Ask Brianna: Will You Ever Be Able to Afford a House?
"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans - all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Affording a house seems out of reach. Will I ever be able to buy a home of my own?
A: I've asked myself this question too many times to count, maybe because I know homeownership wasn't always so hard to achieve. My parents bought their three-bedroom house on Long Island in 1978 for $46,000, or $169,782 in today's dollars. My dad was a truck driver, and my mom was an artist, both in their late 20s.
Now, nearly 40 years later, I'm also in my late 20s, but I drop off a rent check each month instead of making a mortgage payment. First-time homebuyers are four years older than they were in the late 1970s and rent longer before buying, according to research by real estate website Zillow . Median incomes for first-time buyers didn't change much between 1978 and 2013, but the median home price for that group went up more than $40,000.
So here we are, fellow 20- and 30-somethings, eager to buy homes but unable to afford them.
It's not your imagination. The most recent data for median existing home prices shows they reached a new high of $244,100 in July, according to the National Association of Realtors. Low interest rates have kept monthly mortgage payments affordable by historical standards, says Jonathan Spader, senior research associate at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, but higher home prices make it tougher to cobble together a down payment.
That's especially true when student loan payments and high rents drain our bank accounts. A record 21.3 million renter households allocated more than 30 percent of their pretax incomes toward housing in 2014, reports the Joint Center for Housing Studies, a 44 percent increase from 2001.
While you don't need to own a house to be happy, many of us still want a place we can be proud of. It'll take some creativity, but it is possible to buy a house someday. Here's how.
If you want to settle in an expensive area long term, you'll have to save diligently and feel comfortable waiting longer to buy, which is what I'm doing. A down payment averages 24 percent of the home's purchase price in high-priced locations, according to real estate data firm RealtyTrac. That makes the down payment one of the biggest hurdles to overcome if you're angling to live in a competitive market, where mortgage lenders look for more money down as an indication that you're an attractive buyer.
Sock away a portion of your annual bonus from work, or increase the amount you save whenever you get a raise or quit subscription services you don't use. Set up an automatic transfer into a savings account designated for your down payment so it grows without much effort.
LOOK INTO FIRST-TIME HOMEBUYER PROGRAMS
Those strategies might not be enough to reach your down payment goal. If you're eager to buy a house soon, government-sanctioned companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will let you make a down payment of just 3 percent of the home's price. The Federal Housing Administration also offers mortgages that require down payments of 3.5 percent. Local housing counseling agencies can tell you what programs you qualify for and whether down payment assistance is available in your area, Spader says.
You'll need to weigh the trade-offs of a smaller down payment. You'll pay mortgage insurance if you put less than 20 percent down, for instance, which increases your monthly mortgage payment. A mortgage calculator can help you figure out what monthly payment you can afford.
SEARCH IN AFFORDABLE LOCATIONS
You might be able to have your long-awaited housewarming party sooner than us coastal dwellers - without stretching your budget to its limit - if you live in or move to a region known for its affordability.
A September 2015 report by real estate website Trulia found that eight of the 10 most affordable cities for homeowners were in the Midwest, for instance, while seven of the 10 least affordable cities were in California. The median home price in the Midwest was $194,000 in July, according to the National Association of Realtors, about $50,000 less than the national median.
Lower prices mean lower down payments and a mortgage that won't take a huge chunk of your income. Living in a lower-cost area isn't the right choice for everyone, but it's an option if you're ready to put down roots sooner than a higher-priced city will allow.
NerdWallet: Mortgage calculator
Zillow: The Evolving First-Time Homebuyer
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Approved Housing Counseling Agencies