How Much House Can I Afford?

By Maurie Backman Markets Fool.com

Many people dream of becoming homeowners and having a place to call their own. But unfortunately, a large number of homebuyers wind up getting in over their heads. According to a report by the MacArthur Foundation, between 2011 and 2014, 52% of Americans were forced to make at least one major sacrifice to cover their housing payments. These sacrifices included working a second job, racking up credit card debt, and neglecting retirement savings just to keep up with their housing costs.

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If you're looking to become a homeowner, you may be wondering: How big a home loan can I afford to take on? How do I estimate my costs outside of my mortgage payment? How expensive will it be to maintain my home, and will my salary alone allow me to keep up over time? Here, we'll review some guidelines for buying a home while staying within your budget.

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More than just a mortgage payment

The good thing about getting a fixed mortgage is that your monthly payments will be predictable for the length of your loan. But your mortgage payment is only one component of your overall housing expense, and while it will probably eat up a chunk of your income, the peripheral costs of homeownership could end up far exceeding what you pay for your actual mortgage.

Let's start with property taxes. The average U.S. homeowner pays $2,127 per year in property taxes, but in some parts of the country, that figure can easily be four to 10 times as high. In New Jersey, for example, where property taxes are the highest in the nation, homeowners pay an average of $8,353 per year.

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Then there's homeowners' insurance to think about. The average annual premium is $952, but if you have a large property or live in an expensive part of the country, you could easily pay double. Also, keep in mind that some property owners are required to purchase flood insurance, which comes at an added cost.

Then there's maintenance to factor in. The average homeowner spends anywhere from 1% to 4% of his or her home's value on annual upkeep and basic repairs, which means that if you own a $300,000 home, you could spend anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000 per year. Now obviously that's a pretty big range, but you can use common sense to determine which end your home is likely to fall into. If your property is older and not in the greatest shape when you buy it, assume you'll hit the high end of that spectrum. On the other hand, if you're buying new construction, your maintenance costs will probably be minimal, at least during the first few years you live in your home.

If you don't fall into either extreme, split the difference down the middle and figure on spending 2.5% of your property's value on annual maintenance. For a $300,000 home, that translates into $7,500 a year, or $625 per month, in upkeep.

How much house can you afford to take on?

Now that you have a good sense of what homeownership really costs, your next move is figuring out how much you can swing based on your income. As a general rule, you're not supposed to spend more than 30% of your take-home pay on housing costs. Some financial experts will only include your mortgage payment, property tax bill, and insurance costs when figuring that limit, but if you really want to play it safe, you should aim to keep those expenses plus your regular maintenance costs at or below the 30% threshold.

Let's say you bring home $6,000 per month after taxes. Ideally, your total monthly housing costs, including maintenance, should not exceed $1,800. If you can't stay within this limit and cover all of the aforementioned costs, then at least limit your mortgage payment, property taxes, and insurance premium to $1,800.

Finally, make sure you have ample savings available before buying your home, regardless of its cost. You never know when you might encounter a giant repair, like a busted water heater or malfunctioning furnace, and chances are, whatever monthly home maintenance you've budgeted for won't be enough to cover something that major. Aim to have enough savings to cover at least six months of living expenses, and if you're buying an older home with known problems, you should have several thousand dollars in the bank on top of that.

Buying a home you know you can afford will not only give you more wiggle room in your budget, but allow you to enjoy the benefits of ownership without impeding other financial goals, like saving for retirement. And remember, the less expensive your property is, the more affordable it'll probably be to maintain.

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