Are You Ready to Buy a House?

You'll need to consider more than just finances

If you feel like you're ready to buy a house, the first question you're likely to ask yourself is, "how much can I afford?" And answering that question means taking a look at several factors. 

Before you snap up that seemingly great buy on a home, learn how to analyze what "affordability" means. You'll need to consider various factors ranging from the debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to mortgage rates.

Key Takeaways

  • Determining your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)—more specifically, the front-end DTI—is an important factor in getting a mortgage.
  • How much downpayment you can afford will impact your ability to purchase a home.
  • Beyond the property's price tag, a host of other financial and lifestyle considerations should figure into your calculations as to whether you can afford to buy a house.
  • You should also evaluate the local real estate market, the economic outlook, and the implications of how long you want to stay put.
  • You'll also need to consider your lifestyle needs, present, and future.
Factors That Affect Housing Affordability

Investopedia / Ellen Lindner

Understand Your Debt-to-Income Ratio First

The first and most apparent decision point involves money. If you have sufficient means to purchase a house for cash, then you certainly can afford to buy one now. Even if you didn't pay in cash, most experts would agree that you can afford the purchase if you can qualify for a mortgage on a new home. But how much mortgage can you afford?

The 43% debt-to-income (DTI) ratio standard is generally used by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) as a guideline for approving mortgages. This ratio determines if the borrower can make their payments each month. Some lenders may be more lenient or rigid, depending on the real estate market and general economic conditions.

A 43% DTI means all your regular debt payments, plus your housing-related expenses—mortgage, mortgage insurance, homeowners association fees, property tax, homeowners insurance, etc.—shouldn't equal more than 43% of your monthly gross income.

For example, if your monthly gross income is $4,000, you multiply this number by 0.43 to get $1,720, which is the total you should spend on debt payments. Now, let's say you already have these monthly obligations: Minimum credit card payments of $120, a car loan payment of $240, and student loan payments of $120—a total of $480. That means theoretically, you can afford up to $1,240 per month in additional debt for a mortgage and still be within the maximum DTI. Of course, less debt is always better.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

What Mortgage Lenders Want

You also need to consider the front-end debt-to-income ratio, which calculates your income vis-à-vis the monthly debt you would incur from housing expenses alone, such as mortgage payments and mortgage insurance.

Usually, lenders like that ratio to be no more than 28%. For example, if your income is $4,000 per month, you would have trouble getting approved for $1,720 in monthly housing expenses even if you have no other obligations. For a front-end DTI of 28%, your housing costs should be under $1,120.

Why wouldn't you be able to use your full debt-to-income ratio if you don't have other debt? Because lenders don't like you living on the edge. Financial misfortunes happen—you lose your job, your car gets totaled, a medical disability prevents you from working for a while. If your mortgage is 43% of your income, you'd have no wiggle room for when you want to or have to incur additional expenses.

Most mortgages are long-term commitments. Keep in mind that you may be making those payments every month for the next 30 years. Accordingly, you should evaluate the reliability of your primary source of income. You should also consider your prospects for the future and the likelihood that your expenses will rise over time.

Getting approved for a mortgage up to a certain amount doesn’t mean you can actually afford the payments, so be honest about the level of financial risk that you are comfortable living with.

Can You Afford the Down Payment?

It's best to put down 20% of your home price to avoid paying private mortgage insurance (PMI). Usually added into your mortgage payments, PMI can add $30 to $70 to your monthly mortgage payment for every $100,000 borrowed.

There may be some reasons that you might not want to put down 20% toward your purchase. Perhaps you aren't planning on living in the home very long, have long-term plans to convert the home into an investment property, or you don't want to risk putting that much cash down. If that's the case, buying a home is still possible without 20% down. You can buy a home with as little as 3.5% down with an FHA loan, for example, but there are bonuses to coming up with more. In addition to the aforementioned avoidance of PMI, a larger down payment also means:

  • Smaller mortgage payments—for a $200,000 mortgage with a 4% fixed interest rate for a 30-year term, you would pay $955. If your mortgage were $180,000 with a 4% interest rate for a 30-year term, you'd pay $859.
  • More choices among lenders—some lenders won't offer a mortgage unless you put at least 5% to 10% down.

Being able to afford a new house today is not nearly as important as your ability to afford it over the long haul.

While there are many benefits to a larger down payment, don't sacrifice your emergency savings account completely to put more down on your home. You could end up in a pinch when unexpected repairs or other needs arise.

The Housing Market

Assuming you have your money situation under control, your next consideration is housing-market economics—either in your current locale or the one where you plan to move. A house is an expensive investment. Having the money to make the purchase is excellent, but it doesn't answer whether or not the purchase makes sense from a financial perspective.

One way to do this is to answer the question: Is it cheaper to rent than buy? If buying works out to be less expensive than renting, that's a strong argument in favor of purchasing.

Similarly, it's worth thinking about the longer-term implications of a home purchase. For generations, buying a home was almost a guaranteed way to make money. Your grandparents could have bought a home 50 years ago for $20,000 and sold it for five or 10 times that amount 30 years later. While real estate has traditionally been considered a safe long-term investment, recessions and other disasters can test that theory—and make would-be homeowners think twice.

During the Great Recession, many homeowners lost money when the real estate market crashed back in 2007 and ended up owning homes that were worth far less than the price at which they were purchased for many years after. If you are buying the property on the belief that it will rise in value over time, be sure to factor the cost of interest payments on your mortgage, upgrades to the property, and ongoing or routine maintenance into your calculations.

The Economic Outlook

Along those same lines, there are years when real estate prices are depressed and years when they are abnormally high. If prices are so low that it is obvious you are getting a good deal, you can take that as a sign that it might be a good time to make your purchase. In a buyer’s market, depressed prices increase the odds that time will work in your favor and cause your house to appreciate down the road. For example, if history repeats itself, we may see a drop in home prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its dramatic impact on the economy.

Interest Rates

Interest rates, which play a prominent role in determining the size of a monthly mortgage payment, also have years when they are high and years when they are low, which is better. For example, a 30-year mortgage (360 months) on a $100,000 loan at 3% interest will cost you $422 per month. At a 5% interest rate, it will cost you $537 per month. At 7%, it jumps to $665. So if interest rates are falling, it may be wise to wait before you buy. If they are rising, it makes sense to make your purchase sooner rather than later.

Time of Year

The seasons of the year can also factor into the decision-making process. Spring is probably the best time to shop if you want the widest possible variety of homes to choose from. Part of the reason relates to the target audience of most homes: families who are waiting to move until their kids finish the current school year but want to get settled before the new year starts in the fall.

If you want sellers who may be seeing less traffic—which could make them more flexible on price—winter may be better for house hunting (especially in cold climates), or the height of summer for tropical states (the off-season for your area, in other words). Inventories are likely to be smaller, so choices may be limited, but it is also unlikely that sellers will be seeing multiple offers during this time of year.

However, it is worth noting that some savvy buyers also like to make offers around holidays, such as Christmas or Easter, hoping that the unusual timing, lack of competition, and overall spirit of the season will get a quick deal done at a reasonable price.

Consider Your Lifestyle Needs

While money is an important consideration, many other factors could play a role in your timing. Is your need for extra space imminent—a new baby on the way, an elderly relative who can't live alone? Does the move involve your kids changing schools? If you'll be selling a house in which you've lived for less than two years, would you incur capital gains tax—and if so, is it worth waiting to avoid the bite?

You may love to cook with gourmet ingredients, take a weekend getaway every month, patronize the performing arts, or work out with a personal trainer. None of these habits are budget killers, but you might have to do without them if you bought a home based on a 43% debt-to-income ratio alone.

Before you practice making mortgage payments, give yourself a little financial elbow room by subtracting the cost of your most expensive hobby or activity from the payment you calculated. If the balance isn't enough to buy the home of your dreams, you may have to cut back—or start thinking of a less expensive house as your dream home.

Selling One Home, Buying Another

If you are selling a home and plan to buy another, save the proceeds from your current home in a savings account and determine whether or not—after factoring in other necessary expenses like car payments or health insurance—you will be able to afford the mortgage. It is also important to remember that additional funds will be allocated for maintenance and utilities. These costs will undoubtedly be higher for larger homes.

When you calculate, use your current income, and don't assume you'll be making more money down the road. Raises don't always happen, and careers change. If you base the amount of home you buy on future income, you might as well set up a romantic dinner with your credit cards as you'll end up in a long-lasting relationship with them. However, if you can handle these extra house costs without extra credit card debt, you can afford to buy a home—as long as you have saved up enough money for your down payment.

Do You Plan to Stay?

Affordability should be the number one thing you look for in a home, but it's also best to know how long you want to live there. If not, you could get stuck in a home you can't afford in a city or town you're ready to leave. Many financial experts suggest living in a home for five years before selling it as a guideline. Don't forget to factor in the costs involved with buying, selling, and moving. Also, consider the breakeven point for the mortgage fees associated with the home you are selling. If you can't decide what city or town you will live in and what your five-year plan is, it may not be the right time to buy a home.

If you want to buy a home without a five-year plan, purchase one priced much lower than the maximum you can afford. You'll have to be able to afford to take a hit if you have to sell it quickly. Another exception: If you work for a company that buys relocated employees' houses, one name for this is a guaranteed buyout option.

How Much House Can I Afford?

You should examine your income, savings (for a down payment and closing costs), and recurring debt to figure out how much house you can afford to buy. The 43% debt-to-income (DTI) ratio standard is a good guideline for being approved and being able to afford a mortgage loan.

How Does Buying a House Work?

Buying a house is often among the most significant purchases in your lifetime. When you find a house you want to buy, you should first figure out if you can afford it, then ask your lender for a pre-approval letter, which means the lender believes you are likely qualified for a mortgage loan, and then, you can make an offer. If the seller accepts your offer, you will need to take several next steps, including paying a downpayment and having your mortgage loan approved by an underwriter and lender.

What Is the 28/36 Rule?

The term 28/36 rule is a guideline used by underwriters and lenders use to see if you can afford the home you want to buy. In general, this rule is considered one of the best ways to calculate the amount of mortgage payment debt, you can afford based on your income.

Many lenders require that potential homebuyers' maximum household expense-to-income ratio is 28%, with a maximum total debt-to-income ratio of 36% in order to be approved for a mortgage.

The Bottom Line

Are you ready to buy a house? In short, yes—if you can afford to do it. But "afford" isn't as simple as what's in your bank account right now. A host of other financial and lifestyle considerations should figure into your calculations.

When you factor in all these elements, "if you can afford to do it," it starts looking more complicated than it first appears to be. But considering financial factors before you purchase can prevent costly mistakes and financial problems later.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Section F. Borrower Qualifying Ratios," Page 4-F-4.

  2. Consumer Financial Protection Board (CFPB). "What is a debt-to-income ratio?."

  3. Federal Trade Commission. "Mortgage Discrimination."

  4. Freddie Mac. "Breaking down PMI."

  5. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Let FHA loans help you." .

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 701 Sale of Your Home."

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