Purchasing a home is one of the biggest decisions of your life. Not just because it’s the place where you’ll lay your head each night, but also because your home is one of the largest purchases you’re likely to make.
As a certified financial planner, I know that purchasing a home, especially for a first-time buyer, can be an extremely stressful, although exciting, time. Over the past few years, as the housing market around Washington has improved, I’ve noticed a few telltale signs that a client is financially prepared to purchase their first home. If you’re thinking about becoming a homeowner, consider these five things.
1. You have positive cash flow.
Positive cash flow means you’re bringing in more income than you’re spending on everyday items and debt payments. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau puts the debt-to-income ratio at 43 percent. This ratio is one way that lenders measure your ability to repay debt. It can be calculated by dividing your total recurring monthly debt by your gross monthly income. However, just because lenders use this ratio, you may need to take a stricter approach. The debt-to-income ratio uses gross income, which means income before taxes, when really we pay bills with net income after taxes.
If you’re carrying a great deal of consumer debt, paying just the monthly minimums and increasing your balances every month, you need to get your debt in order before taking on additional debt. If you pay off your credit balances monthly and would still have room in your budget after swapping your rent check for a mortgage payment, then you are definitely a candidate for buying a home.
2. You have enough saved for a down payment.
Many home buyers take money out of their 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account to cover the down payment. This is a costly mistake that can negatively impact retirement savings. Taking money from your 401(k) or IRA denies years of compounding interest and has to be paid back with post-tax money. Instead, dedicate a savings account, which is more liquid, to be used for a down payment.
3. You have job security.
Or, you have a steady stream of income with a high degree of predictability. You will need to reliably generate enough income to withstand a monthly mortgage payment.
A monthly rent check in the Washington region may be comparable to the principal and interest payment of a mortgage here, but mortgage payments also include property taxes and higher insurance costs. The upside to a mortgage payment is the tax deduction. As a result of a larger tax deduction, less money may need to be withheld from your paycheck.
4. You’re ready for a commitment.
You’ve probably given a lot of thought to the house itself, but first-time home buyers should also take into account supplementary expenses. Unlike renting, there is no longer a landlord to fix a broken dishwasher. Additional expenses to consider include home maintenance repairs and replacements, and the expense of selling the home if and when you ever do.
You should be prepared to pay these additional expenses, and not be shaken by the possibility that you may eventually have to replace the roof. You should be excited to make the space your own and identify what that means to you. If you want to renovate the kitchen and bathroom on the house, add that cost to your budget.
5. You’re ready to put down roots.
Before you jump into a home or neighborhood, do your due diligence. A home can be viewed as an investment, but that’s not the sole purpose of why you buy. You want the stability it provides and a home that is your own. Depending on how long you plan to live there, your home may or may not appreciate, so you should look at it as more than just a way to build equity.
Greg Smith is a certified financial planner at the Wise Investor Group at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Reston, Va.