whatever mortgage program you are seeking, ask them how many of these type mortgages have they done?

What is their current processing time for your type mortgage? Will you be working with their loan processor or them throughout the process? Do they have a dedicated processor or rotating processors? What kind of working relationship do they have with their processor? How long have they had this processor?

#7 Skills are important

How good are they at evaluating tax returns? Believe it or not, there are many loan officers who are not skilled at this. It can make or break the mortgage approval if this is not done correctly.

The qualifying income can be tricky to evaluate on tax returns. If a loan officer is not very knowledgeable, there could be mistakes made resulting in a loan denial or additional conditions. Or if they do not obtain the necessary documentation upfront from you, you may be scrambling at the end of the process to provide this.

What is their technical background? Today's loan officer needs to be tech savvy. Much of originating a mortgage requires complex software programs. If one is not skilled in this area, their time will be eaten up trying to navigate this aspect of the process. That means they will have less time to tend to your needs.

Are they good at customer service and communicating with all 3rd parties involved in the transaction? Communication with realtors, builders, title companies and appraisal companies is very important, as well as communication within their processing, underwriting and closing departments.

#8 Good loan officer + Good communication = On Time Settlement

A good loan officer will get you to the closing table in a timely manner. They will communicate with you throughout the process. They will make sure your rate lock is protected or extended if need be.

A good loan officer will usually be working for a good lender. Their livelihood depends on the lender they work for being proficient and competitive. If you find a good loan officer you most likely will also be finding a lender that has competitive mortgage rates and closing cost.

Excerpts from David Mully is president and CEO of Lender Insider & By G. M. Filisko, Reprinted from with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®."

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