Can You Afford to Buy a Home?


Woman looking at paperworkIt used to be easy to get a mortgage. The rules were much more relaxed before the financial crisis of 2008. In some cases you could simply say how much money you make a year or what assets you have and lenders would take your word for it.

Today the rules are different. Stricter, but that’s to your long-term advantage. You’re now less likely to get sold a home you can’t afford, particularly if you’re working with a lender that is focused on doing the right thing for you, offering the right financial product to meet your needs.

So there’s no reason to feel intimidated. Take the first step—order your credit report. Once a year you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit-reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It’s simple – just visit and click on “Request yours now!” and follow the steps outlined. Review your report for errors and have them fixed. Then gather the documents below. It’s a checklist of what lenders now typically ask for:

Checklist: Documents that all lenders may require

Verification of income
Income documentation should include:
__   Current pay stubs and W-2s. You’ll likely have to prove continuous employment for two years, with an acceptable explanation of any gaps.
__   Tax returns. Also may be required if self employed or primarily commissioned.
Verification of assets
__   Bank, retirement account, savings and investment statements—at least two months’ worth.
__   Titles for property you own.
__   Retirement account statements.
__   Gift letter if borrower received cash from, say, Mom or Dad for the down payment, stating that the money doesn’t need to be repaid.
Verification of liabilities
__   Proof of monthly debt obligations and expenses, e.g., credit-card statements and canceled rent or mortgage checks, going back two years.
__   Explanation and documentation regarding any recent credit inquiries.

Buying a home should be an exciting time, but it can take some work. If you’re moving from state to state, your lender may ask for a letter of recommendation. If there’s anything in your current finances or financial history that doesn’t completely explain itself, your lender may want to know why. Everything has to be validated—and sometimes explained in writing. Before you begin the application process, make sure you’re prepared with all of the proper documents. It will make the process go a lot more smoothly and the experience more enjoyable.

Generally, your gross (before-tax) monthly housing costs, comprised of your mortgage payment (both principal and interest) property taxes and homeowners insurance premiums, should not exceed 28% of your gross monthly income. Also, typically, your gross monthly housing costs plus total monthly payments on items such as car loans, credit cards and other debts should not exceed 35%. If you're projected to exceed such thresholds, lenders may not approve you for a mortgage out of concern that it would jeopardize your financial stability. Consider going online and using one of the many calculators available for getting a general idea of how large a mortgage payment you can afford.

The type of mortgage you end up getting will play a big role in the amount and affordability of your monthly payment. There are two basic types of mortgage – fixed rate and adjustable rate – and there are many variations within each category. A fixed-rate mortgage offers a steady interest rate and a steady monthly payment. With an adjustable rate mortgage or ARM, the interest rate, and, therefore, your monthly payment, can change periodically – for example, every year or two. The lender bases the ARM's interest rate on a predetermined benchmark, such as the rate being paid on U.S. Treasury securities, and then adds a margin of around 2% to 3%. If you're likely to own your home more than a few years, you might like the predictability of a fixed-rate mortgage.

However, if you plan to sell the home before an adjustable rate has had the chance to increase by much, or if you think rates will fall over time, an ARM might be your preferred option.

How much cash can you put down?
Typically, lenders will require that you make a cash down payment of up to20% of the home's price up front in order to secure a mortgage. In some cases, lenders may grant a mortgage to a qualifying homebuyer with a down payment of as little as 3% of the purchase price (in certain areas). However, if you put less than 20% down, most lenders will require that you buy private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender in the event you default on the loan. Plan to put down as much as you can, but try to keep enough cash on hand to cover things like moving expenses, furnishings for the new home and any repairs or remodeling you might want to do. You will also need to be able to cover all closing costs required by the lender, as explained in the next section, plus property taxes, pro-rated portion of the first month's interest, and other fees. Remember the importance of having an emergency fund of three to six months’ worth of living expenses in the event of a financial hardship.

Can you afford the closing costs?
When you close on a home – that is, the day you sign papers to take ownership of the property – the lender will require you to pay a set of fees known as closing costs. Your closing costs may include one or more mortgage “points,” which are basically prepaid interest charged by the lender in return for the interest rate they have agreed to charge you for the loan. Each point equals 1% of the loan amount. For example, on a $150,000 loan, one point equals $1,500.  Other closing costs may include fees for loan processing, the loan application, credit reports, an appraisal on the home, title insurance, surveys and the lender's attorney. Your total closing costs will typically add up to between 2% and 7% of the value of the property you're purchasing.

What might the costs and benefits be further down the road?

As a homeowner, you will need to budget for ongoing maintenance of the property. Although your home may appreciate in value, there is also a chance you will lose money on your investment if the property depreciates in a declining housing market and you sell before the market swings back upward.

Owning a home can also yield financial rewards, including tax benefits. For example, as a homeowner, you will generally be able to deduct any points and mortgage interest you pay to the extent that the amount of your mortgage does not exceed $1 million. You will also be able to deduct property tax payments (but keep in mind you should always consult your tax advisor or an accountant before making any such decisions, to ensure these items apply to you and your new home and are in accordance with applicable tax laws).

Need Financial Help?

Phone ringing Call us 800-842-2888

Phone with arrow Schedule a callback

Circular people graphic Attend a meeting or seminar

Experiencing a Life Event?

Tools & Calculators

See all 

Financial Essentials Webinars

  • Money at Work 1: Foundations of Investing
  • Money at Work 2: Sharpening Investing Skills

See all 

Did You Know TIAA Direct® offers Mortgages?

Our Mortgage Consultants can help you every step of the way, from determining how much home you can afford through closing.

Learn more