In an ideal world, you’d begin your homeownership journey debt free (with a 3-month emergency fund saved, to boot). In the real world, however, debt is a reality, whether it be some credit card debt, a car loan, or outstanding student loans, all of which could add up to a sizable amount. Therefore, eliminating it before buying a home may be all but impossible.
The good news is that homeownership may still be an achievable goal, even if you’re deep in debt. It may be more difficult, but smart debt management can help pave the way for you to own a home. Here are some practical and achievable tips on managing debt and becoming a homeowner.
Cut Your Debt to Income (DTI) Ratios
One term you’re likely to see often when house-hunting is DTI or debt-to-income ratio. Lenders want to know what percentage of your income goes to paying off the debt you already have. A high DTI suggests you’ve already tied up a good amount of your income and adding a mortgage could be too financially taxing for you.
Generally, lenders prefer to see a DTI ratio under 40% of your total gross income. So, for example, if you make $3,000 per month (typical median annual income for Millennials is around $35,000), your total debt payments should be less than $1,200. Some lenders may choose a lower DTI, like 35%, as their cap to offer a loan.
A few ways to reduce your DTI ratio are:
- Pay off some debt. The simplest way to show a lower debt ratio is…have less debt! True, this is easier said than done. If your budget allows, tackle one source of debt more aggressively, such as a credit card balance with the highest interest rate. If you increase payments by the average monthly amount you expect to spend on home maintenance, this can also serve as a practice run for what your budget might look like as a homeowner. Reaching out to a certified debt coach or financial counselor will help you plan to pay off your debt efficiently and reach your goals faster.
- Consider refinancing long-term loans. Refinancing student loan payments to a 20-year versus 10-year plan lowers the monthly payment (and your DTI). Make sure you can pay extra and direct payments toward the principal, so you can still pay off your loans in a shorter time frame.
- Double-check your credit report. Errors can happen, so if your credit report mistakenly listed someone else’s debt on your account (thanks to a similar name, or a wrongly entered SSN), it may look like you have more debt than you actually do. You’re entitled to one free credit report per year from all major credit bureaus. Additionally, a Credit Report Review with a certified financial coach will provide you a thorough understanding of everything that is on your report.
Save a Manageable Down Payment
The often-cited industry gold standard down payment is 20% to buy a home. Typically having this level of down payment, you may get a more favorable interest rate and save on the mortgage insurance premium that is generally associated with loans that have less than 20% down payments. If you are already managing tens of thousands of dollars in other debt, 20% may not be achievable and the good news is that there are many mortgage options available with lower down payment requirements, especially for first-time homebuyers. Having stable employment and a strong credit score will also help you qualify for loans at better rates (another great reason to reduce some credit card debt before house hunting!).
Investing your time in pre-purchase homeownership coaching and taking a home buyer education course is highly recommended before you begin your homeownership journey. You will learn about the loan options available, down payment options and programs and what to expect as a homeowner. Many loan programs also require this education for first-time homebuyers. You’ll still work through a lender such as a mortgage bank or non-profit community development financial institution, so it’s important to compare options, negotiate, and ask questions to find the best rates and terms. The better your credit, the more lenders you’re likely to find who will approve you (getting over 600 or so is a good goal to set).
Buy the Home You Can Afford
Based on your income, credit history and debt ratios, lenders may pre-qualify you for a certain maximum loan amount. Be careful, this maximum may be okay with the lender but more importantly, this amount needs to fit into your overall operating budget. Generally, you should aim to keep housing costs below 35% of your income. That includes associated costs like utilities, taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Going over this figure could put you at a higher risk of being “house-poor,” tying up too much of your paycheck in your home.
Debt makes buying a home harder, but it’s far from impossible. If you’re managing your current debt comfortably, you may find lenders who will help you reach your homeownership dream. If you’re struggling with your debt, don’t give up, either. Work with a financial counselor to build a debt management plan so you can balance your obligations and your goals.