Should I Buy A Home? Part 1: Preparation

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I am considering buying a home, although I have not made up my mind on the subject. This is not due to indecision, but rather due to a lack of necessary information. There are many factors to be considered in my case, and in order for me to make an informed decision about buying, I need to solve for several variables involving cost.

My questions to you involve what steps I can take to solve those variables. Should I begin with a pre-qualification or loan approval? Will a lender invest time and resources in me when I have no specific property in mind, and I may ultimately decide to continue renting? Should I start by speaking with realtors in order to guage what is available in my price range? Will realtors invest time and resources in me when I have no loan arranged and I may ultimately decide to continue renting?

Also, what is the proper sequence of action for someone who is seeking to collect all the relevant information in order to make reasoned decisions about buying a home?


Well, a major question is whether you can trust real estate agents to answer the question honestly. Some will, most won't. If they tell you to buy, they make money. If they tell you to keep renting, they don't. One trusts that you see the potential for abuse.

The question here of "Should I Buy A Home" really separates into two basic questions: "How much home do I qualify for?" and "Is there a better alternative, financially?" You can then decide if buying or renting is the better alternative for you.

Qualifying yourself to buy a home, or to use better phrasing, figuring out how much home you should buy, is easier than most folks think. You can look in the classifieds section or on any number of internet sites to find out what the asking prices for properties like ones you might want to buy are in that neighborhood.

The personal information needed is easily available. First, you need to know how much you make per month, as you make mortgage payments monthly. Next, how much your mandatory payments are. Third, about what your credit score is.

Most people know how much they make per month. Now, "A paper" guidelines go between thirty-eight and forty-five percent of gross income for your total of all required monthly debt payments. Subprime lenders will go up to anywhere between fifty and sixty, with most limiting your debt to income ratio to fifty or fifty-five percent. I'd recommend staying within A paper guideline, but calculators are easy to use. So multiply your monthly income by thirty-eight percent, forty-five percent, fifty percent, and fifty five percent. This gives you a set of four numbers, which you may call anything, but I'm going to name A0, B0, C0, and D0. They correspond to what should by standard current loan guidelines be easy total debt service payments for most folks, moderate payments, difficult payments, and extreme payments.

Now most people have recurring debt of some sort. Credit card payments, car payments, furniture payments, etcetera. This does not include monthly bills that you are paying as you go. You know what your monthly obligations are. Whatever this number is, call it $X. Subtract $X from each of those four numbers above, so that you have the numbers that you really have available to spend on housing in each of these four scenarios. I'm going to call these numbers created by subtraction A1, B1, C1, and D1.

Now these numbers you have must cover all the recurring costs of owning a home. These include not only the principal and interest payments on the loan, but property taxes, homeowner's insurance, homeowner's association dues if applicable, Mello-Roos districts here in California, and anything else that may be applicable where you want to buy. Within the industry, the acronym most often used for this is the PITI payment, for Principal Interest Taxes Insurance, with the understanding that it includes anything else necessary as well. Association dues and Mello-Roos districts are a function of where you buy. Every condominium or coop is going to have Association dues or some equivalent. Mello-Roos districts are limited time property tax districts assessed to pay for things like municipal water and sewer service for new developments. Most newer developments here in California have them, and the equivalent districts are becoming more and more prevalent in newer developments elsewhere. Homeowner's Insurance is mandatory if you're going to have a loan - no lender is going to lend money on an uninsured property, but note that even the best homeowner's policy does not include flood or earthquake coverage, so if you're buying in an area where that is a consideration, the extra cost of a flood policy or earthquake policy is probably worth it. Condominium owners should have a master policy of homeowner's insurance paid for by their association dues, but it's still a good idea to have an individual policy for your unit, which is a standard policy form called an HO-6 policy here in California.

Property taxes are paid to city, county, state and possibly utility districts, but your county tax collector should be able to quote overall rates. There is no way to cover all the possibilities from here, but you can make an estimate, if nothing else by calling the county and asking. Note that they usually quote taxes in terms of a percentage tax value per year. Multiply assessed value by tax rate to get a per year tax bill, then divide by twelve to get a per month value. In California, there's a rule of thumb that property taxes per month are approximately one dollar per thousand dollars purchase price per month in most places (it will be more if there's been a bond issue approved or any number of other circumstances), so take the last three digits off the purchase price and that is usually close to your monthly tax liability. $250,000 purchase price? $250 per month. $500,000 purchase price? $500 per month.

By subtracting off all those figures, you get a range of monthly payments for the loan that you can actually afford. Call these A2, B2, C2, and D2. Armed with these and your credit score, you can figure out what kind of rate you might qualify for. Right now thirty year fixed rate A paper purchase money loans of no more than eighty percent of the value of the home can be had without points at something between 6.5 and 6.75 percent. Make allowances for a significantly higher rate for the last twenty percent if you don't have a down payment, and for the whole amount if your credit is below average, or if you cannot document income via w-2s or income reported to the IRS for the last couple of years. I will soon have an article here that might be helpful in gauging how much of a loan you'll qualify for. You can usually get significantly lower rates by being willing to accept a hybrid ARM as ooposed to a thirty year fixed rate loan (I've been doing it for fifteen years), but right now with the yield curve the way it is, the difference is marginal.

Knowing the payment you can afford, the interest rate, and the term of the loan, you can calculate how much of a loan you can afford. Knowing any three of principal, interest rate, payment, and term, a loan calculator can tell you the fourth. Do this with your four values, A2, B2, C2, D2, and you get four potential loan principal amounts, A3, B3, C3, and D3. These correspond to loan amounts where the payment should be easy, moderate, hard but doable, and a real stretch. To this, add any money you have available for a down payment, and subtract projected purchase costs (maybe $1000 plus 1 percent of home value). This gives you four values A4, B4, C4, and D4. These correspond to the purchase price of the homes you can afford under those four prospective loan amounts. You can then compare these amounts with what is available, and at what price, in those areas you might wish to buy.

Continued in Part 2: Process.
Finished in Part 3: Consequences

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on March 10, 2007 10:00 AM.

"You've Got Something I'm Interested In, But I Don't Want to Pay You" was the previous entry in this blog.

How to Effectively Shop for a Buyer's Agent is the next entry in this blog.

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