Are You Ready to Buy Your First Home?

Key takeaways

  • Buying your first house is a financial as well as personal long-term commitment.

  • Crunching the numbers on mortgage, down payment and ongoing costs is essential before you even begin to look.

  • You can't time the real estate market any more than you can predict the future of the stock market. 

Dear Carrie,

I want to buy my first house but with mortgage rates going up—and prices not really coming down—I’m feeling even more uncertain. Is this an okay time to buy, and if so, can you help me figure out what I can afford? 

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

Buying a first home is a big decision whatever the housing market and mortgage rates, but the last couple of years have presented first-time buyers with a kind of rollercoaster ride of challenges. On the upside, mortgage rates were historically low. The downside was limited inventory and soaring prices.

Now, even while prices are leveling off, rising interest rates have created an even bigger obstacle for many would-be buyers. It can make you wonder if there's ever a good time to buy. But the reality is there are always competing forces impacting real estate prices—and they're all beyond your control.

Historically, home prices have outpaced inflation, helping many people build wealth over long periods of time, but that doesn’t come with a guarantee for the future, especially over the short term.

Plus, transaction costs of buying a home can be steep, which is why many experts recommend not buying unless you’re confident you can stay put for at least five to seven years. On the other hand, a ‘starter’ home can be your entry into the real estate market. If you delay and prices and/or interest rates continue to rise, it could be that much more difficult to take this first step.

Bottom line, there isn’t one 'right' time to buy—you simply have to weigh all the variables and determine the best time for you. If you've thought about all this and still feel now is the time, let's talk about cost.

Guidelines to help you get started

There are several general guidelines for determining how much house you can afford—or how much you can borrow. Some lenders say you can afford a mortgage that's roughly two to two and a half times your annual income. Others may go up as high as five or more times your income, depending on your other assets, future earnings potential, credit score and other debts.

It's good to know how much someone might be willing to lend you, but even more important is how much you can afford to pay. So the rule I go back to is the 28/36 rule. This guideline suggests total housing costs shouldn’t exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income. All your debt combined shouldn’t exceed 36 percent of gross monthly income.

So do the math. If you make $100,000 a year, your total housing cost shouldn't be more than $28,000, or $2,333 a month. However, if you have no other debt, you might consider pushing this a bit higher, but avoid exceeding 36 percent total. And remember, just because you might qualify for more doesn’t mean you should. (Tip: try using an online mortgage affordability calculator to run the numbers.)

What you should aim for in a down payment

While how much you can handle in monthly mortgage payments is important, the other key cost consideration is the down payment. Ideally, you want to aim for at least 20 percent down. And that can be a big chunk of money.

While it's possible to put down 10 percent (or even 3.5 percent with certain mortgages), that will likely require you to purchase private mortgage insurance. PMI protects the lender—not you—if you stop making payments on your loan, and it can be expensive (more than 1% of your loan balance depending on how much you borrow and your credit score). VA loans have no down payment or PMI requirement and also have limitations on who is eligible to apply.

You also need money for things like appraisal fees, housing inspection and closing costs.

As you consider all this, one more word of caution: if all these expenses will wipe out your emergency savings, you may be wise to wait. Especially if we're headed into a recession, it's smart to maintain a healthy rainy-day fund to carry you through a potential job loss or other hit to your finances.   

Bottom line, if you have the down payment taken care of as well as extra savings, great. If not, you may want to explore other options. This can include living with family, renting longer or rethinking the kind of home you want or its location.

Also, look at your current housing costs. If they're lower than a potential house payment, put the difference in savings each month. That way you'll not only build your down payment, you'll get used to budgeting for the mortgage.

Ongoing costs to plan for

Upfront costs are only part of the picture. Homeownership is an ongoing financial responsibility that includes insurance, property taxes, periodic maintenance and repair, and possibly homeowner's association fees. Lenders may require proof of homeowners or flood insurance and may also require that property taxes, insurance and other fees be escrowed. Be sure to factor these costs into your monthly budget—and don't let these costs crowd out other important goals like retirement.

On the plus side—potential tax advantages

There can be some tax advantages to help ease the financial burden. Currently, you can deduct the interest expense on up to $750,000 of home-secured debt used to purchase or make capital improvements on your principal residence. Mortgage points may also be deductible on an original mortgage the year you pay them. Plus, up to $10,000 of property taxes may be tax deductible.

That said, don’t be seduced by salespeople touting tax deductibility. In order to itemize and deduct these expenses, they must be higher than the standard deduction, which is currently $12, 950 for single filers, $25,900 for married filing jointly.

Starting the process

If you're ready to get going, I strongly advise you to first check your credit report. The lower your credit score, the more you'll likely have to pay for a mortgage—if you qualify at all. In this case, take steps to improve your credit profile. Next, get pre-approved by a lender. Finally, it can be a good idea to check with a financial advisor so you can be realistic about your budget and understand how the purchase may impact other parts of your financial plan like insurance, estate planning and retirement. The more prepared you are, the better the deal you can make—hopefully for a house you'll love for years.

Have a personal finance question? Email us at Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiries, contact Schwab.

About the author

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

CFP®, President, Charles Schwab Foundation; Managing Director, Schwab Community Services; Board Chair, Schwab Charitable