7 Financial Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a House

7 Financial Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a House

My wife and I are currently renters. In fact, we’ve always been renters. For the simple reason that to this point renting has been more aligned with our biggest personal and financial goals.

But we do want to buy a house some day, mostly because we want a place that we can make our own. And recently we actually looked at a house together for the first time and it forced me to ask myself a lot of questions about whether we were ready to pull the trigger.

It was a really helpful exercise that gave me a lot of clarity. And today I’m going to share the 7 biggest financial questions I asked myself so that you can get that same clarity when deciding whether to buy a house yourself.

1. Can you put 20% down?

There are a few big reasons why a significant down payment is a good idea:

More flexibility

I place a lot of value on flexibility. Circumstances change, goals evolve, and new opportunities present themselves all of the time. I want to put my family in a financial position where we can take advantage of those opportunities when they arise.

A 20% down payment gives you more flexibility, simply because you’re taking on less debt than what your house is worth.

Let’s say you buy a house for $300,000 and a year later you get a dream job offer in another city. Good for you!

But… now you need to move, which means you need to sell your house. And unfortunately the housing market is in a bit of a slump and your house will only sell for around $270,000.

If you hadn’t put any money down, you’d be stuck. You would still owe close to $300,000 on your mortgage, and the proceeds from selling would only cover $270,000 of that. So you would either have to come up with the other $30,000 yourself, default on the loan, or skip the job offer and stay put.

On the other hand, if you had put 20% down up front, you would only owe $240,000. Which would give you the OPTION of selling your house and using the proceeds to completely pay off your mortgage.

Good financial planning is about enabling you to take advantage of exciting life opportunities. A down payment gives you more flexibility to do just that.

Lower interest rate

The more you put down, the less risky you appear in the eyes of a lender.

That leads to a lower interest rate on your mortgage, which means a lower monthly bill and less money spent over the life of the loan.

Avoid PMI

If you don’t put at least 20% down, you will likely have to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI). This insurance would reimburse your lender if you ever defaulted on your loan, which is considered more likely with a smaller down payment.

PMI is simply an extra fee that adds to the long-term cost of owning your home. It’s better to avoid it if you can.

2. Do you have additional savings for maintenance and furnishings?

After you’ve put that 20% down, it’s likely that you’ll want to spend some money to get your new house in the shape you want.

There are almost always at least a few repairs or upgrades to handle. From little things like painting walls and fixing cracked tiles, to bigger things like ripping out carpet and replacing windows.

Then there’s new furniture and new decorations to buy to make that house yours.

And of course, the maintenance doesn’t stop there. There will always be both little and big things needed to keep your house in good shape.

All of that can add up quickly, which makes it a good idea to have the money set aside ahead of time AND to have a plan for handling ongoing repairs.

3. Will you still have a full emergency fund?

After all of that, what will your emergency fund look like? Will it still be as big as it needs to be?

Owning a home increases the importance of an emergency fund, since there are more things that could go wrong that you would be responsible for.

You’ll want to make sure that you have plenty of savings to cover whatever comes your way, even after handling the down payment and maintenance costs.

4. Are your other financial priorities in line?

No financial decision should be made in isolation. Your personal financial plan is a collection of many different pieces, all of which should work together to help you reach your goals.

So it’s a good idea to think about this house purchase in the context of your other financial goals and responsibilities.

For example, do you already have the right insurance in place to protect your family? Insurance is arguably even more important once you own a home because you have more financial assets to protect.

Are you already on track for financial independence? Will you be able to stay on track once you add the house payment to your budget?

What does your debt situation look like? Do you have a plan for paying it back?

What are your other big life goals? How will those be affected by this house purchase?

The big question here is really this: does buying a house help or hurt your ability to reach your biggest personal and financial goals?

5. How long will you live there?

Even if you have the savings to handle everything with ease AND keep your other financial priorities on track, there’s still the question of whether buying a house is actually a better financial decision than renting.

While a house is almost never a good investment, it CAN save you money over the long-term. With the key word there being long-term.

The longer you plan on staying in one place, the more likely it is that buying will be a better financial decision than renting. (Click to tweet).

You can run the numbers for yourself here to see how it plays out in your specific situation.

6. Will the location save you money?

A good location can not only make your life more enjoyable and less stressful, it can actually save you money.

If you’re close to work, you can save on commuting costs, pay for fewer hours of childcare, spend less time hating traffic, and spend more time on things you actually enjoy.

If you’re close to things like the grocery store, schools, and parks, all of those activities get a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

And if you can walk or bike to any of those places, even better!

Knowing the ins and outs of location is a big reason why I think it’s a good idea to rent for at least a little while anytime you move somewhere new. You’ll learn a lot about why you would or wouldn’t want to live in specific neighborhoods by actually being there.

7. Does it NOT have the features you don’t want?

One of the biggest reasons people spend more than they need to on big purchases like a house or a car is the neverending list of potential features.

There is ALWAYS a long list of cool things you’ve never considered before, but that you NEED to have as soon as the realtor mentions them. And they all cost money.

That’s why it’s so important to make a list ahead of time with both the features you DO care about and the features you DON’T care about. That will make it a lot easier to get what you want without paying for what you don’t.

Buying a house is a BIG financial commitment!

If all of that seems like a lot, well, that’s because it is! Buying a house is, for many people, far and away the biggest financial decision they will ever make.

So it makes sense to make sure that you’re really ready for it. A good buying decision can not only provide a happy place to call home, but save you a lot of money over the years. A bad one can add a lot of stress and make it harder to reach your biggest financial goals.

In our case, we decided to pass on buying for now. We simply couldn’t answer “yes” to enough of the questions above for it to make sense.

But it DID give us a better sense of what we need to do to be ready the next time a buying opportunity comes around. And that clarity is really helpful as we make our plans going forward.

What questions have you asked yourself before buying a house? What do you think is important to have in place?

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6 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Hannah September 22, 2015

    Since home ownership is not a great investment, I like to ask if I’m saving money right away. There is no sense in tying up a huge chunk of your net worth in a low yield investment if you aren’t likely to improve your cash flow.

    In my market (Raleigh), its possible to save money right away if you follow the other rules you mentioned, but I think in many markets it is difficult or even impossible to save money by owning a home.

    • Matt Becker September 22, 2015

      That’s a great way to look at it. And when you do, it’s important to do more than just compare the mortgage payment to your rent payment. There’s also insurance and taxes, as well as maintenance, and the opportunity cost of putting money into a down payment instead of saving or investing it.

      In many cases, a good buying decision can save you money over the long-term. But I agree that it’s rare to find one that saves you money in the short-term.

  • Money Beagle September 22, 2015

    I’ve purchased twh homes and have put 20% down on each. This definitely helped during the recession where prices slumped around 20-30% but I never dipped below the dreaded ‘underwater’ line that seemed to doom so many.

    • Matt Becker September 22, 2015

      Great example of point #1! Thanks for sharing.

  • Alex Craig September 24, 2015

    My wife and I are going through this as we add to our household. We have one kid of our own and a foster child, but we might be taking on more soon, so we are looking for a picker place.

    We currently live in an apartment.

    • Matt Becker September 24, 2015

      It’s a big decision! And it’s especially tough when there are unknowns, which it sounds like is the case in your situation. I love what you guys are doing though!

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