Don’t feel pressured to buy the biggest house possible
Those who know me know I’m a big believer in real estate. I’ve bought and sold tons of real estate over the years, including single family houses, rental property and I even wound up doing a sort of flip once (wasn’t planned that way, but that’s what it turned into).
At this point, I’ve pretty much seen everything from sewer backups, lunatic renters, mold, leaky pipes, you name it. So I feel qualified to spray my opinion all over the internet about most real estate topics.
The latest thing that’s gotten under my craw is the nonstop drive by the real estate and lending institutions to push buyers into purchasing as much house as they can possibly afford. The most visible way we see this is in online calculators helpfully offering advice on how much home the user can afford.
These calculators all have one thing in common: the first thing they ask you for is your yearly salary. They then typically will use a simple computation to determine your debt-to-income ratio. That’s usually somewhere around 35%. In their defense, that is largely how the lending industry will look at things. And unless you have something weird on your credit report or a relatively high amount of consumer debt, you’ll probably get that loan.
But look at the calculator on CNN Money, for example. I put in a fairly typical upper income salary of $100,000 each for a couple with 20% down with no consumer debt (if you have ANY consumer debt, you should be getting rid of that right now instead of reading this). Using that input, it tells me I can buy a house of over a million dollars!
Mmmm, milliiiiiooooon doooolllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaar hoooouuuusssssseeeee… (Drool, drool, drool.) My head is filled with visions of waterfront homes, decks with hot tubs, space far from my neighbors, condos with sweeping views of harbors, kitchens with islands and built-in wine coolers, separate rooms for every possible human activity. It’s almost irresistible!
My problem with this way of looking at house shopping, is that it’s asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “How much house can I AFFORD?’ The right question is “How much house do I NEED?”. And, really, no one “needs” a million-dollar house.
It’s easy to get starry-eyed about real estate. I’ve done it myself. I did buy too much house when I moved into my current home. (Not because I was buying as much as I could, however. According to these calculators, I could have afforded much, much more. I was just confused about what I really needed, a good topic for a later post.) Beautiful real estate is one of the most engaging forms of art. I could spend ALL DAY just looking at pictures on Houzz. And like any consumerist temptation, I feel the pull to make my house look like those lovely models.
That’s when I have to work hard to slap myself back to reality. Because there is no bigger hole to flush your pretirement money down than the real estate hole. I could have shaved several working years off my career had I not bought so aggressively. That’s true for so many people. Let’s say you purchased a $600,000 home when a $400,000 home would have sufficed (which is what I did). That would be an extra $100,000 each toward your pretirement funds. That could be a third of what you each needed! In addition, there is more house to maintain. A larger house will have a larger roof, more bathrooms, more windows, more expensive furnace, etc. Plus higher insurance and property taxes. More yard to mow, bigger electric bills, the list goes on.
But we haven’t even talked about the biggest problem: your gigantic mortgage. If you really bought that $1,000,000 home that CNN Money was saying you could buy, you’d be paying a mortgage of nearly $4,000/month before tax and insurance! Now if you’re both making $100,000/year, that may not sound too bad, really. It’s, by definition, around 35% of your monthly income. You have plenty of money leftover each month. You could even afford a car payment if you wanted. What’s the big deal?
Here’s the big deal: Unless you have a way to talk to Future You 25 years from now, you don’t know how much you’re going to hate your job by then. And if you really love your job at that point, but haven’t purchased an unnecessarily expensive home, you’ll be able to buy that million dollar home then with cash! You’ll be much better off buying the cheapest house that will work for you instead of the most house you can get.
Pretirement is about gaining your own freedom. As quickly as possible, you want to build up your investment fund so your monthly bills are covered. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it WILL happen if you can resist the urge to bury yourself in debt.
With all that in mind, here are my rules for buying personal real estate. This only applies to the home you’ll live in, I’ll have different rules for investment property.
- Buy quality, not a project
We’ve all heard the old saying about buying the worst house in the best neighborhood. And, that saying is actually true! However, don’t let that convince you to buy any project houses. First time homeowners have no idea how much these projects will cost and once you’ve begun there is no turning back. The best way to make money in real estate is to not spend any money on property AT ALL and let the market appreciate for you. And, first time homeowners ALWAYS over-improve their first homes. I did it, you’ll do it. We all do it. By buying something that’s already in good shape, you’ll usually come out way ahead.
- If something bothers you about the house, don’t overlook it
My wife and I once bought a house that had more than 20 steps from the street to the front door. It was an old tudor with tons of charm and we lost our heads (it was a major project house). We overlooked the steps as long as we could and finally realized it was such an unchangeable feature that we knew we had to get out. We barely escaped the real estate collapse, closing the deal right before all hell broke loose. Had we not been able to sell, we would have been stuck living with those horrible stairs. Do yourself a favor: If something bugs you, keep looking, you’ll thank yourself later.
- Buy what you need — don’t believe the “more is more” crowd
With real estate, it’s very easy to move up the cost ladder by inching your way a little at a time. “Well, this one is only $5,000 more, I guess we could come up a little.” If you do that more than a few times, you’re soon in expensive home territory. It’s OK to adjust your budget to match reality, but make sure you’re clear about what you really need. If you’ve decided a three-bedroom is right for you, why are you being tempted by a four-bedroom for $10,000 more?
- If you can’t afford the 10-year loan payment, you’re buying too much house
The best way (right now — this could change with an increase in interest rates) to determine how much house to buy is to use a 10-year loan as a guideline. Take a look at your expected monthly bills. Add in a bit extra for breathing room. Now, can you afford the payment if you do a 10-year loan? Congrats, you’ve just found your budget! It may not make sense for everyone to structure their loan as a 10-year loan, but as a guideline to figure out your maximum budget it makes a lot of sense.
- Buy it because you love it, not as an investment
Real estate can be a great investment and a very lucrative one. But it can also be a harsh mistress. Make sure it’s the right home for you before pulling the trigger. Focusing too much on the investment side can leave you stuck somewhere you don’t want to be.
- Make sure it fits your practical needs, not just emotional needs
Now that you love it, also make sure it fits all your objective criteria. Layout, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, privacy, proximity to work and school. These are all critical and must not be overlooked just because the home has loads of style.
- Don’t “drive until you buy”
These days the highest priced real estate is largely found in city centers. Moving in concentric circles outward the prices drop as distance from work increases. Home buyers often will simply explore outward from the city center until they find what they can afford. This is often called the “drive until you buy” strategy. They then live miserable lives in their cars, driving to work, errands and soccer games, frantically five minutes late to everything. Instead, either buy less house (hey, earlier generations had even more kids than families today so it’s possible, right?) or rent right in town.
- Always put at least 20% down
Fortunately it’s harder to get a loan without a decent down payment these days. That keeps a lot of people who aren’t ready to buy off the market. But there are still a lot of purchases happening with 10% or less down. If you don’t have the 20% yet, just hang in there. It’ll be worth it in lower payments, built-in equity and no mortgage insurance.
- Don’t rush it
Don’t be tricked into buying, thinking you have to get in before it’s too late. It’s never too late. Stick to your strategy and don’t be rushed by anyone. There’s always another house and another great time to buy.
- There is no shame in renting
Renting has its annoyances but it has a lot of upsides, too. You can keep maximum dollars flowing to your pretirement fund, you don’t have to fix anything and you can move whenever you want. If anyone gives you crap for renting, just chuckle to yourself, knowing you’ll be completely pretired while they’re still schlepping to work every day.
I’ll add in any others that occur to me, but following those guidelines should keep you on a healthy path to pretirement. Once you’re well under way, you can check out my tips for paying off your mortgage early and really speed the process along.
What are your best tips for keeping real estate costs under control as you pursue pretirement?