How much house can you really afford? Is it the amount the bank tells you when preapproving your loan? That's what most people go by, oftentimes spending up to their max approval amount to get as much house as possible - or to be able to afford something at all in tight markets.
The debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, along with your credit score, is what is used by lenders to determine your loan approval and amount. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) efforts to keep this number low notwithstanding, it has been rising to levels that are concerning to industry insiders who fear a widespread wave of homebuyers overextending themselves and becoming unable to support their mortgage payment and other obligations.
The CFPB's Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule went into effect in 2014, intended to curb overleveraging by capping a borrower's debt-to-income (DTI) ratio at 43 percent. "This means that a borrower's total debt expense (including total mortgage payment) does not exceed 43% of their gross income (before taxes are withheld)," said the National Association of REALTORS (NAR). The rub: Many loans Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), are exempt from the 43 percent DTI limit.
The impact higher DTIs are having on the market is clear; a new WalletHub report "analyzed data from 2,533 U.S. cities and ranked all of them on the basis of a ‘WalletHub Home Overleverage Score,'" said 24/7 Wall St, finding that, in many cities, overleveraging is becoming the norm. "The score was derived from a city's median mortgage debt, median house value, median income, mortgage debt-to-income ratio and mortgage debt-to-house value ratio." The top 10 are all well over the 43 percent threshold, with the top three - San Luis Obispo, California at 59.62; Williamsburg, Virginia at 58.76; and Brooksville, Florida at 57.44) pushing 60 percent.
Getting in over your head with a house, either from the get-go when first purchasing, or later on with a home equity line that increases your monthly payments, is a dangerous scenario for homeowners (and for the market in general). So how do you keep yourself in check to make sure the house you're buying is one you can actually afford and that you're not in danger of becoming house poor?
Do your own calculations
The bank may be telling you that a $350,000 house is within your means, but are you OK with the monthly payment attached to that price? No one is more familiar with your spending habits than you. Are you really going to be able to cut $500 a month in discretionary spending (eating out, movies, clothes shopping, morning lattes) to comfortably make your new house payment?
Don't forget about the extra expenses
If you're buying your first home, you may not be estimating your new monthly expenses accurately. Did you include the HOA fee, if the community in which you're looking to buy has one? What about any special assessments, if there are any? And private mortgage insurance (PMI) if you have an FHA loan and are putting less than 20 percent down on your home. That couple hundred dollars could put you over the top.
Have you also considered your utilities? You may not be accustomed to paying gas and electricity and water and trash if you've been living in an apartment. There could also be an increase in the cost of electricity if you have more square footage to heat and cool.
Watch out for HELOCS
A home equity line of credit (HELOC) can seem harmless. I mean, it's your money, right? And you're using it improve your home, which will only raise its value, right? But what seems like a great idea can also get you in trouble when you tap your home equity. You may be calculating the additional payment for now, but what happens later?
That's the conundrum thousands are facing right now, as "HELOCs are resetting higher rates and overleveraging homeowners," said Inman. "An analysis by Black Knight Financial shows that 1.5 million home equity lines of credit will see interest-only draw periods end this year with outstanding unpaid principal balances that average $62,500 per HELOC. The data reveals that average borrowers whose lines of credit reset will face an additional cost of $250 per month, more than double the current average payment."
Keep an open mind
Finding a house you can afford may be challenging - especially for first-time buyers and those in competitive markets that push the affordability index. If you have tight parameters for your house hunt that are making it hard to find something within your budget, consider:
Extending your area search. You may not be aware of (but your Realtor probably is!) adjacent cities or communities that offer a similar lifestyle at a lower price or up-and-coming areas that provide a great value because they're still slightly under the radar.
Buying a condo or townhome instead of a single-family home. Some buyers have an automatic aversion to condos and townhomes because they don't like the idea of living attached. But your real estate agent may know of properties that are end units, that have private yards, and that are two-story units with no one above or below you. It may be that this is your best bet for homeownership you can really afford at this point, and you may find you like it far more than you expected - especially because so many of these communities come with great amenities like a pool and gym, plus front-yard landscaping that is taken care of, saving you time and money.
Looking at fixer-uppers. A little-known loan called an FHA 203(k) mortgage may be your "in" to a home you can afford and make your own. The bonus is that it's also great for borrowers who may not have the credit and/or down payment to qualify for conventional loans. "The FHA requires a credit score of at least 580 if you want to make the minimum down payment; if you have 10% down, your score can be as low as 500," said Interest.com. "You can borrow more than the home is worth, as long as the repairs will increase its appraised value. The most you can borrow is 110% of what an appraiser estimates it will be worth after renovations, or the cost of the home plus the estimated renovation cost, whichever is less, minus your down payment. The minimum down payment on an FHA loan is 3.5%."