Saving for the Down Payment

Saving funds for a down payment should be part of an overall program to get your finances in order prior to shopping for a home. This includes rounding up financial records, examining your spending habits, and setting a budget you can live with. Remember, too, that the down payment is not the only up-front expense. An allowance for closing costs should also be included in your savings budget.

How much is required?
The down payment is usually expressed as a percentage of the overall purchase price of the home, and varies depending on the lender, the type of financing and amount of money being lent. In the past, the typical down payment was 20%, but in recent years lenders have been willing to offer conventional financing with as little as 3% down. U.S. Government financing programs, such as those offered by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), also require minimal down payments.

Private mortgage insurance
Typically, if your down payment is less than 20% of the purchase price, lenders will require you to carry PMI, or private mortgage insurance. This insurance protects the lender in case of loan default, and usually involves an up-front payment at closing, as well as a monthly premium. However, once you have paid off 20% of the loan, you can request the policy be canceled. Some lenders cancel the premium automatically, while others require you to make a request in writing.

Gifts
If you are having trouble saving enough money, many lenders will allow you to use gift funds for the down payment–as well as for related closing costs. The gift may come from family, friends or other sources, but remember that lenders usually require a “gift letter” stating the gift doesn’t have to be repaid. In addition, some lenders will also require you to pay at least a portion of the down payment with your own cash. Thus, if you plan to use gift money to purchase your house, ask your lender about their policies regarding gifts.

Earnest money
Buyers are usually required to deposit earnest money with the seller when they make an offer. If the offer is accepted, the earnest money is then credited towards the down payment. The amount varies widely depending on the seller and local custom, but be prepared from the outset to have funds earmarked for this purpose.

Don’t forget closing costs
In addition to the down payment, you will also need to save for additional fees associated with the loan. Known as closing costs, these charges cover items such as title insurance, documentary stamps, loan origination fees, the survey, attorney’s fees, etc. When you submit your loan application, lenders are required to supply you with a good faith estimate of your closing costs.

Some buyers are surprised by the amount of the closing costs, which can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Remember, though, that closing costs can be negotiated with the seller. For example, you may agree to pay the full asking price in exchange for the seller paying all the allowable closing costs.

Leveraging Your Money

One of the greatest financial aspects of buying a home is the ability to leverage your money. Simply put, leverage allows you to use a small down payment and financing to purchase a larger investment. For example, if you bought a $125,000 home with 10 percent down, you leveraged the $12,500 down payment to purchase an asset worth 10 times that amount!

Appreciation
The benefits of leverage really become apparent with appreciation, or the rise in value of a property. Using the above example, say you were to live in the house for 5 years, and during that time property values in your area were to rise an average of 2.5 percent a year. Your home would then be worth over $141,000. By putting only 10 percent down, you get to enjoy the appreciation for the full amount!

Paying yourself
In addition to the 10 percent down, you’ll also have to make mortgage payments. But with each payment, a certain amount of money is being used to pay down the principal balance that you owe. This is called building equity. So in the event you sell your house, not only can you realize a profit from your leveraged money, you also have a chance to pay yourself back for the money you’ve put in over the years. No wonder so many people consider a home an excellent investment!

How Much Can You Afford?

Understanding how much you can afford is one of the most important rules of home buying. Depending on your individual situation, your budget can affect everything from the neighborhoods where you look, to the size of the house, and even what type of financing you choose.

Bear in mind, however, that lenders will look at more than just your income to determine the size of the loan. Likewise, you may find that there are some creative financing options that can help boost your purchasing power.

Loan prequalification vs. preapproval
One of the best ways to determine your budget is to have your real estate agent or lender prequalify you for a loan. Prequalification is different from preapproval, because it is only an estimate of what you’ll be able to afford. On the other hand, preapproval is a more formal process where a lender examines your finances and agrees in advance to loan you money up to a specified amount.

What factors are important to lenders?
Banks and lending institutions will use several criteria to determine how much money they’ll agree to lend. These include:

  • Your gross monthly income
  • Your credit history
  • The amount of your outstanding debts
  • Your savings–or the amount of money you have available for a down payment and closing costs
  • Your choice of mortgage (i.e. 30-year, FHA, etc.)
  • Current interest rates

Two important ratios
Lenders also use your financial information to figure out two, very important ratios: the debt-to-income ratio and the housing expense ratio.

  • Debt-to-income ratio
    Many lenders use a rule of thumb that the amount of debt you are paying on each month (car payment, student loan, credit card, etc,) shouldn’t exceed more than 36 percent of your gross monthly income. FHA loans are slightly more lenient.

  • Housing expense ratio
    It is generally difficult to obtain a loan if the mortgage payment will be more than 28 to 33 percent of your gross monthly income.

Down payments make a difference
If you can make a large down payment, lenders may be more lenient with their qualifying ratios. For example, a person with a 20 percent down payment may be qualified with the 33 percent housing expense ratio, while someone with a 5 percent down payment is held to the stricter 28 percent ratio.

Other ways to improve your purchasing power

  • Gifts
    If you’re having trouble saving money, many lenders will allow you to use gift funds for the down payment and closing costs. However, most lenders require a “gift letter” stating the gift doesn’t have to be repaid, and will also require you to pay at least a portion of the down payment with your own cash.

  • Negotiating Closing Costs
    Through negotiation, some sellers may agree to pay all or most of your closing costs (for example, if you agree to meet their full asking price). If you choose to try this, make sure to ask your real estate agent for advice.

  • Loan Programs
    Many local governments have special loan programs designed to help first-time homebuyers. Loans may be available at reduced interest rates, or with little or no down payments. Check with your local housing authority for more information.

  • Loan Types
    Some homebuyers choose Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) because of low initial interest rates. Others opt for 30-year loans because they have lower monthly payments than 15-year loans. There are significant differences between different loans, so make sure to discuss the pros and cons of different loans with your agent or lender before making a decision.

Getting Your Finances in Order

A crucial step in starting your search for a new home is having a clear idea of your financial situation. By getting a handle on your income, expenses and debts, you’ll have a much better idea of what you can afford and how much you’ll need to borrow.

For lenders to verify this information, though, they’re going to need to look at your financial records. It is also important to remember that you should include records for each person who will be an owner of the house. So before you even visit the bank, make sure you’ll be able to provide copies of these important documents:

  • Paycheck Stubs
    Remember that lenders are most interested in your average income. Not only will they want to see this month’s paycheck, but also how much you’ve been making for the past two years. Steady employment is also more attractive to lenders, so if you’ve been hopping from job to job, be prepared to discuss the reasons why.

  • Bank Statements
    In order to qualify you for a loan, most lenders will also ask you for copies of your bank statements. Ideally, they’d like to see a steady history of savings–or at the very least, that you’re not bouncing checks every month.

  • Tax Records
    It’s always a good idea to save copies of your tax returns, especially if you’re self-employed. If you own your own business, it’s important to note that lenders generally consider your income as the amount you paid taxes on–not the gross income of the business.

  • Dividends & Investments
    Lenders will usually consider long-term investment dividends, as well as your investment portfolio, when evaluating your income.

  • Alimony/Child Support
    If you receive steady payments as part of a divorce settlement or for child support, you can also include this as part of your gross income. Just remember that lenders will want to see a copy of your divorce/court settlement verifying the amount of the payments.

  • Credit Report
    Virtually every lender will want to see a copy of your credit report as part of the loan application process. The report lists all of your long-term debts, as well as your payment history. In general, they will require you to pay for the credit report (approximately $50), but if you have a recent copy, they may accept that instead.

Your Credit History

As part of the loan application process, virtually all lenders will want to see a copy of your credit report. The report will list all your long-term debts (credit cards, mortgage payments, automobile and student loans, etc), as well as your payment history. If you don’t have a copy of your credit report, most lenders will generally require you to pay for a copy when they process your loan application.

However, most real estate experts agree that it is a good idea to obtain a copy of your credit report several months before you apply for a loan. This is so you have a chance to resolve any problems with your credit before your bank sees it. U.S. Federal law ensures that you have access to your credit report, which may be obtained from your local credit bureau or any of several national firms that specialize in credit reports.

Late payments
For most people, problems with their credit report are likely related to late payments on a debt. If you were late one month in paying off your credit card, but otherwise have a good payment history, chances are most lenders won’t be too concerned. But if you have a history of late payments you’ll need to document the reasons why. A slow payment history won’t necessarily get you turned down for a loan, but you may have to pay a higher rate of interest or otherwise prove to the lender that you can repay your loan in a timely fashion.

Errors on your credit report
Many people are surprised to learn that credit reports can often contains errors or inaccurate information. If this is the case with your credit report, you’ll need to contact the reporting agency or creditor to have the problem resolved. This can sometimes be a slow process, so make sure to give yourself time to clear up the mistake.

Bankruptcies and foreclosures
There’s no getting around it, a bankruptcy on your credit report is not a good thing. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t obtain a loan. Even though a bankruptcy may stay on your credit report for seven to ten years, lenders will often consider the circumstances surrounding a bankruptcy (family illness, injury, etc.). Moreover, if you have reestablished good credit since the bankruptcy, a lender will be more inclined to approve your application.