Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it seems that Americans have been clamoring over one another to achieve a core component of the American dream: homeownership. And this phenomenon isn’t surprising; people have spent more time at home than ever before, and the obstacles to buying have dropped significantly. I’ve been asked more and more by my clients whether now is the right time for them to buy.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not a cut-and-dry yes or no. Homeownership is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and there are multiple items to consider before making a decision.
When I speak with potential homebuyers, one of the top reasons they feel an urgency to buy now is due to historically low interest rates. And they are not wrong. As shown in the below chart, 30-year fixed mortgage interest rates in the past year have been at their lowest ever since Freddie Mac began tracking them in 1971.
While some may think that saving 1% on their mortgage rate isn’t a big deal, the truth is that it adds up quickly. Let’s say a homebuyer is comparing two 30-year fixed mortgages for a $500,000 loan amount, one with an interest rate of 3.0% and the other with an interest rate of 4.0%. At first glance, the monthly payments may not look too different: $2,108 per month for the 3.0% loan and $2,387 per month for the 4.0% loan. However, over the course of 30 years, this difference adds up. Over the life of the loan, the 3.0% rate will cost $258,887 in interest paid. Alternatively, the 4.0% rate loan will cost $359,348 in interest. That’s a difference of over $100,000 in interest paid over 30 years!
I certainly understand the concern as it relates to interest rates: How long will the rates stay this low? Since most lenders will not allow you to lock in your rate prior to your offer being accepted on a home, homebuyers are feeling the pressure to buy as quickly as possible. On March 16th, 2022, the Federal Reserve announced its first rate increase since 2018 of 0.25%, with additional interest rates increases on the horizon. While some may take this as a sign to buy a home as soon as possible, it’s important to keep in mind that the Federal Reserve is not required to raise interest rates, and there is still a possibility that they could change course.
For many homebuyers, the question of how much cash they should put toward their down payment is often top of the list. Historically, most buyers have targeted a down payment of 20% of the purchase price. Why? you may ask. Lenders have discouraged homebuyers from putting down less than 20% as it reduces the lender’s risk in case the homebuyer stops paying their mortgage.
To encourage buyers to put down at least 20% of the purchase price, most lenders charge Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) to those who do not meet the threshold. The average range for PMI can cost between 0.58% to 1.86% of the original loan amount per year, depending on the homebuyer’s down payment, loan amount, and credit score.2 To put this in dollar terms, if a homebuyer had a $500,000 mortgage and was subject to a 1.00% PMI rate, it would cost them an additional $417 per month.
Though PMI is clearly a cost to be mindful of, recent years have shown more buyers opting to put less than 20% down. From 2017 to 2020, 33.6% of 30-year mortgages carried PMI. This is a sizable increase compared to the share of PMI mortgages from 2011 to 2016 at 25.5%.2
It is also important to keep in mind that a homeowner is not obligated to pay PMI for the life of their mortgage. Once their equity in the home is over 20%, the homeowner can work with their lender to have the PMI cost removed. Equity ownership in a home is not just linked to the amount paid, though. If a homebuyer purchased a home for $500,000 and the home appreciated in value to $550,000, they will have an additional 9% in equity compared to where they started.
Why should someone take out a mortgage with PMI? One of the top reasons is to maintain enough cash in emergency savings. Once the home purchase closes, the buyer is responsible for all maintenance costs—emergency or otherwise. If one must choose between paying PMI and having a sufficient emergency fund, I will almost always recommend prioritizing the emergency fund. Having enough cash on hand to support unexpected costs serves as the foundation (pun intended) for all prudent financial plans.
From speaking with your friends or listening to the news, you may think that everyone has bought a house in the past two years. Your intuition isn’t completely off-base; data from the US Census shows that homebuying peaked at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021.
Source: https://www.census.gov/construction/nrs/index.html > Current Press Release (Full Report and Tables)
The increase in homebuying in recent history has unsurprisingly led to increased competition and sales prices. According to Redfin, in July 2021, the average home sold for over 102% of the list price.3 This was the height of sale-price-to-list-price ratios since the beginning of 2020. More recently, January 2022 has started off with the average house selling for 100.3% of the list price.
While this is a promising sign that competition has slowed down from its height, the housing market is still quite competitive. This often leaves homebuyers feeling the pressure to make a quick decision and offer over the asking price.
In addition to the factors mentioned thus far, there are other considerations to keep in mind when purchasing a home. Do you intend to live in the house for at least five years? Do you have enough cash outside of your emergency fund to pay for routine and unexpected maintenance? Are you ready for the responsibility that comes with owning a home? If not, maybe renting a house is a better option for you.
At the end of the day, choosing to buy a home is a significant financial decision that impacts many facets of your life. If you are left wondering where a home fits into your financial plan, our advisors at Merriman is happy to help you assess your options. Additionally, if you are a first-time homebuyer, please check out our Guide to the Homebuying Process.
Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable; however, Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.