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How Much Does It Cost to Build a House?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Factors that dictate cost

While the average costs to build a house can give you a general idea of how much you’ll pay for a new build, it’s important to note that the costs of building any home can vary dramatically. Where you live, for example, can play a huge role in not only the costs of land but the price of the permits and fees you’ll need to cover.

Of course, there are other factors that will dictate how much you pay, from the type of home you select to what you choose to do inside. Other factors that can dictate the costs of your home include:

  • Your lot: The NAHB reports that the average price for a lot of land worked out to $4.20 per square foot in 2015 (the most recent data available), bringing the total for an average size lot (20,129 square feet) to $84,541.80. However, this cost can vary depending on the lot you buy, the size of the lot and the local real estate market where you buy.
  • Home size: The larger the home, the more construction costs you’ll encounter, says Frank Nieuwkoop, sales and marketing director of new-home builder Valecraft Homes Ltd. Larger homes also require more materials (more flooring, more lighting, more fixtures, etc.), he says, which can lead to higher costs in a hurry.
  • Upgrades: If you opt for fancy upgrades, you’ll pay more for a new home, says Nieuwkoop. Granite or marble, upgraded fixtures, and custom woodwork can make any home considerably more expensive. This is one area where you can also save on the costs of building, however. Where laminate countertops may cost just $10 per square foot installed, you’ll pay more like $60 to $120 per square foot for concrete or recycled glass, according to Consumer Reports. If you multiply those savings across all the rooms that need counters in your home (kitchen and baths), it’s easy to see how you could pay more or less depending on what you choose.
  • Home design: The design of the home can also play a factor in cost, says Nieuwkoop. If you build a home that is standard in design, you may pay less than if you build a custom home with unique design or special features. If you design a truly custom home, you may also need to hire an architect to draft a design. Hiring an architect can add another 15 or even 20 percent of costs to your total project.
  • Siding: What you choose to cover the exterior of your home can play a big role in your total price. If you choose a custom stone exterior, you may pay more than you would if you choose vinyl siding instead.
  • Landscaping: Will you opt for an elaborate outdoor landscaping scheme or some simple greenery? Your landscaping choices will play a role in the costs of your home as well as ongoing outdoor maintenance. You’ll also pay more for a fenced yard.

Building vs. buying

Building a home comes with pros and cons that are entirely different from the factors that lead people to purchase an existing home. Before you choose to build or shop among homes already in your area, make sure to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both scenarios.

Pros of building your own home

  • Less competition: According to the National Association of Realtors, existing homes stayed on the market for an average of 34 days nationwide before being sold in October 2017. In “hot areas” of the country such as San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, and San Jose, however, houses — especially those in an affordable price range — tend to go under contract in less than a week, it notes. By selecting your own lot and building a home, you can avoid stiff competition for existing properties and still get the home you want.
  • Everything is new: “Many people love the idea that everything in their house will be brand new when they build,” says Nieuwkoop. Having new fixtures, a new roof, new appliances and a new HVAC system may also mean you’ll have fewer repair bills during the first few years of homeownership.
  • Choose the location of your home: Building a new home on a lot you choose puts you in the unique position of selecting exactly where you’ll live. This can be advantageous if you hope to live near work or near public transportation, or if you want a lot with a certain type of view. “Do you want to back up to a lake or woods?” asks Nieuwkoop. “When you build, you get to decide.”
  • Select your own floor plan and finishes: Whether you build a custom home or select a floor plan through a builder, you get to choose how your new home is set up — including your floor plan. You may even be able to select your own finishes including your paint color, countertops, flooring and cabinets.

Cons of building your own house

  • Moving delays: Building a home often means longer delays when it comes to moving, says Nieuwkoop. “Building a home can take as little as two months all the way up to a year,” he says. If you want to move quickly, this can be a deal-breaker.
  • Building surprises: Especially if you design a custom home, you may not know exactly how the floor plan flows until your home is already built, notes the expert. “With a custom home especially, you may end up with something different than you envisioned.” Fortunately, this isn’t typically a problem with larger builders and developers since they often have model homes you can walk through, he says.
  • Pricing surprises: With custom homes especially, pricing can easily surge — especially if you make changes as the plan moves along, says Nieuwkoop. Plus, there are added costs that come with building that many people forget. Adding window blinds and treatments can add up, as can new décor, shelving and other interior fixtures that don’t come in the home price. Builders rarely put a fence in the yard, so that’s another expense to consider if you want one.
  • Less negotiation power: You may be able to negotiate the price on an existing home if a buyer is motivated to sell, but there may be less wiggle room on the price of a new home.
  • Construction traffic: If you’re building in a new neighborhood, you may deal with ongoing construction traffic for months or even years.

Pros of buying an existing home

  • Save money with existing features: Existing homes tend to have a lot of additions and upgrades made already, says Nieuwkoop. You may already have mini blinds, a privacy fence and appliances, for example, which can help you save money.
  • Move in quicker: “Although it can take a few months to close on an existing home and be able to move in, the timeline until move day is still faster with an existing home,” says Nieuwkoop. If you need to move quickly, you can typically do so faster if you buy instead of build.
  • Property maturity: Existing homes tend to have more mature trees and landscaping, which could be advantageous if you don’t like the idea of growing new grass on your own.
  • No construction zone: If you’re buying a home in a mature neighborhood, you may not have to deal with ongoing construction issues like you would with a new build in a new neighborhood.

Cons of buying an existing home

  • Lack of customization: You don’t get to pick out the floor plan or fixtures when you buy an existing home. You get exactly what is there already, which may or may not be what you want.
  • Costs to upgrade: If you buy an existing home that is out-of-date, you may need to spend considerable sums of money to make important updates or replace out-of-date fixtures.
  • Hidden problems: Existing homes may have problems you don’t see, says Nieuwkoop, adding that home inspectors don’t always find every issue. “If there was a water leak in the home and the seller replaced the drywall without actually fixing the issue, you may not find out you need costly repairs until after you move in.”

Who it’s best for

According to Nieuwkoop, building is best for individuals and couples who are very detailed and know exactly what they want. Building is also ideal for people who don’t care as much about cost as long as they get a brand-new home and the ability to pick and choose every finish and feature.

“Building is also best for buyers who are patient and willing to endure some bumps along the road,” says the builder. “If you’re high stress and don’t want to deal with any issues, you may be better off buying a newer existing home.”

5 steps to building a house

While the process of building a house can vary slightly depending on whether you design your own custom home or work with a developer, the main steps to completing the process are the same. Fortunately, Nieuwkoop helped us outline the five steps to building a house from beginning to end.

Step 1: Create a budget.

Before you decide to build or buy a home, it’s crucial to know how much you can afford to spend. The best way to come up with a housing budget is to see a mortgage broker or apply for a mortgage online, to see how much you can afford to borrow. You should also get pre-approved for a mortgage, says Nieuwkoop. That way, you’ll be ready to work with a builder when you decide what you want. You can compare mortgage offers online with LendingTree, MagnifyMoney’s parent company.

Step 2: Purchase land or select a lot.

Once you know what you can afford (house and land included), it’s time to find a lot in an existing community or buy land you plan to build on. Keep in mind that the price of the land you buy will need to be included in your mortgage amount unless you plan to buy the land in cash separately. If you’re choosing a piece of land that hasn’t been developed, you should also ask your builder about the costs of adding utilities to the property, cutting down trees, or leveling the land.

If you’re buying from a developer or builder who is overseeing the construction of a new neighborhood, it’s possible the price of your chosen lot will be built into the price of the floor plan and home you select, says Nieuwkoop. Either way, now is the time to talk through land costs with a builder and decide where you want your new home to be.

Step 3: Develop floor plans and designs.

If you’re working with a builder, chances are good they’ll offer a range of floor plans and new home designs you can choose from. If you’re building a custom home, on the other hand, you’ll likely need to hire an architect to create a realistic housing design that encompasses all the features you want.

Either way, you need to nail down your ideal floor plan and design at this stage. Decide how many bedrooms and bathrooms you want, along with the general layout of your home. From there, you can select or design a housing plan that fits your budget and style.

Step 4: Select finishes, features, and appliances.

Once you’ve chosen the layout of your home, you still need to choose what goes inside. Work with your builder to decide on the interior finishes in your home, from the cabinets in your kitchen to your light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, flooring, and paint colors.

Step 5: Watch your home being built.

Once your home is commissioned and ready to be built, you can watch as the process takes place over the weeks and months. Nieuwkoop says that, ideally, your builder will let you walk through the home during various stages of the process. By walking through, you may be able to discover and point out issues that need to be fixed, such as incorrect fixtures or design problems.

How to finance the build

According to mortgage advisor Jeremy Schachter of Pinnacle Capital Mortgage, the process for financing a new build is similar to the process of buying an existing home.

When you build a home, it’s crucial to get pre-qualified with a bank or lender. During this process, the lender will take a look at your credit score, income, assets and debts, then use those factors to determine how much you can borrow.

The biggest difference with a new build, says Schachter, is that you’ll likely need to get pre-approved for a mortgage once and then start a portion of the process over again. “You’ll need to submit financial statements, a credit report, and pay stubs to get approved to build a house, but you’ll likely need to resubmit all this information again if the process takes several months,” he says. Schachter was clear that the final home closing doesn’t take place until the house is completed, and that this is when you’ll start making mortgage payments.

Fortunately, Schachter says, many lenders will let you lock in the interest rate on your home loan for up to a year when you’re building a home. But you should always check and ask about your APR to make sure you’re not stuck with a higher interest rate if your new build takes several months and rates surge during that time, he says.

What type of home loans can you use?

Schachter notes that consumers can use any type of home loan to build a property that they could use to buy a traditional home. For example:

  • VA loans: To qualify for a VA loan, you must have satisfactory credit, sufficient income, and a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE) based on your level of service. You must also plan to live in the home full-time.
  • FHA loans: You can apply for an FHA construction loan to finance a new build. To qualify for an FHA loan, you’ll need at least 3.5 percent as a down payment, a credit score of 580 or higher, and proof of income. You may qualify for an FHA loan with a credit score lower than 580, but you’ll need to make a larger down payment. Lenders will also look at your debt-to-income ratio — a figure determined by taking all your debt payments and dividing them by your gross monthly income. If you have $3,000 in bills each month and your gross monthly income is $5,000, your debt-to-income ratio is 60 percent. Generally speaking, lenders want you to keep your debt-to-income ratio under 43 percent, including all housing payments.
  • Conventional home loan: Requirements for a conventional mortgage can vary, although you typically need a good credit score (FICO score of about 740 or higher) to qualify for a loan with the best APR. Lenders also look at your employment history, income and debt-to-income ratio.
  • Construction loans: Schachter notes that individuals building a custom home may need to get a special “construction loan from a lender or bank.” These loans cover the initial costs of building a house, including the lot, building materials and architect fees. Schachter notes that construction loans are typically short-term loans with variable interest rates that are good for less than a year. Ultimately, construction loans are converted to permanent home loans once the construction process is complete.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

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Holly Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Holly here

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How to Use Airbnb Income on Your Mortgage Refinance Application

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Airbnb hosts, here’s one more way renting out your spare bedroom can give you extra cash. U.S. hosts are now able to include Airbnb income when refinancing their home mortgage loan with participating lenders Better Mortgage, Citizens Bank and Quicken Loans thanks to an initiative between Airbnb and Fannie Mae. Read on to find out how it works, benefits of the partnership versus other lenders and what you need to do if you’re considering refinancing your mortgage.

How it works

Here’s who’s eligible for the new partnership: U.S. Airbnb hosts who list their primary residence and are interested in refinancing an existing conforming loan on that home. For anyone who has been denied refinancing in the past, this may provide the boost you’ve been needing. Of course, it always pays to compare interest rates and other costs — if you can afford to wait, other lenders may join in with even better offers.

John Moffatt, head of loan origination at Better Mortgage, says borrowers who have at least one year of Airbnb income claimed on their tax return and proof of income from Airbnb qualify. You may also be asked to submit utility bills.“Think of this partnership as a step toward more forward thinking in how people earn income,” he said. “It’s showing some good initiative in how Fannie Mae is helping borrowers by accepting alternative forms of income.”

Applying through Better Mortgage, Citizens Bank or Quicken Loans is similar to any refinance application. Each lender has its own underwriting and approval process, so you’ll need to refer to them for any specific questions. “At Better Mortgage, you can go through the entire application online. After you lock in your interest rate, we will then request your tax return, proof of income and any additional documents during the closing process,” Moffatt said. “I’ve heard anecdotally where customers have come to us with [a] high interest rate and just haven’t been able to refinance. It’s great we’re able to help people potentially save thousands of dollars in the long run.”

The rates through Better Mortgage, Citizens Bank and Quicken Loans are comparable with its competitors. Of course, the actual rate you get depends on a number of factors including your credit history, debt-to-income ratio and loan term.

What this partnership means for other lenders

While the three lenders mentioned above accept Airbnb rental income, that doesn’t necessarily rule out other mortgage companies. While Fannie Mae’s requirements for rental income don’t specifically address short-term rentals, Freddie Mac’s guidelines have been updated to help lenders qualify income from short-term rentals. Borrowers must show a two-year history of rental income on their Schedule E.  Reminder: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government-sponsored enterprises that buy and sell residential mortgages. Better Mortgage, Citizens Bank and Quicken Loans have their own agreement with Fannie Mae so they accept a shorter history of rental income.

Cassidy Cain, a mortgage loan officer with US Mortgage, says the partnership with Airbnb could be beneficial to hosts. “The truth is that every lender out there is going to follow the guidelines presented to them by places like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” she said. “However, some may be overly cautious about accepting [Airbnb rental income].”

In other words, other lenders could accept Airbnb income but may be cautious as to how much weight they give it when considering someone for a refinance. These companies may also require two years’ worth of rental income history as required by Freddie Mac, so that could put new hosts at a disadvantage.

Cain says Airbnb income may make a dent in your debt-to-income ratio. “If there’s enough income to significantly reduce your debt-to-income ratio, then you could have a shot at refinancing,” she said. “You’ll also need to make sure you meet all other requirements, such as your creditworthiness.”

Bottom line

This new partnership may work to your advantage if Airbnb income is the factor that puts you over the refinancing finish line, assuming you’re considered creditworthy and can fulfill other lender requirements.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Sarah Li Cain
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Sarah Li Cain is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah Li here

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Which Is Better: Cash-Out Refinance vs. HELOC?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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When you need cash but don’t want to raid your emergency fund, it’s only natural to consider tapping into what could be your greatest source of wealth — your home equity.

It’s entirely up to you how you use it, but many consumers use home equity to remodel their homes, consolidate debt or cover expensive bills, such as college tuition. It’s your equity to use how you please, so the options are endless.

But because there’s more than one way to access your home equity, it’s wise to compare available options to find the right fit. Two of the most popular ways are a home equity line of credit (HELOC) and a cash-out refinance. Both of these loans can work if you want to access your home equity, but they do work rather differently.

Cash-out refinancing: How does it work?

Cash-out refinancing involves replacing your current home loan with a new one. The “cashing out” part of the equation requires you to take out a larger home loan than you currently have so you can receive the difference as a lump sum. Like HELOCs, this strategy works for people who have equity in their homes due to paying down their mortgage balances or appreciation of their property.

To qualify for a cash-out refinance, you need to meet similar requirements as you would if you were applying for a first mortgage. This typically means having a credit score of 620 or above, a debt-to-income ratio of 50% or less (i.e. the sum of all your debt payments, including housing, divided by your gross monthly income), and a loan-to-value ratio on your home of 80% or less after the cash out refinance is complete.

The equity part of the equation can be a roadblock since you need to have a lot of equity in your home to qualify for a cash-out refinance. Let’s say your home has a value of $300,000 and you want to take cash out. In that case, you could only borrow up to $240,000 through a cash-out refinance. If you owe that much or more on your home already, you wouldn’t qualify.

Like any other loan, you’ll need to prove your employment status via recent pay stubs and gather other documentation such as W-2 tax forms, two months of recent bank statements and two years of tax returns.

Cash-out refinance pros and cons

Pros:

  • You can use the money from a cash-out refinance for anything you want, including home upgrades, college tuition, a vacation or debt consolidation.
  • If rates have gone down or your credit has improved since you took out your original home loan, you could refinance your mortgage into a new loan with a lower interest rate.
  • You can choose from different types of loans for your refinance, with various terms and fixed or variable rates available.
  • Interest on your first mortgage may be tax-deductible.
  • Interest rates on first mortgages tend to be lower than other options, such as home equity loans or HELOCs.

Cons:

  • You may face substantial closing costs for a cash-out refinance, which typically work out to 2% to 6% of the loan amount.
  • If interest rates have gone up since you purchased your home, you could be trading your mortgage for a higher interest loan that will be more expensive.
  • Refinancing your home to take cash out may leave you in mortgage debt longer.
  • You won’t qualify for a cash-out refinance unless you have at least 80% equity in your home after the process is complete.
  • Refinancing your home to take cash out could leave you with a larger monthly mortgage payment.

Home equity line of credit (HELOC): How does it work?

While a cash-out refinance requires you to replace your current mortgage with a new one, a HELOC lets you keep your first mortgage exactly how it is. Acting as a second mortgage, a HELOC lets you borrow against your home equity via a line of credit. This strategy allows you to withdraw the money you want when you want it, then repay only the amounts you borrow.

To qualify for a HELOC, you need to have equity in your home. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes that, depending on your creditworthiness and how much debt you have, you may be able to borrow up to 85% of the appraised value of your home after you subtract the balance of your first mortgage.

For example, let’s say your home is worth $300,000 and the balance on your mortgage is currently $200,000. A HELOC could make it possible for you to borrow up to $255,000, because you would still retain 85% equity after accounting for your first mortgage and your HELOC.

Generally speaking, HELOCs work a lot like a credit card. You typically have a “draw period” during which you can take out money to use for any purpose. Once that period ends, you may have the option to repay the loan amount over a specific amount of time or you might be required to repay the balance in full. You may also have the option to renew your draw period at that time. All these factors can vary, so make sure to ask your HELOC lender about specifics before you move forward.

Like credit cards, HELOCs also tend to come with variable interest rates. This can be a good thing when rates are low, but you have to be prepared for your rates to rise.

To qualify for a HELOC, you must be able to borrow the money you need and still maintain 15% equity in your home. Having a credit score of 680 or above can also help the process along, although some lenders offer home equity loans to borrowers with scores as low as 620.

Generally speaking, you also need to have a debt-to-income ratio of less than 43%, including your first mortgage and your HELOC payment. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reports that lenders implement this “43% rule” based on the idea that borrowers with higher levels of debt often have trouble keeping up with their housing payments.

HELOC pros and cons

Pros:

  • Applying for a HELOC allows you to maintain the terms of your original mortgage, which can be an advantage if your rate is low.
  • You can use money from a HELOC for anything you want, and you only have to repay amounts you borrow.
  • HELOCs tend to come with lower closing costs than traditional mortgages and home equity loans.
  • Interest may be tax-deductible if you use the funds to improve your property. Make sure to check with your accountant.

Cons:

  • Taking out a HELOC means you’ll need to make two housing payments every month — your first mortgage payment and your HELOC payment.
  • Interest on a HELOC is no longer tax-deductible, unless the funds are used for acquisition or updating your home.
  • Since you only repay what you borrow and the interest rate on HELOCs is typically variable, you may not be able to anticipate what your monthly payment will be. Your monthly payment could also be interest only at first, meaning your payment won’t go toward the principal or help pay down the balance of your loan.
  • The interest rate on HELOCs tends to be higher than first mortgages, and their variable rates can seem riskier. You may also be required to pay a balloon payment at the end of your loan, so make sure to read and understand the terms and conditions.

At a glance: Cash-out refinancing and HELOCs

At the end of the day, either borrowing option can get you what you need — access to the equity in your home. But, one option can easily be better than the other, depending on your situation.

Before you choose between a HELOC or a cash-out refinance, here are all the details you should consider:

 

Cash-out refinance

HELOC

Loan term

You get to select the loan term when you go through a cash-out refinance. Among other options, you can get a fixed-rate mortgage with a 15-year or 30-year term.

Most HELOCS come with a draw period of up to 10 years. After that, you will have a repayment period that varies by lender.

Borrowing limits

You can borrow up to 80% of your home’s value.

HELOCs allow you borrow up to 85% of your home’s value, including your first mortgage.

How long it takes to get the money

The average refinance takes between 20 and 45 days, and you’ll get a lump sum for the amount you borrow at closing.

The average HELOC can close in less than 30 days, at which point you’ll have access to your new line of credit.

Credit score

You need a credit score of 620 or higher to qualify for a cash out refinance.

You need a credit score of 620 or higher to qualify for a HELOC.

Equity requirements

You need to have at least 20% equity in your home after the cash-out refinance is complete.

HELOCs require you to maintain at least 15% equity after borrowing.

Interest rates

Mortgage rates can be fixed or adjustable, with rates ranging from 3.75% to 4.25%.

HELOC interest rates are variable, currently ranging from 4% to 5.87%.

Closing costs

Closing costs for a traditional mortgage range from 2% to 6% of the loan amount.

HELOCs tend to have little or no closing costs.

Risks

Since you’re using your home as collateral, you run the risk of losing your home if you default. If you extend your repayment timeline, you will also spend more time in debt.

HELOCs require a lower amount of equity (15%) in your home, which means you can borrow more. However, you could lose your home if you default, because you’re using the property as collateral.

Which choice is right for you?

Before you decide between a HELOC or a cash-out refinance, it helps to take a holistic look at your personal finances and your goals.

A cash-out refinance may work better if:

  • Your current home loan has a higher rate than you could qualify for now, so refinancing could help you save on interest
  • You prefer the stability of a fixed monthly payment or only want to make one mortgage payment every month
  • You have high-interest debts and want to consolidate them at the same rate as your new mortgage
  • What you save by refinancing — such as savings from a lower interest rate — outweighs the fees that come with refinancing

A HELOC may work better if:

  • You are happy with your first mortgage and don’t want to trade it for a new loan
  • Your first mortgage has a lower interest rate than you can qualify for with today’s rates
  • You aren’t sure how much money you need, so you prefer the flexibility of having a line of credit you can borrow against
  • You want to be able to borrow up to 85% of your home’s value versus the 80% you can borrow with a cash-out refinance

In addition to these options, you can also consider a home equity loan. While HELOCs come with variable rates and work as a line of credit, a home equity loan comes with a fixed rate and fixed monthly payment.

Whatever you decide, make sure to compare lenders, interest rates and terms to get the best deal possible when accessing your home equity.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Holly Johnson
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Holly Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Holly here

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Mortgage

5 Reasons You Should Make Biweekly Mortgage Payments

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Maybe you’ve heard whispers among friends and family that making biweekly mortgage payments—once every two weeks instead of once a month—can help you pay off your loan sooner. In most cases that’s true, but did you know there are a ton of other benefits as well?

If you’re intrigued, stay tuned. We’ll show you exactly how to make biweekly payments work for you and the benefits.

The secret extra payment

If you’re like most people paying your mortgage once per month, you’ll get 12 full mortgage payments in a year.

But what if you make biweekly payments? In that case, either you or your lender will split your payments in half and submit a payment twice each month. For example, if you normally make a $1,000 monthly mortgage payment, you’ll instead make a $500 mortgage payment every two weeks.

This leads to the quirk in the calendar that lets you get ahead. There aren’t a uniform number of days in each month, and so by making biweekly mortgage payments, you’ll make 26 “half-payments,” or 13 “full” payments per year instead of the normal 12 payments. In other words, you make one extra full payment per year, and you won’t even feel it because you’ve budgeted for it.

This extra payment might not seem like much, but over the course of the loan, it has huge effects.

Let’s look at an example. Say you just bought a house and have a $200,000 mortgage with a 30-year loan term, and your interest rate is 4.125% APR. Here’s what will happen if you stick to the plain-Jane monthly mortgage plan, versus opting for biweekly mortgage payments:

 

Monthly Payment

Biweekly Payment

Payment amount

$775.44

$387.72

Number of payments per year

12

26

Total Paid per Year

$9,305.28

$10,080.72

Number of Years

30

25 years and 10 months

Total Interest Paid

$119,158.25

$100,077.57

Total cost

$325,158.25

$306,077.57

In this example, making biweekly payments allows you to pay off your mortgage a full four years and two months earlier, and saves you $19,080.68 to boot.

One caveat: Rarely, some lenders will charge you to make biweekly payments, since it’s essentially twice as much work for them to process. If your lender does this, it may be better to stick with your normal monthly payment plan. If you want to make biweekly payments, you can still do so manually for free by setting aside a portion of your paycheck on your own, paying your normal monthly payment, and then submitting an extra payment yourself once per year.

The case for making biweekly mortgage payments

1. Build equity faster

Home equity is the amount of your home that you actually own versus how much you owe your mortgage lender. For example, if your home is worth $200,000 and you still owe $150,000 on your mortgage, you have $50,000 worth of home equity.

One of the biggest benefits of making biweekly mortgage payments is that you build home equity faster. You may not realize it, but when you are in the early years as a mortgage borrower, the vast majority of your mortgage payment goes toward interest — not the principal balance on your loan. And until you are significantly chipping away at that principal loan balance, you aren’t actually gaining equity (unless, of course, the value of the home increases enough to eclipse your mortgage loan balance).

When you make biweekly payments and manage to squeeze in that extra payment each year, you’ll be making extra payments toward reducing the balance of your loan. And that extra payment will give you a small push toward building equity.

There are a lot of advantages to having as much home equity as possible. If you have enough home equity, you can take out a home equity loan to finance things like home repairs or remodels, for example.

Another example where having more home equity can help you is when you sell your house. Many homeowners are surprised how expensive it can be when they go to sell their home, all thanks to closing costs, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars on top of your original loan.

That’s a big problem if you don’t have enough equity built up in your home to cover the cost. You might end up actually having to pay to sell your home, and losing your down payment money for your next home to boot. One of the best ways to guard against this is to build up as much home equity as you can as fast as you can, and making biweekly mortgage payments is a good way to do that.

2. Pay less interest over time

When you make a mortgage payment, the bank actually splits up up the money and divvies it out to various things. During the first few years after you take out your mortgage, most of the money will be going toward interest and very little will be going to reducing the balance of your loan (sadly). This process is called amortization, and anyone who’s ever had a loan literally had to pay their dues, especially during those first few years.

But, again, here’s where making biweekly mortgage payments can really help you. Since you’ll be making an extra payment each year, you’ll pay down the principal even faster. This means that each interest payment thereafter will be smaller than if you hadn’t made that extra payment.

Over the course of your loan, this can save you a huge amount of money. For example, if you have a $400,000 mortgage, making biweekly mortgage payments can save you over $38,000 in interest.

3. Pay off your mortgage faster

If you make biweekly payments, you’ll be chipping away at your principal balance faster than normal. We won’t lie — it’ll still seem like you’re paying off the mortgage at a glacial pace, but you’ll have a slightly sharper pick than your neighbor making monthly payments.

If you have a $300,000 mortgage and you’re making biweekly mortgage payments, you can actually shave off four years and two months from your loan. Instead of being in debt for 30 years, you’ll only be in debt for 25 years and 10 months! What would you do with those extra years of being debt-free?

4. Drop your PMI payment sooner

In 2017, the average homebuyer bought their home with a 10% down payment. That’s not bad, but for most conventional loans (not including FHA, VA and USDA loans), you’ll need a down payment of at least 20% to avoid paying for private mortgage insurance each month. This fee, which is tacked onto your monthly mortgage payment, protects your lender in case you default on your loan. In other words, it doesn’t even protect you—it protects your lender in case you mess up.

Once you reach 20% equity in your home, you can ask your conventional lender to cancel your PMI payments. If you make biweekly payments, you can actually get there a lot faster because you’ll be paying down the balance of your loan quicker than normal.

Let’s look at an example. If you have a $350,000 mortgage and only put 10% down like most people, you’d owe an extra $164.06 each month to pay for PMI. If you make biweekly payments, you’ll hit 20% equity 13 months sooner than if you were making monthly mortgage payments. That’ll save you an extra $2,132.78 in PMI charges.

5. It’s easier to budget

You know that the beginning of the month sucks when you’re trying to scrounge up a massive housing payment. Even if you’re a super budgeter and on top of your finances, saying goodbye to so much cash at once hurts.

If nothing else, biweekly mortgage payments take the stress out of those big payments. If you’re paid biweekly, it’s even easier — just send in the check each time you get paid, if that’s the due date that you agree on with your lender.

That way, the money won’t be sitting in your account until next month, just begging to be spent on something else and leaving you short of the bill when your monthly mortgage payment does come due. Making biweekly payments in this way can save you a ton of stress in addition to all the financial benefits.

Closing

By default, almost everyone is put on a monthly repayment plan. It’s how we’re conditioned to think about debt: after all, just about every type of loan is paid back on a monthly basis, including credit cards, student loans, auto loans and personal loans. In some cases, like for student loans, you may be able to switch to a biweekly payment plan, but it’s not very common.

That doesn’t mean you need to stick with the mold, though. We’ve shown five great benefits to switching over to a biweekly mortgage payment plan. You’ll:

  • Build equity faster
  • Pay less interest over time
  • Pay off your mortgage faster
  • Drop your PMI payment sooner
  • Budget for housing more easily

If you’re interested in switching to a biweekly mortgage payment plan, the next step is to contact your lender to ask about it. Your future self will thank you.

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How to Use Your Mortgage Cash-Out Refinance

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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If you need money to pay for a big expense — such as college tuition, making home improvements or paying off credit card debt — and if you don’t have the savings to handle it, a cash-out refinance could help.

A cash-out refinance allows you to borrow from the equity you’ve built in your home, often at lower interest rate than other loans, and receive cash that can be used for just about any purpose. It can be a relatively cheap way to borrow money for important expenses.

But there are some risks involved with cash-out refinancing, and in certain situations, the cost will be higher than the alternatives.

This article explains what cash-out refinancing is, and dives into the pros and cons so that you can make the right decision for your needs.

What is cash-out refinancing?

A cash-out refinance involves taking out a new loan that is larger than your existing mortgage so that you can replace your old mortgage and walk away with extra cash that you can use for other financial goals.

For example, if you currently have a $150,000 mortgage on a home that’s worth $250,000, you could potentially refinance into a $180,000 loan that replaces your old mortgage and provides $30,000 that can be used for any purpose.

This is different than a traditional rate and term refinance in which your new loan balance is the same as your old loan balance.

With a traditional refinance, the primary goal is usually to reduce your interest rate and/or reduce your loan term in order to save money and potentially pay off your mortgage sooner.

With a cash-out refinance, the goal is generally both to improve the terms of your existing mortgage and tap into your home equity to help fund other financial goals.

Michael Dinich CRPS, a financial planner and the founder of Your Money Geek, says that a cash-out refinance can be an attractive way to pay for things like home improvements — in which case the interest would likely be tax deductible since the loan would be used to substantially improve the homes — or even pay off higher-interest debt like credit cards. The interest rate on cash-out refinances is usually lower than other forms of debt, such as personal loans or credit cards, because you are using collateral to back the loan (your home).

But there are some things to watch out for as well.

First, a cash-out refinance turns an asset — your home equity — into debt, which is always a decision that should be made carefully.

Second, the cash proceeds are typically first used to pay closing costs and other upfront expenses like property taxes and homeowners insurance, so you won’t always receive the full difference between your new loan amount and your old loan amount. You can apply for a no-cost refinance, but that just means that you’ll receive a higher interest rate or the closing costs will be added to the loan, so there’s really no escaping the cost.

Third, a larger loan could increase your monthly payment, and even if it doesn’t, you may end up paying more interest over the life of your loan if you are extending your loan term.

LendingTree, the parent company of MagnifyMoney, has a slew of tools to help you do the math. You can use this cash-out refinance calculator to estimate your monthly payment and this loan payment calculator to estimate your total interest cost.

So how do you decide whether a cash-out refinance is the right move for you? Let’s first look at how you can qualify and then look at situations in which it may or may not make sense.

How do you qualify for a cash-out refinance?

There are a few criteria you’ll have to meet in order to be eligible for a cash-out refinance.

Credit score

You must have a credit score of at least 620 in order to qualify for a cash-out refinance on your primary home. There are several ways to check your credit score for free, and you can use these six steps to improve your score if it isn’t yet where it needs to be.

Loan-to-value ratio

The maximum allowable loan-to-value ratio for a cash-out refinance is 80%, meaning that your total outstanding home loan balance after the refinance is complete can’t exceed 80% of the value of your home.

As an example, if your home is currently valued at $250,000, your new loan — combined with all other house related debt such as a home equity loan or HELOC — can’t exceed $200,000. If your outstanding debt is already greater than $200,000, you won’t be eligible for a cash-out refinance.

If you are looking to refinance a second home or an investment property, the maximum allowable loan-to-value ratio is lowered to 75%.

If you have a VA loan, you may be able to secure a cash-out refinance even if you don’t meet those loan-to-value requirements, but your maximum loan amount is capped depending on where you live and the type of property you are refinancing.

Debt-to-income ratio

Your debt-to-income ratio is the sum of all your monthly debt payments — including student loans, credit cards, and auto loans, in addition to your mortgage payments — divided by your gross monthly income. It must be 50% or less in order to qualify for a cash-out refinance.

Financial documentation

You will have to provide documentation that verifies your income and assets and proves that you are able to afford the loan. This documentation will vary by lender but often includes at least the following:

  • Your two most recent tax returns
  • Your two most recent W-2s
  • Bank statements for the past two months
  • Investment statements for the past quarter
  • Pay stubs from the most recent month

How those factors affect the cost of a cash-out refinance

While meeting the minimum requirements should allow you to qualify for a cash-out refinance, you can save money by improving these variables.

Specifically, lenders may collect a surcharge that varies based on your credit score and loan-to-value ratio.

If your credit score is 680 or above and your loan-to-value ratio is 60% or less, you can avoid the surcharge. But if your credit score dips below that threshold or your loan-to-value rises above it, your fee will range from 0.25%-3% the value of your loan.

For example, let’s say that your home is worth $250,000, your current mortgage balance is $150,000, and you’d like a cash-out refinance for $200,000 — an 80% loan-to-value ratio — so that you have $50,000 available for other goals.

If your credit score is between 700 and 739, you’ll face a 0.750% surcharge that equates to $1,500.

But if your credit score is just a little bit lower at 680-699, you’ll face a 1.375% surcharge that equates to $2,750. That’s an extra $1,250 for potentially just a few points difference in credit score.

All of which is to say that getting yourself in peak financial condition will help you qualify for a cash-out refinance and make it less costly.

Good ways to use your cash-out refinancing

There are many different ways you can use your cash-out refinance, some of which could help you improve your financial situation, save you money and even increase the value of your home.

Here are a few good ways to use your cash-out refinance.

Home improvements

Certain home improvements, such as replacing your entry door or upgrading your kitchen, can increase the value of your home in addition to making it a more enjoyable living space. And if you don’t have the savings to pay for it outright, using a cash-out refinance to fund those improvements can be a smart move.

“It may make sense to tap home equity for home improvements because the interest rate is lower than other forms of borrowing”, said Dinich.

Another benefit of using a cash-out refinance to improve your home is that the interest should be deductible. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, only interest on home loans used to buy, build or substantially improve your deductible, and home improvements should fit the definition.

It’s worth noting though that not all home improvements will increase the value of your home. Pools often don’t represent a good return on investment, and you also need to be careful about upgrading your home too far above the rest of your neighborhood.

This is one area where it pays to do your research. A good decision can pay off, but an uninformed decision may cost you money.

Paying off high-interest debt

Because the loan is secured by your home, and because it’s considered a first mortgage, a cash-out refinance typically has lower interest rates than other forms of debt.

This not only makes cash-out refinancing an attractive option compared with other loans, but it can make it a good way to pay off other loans and save some money in the long-term.

If you have credit card debt or private student loan debt with high interest rates, for example, you may be able to reduce your rate by executing a cash-out refinance, pay off those other loans and reduce your interest charges going forward.

Proceed carefully when it comes to federal student loans though. Those loans have a number of protections — such as income-driven repayment, forgiveness and deferment and forbearance — that would be lost by refinancing. Those protections are often worth more than a lower interest rate.

It’s also worth noting that the interest charged on the portion of the new loan used to pay off debt would not be deductible since that part of the loan wouldn’t be used to buy, build or substantially improve your home.

Paying for college

With college costs on the rise, parents are forced to get creative when the tuition bills come due.

A cash-out refinance may offer a lower interest rate than other types of loans, including parent PLUS federal student loans that are currently issued with a 7% interest rate.

The big downside is that you are using your house as collateral and that you will still be responsible for the loan even if your child drops out or otherwise doesn’t finish his or her education. You are also adding to your personal debt load at a time when you may need to be ramping up retirement savings.

In many cases it will make more sense for your child to take out federal student loans. They offer more protections, and he or she will have decades to pay it off.

Still, this can be an effective strategy in the right situations.

Purchasing an investment property

Using your cash-out refinance to purchase a rental property could serve as an effective long-term investment. The cash flow produced by the rental income could both offset the costs of the refinance and serve as a helpful source of income, and purchasing the property with the proceeds from a cash-out refinance may be cheaper than other forms of borrowing.

“It’s generally less expensive for homeowners to borrow against their primary residence than to borrow for an investment property,” said Dan Green, the founder of Growella and branch manager for Waterstone Mortgage in Cincinnati. “A cash-out refinance on the primary residence can reduce the total interest costs against both properties.”

Risks associated with a cash-out refinance

While a cash-out refinance can be a smart move in the right circumstances, there are some risks as well and in some situations there could be severe financial consequences.

Here are some of the riskier ways to use a cash-out refinance.

Debt consolidation

While using a cash-out refinance to pay off high interest can look like a no-brainer on the surface, there are some significant risks to be aware of.

“Accessing home equity to pay off high-interest credit card debt can be a good strategy, but only when it is in conjunction with the creation of a sustainable spending plan”, said Justin Harvey, a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Quantifi Planning, LLC in Philadelphia.

That is, taking out new debt to pay off old debt is generally only effective if you have a strong budget in place and a sustainable plan to both repay and stay out of debt. If replacing your credit card debt simply frees up space to reload those same credit cards, you could be doing more harm than good.

“Some of the consumers who were most harmed by the 2008 economic collapse were homeowners who treated their primary residence like an ATM during the housing price run-up,’ said Harvey. “When the price correction followed, many were stuck with a high-dollar mortgage on a low-value asset, and some homeowners were even underwater.”

Investing in the stock market

Taking out a loan to invest in the stock market is rarely a good idea. Stock market returns are not guaranteed, especially in the short term, and it’s possible to lose a lot of money in a short period of time.

If your investments do lose value, you may not have the money needed to make your mortgage payments, in which case you could be at risk of foreclosure.

Buying a car

“Taking out money to buy a car might not be a good way to use your equity,” said Jeremy Schachter, branch manager at Pinnacle Capital Mortgage in Phoenix. “You take out that equity and roll the interest over a 30-year period or take maybe a higher interest rate auto loan at a shorter term.”

Interest rates on auto loans are often low, especially if you are buying a new car and/or have excellent credit. And the loan term is typically one to eight years, which is shorter than most home loans and therefore often leads to lower interest costs over the life of the loan even if your interest rate is higher.

Starting a business

Only about half of all new businesses survive five years or longer, and only a third make it to 10 years or more. That’s less than the length of a typical mortgage, which means that you could run into trouble making your loan payments and put your house at risk in the process.

“Not all business loans are secured loans and all mortgage loans are,” said Green. “When your business succeeds, the distinction is less relevant. But when your business fails, having an unsecured loan is an advantage.”

If you do need a loan for your business, here are some alternatives to consider: 17 Options for Small Business Loans.

Lending money to friends and family

Lending money to friends and family is always risky because if the deal goes south, your personal relationship could be in jeopardy.

Financing that loan by taking on new debt yourself adds to the cost and risk of the transaction. And by tying that debt to your house through a cash-out refinance, you’re putting yourself in a position where if your friend or family member can’t pay you back, you could end up losing your home.

Put simply, this is rarely a good idea. If you’re determined to do it though, Green says that you should approach it like you would any other business decision.

“If you’re lending to friends or family members,” Green said, “you should use the same due diligence as with any investment and charge an appropriate interest rate for the risk.”

Should you use a cash-out refinance?

A cash-out refinance often has a lower interest rate than other types of loans because it’s secured by your home and because it’s considered a first mortgage. That can make it an attractive way to pay for big expenses, especially if you can reduce the interest rate on your existing mortgage in the process.

But that debt comes at a cost and it’s always worth evaluating all of your options, from saving the money you need yourself to exploring other types of loans.

In the end, a cash-out refinance is just one tool of many. When it’s used thoughtfully, it can provide a good return on investment. When it’s not, it can be just another costly debt.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

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Best Ways to Add Value to Your Home

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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If you’re tired of the way your home looks and feels but don’t necessarily want to move, you don’t have to settle. Whether you crave more square footage, an upgraded interior or better curb appeal, you’ll find an endless supply of ideas that can improve your home’s functionality and style.

But, that doesn’t mean that all remodeling projects are created equal — not by a long shot. While plenty of home upgrades can be “worth it” in a financial sense, there are ways you can improve your home that may cause its value to drop as well.

Before you remodel, it pays to research the best ways to add value to your home and which projects might offer the most “bang for your buck.” With the right strategy and a professional remodeling team by your side, it’s possible to create your dream home while building equity in the process.

Benefits of making home improvements

There are plenty of ways homeowners can benefit from a home remodel, but one of the biggest perks is an increase in their home’s value. With a home addition, a new kitchen, upgraded bathrooms or big project completed, it’s very likely your home will appraise at a higher value than it did before you remodeled. That means you’ll have a larger share of equity in the property, which is any homeowner’s ultimate goal.

And in when your home is worth more, there are several benefits you’ll get to enjoy.

  • The potential to remove private mortgage insurance (PMI) from your home loan: Private mortgage insurance is typically charged as an added fee when you buy a home with less than a 20% down payment. This fee can vary, but it’s usually equal to 0.15% to 1.95% of the loan amount. If your home’s value increases after you remodel, it may be possible to have your home appraised and the PMI charges removed from your monthly mortgage payment.
  • Increased net worth: An increase in your home’s value could boost your net worth — the measure of all your assets minus your liabilities.
  • Sell your home at a profit: The more your home is worth, the more likely you will be able to sell it for a profit if you need to move.
  • Easier qualification for home equity loans: By remodeling to improve your home’s value, your ability to qualify for a home equity loan or HELOC will improve. The amount you can borrow may also be higher.

In addition to the financial benefits of remodeling, there are other personal benefits you can acquire as well. Realtor Guillermo Salmon of Pearson Smith Realty says one of those benefits is the fact that you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor yourself if you stay in the home.

“It’s your home, and you want to be comfortable,” said Salmon, who sells real estate in the Washington, D.C., area. “I always tell my clients to make updates early so they can enjoy them instead of waiting to remodel until right before you sell.”

Salmon’s thoughts seem to line up with national statistics regarding home remodeling projects. According to the 2017 Remodeling Impact Report from the National Association of Realtors, 75% of homeowners who responded to the survey had a greater desire to be in their homes after their remodeling project was completed. And 65% of those polled also reported increased enjoyment in their homes.

Another important benefit of remodeling is the fact that it may improve your home’s utility, says Salmon. The NAR survey also revealed that 36% of homeowners reported better functionality and livability as the most important result from their project.

When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. A kitchen with a better layout or a bathroom with a new garden tub could make living in your home a more positive experience, for example.

Last but not least, remodeling your home may help you avoid moving and all moving-related costs. Remember that moving to a new home may require hiring movers, some remodeling of your new home, realtor fees to sell your home, and of course closing costs on your new home loan.

“If the space is there and you are able to remodel, the price of a big project or full-home remodel could be well worth it,” said Salmon. “There are a lot of moving costs that people don’t think about, and it is often a lot more expensive than people realize.”

Home improvements that can add value to your home

While remodeling your home can make it more appealing to the eye and more functional, the right remodeling project can also boost the value of your home. The key to increasing your home’s value through remodeling is making sure you’re choosing projects that will actually pay off.

Kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms, oh my

According to Salmon, kitchens, master bedrooms and master bathrooms are the areas buyers pay the most attention to — as well as the areas that could add the most value to your home if you remodel. Other bathrooms in the home are also important, he says, because “buyers don’t want to have to remodel rooms they need, and bathrooms are some of the most used rooms in a home.”

Salmon also says that paint may be more important than people think.

“Paint the interior of your home so it looks clean and fresh, but make sure to choose a neutral color,” he said. Salmon notes that many buyers lack imagination, so if they walk into your home and see lots of bright colors or a lack of cohesion in the color palette, they may be scared off.

“Some people hate bright wall colors or bold wallpaper,” he said.

Open concept conversion

Residential designer Paul DeFeis of Trade Mark Design & Build in the New Jersey area says another project that typically pays off is opening up walls to create an open living space.

If you have an older home with a boxy and broken-up interior, opening up the walls to create a larger living space is often one of the best “bang for your buck” remodeling projects. “Opening up a wall that connects an adjacent room to your kitchen is huge,” said DeFeis.

Curb appeal

Last but not least, both DeFeis and Salmon agree that curb appeal is important, and that improving the exterior look of your home can go a long way toward fetching a higher sales price or just upping your home’s value.

Salmon says that planting nice bushes, adding mulch or painting your exterior door can make your home pop. You should also make sure your grass is mowed and debris is removed. “Even basic yard cleanup can go a long way,” he said.

The National Association of Realtors also offers their own list of home upgrades that can pay off the most over time. According to their study, the home upgrades they believe will increase your home’s value the most in 2017 included:

  • Complete kitchen renovation
  • Kitchen upgrade
  • Bathroom renovation
  • Add new bathroom
  • New master suite
  • New wood flooring
  • HVAC replacement
  • Hardwood flooring refinish
  • Basement conversion to living area
  • Attic conversion to living area
  • Closet renovation
  • Insulation upgrade

In terms of exterior home remodel projects, they list new roofing, new vinyl windows, a new garage door and new vinyl siding as the top four upgrades that will appeal to buyers and increase the value of your home.

Home improvements that can negatively impact your property values

While there are plenty of improvements that can be a net positive for your finances, there are just as many that can make no impact in your home’s value — or worse, decrease your home’s value.

This list isn’t all-inclusive and the type of projects that can hurt your home’s value also vary depending on your neighborhood and where you live. If you want to avoid completing updates that won’t be worth it, think long and hard before you tackle any of the projects below:

  • Garage conversions
    • Cost: $5,000 – $30,000 and potentially more depending on job site conditions and square footage. While it might be tempting to convert your garage into a room to increase your square footage, DeFeis says this is often a bad idea. Not only can a converted garage look awful from the road, but it could be a zoning issue as well. Further, many buyers will want a garage over more square footage and may not consider your home without one.
  • Swimming pools
    • Cost: $30,000 – $100,000 depending on construction materials, landscaping and upgrades. Swimming pools may be standard or popular in warmer climates, but you could limit your potential pool of buyers by adding one no matter where you live. “It depends on the buyer,” he said. “Some buyers want a pool and some people absolutely refuse to have one.”
  • Nonconforming additions
    • Cost: $30,000 – $60,000 and potentially more for a home addition depending on size. Adding onto your home can increase your square footage and make your home more livable, but that doesn’t mean all additions look great from the outside of your home. “If you’re driving down the street and your house looks out of place, then it’s not going to help your home’s value,” said DeFeis.
  • Luxury upgrades
    • Cost: $1,000 – $2,500 per linear square foot for custom kitchen cabinets, $22 – $32 and up per square foot for marble flooring including installation. While luxury upgrades like custom cabinets or Italian marble flooring may have been all the rage a few decades ago, these products seem to be taking a back seat to more mainstream products, says DeFeis. “People want the look but they do not want the luxury product anymore.”
  • Overdone landscaping.
    • Cost: pricing varies. Too much landscaping can make buyers feel overwhelmed, but it depends on the neighborhood. Ideally, you’ll want your landscaping to look similar to your neighbors.
  • Overbuilding
    • Cost: pricing varies. Last but not least, don’t forget it’s possible to improve your home too much. Making your home a lot bigger than the rest of the homes in your neighborhood may not be a good investment, for example. “If the average price point in your neighborhood is $400,000 and your home is worth that amount but you add a $100,000 addition to your home, that doesn’t mean your home will be worth $500,000,” said Salmon.

Final thoughts

Whether you want to remodel to sell or to make your home into what you want it to be, it’s smart to research different remodeling projects to gauge your potential return on investment. While some projects can absolutely pay off, there are just as many home “upgrades” that can hurt your home’s value or make no impact at all.

 

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Janet Berry-Johnson
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What to Know About Getting a Mortgage on a Second Home

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Although 36 percent of investors and 29 percent of vacation home buyers pay cash for their properties, many finance their homes, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors Research Department. But even buyers who finance their second homes have a lot of cash on hand: 47 percent of investors and 45 percent of vacation home buyers finance less than 70 percent of the home’s purchase price.

That’s not to say you can’t get a second home with a smaller down payment, but it’s one of many important things to think about when looking to get a mortgage on a second home.

Is buying a second home right for you?

Before making a huge financial commitment like this, make sure you ask yourself these crucial questions:

Can I afford a second home?

Many families love the idea of buying a second home, but think about all the costs you incurred when buying your primary residence:

  • Down payment
  • Closing costs
  • Monthly mortgage payment
  • Property taxes
  • Property insurance
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI)
  • Utilities
  • Landscaping and upkeep

You’ll incur many of these same costs with a second home, too. For example, Doug Crouse, a senior loan officer with nearly 20 years of experience in the mortgage industry, says PMI can be especially costly: “When it comes to second homes, PMI rates are about 50% higher than what they would be for a primary residence.”

However, a second mortgage isn’t inherently more expensive than a first mortgage. Dan Green, founder of Growella and a former top producing loan officer with 15 years of mortgage lending experience, says, “There is no closing cost difference on a second home [or] vacation home mortgage as compared to a primary residence.”

Keep in mind that if your second home is in a faraway location, you have to consider the long-distance costs of upkeep.

Will this be a vacation rental or an investment property?

There are typically two reasons people want to purchase a second home: buying it as a vacation home or buying it as an investment property. How you use it will have implications for your taxes.

According to the IRS, your home is a vacation home if you spend the greater of 14 days a year or 10% of the time you rent it to others.

Keep in mind that if you use your home solely for your family to vacation there, you can’t deduct items on your tax returns like utilities and real estate taxes like you would if it was an investment property. While you can deduct mortgage interest on a vacation home like you do for your first home, the new tax law for 2018 only allows you to deduct mortgage interest on your total properties up to $750,000. So if you already own a $750,000 home, you would not be able to deduct your mortgage interest on a second home.

If you use your second home to generate income from rent, you may be able to deduct items on your tax returns like utilities, real estate taxes, the fees you pay your property manager and more, according to the IRS. (Think of it like being a business owner who gets to deduct business expenses versus a vacation home owner.)

If you don’t want to choose between your second home being a vacation home or being an investment property, you don’t have to. It can be used as both, but you have to keep impeccable records that show when it’s being used and how, so you can properly itemize your deductions. For example, if you use it for half the year as a vacation home and rent it out the other half of the year, the IRS says you can only deduct your utilities, etc., on your taxes for the portion of the year you’re treating your home as a business and renting it out. It’s a good idea to consult a tax professional about how such an investment will affect you before you commit to buying a second home.

Is a second home a good investment?

Whether or not a second home is a good investment depends on the individual. Roger Wohlner, a fee-only financial planner, says, “One should be buying a second home for a specific reason such as a family gathering spot, an affinity to a location (a lake, etc.) or some other reason. Because of that, it can’t really compare to another investment.”

In other words, you can’t quantify relaxation, memories or family time as part of a return-on-investment calculation. That’s why it’s crucial you make sure you can afford the second home from the get-go.

If you’re considering a second home strictly as an investment property, whether or not it’s a good decision depends on many other decisions you make along the way, like how much you choose to charge in rent, which improvements you make to the property and how you plan to manage the property, to name a few. Before you decide to rent out an income property, make sure you’ve considered these seven major cost areas.

How to get a mortgage on a second home

What’s the difference between your primary mortgage and your second home mortgage?

There are a few differences between these two mortgages. Depending on your credit score and other qualifications, you may be able to get a conventional mortgage for a primary residence with as little as 3 percent down (but you will have to pay private mortgage insurance, or PMI.) You might also qualify for an FHA loan with 3.5 percent down. Generally, the higher your credit score, the better interest rate you will qualify for, but lenders may consider your application with a 620 or lower credit score. (You can read more here about the most important factors in getting approved for a mortgage.)

For a second home, you could be required to put 10 percent to 30 percent down, depending on your credit or debt to income ratio. Lenders like to see cash reserves, as well, to show that you can cover one to 12 months of payments. Additionally, lenders like to see a 640-700 credit score for second homes, and your interest rates might be a quarter of a point to a half a point higher than your primary mortgage, although Green says, “Mortgage rates on second homes may be slightly higher, or may not be higher at all.”

When it comes to credit qualifications for a second home, Crouse says, “Second home credit requirements are typically the same as primary residence for conventional lending.” Additionally, he says there’s no difference in the approval process. Green corroborates this. He says, “Minimum credit score thresholds aren’t usually different for vacation homes as compared to primary residences. However, lenders often ask for additional monies down.”

If you want to find a mortgage for a second home, Crouse says, “Typically lenders who offer primary home loans would also offer second home financing.” Green advises, “The mortgage-comparison process is the same. Do your research, talk to two or more lenders, and choose the lender that works best for you.”

You’ll also want to ask yourself these questions in order to avoid common mistakes:

Can I really afford this place? Wohlner says, “If you don’t have the cash for the down payment on a second home you shouldn’t be buying one.”

What loan terms make the most sense for this property? Just because you have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on your primary residence doesn’t mean that’s the right choice for a second home. Crouse says, “A common mistake is not looking at adjustable rate loans as an option,” because second homes are often “a luxury item and therefore something people liquidate when there is a change financial situation.”

Have I explored all my options? Green says, “When you’re shopping for a mortgage on a second home, make sure to actually shop.” He adds, “You’re looking for the best combination of price and service on your loan. It’s good to shop around.”

What are some ways to pay the down payment on a second home?

The best way to pay for a down payment on a second home is to pay for it with cash. Crouse says, in his experience, most people use cash as their down payment on second homes. The reason, he says, is, “Most buyers don’t want to tie up personal residence equity into their second home.”

If you don’t have the cash on hand and you’re committed to buying a second home, you can consider taking out a HELOC on your primary residence and using that money for the downpayment for your second home.

Taking out a HELOC comes with risks, though. You are leveraging your primary residence to purchase a second residence, which could cause you to lose your home if you fail to make your HELOC payments. In fact, Wohlner completely advises his financial planning clients against getting a HELOC to pay for a down payment on a second home. He says you should pay for it in cash.

Alternatives to mortgages for a second home

Getting a mortgage for a second home isn’t the only way to get the vacation property or investment property you want. Here are some other options:

Pay cash

Paying cash for your second home is a great way to ensure you don’t pay interest to a bank. It also means you’ll have no monthly mortgage payments on your second home, and that’s a great feeling. Of course, you’ll no longer have easy access to that money in case of an emergency. You might also prefer to get a mortgage at a low-interest rate and instead invest your cash in the stock market. Again, this is up to you, your risk tolerance and your cash reserves.

Get a joint mortgage with family

Sharing a second home and getting a mortgage with a family member could be a great way to split the costs and responsibilities of having a second home. Of course, involving multiple applicants in the mortgage process may make it a bit more logistically challenging.

You should also know that there are tax implications. When claiming the mortgage interest deduction, you may have to include an attachment in your tax return showing how much of the mortgage interest you paid. If you’re the person who receives the Form 1098 (the mortgage interest statement), you will deduct only the portion you paid and have to let the other borrowers know what their shares are.

Timeshare

Timeshares are an $8.6 billion industry, and the average price of a timeshare interval is $20,040, according to the American Resort Development Association. (A timeshare interval is the set number of days and nights per year an owner uses the property, usually a week, according to the ARDA.)

Now, you can go to large, well-known companies like Disney to find your own timeshare. With a timeshare, you typically get to visit a specific place every year for a set amount of time, like one week. So, you don’t have the flexibility of getting to visit your second home any time you want, but it can be more cost-efficient. Another con is that timeshares come with hefty dues that can increase each year.

Bottom line

Ultimately, buying a second home is an exciting prospect. If you vacation often to the same place, it can be a great way to become an official part of that community. However, buying a second home is a serious financial commitment that requires a large down payment and other maintenance costs. Luckily, if you decide you aren’t ready to buy a second home yet, you can still use vacation rental websites and continue to try new locations until you’re finally ready to take the plunge.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Cat Alford
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Cat Alford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Catherine at cat@magnifymoney.com

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Mortgage

Can I Refinance a Mortgage When My Home Is for Sale?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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If you’re having trouble paying your bills, or if you’d simply like to reduce your monthly expenses, refinancing your mortgage could be a good option. By reducing your interest rate, extending your loan term, or both, you could stand to significantly reduce your monthly payment.

But refinancing isn’t easy if you’re also in the process of selling your home. Many mortgage lenders may be hesitant to work with you, and there are some rules you’ll have to follow before you can even consider it.

This article explains why you might want to refinance your mortgage while your home is for sale, why lenders might be hesitant to allow it, and how you can maximize your odds of success.

Why You Might Consider Refinancing When Selling Your Home — and Why You Should Think Twice

There are a few situations in which refinancing a home you are trying to sell might seem like a good idea. But there are also some downsides to this approach, and in some situations, those downsides will outweigh any potential benefit.

Here are some of the reasons to consider it, as well as some reasons to think twice.

1. Relieve the burden of two mortgage payments

If you have already moved into a new home and you are now dealing with two mortgage payments, refinancing your older mortgage could be a way to reduce your monthly expenses and make this temporary situation a little more manageable.

One issue with this approach is that the upfront closing costs could outweigh the savings you receive on the monthly payment. This is especially likely if you end up selling your home quickly, as there may not be enough time for you to recoup those upfront expenses.

Dan Green, the founder of Growella and the branch manager for Waterstone Mortgage in Pewaukee, Wis., also warns that refinancing is not a cure-all if you’ve gotten yourself into a difficult financial situation. While it may offer temporary relief, the long-term issue of having to afford two mortgages will remain and you might end up spending a lot of money on something that still leaves you in a tough spot.

2. You can do a no-cost refinance

If you plan on selling your home within the next few months, the typical upfront closing costs associated with refinancing are a big obstacle.

But you may be offered a no-cost refinance in which you’re able to refinance your mortgage without closing costs. And that could be helpful in the right circumstances, as long as you understand the pros and cons.

The term “no-cost” is slightly deceptive because the lender isn’t actually giving you a free pass. They are simply rolling the closing costs into the loan, which increases the amount you’re borrowing and therefore increases the long-term cost of the loan.

The upside is that without the upfront costs, you can start saving money immediately as long as you’re able to lower your monthly payment. If you sell your home relatively quickly, you could end up spending less than if you had kept your original mortgage.

The downside is that since you’re taking out a larger mortgage, you’ll have to pay more the longer you hold it. If you have trouble selling the house or if your plans change and you decide to keep it, you could end up spending more than you would have either with your original mortgage or with a traditional refinance.

3. You’re not planning to sell the home anymore

If your house has been on the market for some time without any success, you might be having some doubts. That may be especially true if you’re in a buyer’s market, leaving you with little leverage for getting the price that you want.

In that case, you might simply decide that you no longer want to sell the house. You may even decide to turn the home into an investment property instead and rent it out to tenants.

According to Green, this is the most suitable reason to refinance while your home is for sale. If your plans have changed, a refinance might be the best way to save money over the long term.

Why lenders are wary of refinancing a home that’s for sale

Even if you decide that refinancing is the right move, you may have trouble finding a lender that’s willing to do it.

Lenders always take on risk when originating a mortgage loan, and some of these risks are even bigger when they’re considering short-term financing.

Default risk

Default risk is the risk that you might not be able to pay the loan back, in which case the lender stands to lose money.

On the one hand, if you are refinancing a mortgage on a home that you are trying to sell, it should theoretically be a short-term loan and that may decrease the odds of default.

If, as Green mentions, you are refinancing in an attempt to relieve some of the stress of a difficult financial situation, you might quickly find yourself in even more financial trouble if you aren’t able to sell your home quickly. And that type of situation could make it harder for you to pay back the loan, which increases the lender’s risk of losing money to default.

Early-repayment risk

According to Casey Fleming, mortgage adviser and author of “The Loan Guide”, lenders make most of their profit when they sell their loans to investors. So in a situation where you’re trying to take out a loan on a property that you’re trying to sell, the lender faces the risk that you’ll pay the loan off early and eliminate their ability to sell it for a profit.

“A lender doesn’t want to book a loan that’s going to be paid off after only a month or two,” said Fleming. “The lender stands to lose quite a bit of money if someone takes out a loan and then sells the property.”

Even if the lender does manage to sell the loan to an investor, part of the sale includes representation and warranties that could cause problems in the case of early repayment.

Fleming said, “The lender represents to the investor that the information in the file is true and correct and affirms that the loan will pay off as planned.”

So if you sell the home and repay the loan within just a few months, the lender may be forced to buy the loan back from the investor, resulting in more losses.

How to improve your odds of refinancing

If you’re still convinced that refinancing is the right move, how can you find a lender who is willing to go through with it while your home is still for sale?

The first step is to be honest. If your home is listed, it will show up on a multiple listings service (MLS) that the lender can easily cross-reference, so you shouldn’t try to hide it.

Beyond that, here are three steps you can take to improve your chances of getting approved for a mortgage refinance.

1. Take your home off the market

Most lenders will require that you remove your listing before they consider refinancing.

For cash-out refinance transactions, Fannie Mae, a government-sponsored enterprise that buys mortgages from lenders, requires that your property must be taken off the market before the loan is disbursed. And for limited cash-out refinance transactions, they require that the borrower confirm their intent to occupy the home.

In other words, for the most part you will not be allowed to refinance your mortgage if you are still planning to sell the home. You must have changed your mind, decided to hold onto it, and taken it off the market.

2. Write a letter of intent

Even if you do take your home off the market, lenders may still be wary of proceeding. In that case, a letter explaining your new intentions may help you secure the refinance you’re looking for.

According to Green, Fannie Mae requires borrowers to sign a letter indicating their intention to occupy the home as a primary residence. In other situations, you might write a letter explaining that you’ve decided to turn the home into a rental property rather than sell it.

Whatever the case, explaining your intention to hold onto the property, and providing evidence of that intention if possible, could help your case. For example, a copy of a lease agreement with a tenant could bolster your case that you are truly planning on using the property as a rental.

Again, it’s important to be honest. If you declare your intention to keep the home and then turn around and sell it right away, you could end up in a lot of trouble.

“If you misrepresent your intentions, you’ve committed mortgage fraud,” said Fleming. “The lender could sue you for damages and the federal government could prosecute you.”

3. Shop around

While most lenders will require that you take your home off the market and leave it off the market in order to refinance, some don’t have those restrictions.

“Banks or credit unions that retain some of their loans rather than sell them might be more willing,” said Fleming. “But only on higher-risk, higher-rate loans.”

If you shop around, you may be able to find a lender who’s willing to refinance even if you keep your home for sale. But there’s no guarantee, and you’ll likely end up with a more expensive loan that could hurt you in both the short and long term.

A good place to start shopping refi offers is through MagnifyMoney’s parent company, LendingTree’s mortgage marketplace.

The Bottom Line

If your home is already listed for sale, or if you plan on selling in the near future, refinancing is a difficult proposition. Many lenders won’t even offer a refinance unless you take your home off the market and those that will refinance often charge you higher interest rates.

In the end, it may be better to simply avoid refinancing if a sale is imminent.

But if you’ve had trouble selling your home and you’re having second thoughts, you can improve your chances of getting approved by taking your home off the market and refinancing in good faith.

Doing so could help you secure a lower monthly payment, a lower interest rate, or both, and free up a little extra cash flow for your other needs.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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Is Now the Best Time to Buy a Home?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Mortgage applications increased by 7.8% in December 2017 from the previous year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. But the fact that more people are buying homes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best time for you.

If you’re trying to decide whether now is the right time to buy a home, it’s important to understand how the housing market works and whether you’re financially and emotionally ready to take on such a large commitment.

Here are some of the most important factors to consider.

A snapshot of the current housing market

There are several market forces that influence the overall affordability of housing, and can therefore affect your personal decision.

In this section, we’ll look at the current state of three main factors: mortgage rates, home prices, and inventory levels.

Mortgage rates are rising

As with the stock market, you can’t know for sure how mortgage interest rates will change over time. You can, however, make predictions based on some underlying factors.

According to Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree, mortgage rates are significantly higher than they were six months ago. Indeed, the following chart from Freddie Mac shows a steady climb starting in September, followed by a sharp climb in rates more recently:

Kapfidze points to two factors that have helped push rates higher.

“The first thing is that the Federal Reserve, since September, has been reducing its holdings of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities,” he said.

The Federal Reserve began the program of buying up these holdings in response to the financial crisis that began a decade ago. The idea was to lower interest rates to encourage businesses to invest and help the economy grow.

Kapfidze says that this reduction in the Federal Reserve’s holdings lowers demand for Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, “If you reduce the demand, the price falls,” he added, “which in this case means that interest rates go up.”

The second factor, according to Kapfidze, is the recent behavior of Congress, which passed both the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and a sweeping budget bill recently.

“Both of those things are projected to increase the U.S. budget deficit pretty significantly,” said Kapfidze. “They’re going to be issuing a lot more Treasury bonds, and because they’re adding a lot of supply and we have a reduction in demand, that’s also pushing up the interest rates.”

Home prices are on the rise

If you thought home prices were high when the housing market bubble burst in 2007, take a look at how they’ve grown since the market recovered.

If you’re concerned that the market will see another correction soon, you might not want to risk getting caught up in it. It’s difficult to predict if and when a correction will happen, so it’s often not advisable to try to time the market.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is the correlation between interest rates and home prices.

“As mortgage rates go up, that does put some downward pressure on home prices, but it does it with a lag,” said Kapfidze. “If you were to run a correlation between mortgage rates going up this year and home prices three years from now, you’ll probably see a little slower appreciation in home prices.”

There are fewer homes available

While mortgage rates may not have an immediate impact on home prices, inventory levels can. Total housing inventory fell 11.4% in December 2017, according to the National Association of Realtors, and was 10.3% lower than the previous year.

With fewer homes on the market and growing demand, sellers have less competition and therefore more opportunity to increase prices. But Kapfidze doesn’t see that acting as a deterrent for homebuyers.

“Given the strength of demand in the housing market today, I think you’ll probably still see pretty strong growth in home sales this year,” he said.

The benefits of buying a home

Buying a home is a major financial commitment and should not be taken lightly. But it also comes with some significant benefits, both financial and otherwise, that may factor into your decision.

Tax breaks

The U.S. tax code allows homeowners to deduct the amount of mortgage interest and property taxes they pay each year from their taxable income. The catch is that you have to be able to itemize your deductions instead of taking the standard deduction.

With the new tax law in effect, the standard deduction has increased from $6,500 to $12,000 for single taxpayers and from $13,000 to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. As a result, fewer homeowners find it worthwhile to itemize their deductions and therefore take advantage of the mortgage interest and property tax deductions.

You may also receive a tax break when you selling your home down the road. The IRS allows you to up to $250,000 in tax-free gains on your sale if you are single, and up to $500,000 if you are married filing jointly, assuming certain conditions are met.

So if, for example, you buy a house for $200,000 and sell it years later for $300,000, that $100,000 gain would be completely tax-free as long as you meet the eligibility requirements.

Equity

So long as home sales remain strong, a home is an appreciable asset, which means that its value typically grows over time. And every monthly payment you make increases the amount of the home that you actually own — your equity — which means that you are building wealth along the way.

Of course, growth isn’t guaranteed. As the U.S. real estate bubble burst a decade ago, the Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price NSA Index fell for almost three years straight.

That said, the long-term upward trend is clear. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median home value grew from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 in 2000, adjusted for inflation.

All of which is to say that owning a home functions as a sort of forced savings program. By continually contributing money to an appreciable asset, you can build long-term wealth.

Predictable monthly costs

If you opt for a fixed-rate mortgage, your monthly payment is locked in for the length of your loan term. This is in contrast to renting, where your monthly payment can change every time you renew your lease.

That fixed cost can make budgeting and planning a lot easier. With that said, owning your house means that you’re on the hook for maintenance and repairs. These costs can be unpredictable, and sometimes quite high, which is one of the reasons why building an emergency fund can be so helpful.

More control

While homeownership can provide financial benefits, many people simply want the freedom to create a home that makes them happy.

As a homeowner, you don’t have to ask permission to paint the walls, replace the floor, add a room or get a pet. For the most part, you have complete control to do what you like.

Of course, this may mean spending more money on home improvements. But if it’s in pursuit of turning your house into a home, it may be worth the costs.

Running the numbers on buying vs. renting

The choice to buy or rent isn’t always an easy one, even if you’ve done your homework. But it’s always helpful to run the numbers to see which route is more likely to come out ahead.

You can play around with The New York Times’s Buy vs. Rent calculator to crunch the numbers.

It generally makes more sense to buy if you plan on living in the home for an extended period of time.

The less time you plan on staying in the home, and the greater the associated costs of your home are — such as interest rate, property taxes, insurance, and maintenance — the less likely it is that buying will be the better financial decision.

While there is no golden rule, there are certain variables that generally argue one way or the other in the buy vs. rent debate.

Here are some of the major considerations:

Even if you’re ready to take the next step toward buying a house, the process can be daunting, especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer.

As you begin the house-hunting process, here are some tips to help you stay on the right track.

1. Figure out how much you can afford

A mortgage is a long-term investment, so make sure your budget can handle both the monthly payment and all the other expenses that come with owning a home.

“You want to make sure to have a conservative budget, so if any curveballs are thrown at you like a lost job or big unexpected repair, you have the means to tackle them,” said Mike Schupak, CFP®, a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Schupak Financial Advisors in Jersey City, N.J.

You can use MagnifyMoney’s home affordability calculator to get a quick idea of your price range, then focus on homes within that range.

2. Research recent home sales in your area

Given that the housing market crashed not too long ago, and that average home prices have now risen above what they were before the crash, you might be worried about buying at the top of the market and suffering through another downturn.

Luckily, there are plenty of tools that allow you to research the value of recently sold homes in your area, which can help you gauge whether the home prices you see are fair.

Websites like Zillow.com and Realtor.com can be helpful places to start. Zillow allows you to search as many as three years back, and both sites allow you to filter based on a number of variables so that you can get as fair a comparison as possible.

But this is where a good realtor will really shine. Realtors have access to databases that go back even further, and a good realtor will understand how to evaluate that data, find the right comparisons and explain it all in a way that makes sense.

3. Determine how much you’ll put down

A larger down payment will reduce your monthly payment and potentially allow you to avoid PMI, but you have to weigh that against the savings you have available and your other financial needs.

Lucas Casarez, CFP®, a fee-only financial planner and the owner of Level Up Financial Planning in Fort Collins, Colo., says that a 20% down payment is preferred, but not a deal breaker. It typically allows you to avoid PMI and may allow you to secure a lower interest rate.

But putting 20% down isn’t always realistic, and there are plenty of mortgage programs that allow you to buy a home with less. You just need to weigh the pros and cons in light of your personal situation.

4. Get preapproved

You can get a pre-approval letter from a lender before even making an offer on a house. This letter says that the lender will likely loan you up to a certain amount of money, based on a set of assumptions.

And while this isn’t a loan offer or a guarantee, it both allows you to make an offer with more confidence and gives the seller more confidence that you will actually be able to follow through on your offer, increasing your odds of having it accepted.

5. Avoid applying for credit

Every time you apply for a credit card, loan or any other type of credit, the lender does a hard credit check that can temporarily knock a few points off your credit score.

It’s therefore wise to delay new credit activity until after you close on your mortgage in order to keep your credit score from dropping.

6. Get the right loan

There are many different types of mortgages, from conventional loans to non-conforming loans, to programs that allow you to put less than 20% down. You can get a fixed interest rate or an adjustable rate, and you can choose mortgage term that’s typically either 15 or 30 years.

There are many different factors to consider, and a good mortgage adviser can help you understand your options and make the right choice based on your personal needs.

7. Compare mortgage rates

Every mortgage lender has different criteria when underwriting their mortgages, so you have the opportunity to shop around to find the lowest interest rate available to you. You can use this tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to get a sense of the rates available in your area, and you can apply with several lenders to see what offers you qualify for.

MagnifyMoney’s parent company LendingTree also makes it easy to get quotes from lenders online, using this short online form.

And you don’t have to worry about hurting your credit score by making several applications. As long as they are all within a 45-day window, the credit bureaus will count multiple credit checks from multiple mortgage lenders as a single inquiry.

8. Make a strong but reasonable offer

Once you find the right house, you can work with your real estate agent to make a strong offer that’s within your budget.

At this point in the process, you may be confronted with competing bids, and it’s important not to get caught up in a bidding war that could put you in a difficult situation. You can potentially work with your realtor to make certainly reasonable concessions, but be prepared to walk away if the price gets too high.

The bottom line: Is it time for me to buy a house?

With so many market and financial factors to consider, it can be hard to figure out whether it truly is the right time to buy. Schupak’s advice is to focus on what you can control.

“Don’t try to time interest rates,” Schupak said. “Instead, focus on items like purchase price, expected maintenance cost, insurance, HOA fees and real estate taxes. A forecast miss on those items often turns out to be much more costly than a higher interest rate.”

Casarez encourages people to be conservative and wait until you have a solid foundation in place that can help you navigate the ups and downs of this big transition.

“Sometimes the monthly cost of owning a house can be a big jump, and it can cause a lot of stress,” said Casarez. “The best time to buy a home is when you’re financially and mentally ready to do so.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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Most Important Factors to Getting Approved for a Mortgage

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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When David Inglis and his wife decided to move to San Diego last year, they were expecting a relatively smooth process. They’d keep the house they owned in Los Angeles and rent it out as a source of passive income, then they’d buy a new house in San Diego. They even had a 20% down payment ready to go.

“The problem was that we found renters and had to get out of our current house and close on the new house within 21 days,” Inglis, 40, a yacht broker, tells MagnifyMoney. That gave them just 21 days to get a mortgage — easier said than done. As Inglis put it: “Getting approved for a mortgage is a process, to say the least.”

With what felt like a moment’s notice, the couple had to gather up and submit everything from tax returns to current income statements, and do mountains of paperwork in between to get pre-qualified for a loan. From there, their lender picked through their credit scores, debt-to-income ratio, employment history — you name it. They closed on their new house in the nick of time at the end of 2017, and it was anything but a stress-free experience.

If you’re new to the whole buying-a-house thing, locking down a mortgage loan isn’t something that happens overnight. That’s not to say it isn’t worth it though. One recent Value Insured survey found that the vast majority of younger folks—a whopping 83%, in fact—still associate buying a home with the American dream.

At the starting line? There are a number of important factors that go into determining if a lender will approve you for a home loan. Here’s everything you need to know.

Getting approved for a mortgage — 5 things lenders are looking for

Credit score

Remember: A mortgage is a type of loan. When you’re applying for any type of financing, your credit score is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle. This three-digit number essentially provides lenders with a general idea of your creditworthiness.

If you have accounts in collections or a history of making late payments, for example, you’ll have a lower-than-average score, which directly affects your loan options. That means you could get hit with higher interest rates or bigger mortgage insurance premiums, or both.

“Your credit score is really important on conventional loans,” John Moran, founder of TheHomeMortgagePro.com, tells MagnifyMoney. “Some other loan programs are less credit-sensitive.”

For conventional home loans, Moran says your credit score has to be at least 620, but for FHA or VA loans, you may be able to get away with a score in the 500s. But it’s not just about getting approved. The lower your score, the higher your mortgage rate will likely be — and that can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of your loan over time.

FICO, America’s leading credit reporting agency, looks at several important factors when determining your score. Your payment history, amounts owed, and length of credit history are chief among them. If you’re aiming for a home in the next year or two, you’ve got time to improve your credit if you start now.

Trust us — it’ll be worth the effort. You can see below what estimated mortgage rate folks would get based on their credit score and how much it could cost them over time. For our purposes, we’ll assume they’re all getting a $250,000 30-year fixed rate loan.

Score Range

APR

Monthly Payment

Total interest paid

760-850

3.914%

$1,181

$175,224

700-759

4.136%

$1,213

$186,760

680-699

4.313%

$1,239

$196,072

660-679

4.527%

$1,271

$207,462

640-659

4.957%

$1,335

$230,777

620-639

5.503%

$1,420

$261,180

Source: Calculated using the MyFico Loan Savings Calculator
Rates current as of Feb. 2, 2018.

You can find a detailed breakdown of your credit score by pulling up your credit report for free. Your report unpacks your credit history for lenders, so it’s vital to know what’s on it. This is crucial because you could end up spotting an error that’s weighing your score down.

If your credit score could use some work, don’t fret—there are plenty of ways to give it a good boost before buying a home. Establishing credit history, keeping your credit utilization ratio below 30%, and making consistent on-time payments are all on the list.

Debt vs. income

Your credit score goes hand in hand with your current debt load. Lenders specifically zero in on how your debt relates to your income. Together, this determines what’s known as your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)..

To calculate out your DTI, it’s fairly simple: Add up all your monthly debt obligations (not including your current housing payment unless you own the home and plan on keeping it), then divide that number by your gross monthly income. So if you pay, for example, $2,000 a month toward debt and you’re grossing $4,500, your DTI comes in at about 44%.

What’s a good DTI? Strive for 36% or less.

Fannie Mae, which sets the lending standards for the vast majority of mortgage loans, generally requires a maximum total DTI of no more than 36%. However, if the borrower meets certain credit and reserve requirements, they can generally get away with 45%.

Why? A high DTI is a red flag to lenders that you may not be able to afford a new monthly loan payment. In a lot of ways, it’s more telling than your credit score.

“The only thing that really matters to lenders is how this new monthly payment and your other debts relate to your income,” said Moran. “One of the quickest ways people can turn things around is by paying down revolving debts like credit cards and lines of credit, which increases your available credit and decreases your credit utilization ratio.”

He adds that making a smaller down payment in order to pay down revolving debt might improve your chances of qualifying since doing so will boost your credit score relatively quickly. Knocking those balances down also lowers your monthly minimum payment, so you may be able to qualify for a larger loan. In other words, your DTI isn’t the end-all-be-all when applying for a mortgage loan, but it’s pretty important.

Down payment

Lenders also look at how much of a down payment you can make, which ties directly back into your debt-to-income ratio. According to Bob McLaughlin, director of residential mortgage at financial services company Bryn Mawr Trust, putting down a higher down payment makes you more likely to get approved since it essentially decreases the risk for the lender. As a result, better loan terms and interest rates will likely be on the table.

“If you have the ability to put 20% down, you also avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance, which makes it easier to qualify,” he said.

Another perk is that you’ll have more equity in your home as well as a lower monthly mortgage payment. But for many, saving for a 20% down payment is a serious barrier to homeownership. Not surprisingly, a 2016 report put out by the National Association of Realtors found that the average down payment for first-time homebuyers has fallen in the 6% range for the last few years. The good news is that according to Moran, you can still get approved with a lower down payment.

“You can put 0% down for VA loans, 3.5% for FHA loans and even as little as 3% for conventional loans,” he said.

“There are people all the time buying homes with these minimum down payments, but it really all boils down to what you’re comfortable with and the kind of monthly payment you can handle.”

FHA and VA loans are usually the first low down-payment loans that come to mind, but options like personal loans and USDA loans may also be worth considering. Just keep in mind that taking this shortcut could potentially translate to a financial burden — low down payments typically necessitate higher insurance rates and extra fees to protect the lender.

That said, lenders are really looking at your big financial picture, not just your down payment size. If you’re putting down less, but have a good score and a steady source of income, you’re much more likely to get approved for a mortgage loan than someone with a lower score and/or spotty employment status.

Employment history

Our insiders say that your income and employment history are just as important as your credit score, DTI and down payment size. Again, it all comes down to lenders feeling confident that you can indeed repay your loan.

“You have to fit the underwriting guidelines per your profession, and there is little flexibility there,” said McLaughlin.

Piggybacking on this insight, Moran says that the ideal situation is if you’ve worked for the same employer for two years and you’re salaried. The second ideal way to get the green light is if you’re an hourly worker who’s been with the same company for at least two years.

But all this begs one obvious question: What about self-employed folks? The freelance economy is growing rapidly. According to the latest Freelancing in America survey conducted by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, these folks are predicted to make up the majority of the U.S. workforce within the next decade. Moran says that for these workers to qualify for a mortgage, they’ll need to have a two-year work history.

Check out our guide on getting approved for a mortgage when you’re self-employed.

“It’s a little bit of a kiss of death to start self-employment right before applying for a home loan,” he said.

“Most lenders won’t approve you because they want to be sure you’ll be able to afford your new loan payment. The only way to really prove you have a steady income is with two years’ worth of tax returns.”

In rare cases, Moran adds, you may be able to get away with one year, but it’s not the norm. Things are different of course, for self-employed newbies who are applying with a spouse who works a steady 9-to-5, which could tip the scales in their favor. Again, it’s all about the big picture. That said, a new salaried position will typically erase doubts stemming from a spotty employment history, as long as you have about two months’ worth of pay stubs, according to McLaughlin.

Loan size

All the factors we’re highlighting here are interwoven. The size of the loan you’re applying for fits right in. The higher your loan amount, the higher your monthly payment, which impacts that all-important DTI.

This is why you may be more likely to get approved if you’re seeking a lower amount. But whether you’re looking for $100,000 or $400,000, it really boils down to how big of a monthly payment your budget can absorb. (Lending Tree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney, has a Home Affordability Calculator that can help you figure this out.)

The general rule of thumb here is to keep your mortgage loan (including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) at or below 28% of your total income. Moran has worked with ultra-conservative folks who like to keep that number at 25%, but he says it really varies from person to person.

“Some people like to travel and don’t want to be house poor; others are homebodies and just really want a nice house because that’s where they’re going to spend their time,” he said.

“It’s all a trade-off, but either way, lenders will only pre-qualify you for what they think you can actually afford.”

How to get preapproved for a mortgage

Pre-approval is a term you’re likely to hear in the home-buying process. This is when the lender takes into account everything from your credit score and debts to employment history and down payment size to offer you a maximum loan amount.

When you come to the table with a pre-approved offer of lending from a bank, you’re already way ahead of the competition. And this can really give you an edge. When you’re living in a metro where most people are coming with double-digit down payments and pre-approvals to boot, you’re competing with very attractive borrowers.

Pre-approvals will ding your credit score, but the hit won’t be too bad if you complete several mortgage applications over a short time period, like 30 to 45 days. Multiple inquiries should only count as one hard inquiry on your credit report.

A good rule of thumb is to get mortgage quotes before you apply for pre-approval. You can get quotes quickly from different lenders at LendingTree by filling out a short online form.

Included in a pre-approval letter will be the estimated loan amount you might qualify for and your estimated mortgage rate.

The pre-approval process is also meant to prevent you from making offers on homes you can’t afford. But this doesn’t mean you have to actually take out a loan for the full amount. Many choose to get preapproved for their top number, then dial back during negotiations.

Final word

When it comes to mortgage approval factors, there are a lot of moving parts. Far and away, your credit score and debt-to-income ratio carry the most weight for potential lenders. From there, your ability to prove that you’re steadily and reliably employed is equally important.

At the end of the day, all that really matters is that you’re applying for a loan that you’ll actually be able to repay hiccup-free. The larger your down payment, the better your odds—especially if it eliminates the need for PMI. Either way, it’s probably in your best interest to meet with lenders before you start house hunting.

“You don’t want to put the cart before the horse by going with a realtor to look at houses, only to fall in love with something you can’t afford,” added McLaughlin. “Your emotions can definitely make the mortgage application process more stressful, which is why it’s best to go through the prequalification process first.”

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Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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