A few years ago, I had the opportunity to buy a condo outside of Seattle. It was a pretty big deal considering I was still in my early twenties, and the Seattle area is not the most affordable place to live whether you’re renting or buying. I really struggled with the decision and ultimately decided to forgo homeownership at the time. A decision I am not extremely thankful for (you can read more about why here).
However, just because I decided not to make a housing purchase doesn’t mean that you cannot! In fact, I get a lot of emails and comments from people trying to figure out if buying a house is what’s best for them. Usually, these questions are along these lines.
I’m a 30-something considering buying a home! I have heard it’s a great way to build wealth over time, save on costs, and I have always wanted to be a homeowner. How will I know I’m ready to buy a house?
There’s a lot to consider when deciding to buy your first home that goes way beyond the financial implications. Here are a few things to consider when you’re thinking about buying a home.
Why do you want to buy a home?
It seems like a fairly obvious question –– why do you want to buy a home? Go beyond the surface here or the answers your family or friends have given you. There are both financial reasons and emotional reasons for buying a home, and all are valid. Some reasons people decide to buy a home:
Planning to start a family, get married, or another life change where owning a space provides a level of physical and emotional comfort
Buying a property to use as a rental (including practices like house hacking)
Purchasing a vacation or retirement home where they plan to live during a good part of the year
Wanting to “settle down” into an area for several years
As an “investment property,” aka a flip
As a note, Personal Capital does not endorse home buying as an investment strategy, and you need only to look at the current market or back to 2008 to understand why. I think it’s important to make sure if you are buying an “investment property” like a rental or a flip, that you continue to prioritize a diversified portfolio and your retirement savings first.
Getting incredibly clear on why you want to own a home is an important first step.
Does it really “build wealth”?
There’s a substantial amount of “buying a house is a tool for building wealth” type advice out there. Yes, it is a tool, but a one-tool toolbox doesn’t do you well in the long run –– you see what I’m getting at?
There are multiple ways to build wealth outside of buying a home. It’s also important to make sure that you’re building a diversified portfolio and contributing to your Roth IRA, 401k or other retirement funds alongside investing in property.
Weathering the storms of an economic crisis is much more complicated when you own a home, especially if you decide to sell during one. Because it’s a large physical asset, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to sell it at a profit when you need to. With investing, you can pause your savings when things are tough –– you can’t do the same with mortgage payments.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy. It just means that if the only reason you’re interested in real estate is for “wealth building.” You can consider the other ways you’re building wealth that are not related to physical property as well. Real estate should be one part of a well-diversified portfolio (but you can still have a well-diversified portfolio without real estate).
Factors to consider
If you’ve resolved to one day buy a home, I think it’s essential to go into the process sans rose-colored glasses. HGTV and the like have done a number on us, really romanticizing the idea of homeownership. There are countless YouTube videos and blogs out there about how buying a home can save you tons of cash. Most people, however, fail to consider some of the expenses they’re adding on when you switch from renting to buying.
Here are just a few to start.
PMI (mortgage insurance): if you’re putting down less than 20% cash, you’ll most likely be subject to private mortgage insurance, which can add anywhere from $100-$300 or more per month to your costs.
Repairs: remember when your heater went out, and you called your landlord to fix it? Or a particularly cold day froze your pipes or backed up your gutters, causing a leak? Who paid for it? Most likely, the landlord. Buying a home means taking responsibility for repairs and fixes that can be quite pricey. Plan accordingly.
HOAs: one of the main reasons I decided against buying was a mismanaged HOA. The manager wasn’t good with money, and issues that should have easily been covered by the almost $300 a month I would have dropped were obviously not being cared for. HOAs can be a good thing and very worthwhile –– just make sure you talk to some potential neighbors and make sure the manager is actually managing well.
Taxes: (and all manner of them) Make sure to check into property tax rates in the area you’d like to buy in, so you’re prepared for the bill.
Closing costs: Outside of a down payment, you’ll be paying closing costs which can include the realtor fees, inspections, and more. These can range anywhere from 1%-6% of the home cost.
Relocations: This isn’t applicable for everyone, but it’s important to ask yourself how likely it is you’ll have to relocate for a job. If you’re unsure if you’ll be able to stay in a particular area for longer than a few years, you might want to consider renting until you’re sure that where you’re buying is where you’ll stay.
This is just a sampling of costs you need to expect when you decide to buy a home. This isn’t to scare you off! There are many pros of homeownership, as well –– but having a balanced point of view is important in what’s likely the biggest purchase of your life.
Related Story: Why This Woman Bought a Home at Age 22
Before you buy
Rose-colored glasses are off, and you’re still ready to buy –– so what do you need to make sure you have in place first to make this a smoother, more financially stable process?
An emergency fund. Preferably six months’ worth of expenses. Yes, this is bigger than my typical recommendation, but if you-know-what hits the fan when you’re renting, getting a less expensive rental is much easier than selling a home. You’re also now responsible for more extensive repairs. Include them in the emergency fund so that when your air conditioning goes out in the middle of summer, you’re only sweating the heat and not the repair cost.
Get your finances in tip-top shape. This includes making sure your credit is in a good place, having records of income (especially if you’re self-employed), and please please please do NOT open a new line of credit or finance a car around the time you’re thinking of buying. You’re just asking for trouble and a big slap on the wrist from your mortgage lender.
A vetted realtor. A good realtor stands up for you as a client while also educating you through the process. Realtors can be wells of information and have tons of connections, but a bad one can really mess with your process. I recommend reaching out to friends, finding reviews, and interviewing potential agents to make sure you’ve found the right one for you.
Ultimately, whether you decide to buy or not is entirely your own decision. There are so many wonderful reasons to buy a home, and depending on where you are in the country, buying may indeed be financially beneficial over renting. No matter what you choose –– do it for you.
And while you’re at it, get free financial tools to better manage your money and help you prepare for big expenses. Personal Capital is the tool I check daily for tracking my net worth and my progress towards goals like retirement, debt payoff, and (yes!) saving that first $100k. Bonus: If you sign up using the link below, you also get access to Personal Capital’s Home Buying Guide.
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