How Much House Can You REALLY Afford?

It doesn’t matter if you’re searching homes for sale in Fort Lauderdale, FL, or Philadelphia, PA. Type “how much house can I afford” into a Google search and you’ll come up with a number of online tools and mortgage calculators to help you figure the answer to your query. You might also see rules of thumb that state things like “your mortgage payment shouldn’t take up more than 35% of your monthly income.”

But it’s important to make sure you understand how the pieces all fit together, and that you take your personal financial situation into account. Here’s why.

Financial rules of thumb may not apply to you

Every person’s finances are just as individual as they are. So while it may be a good reference point to know that your mortgage payment shouldn’t be more than 35% of your monthly income, that figure could vary a lot depending on things such as debt and other monthly payment obligations, not to mention how much you’ve saved for a down payment.

Online mortgage calculators such as this one from Trulia are great at giving you a clearer starting point for mortgage shopping. You’ll get a much better sense of what your price range might be instead of a blanket rule of thumb. But they’re only as accurate as the information you provide, so if you forget to add regular budget line items such as food, day care, or gas costs, you won’t get a complete picture.

Your lender may approve you for more than you can realistically afford

Lenders are now legally required to ensure borrowers can “reasonably afford” to repay a loan before they approve a new mortgage. But there’s a difference between being able to reasonably afford something and being able to realistically afford something.

When looking at what’s reasonable, lenders can account for your income and any current debts that you need to repay each month. If you make $ 5,000 per month after taxes and need to pay $ 500 toward your car loan each month, a mortgage payment of $ 1,500 may seem perfectly reasonable.

In this (extremely simplified) example, you’d have about $ 3,000 per month left over to handle all your other expenses. And perhaps you can afford your living expenses on this budget. But what about the other goals you want to achieve? What about saving for retirement or investing for your future?

If you commit to a large monthly mortgage payment, you may find yourself squeezed to make your remaining money cover your living expenses, plus monthly bills and loan repayments. While a lender can give you a mortgage you can reasonably afford, it comes with the consequence of not being able to handle other financial priorities. In short: Even though you may qualify for a large mortgage, that doesn’t mean you should max out your house budget.

You’re the only one who can determine what’s comfortable

Only you can examine your life and your values to determine what you might be willing to give up to make room in your budget for a mortgage — and what you’re not.

You might be perfectly happy to take on a larger monthly mortgage payment in exchange for reducing meals out, cutting back on luxury vacations, or sticking with your old phone instead of going for the upgrades just because you can. Or you may decide that renting makes more sense for you because you can mitigate costs, take on less financial responsibility, and enjoy more flexibility.

Either way, you need to determine what you feel comfortable with. You need to decide what works within both your budget and your long-term plans to reach goals that matter to you.

Consider these factors to decide how much house you can really afford

Once you set your financial priorities, here’s where you’ll need to do the math:

  • What’s your current income? What are your basic living expenses? What are your fixed costs?
  • How much do you want to put away each month into savings or investments?
  • How much will it cost to maintain your new home?
  • What kind of down payment will you have? (The more you put down, the smaller your monthly mortgage payment will be.)

Now you can factor a mortgage into all of the above, and see how much you can really afford. When doing so, don’t forget to count both the mortgage principal and interest — along with property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, and other extras such as HOA fees.

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