ASK A FINANCIAL PLANNER: 'How much should I put down on a house?'

Certified financial planner Sophia Bera answers:
My husband and I want to buy a home in our current city, an area that is already pricey and one where the prices are steadily rising.

Does it make more sense to keep saving for a down payment amount that would let us not pay the mortgage insurance, which will take us several years, or to pay the bare minimum necessary to secure a home sooner rather than later, accepting that we’ll have to pay mortgage insurance, but that we may buy at a lower cost?

Ah, homeownership.

This is challenging one without knowing more about your overall financial situation. I always say that it’s more important to address what’s going on in your “personal economy” rather than worry about the US economy.

People get so caught up in rising home prices, low interest rates, and other people buying homes that they think “Now is the ONLY time to buy a house!” But we all know that people have bought houses at all different times in history and will continue to do so.

When evaluating whether or not you should buy a home, consider how long you’re going to live there. A lot of people end up moving every few years or even switching jobs to a location across town, which could result in a longer commute, so consider how owning a home might limit your job opportunities. By being mobile and renting, you’re putting yourself in a position to grow your income faster by being open to a job opportunity in a new city.

There’s a lot of time and money that goes into homeownership that people forget about: yard work, home repairs, renovation costs, property taxes, insurance, etc. It’s important to consider all of the costs and not just compare the monthly mortgage payment to your current rent amount. One of the first things people do when they move is paint, buy new furniture, and start doing a home project.

If you’re planning on living there at least five years and you really want to own, then I would make sure to put yourself in the best financial position possible before you purchase. I wouldn’t buy if you have credit card debt or other high interest rate debt (above 5%). Knock out some student loans, get rid of a car payment, and try to lower your monthly payments to free up additional cash flow.

If you can put 20% down and avoid PMI, that is ideal. However, if putting 20% down means that you use all of your savings, then don’t do it! I would much rather see people put 5% down, wipe out all their other debt with cash, and still have three months of emergency savings versus putting 20% down on a house.

Another thing: I don’t think you should think of your home as an investment. You need a roof over your head whether that’s an apartment or a house. Over the last 100 years houses have increased an average of about 3% which is roughly the rate of inflation! Compare this to the Dow Jones over 100 years, which has returned 6.8%.

Before you move anywhere, consider how this will affect your lifestyle. If you live in a city and you end up moving to the suburbs then this is a very big lifestyle change. What’s the motivation to moving there? Cheaper home prices or is it a better school district? Think about how this will change your commute, your lifestyle, and your community.

One of my best friends recently moved from an apartment close to downtown Austin to a place 15 minutes north of the city (when there’s no traffic, and there is traffic a lot!). She had no idea how this would affect the coffee shops she visits, the shows that she attends at night, and the way she plans her day. It was mentally exhausting for her. She’s now moving back to her ideal location in Austin because it makes her everyday life much less stressful. She isn’t going to spend time stuck in traffic, she’ll be within walking distance to her favourite coffee shops, her friends will all be close by, and the amenities in her building (like a gym) will be super convenient.

Homeownership versus renting an apartment is a really big decision, so think carefully before making the plunge. Good luck!

Sophia Bera, CFP® is the Founder of Gen Y Planning and has been quoted in The New York Times, Forbes, Business Insider, AOL, The Wall Street Journal, and Money Magazine. She tweets, travels, and loves helping millennials manage their money more effectively. Curious? Sign up for the free Gen Y Planning Newsletter.

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