Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #3: Apartment 6-Plex in Wisconsin with RealtyShares

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Here are details of my 3rd real estate crowdfunding investment, a $2,000 loan for a 6-unit apartment complex in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This follows my $5,000 Patch of Land loan in a single-family house in California, and a $2,000 Fundrise Income eREIT investment into their diversified basket of commercial properties. Here are the quick stats:

  • Site: RealtyShares
  • Property: 6-unit, 6,490 sf multifamily in Milwaukee, WI.
  • Interest rate: 9% APR, paid monthly.
  • Amount invested: $2,000.
  • Term: 12 months, with 6-month extension option.
  • Total loan amount is $168,000. Purchase price is $220,000 (LTC 76%). Estimated after-repair value is $260,000. Broker Opinion of Value is $238,000.
  • Loan is secured by the property, in the first position. Also have personal guarantee from borrower.
  • Stated goal is to rehab, stabilize, and then either sell or refinance.

Property details. I chose this property because it is different from my other past “experiments”. I have never lived in or visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Where I live, parking spaces have sold for more than this apartment complex. As a result, I have never invested in an apartment complex. Also, reading through the other properties in the developer’s portfolio, I suspect the goal is to eventually refinance and then keep these as cashflow rentals. All units are 2 bed/1 bath, currently fully rented for ~$600 a month each. I don’t know the net operating income numbers, but this place earns roughly $43,000 in gross annual rents with a purchase price of $220,000. Annual property taxes are $3,000 a year. Even if half of the rent is spent on expenses, that is still a cap rate of 10%.

realtyshareslogoExperience so far. At least for this investment, it was not “pre-funded” by RealtyShares before the “crowd-funding” takes over. That means you have to wait until they secure enough committed money before the deal can go forward.

My timeline… I committed to this loan in December 2015 and $2,000 was debited from my Ally bank account on 12/29/15. However, the funding goal was not reached until 1/13, during which I earned no interest during this two-week period. I was then told the following:

We are writing to inform you that we have received all investor funds as of today, January 13, 2016, for the 135 E Keefe Avenue investment. You should expect to receive your first monthly payment by February 15th and this will cover the period from 1/13/16 to 2/10/16.

My first monthly interest payment did not arrive until another two weeks later on 3/3. My subsequent interest payments were posted on schedule on 3/17, 4/18, and 5/15. Due to the fact that there was no pre-funding to get the ball started early, there was essentially 3 month period between the time where they first took my money and I received my first interest check. Other than the interest payments, I have received no property updates since January, although I don’t necessarily expect any at this point.

As I’ve said before, this is an experiment, not necessarily a recommendation. I am learning that although I do like loans backed by hard assets, you do need a lot of patience with these sort of investments.

Some account screenshots:

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Infographic: New York City Median Rent vs. Subway Stop

rh_nycsignWe all know that the longer the commute from where everyone works, the lower the rent. In many cities during the housing boom, the saying went “just keep driving until you can afford something”. But what if the relationship between commute time and rental price wasn’t steady? What if a few minutes of extra commute time would save you several hundred dollars a month?

There are indeed some great relative values in New York City, according to the results of a study by apartment listing site Renthop, via This Is New York. Here are the median rents for one-bedroom apartments nearest every subway stop in New York City:

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Highlights from their analysis:

The extra few blocks from 66th St to 72nd St could save you $845 per month. Granted you might really like the Lincoln Center area, but that’s enough extra dough for a trip or two to the NY Philharmonic, the Met Opera, or even dinner at Jean-Georges.

A good rule of thumb is that each stop is about two minutes apart (except express stops and when crossing a bridge), assuming there’s no “debris on the track” or “train traffic ahead”. Consider this when calculating what your time and commute is worth to you. An extra stop on the J/M/Z train past Marcy Ave will save you about $175, and each subsequent stop saves another $100 or more. The same holds true heading into Queens.

Someone should make a similar graphic for all the of the major cities with high usage of public transportation: Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Philadelphia. From Wikipedia:

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Mortgages, Imputed Rent, and Early Retirement

mcman286In a Quora question What do economists think about buying vs renting a house?, in addition to the previously-mentioned answer by Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution, there was another well-ranked answer by Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT Sloan. One of his three points was about the value of imputed rent (read the other ones as well):

Second, there’s a huge tax benefit to housing which comes from the hidden “dividend” it pays. I’m not talking (just) about the (too) generous mortgage deduction, but rather the fact that you don’t have to pay taxes on the implicit rent you earn on your house since its paid to yourself. A house generates enormous rental value each month — like a dividend. If you rent it to yourself, you take the money out of one pocket and pay it to the other one, and the IRS doesn’t tax that. In contrast, if you earn money some other way and then use that money to pay rent, you probably also have to pay taxes. That can add up.

From the Wikipedia entry on imputed rent:

Consider a model: two people, A and B, each of whom owns property. If A lives in B’s property, and B lives in A’s, two financial transactions take place: each pays rent to the other. But if A and B are both owner-occupiers, no money changes hands even though the same economic relationships exists; there are still two owners and two occupiers, but the transactions between them no longer go through the market. The amount that would have changed hands had the owner and occupier been different persons is called the imputed rent.

In other words, as a homeowner you could be considered both the landlord and the renter. Let’s say you would rent your house for $1,600 a month. If you were in the 25% marginal tax bracket, you have to earn $2,133 a month pre-tax to cover that rent (and pay $533 in income tax).

As part of my “rough model” of early retirement, I recommend setting your mortgage payoff date to coincide with your retirement date (for those that choose to buy a home). Part of the reason for that is that you won’t have to generate that extra income to pay your mortgage anymore. This could lower your marginal tax bracket into the next lower bracket, and also the tax rate on your capital gains.

For example, $1,600 in monthly rent equates to nearly $20,000 a year in after-tax expense, or nearly $26,000 in gross income at the 25% tax bracket. Here are the 2016 federal income tax rates (source):

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Ideally, I would target my household expenses to stay in the 15% tax bracket for married joint filers in retirement. Being able to reduce my taxable income by over $25,000 would definitely help someone stay in the 15% tax bracket range. Also, if you are the in 15% ordinary income tax bracket, your tax rate on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains becomes zero!

Now, the idea of imputed income could be extended further. When I cook at home, I save the money from eating out an Applebee’s. Let’s say a dinner out costs $40 for the family. To reach $40 after-tax, I’d have to generate $53 of income at a 25% tax rate. Same with childcare, housekeeping, laundry, yard maintenance, etc. But housing is an area with significant impact, usually the biggest item in a household budget.

Mortgage Rates at 3-Year Lows: Refinance Check Time Again?

Mortgage rates for 30-year fixed loans are at the lowest level in three years, according to this Bloomberg article:

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 3.58 percent, down from from 3.59 percent last week and the lowest since May 2013, Freddie Mac said in a statement Thursday. The average 15-year rate slipped to 2.86 percent from 2.88 percent, the McLean, Virginia-based mortgage-finance company said.

This is visually confirmed by this historical rate chart from HSH.com:

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Depending on your area, your home value may also have increased over this time period. Combine these two, and it may be a good time to check if a mortgage refinance can save you some big bucks over the term of your loan. You may lower your interest rate, shorten your term into a 15-year mortgage, and/or get rid of private mortgage insurance.

Comparison shopping mortgage rates. There’s average, and then there is what is actually being quoted for people in your situation. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a nice Owning a Home resource page including a new rate data tool that takes into account your credit score, state of residence, house price, and down payment size to see what other interest rates people are getting. I like they show an actual distribution of rates and the number of lenders offering that rate:

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You can try the big networks like and Quicken Loans, or you can ask around for a referral to a reputable local broker. The CFPB recommends that you get quotes from three or more lenders. You should get an standardized 3-page form called a “Loan Estimate”. That way you can compare and even negotiate one off the other.

Get quotes from three or more lenders so you can see how they compare. Rates often change from when you first talk to a lender and when you submit your mortgage application, so don’t make a final decision before comparing official Loan Estimates.

Depending on your situation, you may face a lot of paperwork during the mortgage approval process. But hopefully the money saved will be worth it.

Think mortgage rates might go even lower? I don’t recommend playing such guessing games, but you could keep an eye on 10-year Treasury rates. Here’s an interesting chart comparing the 10-year Treasury yield and 30-year mortgage rates from Calculated Risk:

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Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #1: Patch of Land Final Update

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pol_final0My first investment into real estate crowdfunding has completed. In April 2015, I invested $5,000 into a fix-and-flip loan at the site Patch of Land. There are more details in my initial update, but here’s a quick recap of the loan details:

  • Single-family home in West Sacramento, California
  • Loan secured by property, in the first position. Backed by personal guarantee from borrower.
  • 6-month expected term (roughly April 15th to October 15th). Fix-and-flip.
  • Loan-to-value is 75% per independent 3rd-party appraisal.
  • 11% APR interest, paid monthly.
  • $5,000 invested.

Here are the initial and final numbers on the property itself:

  • Developer Purchase Price: $155,000
  • Estimated Remodel Costs: $55,000
  • Developer Contribution $31,000 + closing costs + origination fee
  • Developer Loan Request: $179,000
  • Independent 3rd-party After-Repair-Value: $238,000
  • LTV based on Independent ARV: 75%
  • Developer estimated selling price: $275,000 to $300,000
  • Actual selling price: $300,000

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Here are the final numbers for my partial investment:

  • 4/20/15 – $5,000 invested.
  • Proceeded to collect $45.83 of interest on the 15th of every month (pro-rated on partial months).
  • 9/23/15. Loan extension granted.
  • Kept collecting $45.83 of interest on the 15th of every month (pro-rated on partial months).
  • 3/15/16. Notified that house in under contract for $300,000.
  • 3/30/16. Loan was paid in full.

The loan term was supposed to be for 6-months (one of the main reasons I chose it) but the process took longer than expected and the total loan period ended up being nearly 12 months. My total interest payments were $517.91. I also received an additional $75 fee for the loan extension. I thus received a total of $5592.91 over 346 days, for an annualized return of 12.5%. Without the extra $75 penalty fee, my interest payments would be right at the promised 11% APR.

Takeaways from the process:

  • Be patient but decisive when selecting your investment. You should be comfortable with the local market situation as well as the numbers like loan-to-value ratio. You should know what you want, ignore anything that doesn’t fit your criteria, and act quickly when you see something that does. This is really the only part of the process where you have control, so use it wisely.
  • Understand the contract. Just because there is a “6-month expected term” doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back in 6 months. You should read the terms carefully to see what options are available to the borrower if they can’t make that date. Is an extension automatically granted? Is there an increased interest rate? How long does the extension last?
  • Liquidity and more patience. One of the defining features of this type of investment is that it is highly illiquid. If I buy a mutual fund, I can sell the entire thing and get fair market value as cash in my bank account in a few business days. With an investment like this, the borrower could pay it back early, take their sweet time, or even default entirely and they’d have to liquidate the home before I get my principal back. That could take another several months. You should not need this money any time soon.
  • Low-maintenance. The good part of having no control is that you don’t have to do anything. I just sat back and had the interest automatically swept to my bank account each month. I received a simply 1099-INT for the interest earned through this loan, and it was quite easy to deal with at tax time.
  • Updates. I did not receive constant updates on this loan, but I think the updates were adequate. I was given a couple of photos on the remodel progress and updates on loan extension, house listing, house listing changes, and house being under contract. You do not have any two-way contact with the developer.

I will admit that I was nervous for a little bit on this house. I could track the house listing on real estate sites like Zillow and I questioned some of the cosmetic choices that the developer made, including painting the house an gunmetal-grey stucco. I also questioned the high listing price of $325,000, which I thought they’d never get and would scare off potential buyers. It all ended well as the house was repainted into a neutral beige and the developer agreed to sell at a good price.

Will I invest again? Well, I can’t help but be satisfied with my 12%+ annualized return, but things could also have dragged out a lot longer. I will probably invest again, but at a different real estate site, if only to see how they might handle things differently. I’m in it to make money, but I’m also in it to learn as this is my “experimental money” fund (even Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle have such accounts).

Account screenshot:

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RealtyShares Sign-Up Bonus Promo Code

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Update. RealtyShares has a referral program that offers a new customer who is referred by an existing client a $100 gift card after linking a bank account. I am no longer available to provide referrals as I have maxed out the limit, but you may be able to find a referral from existing client elsewhere.

Alternatively, using this link and using the code JONATHANPING25 will get you a free $25 to start.

Be sure to follow the terms and conditions and reply to your bank link confirmation e-mail with the proper promo code:

In order to receive $25 sign up bonus, user must register, connect a bank account, and use the promocode provided in the email they received about the program. Payouts to user will be within 30 days via your linked bank account. RealtyShares reserves the right to stop or modify the referral program at its discretion at any time.

Real Estate Crowdfunding 10-Month Update – Patch of Land

pol_house200Here’s an update on one of my real estate crowdfunding experiments. In mid-April 2015, I invested $5,000 into a loan for a single family fix-and-flip in West Sacramento, California. The loan was supposed to be for 6-months (one of the main reasons I chose it). (More details in my initial update.) Well, the short version is that the fix part happened, but it has now been 10 months and the house is still on the market. The borrower took the option of a month-to-month extension. The loan is still current. Here’s a screenshot and some more thoughts:

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Interest received in a timely manner. So far, I’ve been receiving my $45.83 every month ($550 annualized) on my $5,000 initial investment (11% APR). I enabled the option of having my interest automatically swept to my bank account each month. So far, this investment has required zero maintenance.

Read your contract. Just because there is a “6-month expected term” doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back in 6 months. You should read the terms carefully to see what options are available to the borrower if they can’t make that date. Is an extension automatically granted? Is there an increased interest rate? How long does the extension last?

Liquidity, liquidity, liquidity. One of the defining features of this type of investment is that it is highly illiquid. If I buy a mutual fund, I can sell the entire thing and get fair market value as cash in my bank account in a few business days. With an investment like this, the borrower could pay it back early, take their sweet time, or even default entirely and they’d have to liquidate the home before I get my principal back. You must be prepared for all scenarios.

Be happy with your loan-to-value ratio. I personally believe the house is listed for too high a price, but that part is not under my control. What was under my control was choosing to invest only in a loan where I was comfortable with the collateral. For example, they may be asking ~$320,000 but the loan amount was only for $179,000. As I am (one of the folks) in first position lien on the property, the house would need to sell for under $179,000 in net proceeds for me to lose principal.

In other words, have an adequate cushion so that you don’t lose sleep about it at night. It also helps that I’ve already earned 8.6% of my initial investment back over the last 10 months, cash in hand. Finally, I will repeat that this is a speculative investment using “experimental money” that makes up a very small portion of total assets. (Even Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle have such “funny money” accounts.)

Tax documents. I received a 1099-INT for the interest earned through this loan. The 2015 form was made available in a timely manner on January 27, 2016. As such, it should be rather easy to add this in at tax time.

Behavioral Economics on Bigger House vs. Shorter Commute

mcman286Inside a post about what economists think about buying vs. renting a house, Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution ended with a nice sentence that I think applies to both buying and renting:

One final point: behavioral economics tells us that we quickly get used to big houses but we never get used to commuting. So when you have a choice, go for the smaller house closer to work.

In general, our current choice of house is aligned with this advice. We could get a bigger, newer, and/or cheaper house in exchange for a longer commute, but are happy with our size (2,000 square feet) and location (I work primarily from home and my wife’s distance to work is 3.5 miles). Our jobs are relatively stable, however, as jumping to a new job could easily change our commute.

Going for the shorter commute over the bigger house certainly feels like good advice. But what are the behavorial economics studies that support this statement?

First, let’s take the statement we get used to big houses. The overall concept of the hedonic treadmill has been found in a variety of circumstances. Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) found that lottery winners and paraplegics eventually returned to their baseline happiness levels over time. That is, both the joy of winning the lottery and the sadness from being paralyzed was not permanent. Per Wikipedia, Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener (2006) also “ultimately concluded that people completely adapt, return to their baseline level of well-being, after divorce, losing a spouse, birth of a child, and females losing their job.”

However, but I couldn’t find one that studied housing specifically. There’s probably one out there? Perhaps a bigger house can simply be lumped in with other consumer material goods.

Second, if we can get used to being paralyzed or losing a spouse, who says that we don’t get used to commuting? Perhaps this is taken from Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox (Stutzer and Frey, 2004). Abstract (emphasis mine):

People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses. We discuss several possibilities of an extended model of human behavior able to explain this ‘commuting paradox’.

If you know of more please let me know in the comments.

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

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Added bonus for new sign-ups. I’ve been a registered member of RealtyMogul for a while, and they recently emailed me that if I referred a friend, we’d both get a $150 Amazon gift card just for completing the registration process (i.e. zero investment required). Here is a screenshot. The restriction is that you must be an accredited investor, which means either a single income of $200,000, joint income of $300,000, or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence. I’ve registered at a few of these sites, and you may need to send in a scanned W-2 (was allowed to remove SSN) or brokerage statements for verification.

This is a nice carrot if you are already interested in hard money lending or fractional real estate ownership. You must either use this special sign-up link or use the promo code JONATHANP7 during registration. Offer expires 12/31/15.

*The referrer and the referred will each receive a $150 gift card (redeemable at Amazon.com) upon successful completion of the investor registration process at RealtyMogul.com by the referred party. Gift cards will be mailed within 30 business days to the address on file. This promotion is limited to 6 referrals per referral code and is only valid until December 31, 2015.

Original post from mid-2013 below:

Realty 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.

Being a lender looks very similar to the age-old practice of hard money lending, just with smaller chunks. You lend the money to a house flipper who needs a short-term loan (3 months to a year) and doesn’t want to deal with traditional mortgage lenders and their closing costs and long underwriting delays. The loan is backed by a personal guarantee (not too special, you can try to sue and/or hurt their credit score) and more importantly you usually have a first position lien on the property (if they don’t pay, the lender gets the title to the house). Most of the previously funded loans have an annualized interest rate of 8%.

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Realty Mogul states that they differentiate themselves from other similar startups like FundRise and Prodigy Network by (1) outsourcing the real estate expertise to vetted professionals and (2) keeping a focus on cashflow, either via rent or interest payments. Right now they’ve only had about 7 investments, but they seem to open a new one up after the last one fully funds.

Currently, the SEC limits this type of investment to accredited investors, which means either a single income of $200,000, joint income of $300,000, or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence. When I tried the application, the only screening process was to check a few boxes and state that you qualify. Supposedly, the recently passed JOBS Act will allow them to drop this requirement later this year.

If given the option, should I drop $5,000 into this to try it out just like with person-to-person lending? $5,000 is still a lot of money to put into an investment where you are not able to do much due diligence. Getting good returns on a single investment project is all about the skill of that particular rehab team. Will the teams that sign up for capital via Realty Mogul always be the good ones, or those that are having a hard time getting funding from elsewhere? I thought that hard money lending rates were more in the 10%+ range; I don’t know if I’d be happy with 8% but maybe that’s the going rate now. Even if you have collateral, recouping your principal in case of a bad loan can get complicated and time-consuming. At least with P2P lending I can spread $5k over 200 different loans such that even though I am certain to get some defaults, it is unlikely I will get a negative return overall.

More: TechCrunch, LendAcademy, BizJournals, The Verge

Case-Shiller Home Prices Index, Adjusted For Inflation 2015

homefrontHere’s an update on residential real estate prices via the July 2015 update of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. Included is this chart of their 20-City Composite Home Price Index, which tracks the value of residential real estate in 20 metropolitan areas of the US:

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Overall, the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index recorded a 4.7% increase over the last 12 months. You can check more cities in the PDF, but the ones with the highest gains over the past 12 months are San Francisco at 10.4%, Denver at 10.3%, and Dallas at 8.7%.

What do home prices look like after being adjusted for inflation? We all tend to think of house prices in terms of nominal values. For example, I bought my first house in 2007 (of course) and I’ll always remember my original purchase price. But that was 8 years ago and even though inflation hasn’t been high it has still been inching along. From June 2007 to June 2015, inflation rose 12% (CPI-U).

As shared in previous updates, here is the Shiller 20-City index adjusted for inflation (CPI-U). Both data sets are not seasonally-adjusted and scaled to 100 as of January 2000.

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Home prices are rising even after accounting for inflation, but this bottom chart presents a more tempered view of things.

Still, I feel for first-time homebuyers faced again with housing prices that appear to march upwards every month (and potentially out of reach).

Economic Trend: Affordable Housing via Multi-Generational Living

As a parent of young children, the following chart from this CityLab article definitely caught my attention:

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The trend is clear that as time goes on, more and more people are living with their parents. At what point does it start being called living with your children? For the purposes of this chart, is child living with a parent (suggesting parent is head-of-household) different from a parent living with a child (suggesting that child is head-of-household)? I think so. Otherwise, you’d think there would be a bump at ages past 65.

The article speculates the eventual effect on housing:

Jordan Rappaport, a senior economist for the Kansas City Fed, uses these figures to explain the transformation in the multifamily housing market over the past 30 years. Rappaport’s paper explains that, in the short term, young adults are driving the market for new multifamily housing construction. Over the long term, however, retiring Baby Boomers will drive multifamily housing construction as they downsize. […]

As Baby Boomers begin to retire and downsize, they will drive the construction of new multifamily housing. What that means, we don’t fully know yet. This new construction might not look much like the condos and apartments that developers are building today in order to chase young-adult households. It also might not look like the downsizing options preferred by seniors in the past.

I agree that the overall economic trend is going to be more multi-generational housing. It’s just cheaper. Housing costs eat up a huge chunk of income, and sharing housing can reduce overall costs for both parties involved. As quoted in my previous post Economics of Shared Living: Estimated Savings From Having Roommates, Scott Burns notes that “Cooperation is a wonderful but generally overlooked substitute for money.”

In places where land is quite expensive like California and Hawaii, “in-law” or “ohana” units are quite popular. The official term is “accessory dwelling unit”, or ADU, where separate living quarters are created on what was previously a singly-family home. This could either be a detached studio or the converted wing of the original house with a kitchenette to add privacy and separation. Your parents could live there, or your adult kid could live there, often both.

Often, these are only legal if you have a direct relative living in them. However, new legislation has been introduced in many areas to make these legal rental units. In San Francisco, you can now apply to legalize your un-permited unit. In Honolulu, a bill to legalize ADUs of up to 800 square feet was just signed into law. Basically you can now add a little, legal rental on the side of your house.

I think these shared-but-separate living situations will start popping up more and more in the rest of the United States. Many new home designs now include such units from the very beginning. It is a way of creating more affordable housing for renters and additional income for homeowners.

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

housemoneyUpdated. Buying a house is always an exciting yet terrifying time. Deciding on how much we can “afford” is often limited by how much someone will lend us. Mortgage lenders use income size, income stability, credit score, down payment size, and other factors before approving a loan. Let’s explore the idea of a “rule of thumb” to greatly simplify such a complicated matter. 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 is to aim for a home that costs about two-and-a-half times your gross annual salary. If you have significant credit card debt or other financial obligations like alimony or even an expensive hobby, then you may need to set your sights lower.

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.

Investopedia offers up 2 to 2.5 times:

Generally speaking, most prospective homeowners can afford to mortgage a property that costs between 2 and 2.5 times their gross income.

Running Your Own Numbers

Where do these numbers above come from? Most government-backed mortgages utilize the following ratios for their underwriting:

  • Front-end debt-to-income ratio = housing-related costs (PITI) divided by gross income. PITI stands for principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.
  • Back-end debt-to-income ratio = housing-related costs (PITI) plus all recurring monthly debt, all divided by gross income. Recurring monthly debt includes student loans, car loans, credit card debt, and alimony/child-support obligations.

Essentially, they want to be sure that housing costs don’t take over your entire budget and also that you can still handle your total monthly debt load. (Left out are things like food, transportation, other insurance, health care, etc.) Each of the major lending agencies has their own set of DTI limits, but let’s use the standard Federal Housing Administration (FHA) limits of 31% for front-end DTI and 43% for back-end DTI.

You can insert your own numbers here, but let’s use these statistics based on the average US household:

  • Household income. Government statistics have the median US household earning around $52,000 gross a year, or $4,300 a month.
  • Taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Depending on the survey, the national average is somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 for annual property taxes and roughly $1,000 for annual homeowner’s insurance premiums. Together that’s roughly $300 a month.
  • Credit card debt. The Federal Reserve reports the average household credit card debt to be about $7,500. The underwriting guidelines use minimum payments, so if you assume a 3% minimum payment that’s $225 a month.
  • Car loans. Experian reports that the average monthly loan payments was $450 for new cars and $350 for used cars. Let’s use $400 for this exercise and assume one new car per household.
  • Student loans. For households with student debt, Brookings estimates that the average monthly payment is $240.
  • Current 30-year fixed mortgage rate. Bankrate and HSH report this to be about 4.25%.  You can always refinance your mortgage to lower your rate as well.

20% Down Payment, 31% Front-End Ratio
Using a 31% front-end ratio, that means PITI (principal + interest + taxes + insurance) can be $1,333 a month. Taking out $300 for taxes and homeowner’s insurance, that leaves us $1,033 a month for principal and interest. With a 20% down payment and a 4.25% interest rate, that works out to roughly a $210,000 maximum loan size and $260,000 maximum total home price = 5 times gross income.

20% Down Payment, 43% Back-End Ratio
Using a 43% back-end ratio and the average consumer debt numbers from above, we start with $1,850 and take out $300 for taxes and HO insurance, $225 for credit card payments, $400 for car payments, $240 for student loans. That leaves us with $685 for the mortgage payment at 4.25%. The resulting $140,000 max loan size with 20% down payment gives a $175,000 total home price = 3.4 times gross income.

5% Down Payment, 31% Front-End Ratio
The minimum down payment amount for a FHA loan is actually only 3.5%, but you will be subject to additional Upfront Mortgage Insurance Premium (UFMIP) of 1.35% of the loan amount plus an ongoing PMI of 0.80-0.85% of the loan amount annually based on your loan-to-value ratio. Having to pay PMI means less money available to go towards the loan, so our numbers now only give us a $185,000 max loan size. With a 5% down payment, that means a total home price of $195,000 = 3.75 times gross income.

5% Down Payment, 43% Back-End Ratio
Doing the same calculation using the 43% back-end ratio which takes into account other debt payments, you end up with only roughly $110,000 max loan size and loan and total home price of $117,000 = 2.25 times gross income.

By doing this exercise, we see that someone with a car note, credit card debt, and student loans is certainly going to have a much different measure of affordability than someone without such pre-existing obligations. Perhaps there is no easy rule of thumb? If I had to, I would say that a household with “significant” debt could start at 2x income, while someone with very little debt could start with 3x income. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to use this example to get much more accurate numbers.

Most importantly, just because someone is willing to lend you a certain amount, doesn’t mean you have to take it! Here are some posts that may help you get the most value for your housing dollar: