How To Buy a House in 2020


Buying a house is one of the biggest financial decisions most people ever make.

So it’s no surprise that there are a LOT of misconceptions around it. A few common ones:

  • Renting is throwing money away because you don’t own a house!
  • Houses are a good investment because they build equity.
  • You need to buy a house (and get married and have kids) after you graduate college.

Luckily, this is all nonsense.

In reality, renting might be better than owning. It really depends on where you live (check out this great calculator from NYT to see what that means for you).

Also, real estate is not that great of an investment. In fact, Yale economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller reported that from 1890 to 1990, the return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation.

Perhaps most importantly, though, buying a house is a very personal decision. That means no one can and should tell you whether or not you should buy.

Renting and owning are two very different lifestyles. Knowing exactly what goes into both is the key to making the right decision for you.

That’s why we want to dive into exactly what goes into buying a house—and how to buy one if you do want to.

Before Buying a Home: Know The True Cost

It’s easy to think that if you’re renting, you’re throwing money away. After all, your rent checks is going to the landlord who actually owns the property.

However, this often couldn’t be further from the truth.

Why? Simple: Phantom costs.

These are the unseen costs many people don’t take into consideration when they purchase a house. After all, owning a home is much more than a mortgage.

Some examples of phantom costs:

  • Homeowners Association (HOA) fees
  • Property taxes
  • Insurance
  • Utilities
  • Home repairs
  • Interest
  • Maintenance fees

In the end, these costs will add hundreds of dollars per month to your living expenses beyond the mortgage payment.

Check out this infographic below for a breakdown of what this can look like over the course of a 30 year mortgage.

Cost of Buying a Home Over 30 Years

But that doesn’t mean buying is always a bad decision. In fact, you might be in a place in your life when it just makes more sense to do so (ex: have kids and need more space, work requires you to move to a specific location, etc.).

If that’s the case for you, it’s important to know exactly how much house you can afford before you start looking for one—which brings us to…

Know How Much House You Can Afford

If you’re going to buy a house, knowing how much house you can afford is the first step in the process.

Knowing the amount you can spend will allow you get the right loan AND make sure you can pay it off.

Finding the right amount is simple too by using the handy 28/36 rule.

This is a great back-of-the napkin system that even mortgage lenders will use to determine whether or not you can afford a house.

And it’s straightforward:

  • Your max household expenses shouldn’t exceed more than 28% of your gross monthly income. Including everything within your home payment.
  • Your total household debt shouldn’t exceed more than 36% of your gross monthly income. This is also known as your debt to income ratio.

For example, if you earn $3,000 / month in gross income, the best mortgage you’re likely to attain would be no more than $840 / month — because that’s 28% of your gross income.

By that same rubric, if your debt is at or exceeds $1,080 / month, you probably should focus on paying down your debt rather than buying a house.

If you want to learn more on this topic (and you should) be sure to check out our article all on how much house you can afford.

Know What Your Credit Score

If you plan on getting a mortgage to buy a house, you absolutely need to check your credit score.

Not only that, but you also need to make sure that your credit score is good to get a good home loan.

Not doing so could result in tens of thousands of dollars lost over the course of your mortgage.

That’s not an exaggeration either. Imagine two people: One has a great credit score of 790 and the other has a low credit score of 630. Both are looking to get a $200,000 30-year fixed-rate home loan.

How much do you think they’ll each pay in interest? Take a look:

Credit Score Chart

Source: MyFico.com, calculated December 2019

The one with a bad credit score will end up paying $66,000 more than the one with a good credit score! That’s assuming they are able to get a mortgage at all with a score like that.

If your credit score isn’t the best, you’ll want to improve it. Here are a few resources from IWT that’ll help you do just that.

Mortgage Rates in 2020

Good news: Mortgage rates have been trending lower for the past few years—and it’s expected to remain low in 2020.

As of January 2020, rates have been sub-4% since 2019 (Freddie Mac). That’s an incredibly low mortgage rate and a boon for any homebuyers going into this year.

Bottom line: There’s no better time to buy since rates are so low right now.

Cash On Hand: Down Payments and Hidden Costs

The conventional wisdom is that you need a 20% down payment in order to attain a mortgage. Though that’s a great savings goal to shoot for, you likely don’t need that much to get a loan.

For example, first-time homebuyers can get an FHA loan which requires just a 3.5% down payment.  Even most conventional down payments can go as low as 5% (Consumer Protection Bureau).

BUT it matters how much your down payment is in the long run. Why? The more you pay towards your down payment, the less you’ll pay in interest rates over time.

Imagine you want to buy a home that costs $200,000. With a 20% down payment, you’ll end up with $160,000 left to pay off. With a 5% down payment, you’ll have $190,000 left to pay off.

Which one do you think will have a higher interest? The one with the 5% down payment of course.

The more you pay on your down payment means the lower your interest rate will potentially be too. Mortgage lenders like it when you’ve paid as much of your house off as possible before you even make a mortgage payment. It shows that you’re more likely to pay your bills each month.

Bottom line: You don’t need 20% down payment to get a mortgage — but it sure helps if you’re trying to save money.

Working With a Real Estate Agent

A good real estate agent is someone who will work with you and represent your interests. A bad one will mostly just look out for themselves and not care about finding a house that’s right for you.

That’s why it’s so important that you take the time to find a good real estate agent you trust.

There are two types of real estate agencies:

  1. Seller’s agency. These agencies represent the person selling the actual house. They are there to protect the interests of the seller. You’re not looking for a seller’s agent.
  2. Buyer’s agency. These agencies represent you and want to protect your interests. You want to find a buyer’s agent.

To find a buyer’s agency, contact your state board of Realtors and they will help you find someone who will find you a good house.

Click here to find your state board’s information.

Due Diligence – A Checklist of Things to Look For and Consider

There are a million different things you should watch out for when you’re looking to buy a house. Here are just a few very important ones for you to keep in mind:

  • Hire a property inspector: This is a third-party professional who will go through your house and examine it for structural flaws, damage, and repair suggestions. They’ll give you a full report of their findings and you can use this in case of negotiations. Or, if they find something really bad, you can back out of the deal much easier.
  • Get a home appraisal: Once you’re approved for a loan, you have the opportunity to ask your lender for a home appraisal. This allows the lender to take into account different factors that might impact the home’s price (how many rooms, swimming pools, the price of the homes nearby, etc). This appraisal will give you an idea of what a good asking price would be.
  • Shop around: A lot of home buyers (especially first timers) tend to fall in love with a location and rush into a purchase. Instead, slow down. Be sure to shop around when it comes to your house. And diversify the ways you find homes too. Check newspaper ads, websites like Zillow, and ask your realtor for locations.
  • Look beyond the price tag: When negotiating for the home, remember you can always negotiate beyond the price of the house. Maybe you can ask the seller to include a washer and dryer? Or maybe you can ask them to clean the carpets or paint the walls a different color? Get creative!

Take Your Time

Buying a house is a BIG financial decision. That’s why it’s so important that you educate yourself on the process as well as all the ways you can save money in the long run. Be sure to check out a few of our other articles on buying a house for more systems to help you out:

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