The Numbers on Buying a House

It can be a tricky question. How much home can you really afford? From employment status, to savings, downpayment, and even spending habits, there are a myriad of factors that come into play.

Here is a list of items to consider before settling on a budget.

1. Monthly Payment: Conventional wisdom tells us that your mortgage payment should be no more than 28 of your gross monthly income. This means that if you make $50,000 a year, the maximum amount you would safely want to pay each month is $1,166. How do you figure this for you own salary? Take ___ (salary) x .28 = total dollar amount for year. Then divide the total dollar amount by 12 (months in the year) and there you have it!

The National Association of REALTORS® also gives this simple equation for renters to use to figure out how much they can afford. Multiply your rent by 1.32 and that will equal your affordable mortgage payment.

2. Job Security: Have you just switched jobs? Is your company experiencing layoffs? In times of economic uncertainty, you may find it best to stay put. This is why many economic analysts keep saying that a housing recovery is dependent on a jobs recovery. When jobs return, so will the buyers.

3. Savings: The state of American savings is scary. According to Visual, the average family has $117,951 worth of debt and only $3,800 in savings.

And a quarter of Americans have no savings at all! Half have nothing saved for retirement. Talk about crossing your fingers that social security will hold out for a while.

New grads are encountering an even scarier situation. The average college graduate has well over $20,000 in student loans to repay, and according to the New York Times, "Paying back student loans is likely to be especially difficult for recent graduates ... because the unemployment rate for college graduates ages 20 to 24 was 8.7 percent in 2009 — the highest annual rate on record and a substantial rise from 5.8 percent in 2008."

How does your debt-to-income ratio stack up? The Federal Reserve thinks debt adding up to more than 40% of your gross income could indicate financial distress.

The U.S. savings rate has risen steadily since the recession hit. It is now at 5.8 percent (American Express Spending & Saving Tracker). Hopefully, this rate will continue to be a trend.

4. Emergency Fund: Before you even begin to think about buying a house or moving, you must have an 8-month emergency fund in the bank. This means you need to add up your living expenses for a month. Include all the necessities and things that must be paid (rent or mortgage, car payments, insurance, food, gas money, electric, phone, tuition, day care, etc). Then multiply this number by 8. You must have this in case you or your spouse loses your job, gets sicks, or some other disaster hits your family.

5. Downpayment: This is savings in addition to your 8-month emergency fund. And a downpayment should be at least 20 percent of your purchase amount.

Look at it this way. If your monthly expenses are $2,000 a month and you want to buy a $100,000 house, you'll need a bare minimum of $36,000 in the bank to truly afford this move. That doesn't include cash needed for closing costs, repairs, moving expenses, and renovation.

6. Lifestyle and Extraneous Factors: Everyone has different wants and needs. You may be fine spending a little more for the house of your dreams in exchange for taking fewer vacations. Others abhor the statement, "house rich, cash poor," and instead would rather have funds for shopping, dining out, and travel. And don't forget about extraneous factors, such as aging parents, car repairs and maintenance. Things may come out of nowhere!

Buying a house is a fulfilling experience, but it comes with a lot of financial responsibility that shouldn't be taken lightly. Be sure to mull these items over when considering a buy.

Published: April 7, 2011, Realty Times, reprinted with permission