4 Different Rules of Thumb For How Much House You Can Afford

Updated for 2013. By definition, a “rule of thumb” is meant to be a greatly simplified estimate for a complicated matter. Mortgage lenders use income size, income stability, credit score, downpayment size, and other factors before approving a loan. But the most common way to express affordability is as a multiple of your household or individual annual income. CNN Money says 2.5 times:

The rule of thumb here is to aim for a home that costs about two-and-a-half times your gross annual salary.

The now-defunct Washington Mutual Bank suggested up to 4-5 times:

As a broad generalization, most people can afford to purchase a house worth about three times their total (gross) annual income, assuming a 20% down payment and a moderate amount of other long-term debts, such as car or student loan payments. With no other debts, you can probably afford a house worth up to four or even five times your annual income.

Running Your Own Numbers
I decided to run some numbers for myself using values I think are reasonable along with current interest rates. The Federal Housing Administration provides the following guidelines for the loans that they accept:

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Realty Mogul Review: Fractional Investment Property Ownership, Hard Money Lending

rmlogoRealty Mogul is a new “crowdfunding” start-up that lets you invest in residential investment property for as little as $5,000. You either take a partial ownership position in a property, or you become a lender to (experienced) house flippers. The new thing here is that you can do it completely online with a few mouse clicks (no mortgage brokers, real estate agents, or tenants) and again that low minimum $5,000 investment. (Thanks to reader Johnson for the tip.)

Taking an equity ownership position means that you own a little slice of a single-family home or multi-unit complex while a professional does the buying, fixing up, renting out, and eventual selling. Realty Mogul only has done one deal like this so far (fully funded) and the intended timeframe is 5-7 years. You earn rent while the house hopefully appreciates in value, and cash out when the house sells.

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We Paid Off Our Mortgage: History and Commentary

We paid off our mortgage. We contacted Provident Funding and requested the full amount due including any accrued interest, the money was sent via bank wire, and the loan is recorded as paid in full. As you might imagine, I spent many hours contemplating this move. In a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the letter below warning us we had to pay the property taxes ourselves was the first physical acknowledgement of the occasion. I found it amusing that it was addressed “Dear Homeowner”, as I never really felt like I owned my home until now.

A bit of history. When we first bought our home, we looked at the common rules of thumb regarding house affordability and ended up paying 20% down with a initial mortgage less than 3 times our combined income. Indeed, we qualified for the mortgage on my wife’s documented income alone. We thought about getting a 15-year note but went for the flexibility of the 30-year note, while paying it down at the 15-year pace. Over subsequent refinances, our interest rate dropped from 6% to 3%. Even though this made our required monthly payment much less, we kept up the higher monthly payments which had us on the pace of a 10-year payoff.

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Rule of Thumb: When To Pay Off The Mortgage Early

There was a lot of good discussion in my lengthy early mortgage payoff post. Now instead of lengthy details, let me try out a quick rule of thumb about early mortgage payoff. Recall from Wikipedia:

A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination.

So roughly applicable to many – but not all – situations.

Early Mortgage Payoff Rule of Thumb

You should time your mortgage payoff date to coincide with the date of retirement, or semi-retirement. Here, I would define retirement or semi-retirement as a time when you’ll be wholly or partially dependent on non-work income like Social Security, pensions, annuity payments, stock dividends, or other investment income. A downshift into a lower-paying second career would count as a semi-retirement.

In my humble opinion, this quick and dirty rule will help you balance the opportunity to invest in potentially higher-returning investments (stock mutual funds, dividend-paying stocks, real estate, high-yield bonds) with pursuing the benefits of having a fully-owned house (less stress, less leverage, lower required monthly expenses, lower required withdrawals from investments and thus lower marginal tax rates).

Example 1. 20s, 30s, 40s with long future career. You love your job and/or want to be doing it for the next 25+ years. In this case you have lots of human capital and a regular stream of income. You also won’t be needed to cash out your retirement assets for a long-time, making it much more likely that your stocks will achieve their higher average returns. Take on the 4% interest rate fixed for 30 years, and over time your salary will rise with inflation while your payment stays the same.

If anything, you could do a DIY biweekly payment plan and pay off your mortgage in under 24 years with less “pain” due to a behavioral trick (works best for those on a biweekly paycheck schedule).

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Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement? Digging Deep Into The Details

In the world of personal finance, you can always generate a good debate if you talk about paying off your mortgage early. The argument usually boils down to something like this:

If your interest rate is 4%, then paying extra towards that mortgage will earn you 4%. If you think you can earn more than 4% elsewhere, then don’t pay off your mortgage.

However, when it comes down to if YOU should pay extra towards YOUR mortgage, the above statement is an oversimplication. As Einstein is credited with saying, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Since I am faced with this decision myself, let’s address the implied assumptions in the sentence above and all the other little details that go into the decision.

Warning: This is a braindump post and thus rather long and detailed…

Assumption #1: Your mortgage interest is 100% tax-deductible.

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TreeHugger CEO Apartment: 420 Square Feet, 8 Rooms

I’m surprised I missed this earlier since I love this type of thing, but below is a nicely edited video from Gizmodo showing the 420 square feet apartment of TreeHugger.com CEO Graham Hill. It’s cool how they fit in the claimed 8 rooms using moving walls, floor-to-ceiling storage, and clever furniture and appliances: living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and I guess they’re counting the closet as a room? You really have to see it to understand.

I like this concept, especially when efficient use of space allows you to be able to afford to live in the heart of a good city where you can do much of your “living” outside in parks, cafes, bars, and restaurants. I’ve seen the moving wall before inside this Hong Kong apartment (only 344 sf), and much of the furniture is from Resource Furniture (eek, that fancified murphy bed costs $12,000). Installing solar panels (on the window shades?) with battery storage is a nice touch, and I’d consider the portable induction burners and combo microwave/induction oven for my own place.

More on this apartment: LifeEdited, New York Times

Related posts:

Paying Down a 30-Year Mortgage Faster vs. 15-Year Mortgage

What a difference a year makes. In August 2011, I did a mortgage comparison of a 15-year at 3.75% vs. 30-year at 4.75%. Now I’m redoing that same comparison at current market rates of 30 yr @ 3.25% vs. 15 yr @ 2.625%! To be fair, the numbers I used in 2011 were somewhat high.

In any case, the purpose of this comparison to compare the numbers if you wanted to pay down a 30-year mortgage in a 15-year accelerated timeframe, as opposed to just going with the lower interest rate and mandatory higher payment. I’ll be using the mortgage calculators at Dinkytown.

The 30-year at 3.25% would have a monthly payment of $1,305, while the 15-year would have a monthly payment of $2,018. Now, what would happen if we simply paid the $2,018 towards the 30-year mortgage? Using the calculator, we would enter an additional monthly payment of $713. That tells us the 30-year-plus-extra mortgage would be paid off in 15 years and 11 months, requiring 11 additional payments of roughly $2,000 and thus an extra $22,000 of interest in the end. However, the 30-year does allow me the flexibility to reduce my payment by about $700 a month if things get tight. Is the higher cost worth the extra flexibility?

I thought so when I got my first mortgage, but changed my mind once I figured that if I were to hit so hard that I couldn’t make the 15-year mortgage, I probably wouldn’t want to keep paying the 30-year either and would just sell the house and move somewhere cheaper and smaller. I viewed the potential payoff of going with the 15-year mortgage as being to retire one full year earlier.

Lots of people see the low interest rate for the 30-year mortgage and want to use that money to invest in the stock market. That may work out well if you actually invest your money as planned, I don’t know. I personally have enough invested in the stock market as it is, I don’t really want the extra leverage of essentially investing on margin with borrowed money. There is also a chance that the mortgage interest deduction may get capped or phased out over the next several years. That’s a lot of unknowns. I do know a top rate for a long-term certificate of deposit is the 10-year CD from Discover Bank with a yield of 1.90% APY. Meanwhile, the yield on a 30-year Treasury is 2.79%.

In the end, I don’t think there necessarily is a right or wrong answer. There are even more small nuances that went into my decision process, I’ll try and gather those thoughts for next week.

Mortgage Rates Still Dropping: Good Time To Switch From 30-Year to 15-Year?

In case you haven’t been paying attention, mortgage rates are still dropping to new lows. Here’s a chart of the historical mortgage rate averages since I bought my house in late 2007, courtesy of HSH.com. It includes the 30-year fixed, 15-year fixed, and the 5/1 30-year adjustable.

From looking up some quotes (see below), 30-year fixed rates are ~3.125% now (~3.5% with no closing costs), and 15-year fixed rates are ~2.5% (~2.875% with no closing costs). Can you honestly say that you would have expected this 10 years ago? Another example of the difficulty of predicting the future.

If you haven’t refinanced in a while, it is definitely worth a try to see how much you could save a month. But what are you going to do with that savings? Buy more stuff that you don’t need? Buy more house that you don’t need? Why not consider refinancing into a 15-year mortgage and have that house paid off much sooner? From this CNN Money article using recent average rates:

Homeowners current paying off 30-year loans with rates of 4% spend about $1,098 a month in mortgage payments on a $200,000 balance, paying a total interest cost of $143,739. Refinancing at 2.63% for 15 years would cost them about $250 a month more, but they would wind up paying just $42,250 in total interest and their payments would end years earlier. Refinancing into another 30-year loan at 3.31% would cost homeowners only $877 a month, saving $221 from the existing loan.

If were to give advice to my future kids, it would be to determine home affordability only using the 15-year mortgage. Just forget the 30-year exists. You’ll be forced to budget properly and if you buy a house at age 30 you’ll be mortgage-free by 45! I think they would thank me in the end. I can still tell them their old man paid his off at 35, of course. ;)

Compare with rate quotes from:

I hear that Costco provides a mortgage refinance referral service now as well – any real-world experience with them from readers?

Recent mortgage refinance articles:

Zillow.com Adds Free Foreclosure Listings

If you’ve ever tried to research buying a foreclosure or short sale online, you’ve probably found a lot of sites either plastered with ads or charging expensive subscription fees in order to access “exclusive” foreclosure listings. Well, the good news is that real estate site Zillow.com recently announced that it has added nearly 2 million free listings of “pre-market inventory” to its database. (Via Techcrunch.) This includes full addresses and details on pre-foreclosure, foreclosure, and bank-owned properties not included in the usual MLS databases.

You must register to see the foreclosure listings, but it’s free and all you need is an e-mail (name not required). I looked around my neighborhood and found several homes that are in the foreclosure process or already sold via auction, often complete with winning bid amounts. There’s a house down the street that is pretty nice and will be auctioned off live at the county courthouse next Friday; I might attend that auction for the experience. I’m told these are auctions where you need a cashier’s check for the full 6- or 7-figure sale price right on the spot.

Based on my limited understanding, if you want to buy a foreclosure it’s still helpful to work with an experienced real estate professional. Zillow makes their money if you ask them to refer you to a local “foreclosure specialist”. Sounds fair to me, if you don’t already have one in mind. I’ve had friends attempt to buy a bank-owned REO property which sounded like a good deal on paper, but required huge amounts of time and patience. Finding a good rental property always sounds nice in my mind, but I haven’t had much time to pursue it further.

Zillow Map – Percentage of Underwater Homes By Zip Code

Do you owe more on your house than it’s worth? How many of your neighbors are underwater? Are things brighter in the next zip code over?

Zillow has a very revealing Negative Equity Map that shows the percentage of homes in your area that have negative equity. The numbers are recent, last updated based on Transunion data from the first quarter of 2012.

I checked out the San Francisco Bay Area and saw a lot of red as expected, but also several pockets of lighter colors. More evidence that real estate is local?

I then pulled up the map for Austin, Texas where my sister lives, expecting (based on anecdotal evidence) to see a completely different picture. It’s better, but there are still areas of pain:

Lessons From Micro Units, Small Spaces, and Tiny Houses

Last week, New York City mayor Bloomberg announced a design competition for new “micro-unit” apartments ranging from 275 to 300 square feet (press release). The goal is to address the increasing demand by smaller households, as the average rent for a studio in Manhattan is now $2,065 a month. Here’s a sample proposed layout:

I’ve always been intrigued by small spaces, from tiny homes that you could buy with P2P loan instead of a mortgage, to the capsule hotels of Tokyo. Even if you don’t live in such a place, I think everyone can still learn from them new ways to use their own space more efficiently.

Go vertical to maximize space.

The NY Post did a profile of a young couple who live in a 240 square-foot studio in Brooklyn Heights. The picture below pretty much includes the entire place, with the ladder leading up to their bedroom:

Just like bunk beds and college dorm design, raising a bed is often the easiest way to get more storage or desk space. This concept doesn’t just apply to beds though. Put new shelving and storage up higher – look for wall space above toilets, above sinks, above your bed headboard, above desks. In your garage or carport, store bicycles and more in the space above your cars.

Buy one thing, get rid of another.

The free gym at my last university was always quite crowded, leading to a “one out, one in” policy where you had to wait for a person to leave before you could enter (also used at nightclubs, or so I’ve heard.). If you want to avoid stuff overload, you should implement the same policy when buying new things. Throw away, donate, or sell. New pants in = old pants out. New toy in = old toy out.

Use creatively-designed furniture.

Raising beds can get tricky for those with physical handicaps. I’ve always like the idea of Murphy wall beds as an alternative, and am thinking of installing one in my current office to be an extra guest bedroom with this DIY kit. There are a lot of other cool multi-tasking furniture out there as well. Some can get pretty expensive, but it may be worth depending on the cost/square feet in your area.

Here’s a cool video from a previous post on Resource Furniture:

Here’s another video of an apartment in Hong Kong that uses sliding walls to transform one big room into either a bathroom, kitchen, living room, or a bedroom. Very innovative, and all in 32 square meters (~345 square feet).

Who Really Owns My Mortgage?

Have you ever wondered who really owns your mortgage note? You pay your mortgage each month, but where do those payments end up? Perhaps you’re thinking of obtaining a loan modification or refinance through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), or other program under the Making Home Affordable (MHA) umbrella. Or maybe you’ve read that banks are foreclosing on people without proper records and want to know if anyone out there actually can show you your original mortgage note.

First, remember that the loan owner isn’t necessarily the same as your loan servicer. Your loan servicer is the company that sends you mortgage statements, takes your payments each month, and if you have an escrow account, pays your homeowner’s insurance and property tax bills. So where do you start looking?

  • Ask the servicer. They are legally obligated to tell you the name, address, and telephone number of the owner of your loan as shown in their records. It may be a good idea to ask them in writing officially with a “qualified witten request” via certified mail while keeping a log of your communications. The name of your servicer should be on your mortgage statement, but you can also use the MERS link below.
  • Original lender. Your loan may have never been sold, and still kept as a “portfolio loan” with the original lender. What a concept!
  • Fannie Mae. In reality, many loans are sold to FNMA aka “Fannie Mae”. See Fannie Mae loan lookup tool.
  • Freddie Mac. Similar story with Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC) aka “Freddie Mac”. See Freddie Mac loan lookup tool.
  • Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) is a big online registry designed to replace the costly process of publicly recording mortgage ownership at the local government level with a private electronic version that allows the swapping of mortgages with no friction at all. MERS tracks both the servicing rights and ownership of mortgage loans in the United States, although the accuracy has been called into question. See MERS ServiceID lookup tool. You can also call them at 888-679-6377.