Deciding how much house you can afford
Your lender decides what you can borrow but you decide what you can afford.
Lenders are careful, but they make qualification decisions based on averages and formulas. They won’t understand the nuances of your lifestyle and spending patterns quite as well as you do. So, leave a little room for the unexpected – for all the new opportunities your home will give you to spend money, from furnishings, to landscaping, to repairs.
Historically, banks use a ratio called 28/36 to decide how much borrowers could borrow. An approved housing payment couldn’t be more than 28 percent of the buyer’s gross monthly income, and his or her total debt load, including car payments, student loans, and credit card payments, couldn’t be more than 36 percent. (In Canada lenders apply similar formulas to determine how much a buyer can afford. The Gross Debt Service ratio, or GDS, is not to exceed 32 percent of the buyer’s gross monthly income, and the Total Debt Service ratio, or TDS, is not to exceed 40 percent of the buyer’s total debt load.) As home prices have risen, some lenders have responded by stretching these ratios to as high as 50 percent. No matter how expensive your market though, we urge you to think carefully before stretching your budget quite so much.
Deciding how much you can afford should involve some careful attention to how your financial profile will change in the upcoming years. In the long run, your own peace of mind and security will matter most.
Creating your home wishlist
Before the home search begins, your real estate agent will want to know as much as possible about the features and amenities you desire. To help your agent better serve you, analyze what you want and what you need in a home’s features and amenities.
- Age: Do you prefer historic properties, or newer ones?
- Style: Do you have a special preference for ranches, bungalows, or another style of construction?
- Bedrooms: How many?
- Bathrooms: How many? Are they updated?
- Living and Dining Areas: A traditional, formal layout, or a more open, contemporary plan?
- Stories: How many?
- Square feet: How much space?
- Ceilings: How high?
- Kitchen: How big? Recently updated? Open to other living areas?
- Storage: Big closets, a shed, an extra-large garage?
- Parking: A garage or carport? Room for how many cars?
- Extras: Attic or basement?
- Play/exercise room
- Security system
- Sprinkler system
- In-law suite
- Hot tub
- Wooded lot
- Patio, deck, or porch
- Laundry room
Location, location, location
Where you buy not only affects the home’s current and future value, but it also affects your lifestyle. Your agent will be able to conduct a more targeted home search if you outline your preferences in neighborhoods and nearby amenities. Here’s a checklist of items you should consider and communicate to your chosen real estate agent.
- Urban, suburban or rural
- Commute time
- School districts
- Desirable neighborhoods
- Proximity to the airport
- Proximity to restaurants and retail
- Access to major highways and thoroughfares
- Access to public transportation
- Health care facilities
- Parks and recreation
- Length of time you plan to live in the home (Your agent should be knowledgeable about growth trends and projections that could affect your investment.)
Opting for new home construction
Whether to buy an existing home or have one built is yet another decision to make during the home-buying process. If you decide to go with new construction, a real estate agent can be a powerful advocate in your corner as you negotiate upgrades, a move-in date and other terms with the home builder.
Below are some basic pointers to prepare you for the journey ahead.
Selecting a builder
Shopping for a large production or custom home builder can be a daunting task. Start by defining what architectural styles appeal to you and then seek out the builders in your area who offer those styles. Due diligence is essential. Ask friends for referrals to get firsthand accounts; verify the builder’s state license status, if applicable; and check whether they’re certified by the National Association of Home Builders.
The builder representative and your real estate agent
A builder representative’s ultimate goal is to sell you a home. His or her role is to provide a wide range of information to help you in your decision-making, from building restrictions, roads and easements to inspections, warranties, rebates and upgrades. A real estate agent knowledgeable in new-home construction will be able to help you wade through all the data and point out the downsides and upsides of each line item. Your agent also can look out for your interests in reviewing the builder’s contract, which often contains more legal jargon than consumer-friendly language.
It’s all about timing
Market conditions greatly dictate a builder’s incentive to make a deal you cannot refuse. When a builder has inventory on his hands, his carrying costs start adding up. When this happens, a builder might be more amenable to strike a favorable deal, whether it’s throwing in upgrades or taking a bit off the asking price. A real estate agent can help you know when market conditions are right for these benefits. Also, watch for builder close-out sales. Builders promote these special events when a new subdivision is near completion but empty inventory still remains.
A word about paying up
While there are always exceptions, most builders require a deposit when a purchase agreement is signed. They also require that the buyer pay for any upgrades prior to closing. If you back out prior to closing, unless the agreement states otherwise, you will lose that money. Make sure you understand every detail in the builder’s contract before signing it.